Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The First Metric: Engagement

Ok, chewing on the list from last week, I'm not sure I've got a final 5, but there are definitely a few standouts as good candidates, so I want to pick one of those and drill into it a bit. The first one on my mind is one that is implicit in a few of the items on the list, but was not called out as its own thing (but probably should have been) and that's the issue of player engagement. Phrased as a question, it would probably be "How engaged was every player at the table?"

Now, practically, what you're really asking is "How engaged was the least engaged player?" but that sounds kind of negative phrased that way, so I'd just keep that in mind.

Anyway, none of this is very useful if we can't make it measurable, but this is thankfully made a little bit easier by the use of a compressed scale. So, we need to decide what we mean by engagement, and what a 0, 1 or 2 means. I'm starting with this one because I think it's probably one of the simplest ones to measure, since I think it's probably an 80/20 split.

The largest part is participation: did the players participate in the game? While what exactly participation might entail can vary from game to game, it's pretty easy to suss out. Look at the activities engaged in by the players at large (talking in scenes, sharing ideas, taking action in combat) and use that as the checklist for each player. As a baseline, it will be pretty easy to judge the level of participation.

Now, there's a catch to this: it is easy to equate participation with extraversion, and we all know quiet players who are less likely to step up and participate, but that's what they want, and that's ok, right? Well….no. That's the easy out. It is far to easy to attribute someone's lack of participation to their disinterest or introversion than it is to try to figure out what's going on and try to draw them in. I don't want to go off on a full-fledged tangent here, since the act of drawing out reticent players is a nuanced and involved one, but the short form is that there are so many possible ways that your game is discouraging engagement (speed of play, extroverted or "overly-helpful" players, high pressure) that you can't take a pass on this metric just because someone "is like that".

Yes, at some point, if you've tried everything and really wrestled with the issue, you can write it off, but it's pretty much on your conscience to determine when that is.

Anyway, the other element of engagement is the ephemeral moment of cool. If everyone participated, that's well and good, but did everyone get to do something cool? Does everyone have a moment that they can take away as their moment to shine? This is, admittedly, somewhat subjective, but I don't think it's too hard to measure.

So, with that in mind, I figure the engagement element looks something like this:

How engaged was every player at the table?
0 - Long stretches without participation.
1 - Everyone participated
2 - Everyone participated and had a moment of cool

This one is also pretty easily flipped from the GM to the individual player, if that's the goal. I'm not sure it is, but I'm filing that possibility in my back pocket.

Anyway, I think this is a pretty good example of the idea. The question is slightly fuzzy, but the compressed scale makes it easy to answer with minimal wiggle room. So I ask, does this make the implementation of the model any clearer?

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Other Kind Of Nerdy Stuff

First and foremost, I want to thank everyone for the fantastic feedback I got to yesterday's question. If you commented, thank you. If you haven't, please consider weighing in!

I'm hoping to have a new list next week, but I want to talk about a few points that have come up, both general and specific, that hopefully will illustrate my thinking in this. As with the list itself, none of these are set in stone, and I think there's some value in having them out there.

First and foremost, the final list will be neither perfect nor comprehensive. I'm hoping it will cover a broad swath of things, but exceptions will (must!) exist to its scope. This is a liberating point, since the alternative is almost nightmarish in its complexity, but it also has a more subtle element. The simple fact is that whatever final list I settle on, it will almost certainly be both too long and too short, and it will have the wrong elements. This is just a natural function of trying to impose simplified reporting on a complex system - it's lossy and by definition incorrect. That means that a lot of objections and counter arguments are at least as correct as whatever position I put forward because, ultimately, we're all talking about different ways to be wrong.

This is not an argument for relativism, it just demands different rigor. I will try to make sure I have a good (and well communicated) reason for what I do, but it is entirely reasonable for someone to have different priorities which would suggest a different methodology. That is totally cool, and I'm glad they care enough to have an opinion. I absolutely agree that there are other factors to look at, and that a GM-centric perspective has profound and specific flaws. But that will never not be the case - making a choice to pick a focus is not a rejection of those facts, but a matter of acknowledging it and doing something anyway out of necessity.

Anyway, I mention all this to underscore that I find disagreement intensely useful in this process, but also to say that just because I am not swayed is not me asserting that I disagree with a position, but just that it may not fit with the goal I'm trying to accomplish.

Second, the final list needs to be short, but the route to get there should be long. A long list is not practical, just because any final list needs to be simple enough to keep in mind without excess bookkeeping. However, I want to get to that list by distilling as many ideas and perspectives as I can, in hopes that it will make the final list better.

Third, there are a few criteria for what needs to go on the list, and these are where a lot of wrongness is going to come up. First and foremost, they need to be at least reasonably specific. The goal is not to ask "How many time did you encounter an adrenaline rush in play?" because that sort of specificity is a bookkeeping nightmare. At the same time "did you have fun?" is too broad to be useful (no matter how important it is). To come back to the Apgar score, while it is a measure of the child's health, "How healthy is the child?" is not one of the questions. The purpose of the more specific questions is to build an aggregate approximation of an answer.

This means that picking the questions will be a balancing act. They need to be concrete enough to have an answer that is either mostly objective or, if subjective, not too muddled. That's a challenge, and it's a big part of the fourth point.

Fourth, one of the subtle things about the Apgar score is that each element is rated very simply as 0, 1 or 2. It's a little bit more than a Yes/No question, but still very simple. 0 is notably bad, 2 is notably good, and 1 is in the middle. A compressed scale like this strips an answer of nuance, but it has the advantage of smoothing out a lot of subjectivity by reducing a lot of border cases. Was something notably good? Give it a 2. Was it notably bad? Give it a 0. Otherwise, give it a 1. yes, absolutely, there's a little room for waffling, but nowhere near the kind of problems and complexities that emerge if you were to ask someone to rate the experience from 1 to 10.

This simplicity of rating is another reason why you don't want the questions to be too complex - it doesn't tolerate "But" answers. For example, if the question is "Did you have fun?" and the player thinks "Well, the fight was awesome, but the scene in the market REALLY dragged. Guess I'll call it a 1." then the answer is non-informative. Ideally you want a question for each major "but" that's likely to arise.

Lastly, I am not looking to create any new definitions or models of play. One important thing about this is that even if we end up with a good working list, it will not be definitive. I'm trying to report on actual play, and create categories to simplify that reporting, not to define it or set rules for how these are the 5 things that "make" a GM or whatever. I just want to be able to talk about tools.

Anyway, thank you again for all the feedback. I especially want to call out some of the cool links in the comments to others who have had similar thoughts, including Tim White and some folks at Story Games.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rating the Unratable

I think I've mentioned before that if you haven't read it, Atul Gawande's Better is a great book about how things can get systematically improved. It focuses on medicine, but it's one of those all-purpose insightful books.

Anyway, one section that really stuck with me was the Apgar score (article version here, for the curious) . For the unfamiliar, this is a rating given to babies when they're born and a minute afterwards. It rates five things (Complexion, Pulse, Movement, Breathing and Irritability) to quickly generate a score from 0-10. In and of itself it's not a very detailed piece of information, but it's simple, easy to asess, easy to communicate, and generally makes an excellent shorthand for the child's health.

Now, the specifics of the Apgar score are pretty interesting in their own right, but what's much more interesting is positive impact it had on successful births. In an illustration of the trusim that you must measure something in order to improve it, Apgar scores gave hospitals a yardstick to measure their performance by, so they had something concrete to improve and to judge results by.

What gets me, and what brings this across to gaming for me, is that part of the success lay in the somewhat arbitrary nature of the scoring system. There are a bazillion variables at play when a baby is born, and picking those 5 and saying their the ones to score is, from a certain perspective, almost capricious. But, as with a lot of things, it seems to be one of those cases where making a good decision is a much better path than indefinite delay in trying to find the perfect solution.

So, with that in mind, I'm busting out a list of things GMs do. It's probably a bad list, but I want to start somewhere. Honestly, I doubt we can come to something nearly as useful as the Apgar score, and even if we come up with a list, there's a whole question of how to use it, but dammit, you have to start somewhere.

When I started on thel ist I realized that the biggest muddle I encountered was between the GM's "Solo fun" (that is, design work) and actual play at the table. Both are important, but since I'm trying to take a practical tack on this, I chose to think in terms of how play went at the table. That is, I'm looking to rate things that the GM does in play, perhaps as a list to run through at the end of a session and see how each of these things went.

Removing those non-table elements shortened the list dramatically, but I still don't feel it's as solid as it could be, but here it is:

  • Playing interesting NPCs (Strong character voice)
  • Setting Presentation (how well does the world hang together?)
  • Scene setting
  • Engaging challenges (Puzzles, fights)
  • Rules mastery
  • Humor
  • Creating Emotional engagement
  • EDIT BASED ON MANY COMMENTS - Maintaining Focus/Pacing.

So what on that sucks, and what is it missing? Or is the entire methodology flawed, and the list should be entirely different?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Streamlining Snags

4e classes are interesting because, by and large, they're pretty distinctive. There comes a point in play when you know they're working. The Barbarian rounds a corner and becomes a damage output machine. The Warden stands his ground against an impossible foe. The Warlock kills a lot of people, really horribly. It's the point where you really feel like the class has paid off.

It's a weird moment and hard to pin down. For some classes it seems to work right out the gate, while others seem to depend on a bit of maturation of feats and powers for things to gel. But it kind of fascinates me because it speaks directly to the idea of what the class is and what it's supposed to feel like. It's also kind of important because it reveals one of the big problems with playing a "stripped down" version of 4e. The fact that the essential elements of different classes can be found in different places can make it very hard to find a one-size-fits-all solution.

And, in fact, it even gets more complicated than that when you start drilling into specific classes. Some classes have very different "builds" within their possibilities. Rangers are probably the most obvious of these, but really almost any split stat class (especially Clerics) have some of this. Essentials muddies this picture, of course, but as long as WOTC keeps saying it's not a replacement, I'll work with that. Also, honestly, there are some classes that I'm not 100% sure about what they're supposed to feel like.

This is probably a limitation on my part, rather than a bigger issue with the game. For example, as much as I _love_ the Battlemind mechanically, I'm not sure what he's supposed to be like. The Warden and Swordmage have some very distinctive elements that distinguish them from a Paladin or Fighter, but I don't actually get what makes a Battlemind a Battlemind. Yes, it's Psionic typed, but that's not an answer in and of itself.

Now, assuming one was thinking about doing a streamlined 4e (perish the thought!) it would be perfectly reasonable to just set aside things like the Battlemind as problem cases, but that sort of saps the fun out of the whole process.

So I put this out there - Can anyone make a pitch to me about what the essential nature of the Battlemind (or, really, any Psionic class) is? And similarly I ask, are there any other classes that people have trouble seeing the shape of?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ease Vs. Simplicity

So, here's the assertion I made on Twitter yesterday, for all to see: 4e is easier for me to run than Risus. Risus is just abut the simplest RPG I know that I still consider functional, so this is a specific example of a generalization, that 4e is the easiest game for me to GM.

Obviously, that's stupid.

The reality is that the rules of Risus are shorter than the blog post is going to be. In contrast, 4e is a MASSIVE amount of rules content to be read, absorbed and implemented. How could 4e be easier?

So, first and foremost let's set aside how easy or hard the system is to learn. That may impact adoption, but it doesn't impact how much work it is to run. 4e Still has lots of rules, but let's not worry about how long it takes to read them.

Similarly, let's set aside skill and just assume a high level of rules familiarity, whether it be with Risus, 4e or whatever game you are comparing it to in your head. This doesn't mean having all the rules in brain, but rather that you have enough rules that rules questions don't negatively impact play. Whether you pull this off through knowledge or technique doesn't really matter. Plus, frankly, if I were talking about the role of system mastery, I'd probably be more inclined towards games I wrote.

So here's the thing - Risus is unquestionably _simpler_ than 4e. That means that a lot of tasks (adjudication, resolution and bookkeeping) are a lot faster and have fewer moving parts. A fight in Risus can be finished in a matter of minutes while the same fight in 4e might take an hour or more. At first blush, that seems like a strike against D&D, but take a moment to zoom back to the large question, that of effort.

Let's take as our baseline that great adventuring staple, the dungeon crawl. It is, I hope, a given that 4e is pretty well designed for this sort of game, so I don't need to do much for it. In contrast, Risus is going make for an interesting time with the same dungeon because, frankly, it will be a hell of a lot more boring. Fights in Risus are not interesting in and of themselves - they're interesting because of the context, the stakes, and the player investment in the situation. Risus is just a resolution layer on top of those things, and as a result you'll find that Risus dungeon crawls tend to be much shorter than those in 4e.

From a certain perspective, that remains a great argument in favor of Risus, but again, let's zoom back to what's really going on. I, as a person, want to create an entertaining experience for my friends for the next, say, three to four hours, but I'm tired and drained (and maybe old and drunk) so I'm not really on my game. This is where things start going wrong. The apparent ease of Risus starts becoming a burden because all that speed, efficiency and focus means more work for me.

In contrast, consider the 4e Game. If I must do prep, it's about as complicated as ordering dinner (Go to DDI, find some monsters of the right level, print and go). It's more work to dig out the minis and maps than it is to come up with fodder for 2 or 3 encounters, and the rub is that 2 or 3 encounters is, in 4e, a pretty full session. 4e fills the time, and for the tired, lazy GM, that's a godsend.

Now, there are lots of other games with long combats, some with simpler rules than 4e, so what makes 4e stand out? Honestly, it's that once the fight starts, I can lean on the system to do a lot of the things the GM would normally have to do to keep a fight interesting. Pacing, balance, spotlight, dynamism - these all will flow naturally in a 4e fight, even in one designed with half a brain.

In short, 4e provides the greatest payout for the least amount of work.

But (and of course there's a but) don't draw too many conclusions from that. It doesn't mean, for example, that 4e offers the most bang for your buck, at least in part because the work to payoff ratio drops off almost immediately. The strength of te infrastructure becomes something you eventually have to work against to achieve your goal.

There is a point (for me) where putting the same effort into a Risus game and a 4e game produces a better Risus game, but that point is definitely somewhere past the brain-dead, bone tired state where I really wish I was playing 4e because it would make my life much easier.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Kings Landing vs. Gloomwrought

I've been enjoying the hell out of HBO's Game of Thrones, and predictably, it makes me want to run a game in that style. Put a pin in that.

I also just got the Shadowfell boxed set, primarily because it promised to have a lot more details about Gloomwrought, a city in the Shadowfell. For non 4e Folks, the Shadowfell is the dark shadow of the world, another dimension that lies close to death. It's not necessarily evil so much as a place that lots of bad things call home. Anyway, the little bit of information we got about Gloomwrought in the Manual of the Planes had intrigued me enough to consider using it as a base for a game, and I am always a sucker for city books, so I was pretty much a guaranteed sale.

It's pretty good. The box itself is a little disappointing since it's not really designed for storage (and especially suffers in contrast to the fantastic boxes used for the Essentials line) but I recognize that there was almost certainly a cost component to that. It's not amazing, and if you're not already interested in some Shadowfell play, I'm not sure I could really recommend it, but if you're gung ho to get some shadowy heroics on (almost as if there were a book about that) then it's a good resource.

The biggest thing I can say about it is that it's very much a 4e product, almost to an extreme. This isn't a criticism - it's is a 4e products after all - but it's an observation that was useful to me in putting my finger on what I felt was missing. To boil it down to a single point, it's the food.

Gloomwrought is on a dark plane of near-death, surrounded by miles of deadly swamp, on the coast of a dark and dangerous sea. From a purely practical perspective, it has no means of sustaining a population, yet it does. Now, an observation like this tends to elicit two big responses, so let me get ahead of those.

1. That's boring.
Yes, I suppose it is. Logistics is dull stuff, especially when we're talking about what is essentially a magical city in a magical world in a magical game. It is not exactly cheating to say "It's magic" and leave it at that. The purpose of the city is, after all, just to provide a flavorful backdrop to the set pieces that make for fun and engaging 4e play. To this I say, yes, completely, and that's why I say it's a very 4e sort of product. It is a product of game logic, and that's really cool so long as that's your priority.

2. You just need to be creative.

That is to say, the fact that it's not mentioned does not mean it can't be done. And yes, any GM worth her salt can fill this gap if she decides that it's important. Gloomwrought has a lot of interdimensional traffic, so that allows a certain amount of handwavium. I admit that's the most boring answer, and in my mind I totally demand that Gloomwrought have a robust whaling (sort of) industry. The idea of the crews of small boats to capture, kill and render the kinds of things that live at the bottom of the seas of the Shadowfell is compelling as hell to me. And I'm sure other folks have other ideas that excite them. I am not asserting that it can't be done, I'm just saying it's not a priority in the product.

Purely as a matter of taste, I like to know where the food comes from. This is where the Game of Thrones thing comes back, and which may be the most essential difference between episodic/setpiece play and contextual play is where the problems of play come from. In a contextual game (which may or may not be a sandbox), the way the world works is the engine of events. This requires a lot of work and a lot of stuff that's just never going to come up at the table, and it can often get quite terrible when the game is all about showing off the GM's creation. 4e (and episodic play in general) avoids a lot of these potential problems by skipping over them entirely, and that's a good and clever design. But if you actually want to risk those problems because, to your mind, the payout is Game of Thrones, then you need to get down in the mud.

Now, as an aside, this has nothing to do with the level of fantasy. Sigil (the central city of Planescape) was far more wahoo than Gloomwrought, but it _also_ had very specific constraints on where things like food and water came from, constraints that could impact play and even became important to published material. Exalted is chock ful of super magical stuff in a world where sewage still needs to go somewhere. At the same time, Lankhmar (one of my favorite cities of fantasy) had only what politics, geography and infrastructure were needed for the current adventure of Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser. The issue is not one of magic, it's one of narrative.

Which is why, btw, if you hear this as a condemnation of Gloomwrought, you're focusing on the wrong thing. That I would not play it as written is a function of _my_ taste, and the distinction between contextual play and setpieces is not about one being better than the other, it's about recognizing which you, as a player and a GM, might enjoy more or less. If you want one and get the other, you're going to get frustrated. And yes, it ties into your game choice. Any game can be played any way, but 4e's strengths are all about how well it handles episodic play. In a 4e game, it doesn't need to matter where the food comes from, and that's good because a lot of players don't care either.

All of which is to say, the better you understand what you want, the more useful products like Gloomwrought will be to you. Knowing what it _doesn't_ do for me is incredibly useful if I decide to use it, because I know where to start cutting (or adding).

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Power of Precision

I am a terrible typist. My touch typing is bad enough that I still look at the keyboard most of the time just to speed things up, and the result is a cavalcade of stupid editing mistakes that hurt my writing in very concrete ways. This is not news to me - when I MUSHed, there was never any way I could secretly play a character because sooner or later my flipper typing would give me away. I never stressed about it too much. Friends and acquaintances can quickly pick up that I am not actually the literary troglodyte that my text sometimes painted a picture of. I could dismiss it as a small thing, and if it really bothered someone, that was their problem, not mine.

This was a very stupid position.

Obviously, now that I am now cranking out this blog 5 days a week I need to address the reality that every post is potentially someone's first exposure to me. That's a change in situation that demands that I really pay attention to this problem, but as any regular reader knows, I clearly haven't. I mean, it's better than my MUSHing days, but it's still pretty embarassing at times. That's bad for me, and bad for anyone I want to reach, and the only way it's going to change is if I make the effort, accept the slog of improving my touch typing and - perhaps most importantly - really understand why I need to do this.

See, the reality is that none of us have enough time. Yes, sure, we waste some of it, but we fill it up all the same. Meanwhile, we're constantly bombarded with things demanding our attention, some important, some trivial. We develop tricks and tools for dealing with this barrage, and the people who are most successful at grabbing a slice of our time are the ones who understand that the narrow end of the wedge needs to be polished to such a shine that it catches our eye. We develop impressions almost immediately, and we're actively looking for reasons to dismiss any given distraction. Too long? Bad format? Obvious typos? Give us an excuse and we'll dump your brilliant idea in the dustbin.

This is unfair, but it is also life.

There are ways to address this. If you are in a position to understand and control people's exposure to your idea (such as in a 30 second add), then you can really focus on that. But if you have a bigger idea (such as a blog post or a game) then there's no way to tell which part is going to make an impression. That's the basic unfairness - if you want people to spend even a little of their time on you, you're going to need to spend a lot of time on making that possible.

It's easy to rail against this, to decry it as focusing on trivialities and demand to be judged on the merits of your ideas or content. And, hey, sometimes that happens, especially with people who already like you (*cough*closedsystem*cough*), but don't bet on it.

Still, it's not all doom and gloom. This is something you can use to your advantage, so long as you're willing to put in some work. As noted above, there are times when you can control which snippet someone is going to see, and those situations are powerful. One of the most potent tools you can use in this situation is the question.

I think we've all been in the situation where we've been asked for "feedback" and handed someone's 50 pages of text. We might like this person and mean well by them, but that's a lot of work and a very fuzzy goal. Even if I read the text and provide comments, there's a real risk that it won't be satisfying to either of us. But imagine that the requester had a single question. This doesn't reduce the amount of effort I must put forward (I still have to read a lot), but it makes me much more likely to do it because the task is now discrete. I know what I'm doing, and I will know when I'm done. This makes me MUCH more likely to actually do it.

So put that trick in your back pocket for next time you're looking for help. Ask yourself: if you could get the answer to just one question from this guy, what would it be? The world is full of people who want to help you out, but who are also struggling with their own lives and schedules. Make it easier for them to help you by making things as clear as possible. Even if they don't surprise you with more than you ask for, you greatly increase your chances of getting what you need.

All you need to do is figure out what that is.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Unrelated to anything in today's post: Chuck Wendig's Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey goes on sale today. Because the universe has a sense of humor, Chuck's a little distracted today by the arrival of something even better than a book, his first kid. He's a fantastic writer (and, duh, you should buy the book) but he's going to be an even better dad, so I want to wish him all the luck in the world with both of these heroic endeavors.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Science of Sub-Genres

Ok, so given that it's hard for gamers to broadly define what sci-fi is, it's worth calling out a pair of sub-genres which have managed to escape this problem.

First off, Cyberpunk is recognizably its own thing. While it has many influences, and even a few flagships of its own, the idea has never cemented into a single vision. There are trappings which recur (the net, cyberware, corporations, suburban visions of urbanism and such) but exceptions also abound, especially where the boundary between cyberpunk and "near future sci-fi" gets fuzzy. What's curious about Cyberpunk is that I think it's benefitted a lot from competing yet overlapping visions. This is as true of the source material (say, Gibson vs. Sterling) as it is of the gaming material (Cyberpunk 2020 vs Shadowrun, say). Where the split between Star Wars and Star Trek leaves only a small amount of overlap, cyberpunk material swims in the same pool, but it's a varied enough pool that it's not disruptive when a specific example reveals the thing that makes it different (like biotech, aliens or magic). This is kind of cool, and it explains why an idea which is basically a past vision of the future remains so potent for us.

The second big genre is military sci fi. In books, this is a huge swath of stuff, and it has lots of recurring elements. There's actually less gear porn than you'd expect, but also a lot more politics. If there's any one thing that keeps military sci-fi from being coherent it's that the particular ethos that the specific tactical genius of that particular series endorses is such a moving target. The weird thing, however, is that this is not something that's made a lot of transition into gaming, which seems odd, because the trappings are definitely a good match.

I think there are two big factors at work here. First, if this is your genre, there's a god chance that you can just play GURPS and be happy with it. There are a lot of assumptions baked into that statement, but I think there's more than a little truth to it.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I have very rarely seen military sci-fi structured in a way that I would consider group friendly. The role of the protagonist - usually a military genius isolated and unrecognized because of [shortcoming that is a problem in the setting but which we, the reader, think should not be held against them] - is also the role of commander. Other characters might be important, but they must either be subordinate (bodyguards, soldiers and the like) or outside of the world that important things happen in (love interests and politicians, mostly). Not to say you can't come up with a group for play in many of these settings - it's easy to do - but doing so requires you do something different than follow the normal shape of the fiction.

I should note, I'm sure there is some military sci-fi out there that doesn't follow this model - it's just that I've seen it so often that I kind of view it as baked in. If you've got a counter-example, then run it through this metric. How many strong relationships to characters have to people other than the main character, and how static are those? There will always be some - people have families and the occasional romance - but they aren't particularly robust or fiction-driving, at least beyond their establishment. This is not a criticism of these books - I loves me some Vorkosigan - but just an observation on how they're structured.

Now, as I thought about these things, it occurs to me that there's a third sub-genre worth noting because it's possible that it won't be overwhelmed by its media, and that is of course the small, diverse ship crew working to get by. This is Firefly, certainly, and it's a large swath of Traveller, and it's going to be a big part of Bulldogs too, an dit probably needs a pithy name. It's is an oddball because, to be honest, if there are books about this then I have not read them (and I'll happily take suggestions). Maybe that means it's not really even a sub-genre, it's just a stump. Maybe it really just is the "Firefly" genre and that's all there is to it. I honestly can't tell from this vantage point, but it will be curious to see if this grows into its own thing, or if it's just a cul de sac.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Flagship Sci Fi

Brennan Taylor just announced the kickstarter for Bulldogs, his Fate based RPG of kick ass sci fi. It's for play in the Firefly kind of mode but with broader Sci-fi trappings. The best description I've seen to date is "The Han Solo RPG." Fred's been doing layout, so I've had the occasional illicit peek, and it looks fantastic (no surprise there) but it's also going to be really interesting from a rules perspective. Brennan's done some great things with ships and tech, but I'm most excited by what he's done with the presentation of skills - something I intend to steal shamelessly down the line!

Anyway, I was happy to throw some money into that particular hat, but it also got me thinking. This is going to be the third big sci-fi title rolled out under Fate (the others being Starblazer Adventures and Diaspora). This is kind of interesting to me, especially in the context of sci-fi rpgs in general - specifically in terms of the relative lack of them. As delighted as I am with these games, I kind of wonder why it is that sci fi and fantasy follow such different paths in gaming.

The most obvious answer is that there's never been a flagship sci-fi game the way that D&D was for fantasy[1] (and which, arguably, Vampire was for modern fantasy/horror), so the market's never really had the opportunity to get traction. I think there's something to that, but at the same time it's a little bit of a chicken and egg situation - asking why there's never been a sci-fi RPG flagship product brings us back to the first question.

It's also possible to look to the roots of gaming, wargaming. Fantasy wargaming, as an extension of historical wargaming, was focused on individual troops in a way that made it a reasonable step to give them names and send them on adventures. Sci Fi wargaming has some of that, but that focus must be shared with vehicles (robots and spaceships) so the impetus went in a different direction. And, indeed, I can think of many flagship sci fi war-games, so it seems there may be something to this.

The problem is that if this were completely the case, I wouldn't imagine we'd see any really successful sci-fi RPGs, yet we have: Star Wars, Star Trek and Firefly have all put up big numbers at one time or another. So why hasn't that meant more for sci-fi in general?

My hunch, and I clearly label it as such, points to the fact that these are all licensed products with a passionate fan base. Fantasy has similar iconic IP - Tolkien most obviously, but Howard, Lieber, Vance and others all merit mention, and their fingerprints are all over D&D. But, and this is critical, D&D is not a Tolkien RPG. It's derivative as all hell, but that's part of its charm. I wonder sometimes if Sci-Fi is less tolerant of knockoffs, especially in regards to Star Wars & Star Trek. They have such vast canons (layers of canons, even) that writing something derivative raises the question of why you left the core IP in the first place. A game that "rips off" either IP would be derided.

It's with this in mind that I think a lot of the big successes have done little to help Sci-Fi RPGs as a whole. Firefly is not quite as bad, but the enthusiasm of its fans is a little volatile. Heck, I think a lot of what Fading Suns did right was derive from material that was popular but broadly unavailable for RPGs (specifically, Dune and Warhammer 40k) so there was less of this culture clash.

This problem is not just one for RPGs, but a tough part of the genre as well. If you ask what "Fantasy" is, there's an easy stereotype to point to (Tolkien) and finer distinctions are left to the nerds[2]. If you ask the same about Sci Fi, it's a lot fuzzier. Star Wars? Star Trek? Knight Rider? Lost in Space? Flash Gordon? Buck Rogers? The Foundation? Dune? Master Chief? Lots of good stuff, but there are so many icons that even the non-nerds mix them up. In that context, asking "What is a Sci Fi game?" introduces similar confusion.

Which is why, I suspect, that the fragmenting of game publishing is probably good for Sci Fi. It's got a lot of voices that haven't been served, and in this day and age, it's good to see them get a chance.

There are, by the way, at least two glaring omissions in my thesis which I'll get to tomorrow when I talk about Military Sci Fi and Cyberpunk.

[back] 1 - Some people might argue that Traveller was that game. I will concede that it's important and iconic, but I would be hard pressed to suggest that it created a broader market for things that weren't Traveller.

[back]2 - Specifically, the nerds who are indignant that I did not say "Howard"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Root of Some Evil

I don't much like the economy in 4e.

Now, it's important to note that the 4e economy does -exactly- what it's supposed to. Money (treasure in general) is an alternate reward system which, unlike XP, is fairly fungible but is still bounded by the general progression of things. That is to say, money is really just a system for maintaining gear, and gear is an essential part of a 4e character, so money is really ust another stat. As an abstraction, it works very well for 4e's purposes. It's neat, tidy and very efficient.

The problem is that, like my history, I like my economics to be kind of sloppy. It's very much a subjective thing, but to me it's an essential part of a living-breathing world. But doing that in games is tricky.

The first complication is that there are really two problems, and they need to be handled differently. The first is, curiously, too much money. 4e keeps this in check by keeping money fairly regimented and by guaranteeing that the increase in costs as you level up (as well as a few intentionally inefficient transactions hardcoded into the system) keeps you from stockpiling cash to get vastly superior gear, and that's kind of a shame because it removes a lot of other options. Older versions of D&D had very specific (and to my mind, quite fun) rules for what you could do with that money, the big one being to build strongholds, forts and such. While it might be a little silly to get excited about buying imaginary real estate, I have to admit that I spent a lot of time pricing out castles in the old DMG, and it was a lot of fun.

The specifics of how the money gets spent aren't hugely important - castle rules are neat, but they're chrome - but the underlying idea is an important one: large amounts of money impact could be used to impact the setting. Maybe the impact was that you bought a town, maybe it was that Danny ocean was coming after your million GP hoard, maybe it was a big tax bill. Money was part of the world, and 4e's tidy solution removes that, and you really don't want to mess with it. Money is balanced as tightly as XP in 4e, and letting players save up to buy castles can wreak havoc when they decide to spend the money on gear.

The second complication is at the other end of the spectrum. It's hard for 4e characters to be convincingly broke, because "broke" and "Encased in arcane armor of mithril and cold iron" don't really go hand in hand. Now, while the too much money issue is something of a setting concern, too little money is a flavor one. I admit that I come from a school of Rolemaster and Fritz Leiber, where fighting dangerous things for questionable rewards is something people do because they can't pay a bar tab, or because the alternative is getting a real job. Desperation is easy to achieve with a tight-fisted GM and a greedy world, but it's a tonal shift that not every table is going to enjoy.

Now, it's not all doom and gloom. 4e's system also saves us all from adventuring parties who go through dungeons like locusts, looking to steal every piece of furniture and wall fixture because there's money to be made. You laugh, but to every DM who's ever had to calculate the value of 76 torch brackets, this change is a genuine relief. Just feel obliged to mention the upside there. It's also possible to capture a lot of what I'm talking about by bypassing the economy entirely - strongholds can be won through play rather than bought, treasures can be intrinsically valuable rather than valuable for their cash, and desperation is easy to achieve when no one is particularly interested in buying your fancy pants armor and you only have a few days of food left.

That is to say, each specific issue can be addressed in turn, but the net result always leaves me cold. I like money to be meaningful, if only so that the greed of NPCs feels like something reasonable. This does not mean every game needs to be about scraping together a few copper to eat. Rather, it means that even in games of kings and princes, Shakespeare gotta get paid.

Bottom line, there's no right answer to this. 4e's system works, and I pick it out only because it's economy is vastly better thought through than most other games. But I wonder what the role of money is in your game: Is it part of the world, part of your character, or just a means of keeping score?

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Meek Shall Inherit The Tabletop

One of the most important lessons I learned from MUSHing (for the unfamiliar, think of it as LARPing online) is the power of weakness. People play games looking for chances to be awesome, but in a game where you're interacting with other players, that creates few opportunities, because everyone else would like to be awesome too. In this environment, the weakest characters were the strongest.

Howso? In this case, I mean 'weakest' in terms of most likely to fail. Some tiny element of this was related to stats, but the vast majority of it was a function of player attitude. In a basically cooperative environment, there was not much you could do to FORCE someone to lose, so the person who was WILLING to lose was a treasure. Immature players who didn't realize this abused it, and mysteriously found themselves unable to find play. For everyone else, the guy who was willing to lose became an incredibly valuable asset, especially if they could lose well. Someone who played a powerful character who was willing to lose? Solid gold.

Now, a cynic might deride this as metagaming. The player who is willing to lose is getting numerous rewards (social esteem and more play, most notably) in return for the willingness to lose in fiction. Personally, I think it's a more than fair trade, but it's worth noting that this does involve thinking about the game (and the satisfaction of play) on more than one level.

Now, that's great for large-scale, multiplayer play, but what's interesting are its implications for tabletop. While this lesson does not translate directly, the multi-level thinking behind it does translate very well, and provides a specific sort of incentive for weak characters.

Now, weakness translates a little differently on the tabletop. Some of it is character power, but there are also elements of making your own life harder. Whatever route it takes, the purpose is a character who easily gets in trouble and can't get themselves out of it, thus providing play for the rest of the group. Again, the player is making a tradeoff - they're sacrificing optimization for the ability to direct play, to be at the center of things and in some cases, for attention.

Now, this is not always a good thing. It can be obvious attention-getting behavior, and when that's what's going on, it can be very frustrating to the rest of the group for obvious reasons. But in small doses, it's highly desirable behavior - it's something you want from everyone in the group ideally. In many ways it's the opposite of the stereotypical orphan-loner.

But here's the rub. Once players understand that their weaknesses pay out like this, the very idea of game balance gets dragged out back and shot. Trying to balance a game on a single axis (like combat capability) becomes amazingly short sighted once players are thinking about play opportunity, spotlight time and game direction. This is not bad in its own right, but it becomes bad when you have mixed understandings at the table. If only one player understands this is what's going on, then he's going to play Tyrion Lannister and all those big strapping knights are going to have no idea how they keep getting overshadowed. If you're lucky, your Tyrion is really trying to help the rest of the group, but if he's not, then god help you. Every argument you've ever had about game balance will get turned on its ear and used against you if you protest.

All of which is to say, be careful, keep your eyes open, and try to make sure everyone at the table has the same idea of balance, at least in broad strokes. It'll make for a better game all around.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Opinions of Locke Lamora

I usually just talk about fiction in terms of how it can be reflected in games, but today I'm going to talk about the actual fiction itself. It should be no great surprise that I'm a fan of capers, and by extension, a certain sort of mystery and thriller. Plot, story and character are all important, of course, but these stories add an extra layer of puzzle onto the fiction. Over and above the interest in the story, there's an intellectual challenge to it. Can you, as the reader, stay a step ahead of what's going on? Can you solve the puzzle? Can you figure out the twist?

Writing these stories walks a fine line, and I do not envy the authors who try it.They need to strike a balance of showing the reader enough to allow her to try to puzzle things out, but no so much that it gives it all away. To make this possible there are a number of rules, tropes and traditions that allow the puzzler-author to get away with more things, specifically to allow for information to be obscured.

Now, this can be tricky. If the author withholds a piece of information that one of the characters have, it can utterly ruin the puzzle. You see this a lot in bad (but often popular) mysteries where the reveal revolves around something the detective hasn't mentioned to the narrator (because, hey, why write well when you can use unreliable narrator as a bulletproof shield?) until that very moment. That's a cheat because it means the reader could never have figured it out.

But at the same time, you don't want to show everything all at once. If the brains behind a caper is making preparations for a twist, we don't necessarily need to see what those preparations are, just that preparations are being made. This is often the difference between a good and bad flashback. A good flashback is built on a stub of an earlier scene - a bad flashback comes out of nowhere in an oh-by-the-way fashion.

If you read a book for the puzzle, you buy into the rules and expect the author to do the same, and when he does, that's a real problem.

It is with this in mind that I both love and deeply hate The Lies of Locke Lamora. This is a shame, because it's exactly the kind of book I SHOULD enjoy, and it's full of things I still remember fondly. If it had been merely an adventure novel, I would probably have enjoyed it a great deal. But it's a puzzler with both mystery and caper elements, and in that regard it falls down very hard.

Spoilers Follow

Lynch cheats in three very specific ways in the book, and i use the word cheat very deliberately. In each case he uses his authorial power to break the rules in order to keep readers in the dark. This is an admirable goal, but it's rather like scoring a touchdown in chess - it's not very impressive if you don't tell the other party what game you're playing.

So, first, we have the identity of the Gray King. This is set up very nicely, and there are any number of people it potentially could be, all of whom have some good reason (like being dead) why it couldn't possibly be them. This is a classic mystery setup, and in time you discover the lie and it reveals who's alibi doesn't hold up. It's set up so well that it ends up feeling like a double cop-out when the reveal is "Ha Ha, it's this guy that got mentioned on page 23 who has no connection at all to the story so far!" (and, in fact, it feels like a triple cop out if you view it as a "Ha Ha, I as an author am deliberately foiling your expectations!"). It's a cheat designed to make sure that everyone's guesses are wrong.

Second, we have the Bondsmagi. To put it bluntly, he's a walking Deus ex Machina, and that's _terrible_. Introducing magic into genre fiction is always hard, but it's super hard for puzzlers because it has the potential to undercut any and all logic. This is the reason, for example, it's so hard to do a locked room mystery in a D&D setting - there are so many ways to get in and out of a locked room that it's hardly a mystery at all. If you're going to add magic to your puzzlers, you need to have rules that you stick by (because nothing's cheesier than using violations of your own rules as resolution). If you want to bend or break those rules then you need to make sure the limit is not the rules but a character's understanding (*cough*Harry Dresdean*cough*). Better still, you don't want magic to ever be the _answer_ to a mystery unless it's also part of the question. Bottom line, the Bondsmagi is an unending font of cheating.

Last, LLL performs the ultimate cop-out of any caper. In an attempt to make the protagonist clever, Lynch often takes the shortcut of making everyone else stupid. The best and most obvious example of this is the fact that the virtually all-powerful and for-hire magi are an absolute blind spot for every single person in the city, including the spymaster who I can't help suspect reminded lynch of an NPC he disliked. Yes, they're crazy expensive, but we're talking about a rich trading city here. even if they can't keep one on retainer, it stretches credulity that no one else has thought of using one of these guys before (especially when you can apparently use one to steal huge amounts of money, which certainly seems to offset the cost).

Now, as I say all that, bear in mind that I think the book is full of fantastic, clever, well-written scenes. Many of these scenes are so good that I still waffle on my opinion of the book despite how much my problems with the main plot grate at me. But taken as a whole, it's a great book about how to run small cons, and a terrible book about how to run a caper.

That said, enough people have said good things about the sequel that I've downloaded the audio book and put it in my queue. I'm willing to give it a fair shot, if only because Jean is awesome, and I'm totally willing to read the adventures of Jean and his chatty sidekick.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Keeping 4e's Skin

First, here's an important qualifier. I like 4e a lot. I think the combat is a ton of fun, and it's full of good ideas, so please do not take what is about to follow as a broad criticism of 4e. It's not. It's a solution to a problem I wrestle with at my own table, nothing more.

With that out of the way, let me lay something down. As much as I enjoy 4e as a miniatures combat game, if you were to remove that entirely, there would still be a lot that I really dig. In terms of pure color, I really rock out to a lot of what 4e brings to the table, from races to classes to paragon paths to epic destinies (and even, to a lesser extent, themes and feats). There is something powerfully essential about 4e classes that let's me say "This guy is A Halfling Warlock, and his ladyfriend there is a Warforged Warden" and wham, I'm off to the races with ideas.

The rub is that none of those ideas have much to do with the crunchy bits. I care about their stats in an abstract way - I assume the Warden is strong and tough and that the Warlock is probably pretty cunning - but not in terms of specific numbers. I don't care much about their equipment - it tells a story and has some practical considerations, but I'm not really asking for a laundry list. Even if I'm curious about their magic items, I'm inclined to think about them in more of a "one or two interesting widgets" sort of way. I'm not even that interested in their levels, except insofar as how that informs on other things (like their tier and whether Paragon paths or Epic Destinies are in play). I don't care about their feats, except for ones that I can really see in the character, like an exotic weapon proficiency.

There are things I do care about, but even those are off kilter. I care what skills they have, but not at that numerical values they have them. They're just important in terms of what they can do. I care what powers they have, but not in terms of the specifics of them - rather, I am interested in what kind of picture they create of the character and what kind of color they bring to the fight - a fighter with a lot of big heavy hit powers is different than one with a lot of tactical mobility, for example. Curiously, I care a fair amount about their respective power sources.

In this mode, I have a similar take on monsters, treasure and much of the rest of the game. I have at times spoken about re-skinning 4e for certain effects, but this impetus is quite the reverse. I'm inclined to do without the innards and just keep the skin.

Why would I do this? First, it frees me up to change the focus of the game a bit. Yes, 4e can do things other than combat, but it does combat SO WELL that it gravitates towards it. This is a sign of good design, but it creates a problem when the time and prep required for combat are too much for my schedule.

In a similar vein, it potentially eases the bookkeeping. The prospect of single page characters and not needing to dig through my buckets of minis and tiles has a certain appeal at times. This becomes doubly true when the reality is that some of my players will only play 4e if pushed into it. It's just way more bookkeeping than they're interested in.

Lastly, I find it a clarifying perspective. When I was talking about the academy game, I ended up really thinking about what play would be like when the only real mechanical differentiation between characters was race. It was far simpler than standard 4e, of course, but that very simplicity really made the differences FEEL more meaningful. The desire to shed certain mechanics is similar. It is not a desire to move away from 4e, but rather, a desire to move towards those things that I find most compelling within it.

Not sure if this will ever be more than an idle though, but it's absolutely a more frequent idle thought these days.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

3 Ways To Get My Money On Kickstarter

On the off chance that you're unfamiliar with it, Kickstarter is a service that lets you post an idea for a product and get backers for it. The exact form this takes varies, but most commonly it's something like an expanded pre-order. Some people might just throw a few bucks to support the idea, others might pay enough to get the finished product, others might pay more, often for some sort of deluxe version . If the kickstarter makes its goal, everyone pays and everyone gets their prize (eventually).

Kickstarter's stability and functionality as a platform has started making it a popular choice for game designers with an idea but looking for the seed money to cover production costs (There are non-game kickstarters too, but my focus tends to be on games). Kickstarter's gaining more awareness these days, at least in part because of the runaway success of the Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple kickstarter from Daniel Solis. While his level of success is a definite anomaly, it's the sort of thing that inspires hope and interest.

For the curious, purple Pawn has started keeping a list of games on Kickstarter, and this is a great resource. I definitely would not have found these all on my own. For kickstarters like Do or Amaranthine or whatever Greg Stolze's working on this week, I've depended on word of mouth to hear about them, so a central reference is super useful. Lots of interesting projects out there, but also enough with clear enough problems to make me wince. So with that in mind, if you're thinking about doing a Kickstarter and you want my money, here are a few things to consider.

1. Your Goal Must Make Sense
Anyone who’s been following Fred Hicks’ blog probably has picked up a good sense of how much it costs to produce some of these games. It’s not necessarily comprehensive - Evil Hat has never looked at a big box, for example - but it sets enough of a baseline to suggest that some of the numbers people are looking for might seem a little high.

Obviously, you can’t just assume that any high number is unreasonable, but it’s a fair red flag to suggest you look closer. When someone suggests that they need twenty five thousand dollars to complete their game, I admit I’d like to know a bit more about their strategy and why that makes sense. In the absence of such information, I’m inclined to think that either they’re just digging for gold or that they haven’t really done the math. In either of those situations, that perception is far more off-putting than the cost.

2. I Must Feel Appreciated
This is another big part of setting your price, but it's much simpler. A high price makes me feel like my contribution isn't going to help unless you really make it clear to me that you will appreciate it. A big number is daunting, and no one likes to get in on the ground floor of something they think can't possibly succeed, but they'll do it if they have a reason to believe. That reason needs to be you and your product, so you need to convey exactly how much you value each contribution.

One element of this that can plague even small projects is the velvet rope. If you don't have low-price options for contributors (PDFs are great for this) then it's easy for me to feel that you're greedy or don't want my money unless I'm willing to shell out. Even if I am inclined to make a bigger contribution, I'm still going to judge how you treat the small ones. If you're doing nothing for anyone who gives you less than $50, then honestly, to hell with you.

3. You Must Let Me Know What Your Project Is
Compare these two cases

First, we have Startup Fever. It had an ambitious $10,111 goal which it’s already blown past. It’s got photos, examples and a comprehensive website. These are the things I need to look at it and understand what this project is going to look like, to such an extent that the dollar figure seems worthwhile. Now, it’s worth noting that Startup Fever got featured in TechCrunch, and that kind of coverage can really drive funding, but that’s not the whole story. If they did not have a comprehensive writeup (and an even more comprehensive website) there would have been nothing for TechCrunch to write about. It’s a great illustration that no matter how good your idea is, people aren’t going to talk about it unless you give them something to point to and talk about.

On the other hand, look at Epic Conquest. This one breaks my heart. The financial goal is reasonable, $1500, and it’s clear that the creator is intensely enthusiastic about his idea. but there is virtually nothing about the game except enthusiasm at the site. The author is “concerned about other designers stealing my idea until it is copyrighted” and I fear that’s shooting him in the foot. It’s clear he has ambitious goals (Ambitious enough that $1500 seems lowball) but he gives people no reason to buy into his idea.

The bottom line is people are willing to back ideas that excite them, but you need to be willing to share enough to let that happen. I hate to sound cynical, but if you're worried that your idea can be stolen without a lot of hard work, then you're operating under the impression that you can deliver on your idea without a lot of hard work. There's a flaw somewhere in there which is going to resolve itself at a time and a place not of your choosing.

So there it is. Three simple tricks. Have your goal make sense, make me feel my contribution is appreciated, and let me know what I'm backing. Seems like common sense, I know, but if you spend some time looking around Kickstarter, you'll quickly see that it's not.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Goals vs. Tasks

I had an extended discussion with someone the other day where it took me a while to realize we were having different discussions. This tied back into how to make non-combat compelling, and we were talking around a specific example of persuading a duke to provide armies to support your cause.

The details surrounding such a thing are, while critically important in play, are not necessarily important to discussing it. This is exactly the sort of scenario I think can really sing since it boils down to one of the core dramatic structures suitable for intrigue - someone has something you want, and you need them to give it to you. The latter half of that is what distinguishes this from the similar action structure, someone has something you want and you need to take it from them. It may seem like a small difference on paper, but it's a gigantic one in play. Force is such a compelling resolution mechanism (especially in games) that its removal is a true game changer. For some people that change removes what they want out of play, but for others, it broadens the horizons of possibility.

This is not a value judgment. As much as I'm a huge proponent of expanding the game into arenas outside combat, it's important to remember that doing so does not implicitly create a better game, just a broader one. Bigger isn't always better, so if you have no interest in this stuff, then cool, just sorry to be wasting your time.

Anyway, to come back to the conversation, the disconnect we encountered was that she was talking about how to run the encounter, with the goal of persuading the duke at the end. I had, unconsciously, slipped into Amber mode, and had been talking about it in terms of getting the army. Those two things (Persuading the duke and getting the army) are related, but the difference is important to review. Getting the army is the ultimate goal of the exercise, and persuasion is one specific means of doing that. If you try to plan or one but do the other, you're going to get a weird mismatch.

Now, the reality is that a good GM needs to be able to handle both approaches. If your players are going to try to persuade the duke, that is perform a specific task, you need to be ready to run that well, especially I that seems the likeliest path. But if you only plan for that task, you'll encounter a problem when the players pursue a different solution (such as, say, assassinating the duke so his more friendly heir can take his seat). In most such situations, the players are focused on the goal (get the troops) rather than the task (persuade the duke).

It's not entirely accurate to compare this to strategy and tactics, but it's a useful comparison if only because it underscores that both are important to the prospective GM. If one is weak, the strength of the other might carry you for a while, but it can only go so far.

Anyway, there's a lot to drill into here, and it speaks directly to the issue of compelling non-combat, but I want to start by putting a flag in this, if only to remind GMs who finds themselves stuck to consider whether they're thinking about the tasks they're presenting players with, or the goals the characters need to achieve. Flipping which way you're thinking can be a great way to shake loose the brain.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Sense of Risk

So many good comments on yesterday's post that I can't really do them justice in response, so they are likely to be fodder for a few more posts. So with that in mind, I want to start with one point that a few people raised about a distinguishing feature of combat, and that is of course, risk.

Classically, RPG combat includes a risk that the players might lose and die. This gives the player strong personal stakes in the outcome, even if the fight is otherwise uninteresting. The fight might be the most random, railroad-y, cookie cutter encounter you can imagine, but if it could kill your character, you pay attention.

Now, there are two things worth noting about this. First, there is nothing about this that suggests that non-combat _can't_ be compelling. It's certainly easier to draw players in with personal risk, but it's far from the only way. Skill scenes, especially athletic and social ones, can often carry dire risks, and that's easy too, but that's only part of it. ANY scene can get player investment if it's interesting and if the stakes interest the players. Yes, if your players are only interested in survival then you'll have a hard time coming up with ways to interest them without threats, but I think most players are a bit more broad-minded than that.

Second, and more profoundly, it's all kind of a farce.

There have been games where the lethality of combat was a real consideration, and speaking as a rolemaster fan, I can say that they can be a lot of fun, but that is not the mode of most modern games, and it is especially not the mode of 4e and the various 3.x derivatives. While they keep the trappings of combat and risk, it's usually built on top of a resource management engine. The risk of a TPK does not come from the opposition so much as it comes from the danger of a badly designed encounter.

Now, this is not to say there's no risk. Heck, some games (like Gamma World) have done a good job of bringing risk back to the table, but they do so by embracing ideas that reduce the pain of character loss. But the point is that even in risky games, the generally expected outcome (and, in fact the desired outcome) is that the PCs will win. It may be costly, but they'll pull it through.

On some level, I feel like a bit of a grognard here, in that what I'm saying is not too far off from "It's not very convincing to talk about risk if you're not playing a game where a crossbow through the eye will kill you dead" but that's less kind than my perspective. I think games have improved in a lot of ways in their understanding of the balance of risk vs playability. But I also think a lot of that improvement depends on some sleight of hand. The GM wants the players to FEEL like they're at great risk, but doesn't want to the risk to actually be that great because it's disruptive to play. The best GMs are the ones who really can create the "Die Hard" victory, where heroes are bloody and broken but unbowed as they manage to land the final deathblow and win the day.

And that's awesome. I'm totally not knocking it. But what I am saying is that the idea that combat is materially different than other challenges is a well-constructed fiction. The things you think of that make it different are just tricks, and tricks can be used on other things too.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Skills and Situation

The question came up of how to steer an academy game away from Strength and Dex because of their importance for the Basic Attack action. Setting aside my personal inclination to just re-assign Basic Attack stats, the real answer is to lean much more heavily on skill rolls than combat for the bulk of challenges facing students. It might require a bit more GM creativity (especially since many of the things being learned are combat maneuvers), but porting skills into a combat mode isn’t too hard, and skills over combat is definitely genre-appropriate.

However, that got me thinking a little bit about how skills are used. In the abstract, combat is really just another skill use, but the skill is used over and over again. If I had a scene that demanded a player roll the same skill as many times as they make attack rolls in combat, that would be a hard scene to run. The idea of rolling the same skill over and over again seems like an invitation to boredom.

Historically, the reason for this difference, especially in 4e, seemed easily attributable to the fact that even though you’re rolling the same thing, you’re doing something different. It might be as explicit as using different powers, but even in non 4e games, things move and change. If they don’t, and the fight is just two guys standing there making alternating attack rolls, that’s just as boring as our multi-skill scenario.

So if it’s not a difference in outcomes, what makes the difference?

I think it’s two things. The first is that attacking is not explicitly called out as a skill. This is important because it means that when a player takes an action, they describe the action, not the skill. If they’re making an attack, they describe the attack or even if they’re not being terribly descriptive, they call out the power they’re using. In contrast, if they’re rolling athletics, it’s usually called out as rolling athletics. This has a subtle impact on player expectation. Because the language of combat is less repetitive, the imagining of combat seems less repetitive.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, combat is all about changes in the situation.

One of the big problems with re-using skills is that they are perceived as “one and done” sort of thing. You make the skill roll and you do whatever you need. This has a couple of big implications. First is that it’s in clear contrast to combat which is lots of rolls to resolve something. This is a big deal, and will be important alters, but today it’s a bit tangential, in part because it’s easy to make skills work that way, but more because it distracts from the question of why repeating combat rolls stays interesting and repeating skill rolls gets stale.

The key is in another implication of one and done. You are not expected to roll your skill again until the situation has changed in some way. You might roll to pick locks five times for five different doors (five different situations) but you don’t roll five times for the same door.

In combat, the situation is constantly changing. In fact, the example of boring combat I gave earlier is a direct result of a combat where the situation stops changing between rolls. Now, a lot of things can change in a fight, but the biggest and most obvious is position. Moving minis around a map is a simple way to dramatically change a situation.[1]

But so what? Does that help us with our skills? Well, yes and no.

The trick is that it’s not the map itself that’s critical, but the fact that it’s such an efficient method of providing information. The idea of changing your situation to re-use a skill is an essential real-life idea. When faced with a problem you cannot solve, you change something: do some research, get a tool, get help, try a different angle or whatever.

Doing this requires a specific understanding of the situation, but that level of understanding is not easily conveyed verbally. It requires incredibly detailed descriptions which, because they’re static, often skip right to the end of suggesting the right path. Coming up with the equivalent of a map is difficult.

But not impossible. I think, given the understanding that you need to support the ability to change the situation before rolling again, it is possible to create sequences of skill rolls (whether they be skill challenges or structured differently) that can make skill use compelling.

This becomes especially true if you change up how things are supposed to be described. If you can encourage players to act _within_ the skill rather than _with_ the skill, then you not only get more colorful descriptions, but you also implicitly broaden the situation.

How do I mean this? Let’s take the Harry Potter route and use a sport. If you’re playing a game, every action probably falls under the auspices of athletics, but you would not describe the actions that way. Events will unfold on the field (you’re chasing the ball, breaking through defenders, making a fake[2] - whatever) and provided the player is responding to those, they won’t be saying “I use athletics”, they say, “I feint left then try to punch through Henderson’s weak right side”. The dice become secondary to the situation.[3]

Now, I’ll fully cop that athletics is probably the easiest skill to illustrate this with, but the idea is workable for any skill that you think is interesting enough to include in your game. And if you’re including it despite the fact that you don’t find it interesting might suggest a different course of action.

1 - That this is so explicitly the case in 4e is a big reason many players who otherwise eschew minis and maps have embraced them.

2 - Yes, this might be a different skill, and bringing an oddball skill into a larger skill challenge can be fun, exciting and thematic, but that’s another topic for another time, especially given point [3].

3 - One other advantage of establishing these “skill contexts” is that, like in combat, the player knows what to roll. This may seem obvious, but consider that many skill roll situations have an element of checking with the GM to confirm that the skill is appropriate and it’s OK for the player to roll. In combat, players know what to roll and when to roll it, and it’s the GM’s job to deal with that. Creating situations where players have similar comfort and authority with regard to skills (such as a skill context where all rolls are assumed to be Athletics) can really free them up to focus on the situation.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Leveling Up To 1

There was a great discussion on twitter yesterday about what might go into a hypothetical RPG for new players based on changing 4e or Pathfinder. Lots of good ideas, but it also reminded me of another idea that I’ve been sitting on for a while, one that puts 4e through a lens of Harry Potter inspired school play.

The idea is based on a simple premise: first level 4e characters are pretty capable, enough so that it’s possible to create an arc from “zero level” to the place where a character starts play. This idea is that there’s some manner of academy for exceptional students who have the potential to “graduate” to being level 1 heroes. The exact details of the school are fodder for another post - maybe it’s a dungeon crawling academy, maybe it’s selecting future leaders of the land, maybe it’s a feeder to an even more elite school, maybe it’s something else. We’ll worry about it after the basics have been sorted out.

So how do you do this? First, start characters off with all their stats with one 8 and four 10’s and 1 12 (modified by race), 10 hit points and starting racial package of abilities.[1] All characters begin as trained in a single skill. This can be ANY skill, and this stands in lieu of a background bonus, and it is also the exceptional thing that drew the school’s attention to the kid.
Importantly, characters do NOT have all the capabilities of a first level character. Specifically, they cannot:
  • Flank
  • Aid Another
  • Bull Rush
  • Charge
  • Perform a Coup de Grace
  • Escape
  • Equip or Stow a Shield as an action
  • Grab
  • Second Wind
  • Total Defense
  • Perform any minor action (all require a move action)
  • Perform an Opportunity Attack
Characters are proficient in no armor or weapons, so even though the basic Attack action is available to them, they gain no proficiency bonuses. And, obviously, they have no class abilities, no powers, and just the one skill. Beyond that they’re basically a blank slate.

Play proceeds on that assumption, and the DC for pretty much everything the characters might do is 10, which means they’ll be really fantastic at their particular schtick, and capable at their racial ones

The model of play, then, is to follow a pattern of going to a class about some element of this (such as basic arms training) with a quirky and interesting teacher. After the class is done, they get the particular ability, and are then faced with a challenge (either an explicit school test, or some part of the plot) which makes use of that skill or set of skills. For example, after the characters have learned Aid Another, they may be faced with a challenge with an impossible difficulty (like a DC 21 for something none of them have any bonus towards) that they need to overcome.

Once the characters have gone through all the universally available things (like the actions above, as well as learning their initial feat) they may then choose a class as their academic focus, and the process will be similar, with characters learning class abilities, and eventually powers, in their classes. The goal is that, at graduation, the characters have all the abilities they would if they’d created the character at first level.

Now, exactly how many times you want to repeat this cycle is going to depend a lot on your group. Some groups might want to rip through this stuff, others might want to stretch it out. This can just as easily be a single night’s play as it can be an entire campaign, especially depending on how much you want to focus on challenges and play within the school. Whatever you decide, divide 20 points [2] among that many periods and let players spend them as they wish.

For example, a school with 4 years, two sememsters each, might do Basic combat training (Simple Weapon Prof, Equipping shields, minor actions ad flanking) semester one, Advanced training (Aid Another, Bull Rush, Charge, Grab & Escape) second semester, Focus exercises (Second WInd, Total Defense, Coup De grace, Opportunity Attack) third semester then Horizon broadening (First Feat and trained skill) fourth semester. Class is then “assigned” at the end of the second year (angst!) and we move onto more class-specific classes.

Now, part of the appeal of this is that school play is fun. It takes work to bring the school to life and bring in challenges that keep players engaged, but it’s a neat setting premise with a familiar literary base. But there is also some appeal in that you can make learning 4e a part of the process. Players can start with only a minimal understanding of the system, and with each successive challenge, they pick up a few more fiddly bits. Only after they’ve got a sense of the basics do they even need to start worrying about class abilities and powers, and at that point, they’ll probably look pretty darn awesome.

Anyway, this is obviously only half an idea. Without a solid pitch for what the school looks like, it’s got no wings. But I’ll be shocked if some of you are not already thinking “What does 4e Hogwarts look like?”

[back] 1 - You can actually start without Racial Abilities for all races and come up with progressions for them to learn them, but this requires that the GM work things out on a race by race basis, and requires some thought regarding what races are allowed in the school. This is easy to do, but it requires more bookkeeping than I can squeeze into an already long post. Humans are probably the easiest to do in this way - just delay their bonus stuff until after play has begun.

[back] 2 − 20, not 22 because 2 points bought the starting 12. And if you use some other method of stat generation, then just apply the idea rather than the specific mechanic. The improvements come steadily over the course of play.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dragon Age II, Second Shot

OK, Dragon Age 2 (not to be confused with the Dragon Age RPG 2nd Box set, which is not available for pre-order from green Ronin and, which, from what I've read so far, is pretty awesome) . As promised, I finished a second playthrough, trying a different approach and, also as promised, I want to drill into the experience a little.

First, the non-spoiler version. My initial playthrough was as a rogue, my second as a mage. The overall experience of the second playthrough was very satisfying, and a number of things unfolded differently based on my choices and behaviors. However, a number of essential things, especially the big events which I'd hoped to change, did not change substantially. This was a disappointment, but it was offset by the other ways in which the game rewarded a different approach. If you are interested in doing a second playthrough, I endorse three things:

  1. If you played a non-mage, play a mage and vice versa. The delta from rogue to fighter is not as interesting as it is between mage and non-mage..
  2. Do not be afraid that you must make the "right" choice. The game rewards real decisions over caution.
  3. Don't buy anything but backpacks, gifts and recipes (and re-check all the merchants at the start of each chapter)

Ok, on to spoilers. If you've finished the game once, then there may be mild spoilers about branches you didn't take (though I'll try to keep them to a minimum) but if you haven't finished the game, then there will _definitely_ be some spoilers. So, if need be, look away.
The biggest motivation for me in the second playthrough is that the game did a FANTASTIC job of making me feel responsible for Anders' actions. In my first playthrough, I helped him out, even though I knew it was suspicious, so when it went down, I felt like I had allowed it to happen, and that in doing so I had bollixed any chance of sorting this matter out peacefully.

Turns out, not so much. Even if you don't help, he does it anyway. This was, honestly, pretty upsetting to me. Similarly, it turns out that your mother's going to die no matter what. You can kill Dupuis if you want (I didn't the first time and felt like I'd been suckered, but it turns out killing him the second time doesn't help at all). Also, Trask's conspiracy goes to hell, whether it's Orsino or Meredith who sends you after them, so that's pretty much hosed too.

These things should annoy me more than they do. These were the big things I was coming back to try to tackle another way, and it turns out they're pretty much nailed to the rails. But to my (pleasant) surprise, they get balanced out, often in small things.

For example, I was surprised when a different sibling lived. If you play a mage, Carver lives and Bethany dies, while it's the reverse for fighters and rogues. That alone added a surprising amount of depth to the replay, since it introduced an extra element of character interaction into a game that already excels at that. It also introduces branches in terms of _how_ you lose your sibling (because the fact that you will is on rails). If you take them into the dark roads, they'll die, unless you bring Anders, who will make them a grey warden. If you don't take them, they go to the circle and the templars respectively. Either way, you lose your sibling, but it introduces enough variety that I was intrigued.

Also, Carver is a jackass. Bethany is definitely the good twin.

One other unexpected bonus of a replay was that it changes your default party configuration. When I played a rogue, It was usually me, Aveline, Anders and Merril (since I liked the double dose of area attack). As a mage, I needed a rogue in the group, and brought my own firepower, so I went with Aveline, Fenris and either Varic or Isabella. Obviously, this changed from time to time, but with a different default, I ended up hearing different conversations than I had previously, since many of them require previous conversations. Specifically, I ended up liking Fenris _much_ more on this playthrough, and I got some Aveline/Isabella conversations which absolutely knocked my socks off which I'd not heard the first time through.

With all of this, it turns out that different choices were only a part of the difference in this playthrough. Honestly, for the first two chapters, the differences were interesting, but very few of them stick in my head. This annoyed me some because on the second playthrough I did one thing I really hated - I brought the Magister's son back alive - in hopes of turning it into political support in chapter 3. No such luck, and as far as I could tell, nothing further came of it.

I did, I admit, play through the Feynriel dream sequence several times to see what motivated different characters to betray me in different ways (for the record, Isabella's was the most awesome, though Merril and Aveline both were good). Pro-tip - if you're playing a mage, don't bring Fenris. He kind of killed the entire group in about 3 attacks. Not so good.

The final chapter is where the rubber meets the road, and you either back the mages or the templars. In my first playthrough, I tried to walk the middle road and act as a peacekeeper, and that is what Ander's blew to hell. The second time I picked a side, the Templars, and it proved interesting. I got a reward for it (armor I couldn't use) and some different missions than I had previously engaged in, and that was also interesting since they offered some insight into the Templars. I presume it's something similar for the mages, but that's the one path I haven't tried yet.

One thing I will say about the second playthrough is that it expanded my perspective on events, which is perhaps why I'm not so upset about things unfolding as they did. If you support the Templars, you get an opportunity to see how badly Meredith is _trying_ to make things work and failing. Every new thing you find out about what's going on just makes everything that much more tragic. That's no small accomplishment.

The expanded perspective also makes the endgame make more sense. On the first playthrough it's understandable that Meredith snaps and goes batty because of the artifact, but Orsino's actions seem to come out of left field. Turns out there's more to it, though even that is interestingly mixed. As a mage, I backed the Templars because I had decided that Orsino was "O" (the unnamed correspondent with your Mother's killer). The question is answered by the end, and just to add that extra twist of the knife, Orsino may have been worse than he pretended to be, but he was better than thought he was. Ouch.

I mention, more or less as an afterthought, that I handled romance differently this time, choosing Isabella rather than Merril. This was interesting, but it felt like a surprisingly small matter compared to all my other interactions. Not sure if that's good or bad. On one hand, I didn't feel any real lack, but that might just be because the rest of the game was so good, not necessarily because the romance was all it needed to be.

I'm not in a huge rush for my third playthrough, but it tempts. Bioware is good enough with the depth of these things that I'm curious what I still have not yet discovered. God knows they seem to have embraced map re-use as license to branch things aggressively, and I'm very happy with that tradeoff. In a big plot way, I'm still curious what happens If you back the mages, but more, I'm curious what happens if you manage to push the other characters into deep rivalry (something I never accomplish - I'm all friendship all the time. It's a flaw). But at the same time, I worry that the answers may be terrible.

It's unreasonable, but I _like_ these characters too much to abuse them so. Just to see what would happen at one point, I handed Isabella over to the Arishok rather than fight him. He takes her and leaves and even though it was just a test that I quickly erased, I felt _terrible_ for doing it.

On one hand, that's kind of lame, but on the other…man, it's kind of amazing too. So long as Bioware can keep me that invested, they'll keep getting my money.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Layout is More than Fonts

I raised a question on twitter the other day regarding summaries in RPG books. The question was, if you’re going to provide regular summaries (of rules or example), where should it go - at the beginning of the chapter, or at the end?

For context, the question came up in my mind as I was reading a game I like very much, and which looks quite nice, but has what I consider a dysfunctional layout. One of the things I found it particularly lacking in was any kind of summary of material, which is doubly a pain because the order that rules are presented in is a little peculiar. I found that I really wanted summaries, and found myself considering the best place to put them.

There were, of course, a few out of the box responses, including a small amount of dislike of summaries, but the divide in answers was interesting to me. The split came along a peculiar axis, one that should have been obvious in retrospect. Those who wanted summaries at the end of the chapter focused on readability and flow. Those who wanted them at the beginning of the chapter emphasized the importance of easy reference - finding the start of a chapter is easier than finding the start of the next chapter (assuming you remember the order) and flipping backwards, or so the thinking goes. The one or two compromise positions I encountered (such as calling out summaries in visually distinctive sidebars or boxes) were definitely trying to find a middle ground between reading and reference, but they tend to be situational at best.

This question - reading vs. reference - is one of those very sticky issues you end up wrangling with when you really get into designing a book. It’s a hard question to answer, and there’s no single formula for success, except to say that a game which does not consider both of these approaches often ends up feeling crappy in a way that it can be hard for a reader to put their finger on.

Now, personally, I am in the "Summaries at the beginning" camp, for three main reasons. The first is reference - I agree it's much easier to find this material at the beginning off a chapter than the end, though wherever you put it, it's definitely worth using layout to call it out so it's easy to find on a flipthrough. The second reason is a bit more cynical - I have read enough RPGs that I no longer trust an author's assessment of the novelty of his game. A summary skips the breathless prose and lets me make judgments for myself.

The last reason is, I think, the most essential: it's a frame rather than a review, and that helps the reader while challenging the writer. As a reader, I can quickly scan the summary and, if it's written well, with not get tripped up on terminology or basic concepts that follow. I may have some questions that the summary didn't answer, and hopefully I will find those answers in the text. The flipside of this is that writing a good summary forces the author to write good text. If there's a decent summary, then the hard question is "what else do you really need to say?" As a writer, this can be BRUTAL. Some ideas really can be conveyed very succinctly, and padding them out to 1000 words does a disservice to everyone. If the summary comes afterward, it's just a restatement and refinement, so nobody really notices that you padded. If it comes first, it frames things, and it makes it easy to notice that you're wasting words.

Now, what's crazy is that this is only a very small thing. It's a single decision among many that you need to make when you put together a book. But like many of these decisions, it has a HUGE impact on how good your book is going to be. To be unkind, even if your game is brilliant and your rules are fantastic, if you don't consciously make this sort of decision, then it can kill your game dead. I'm not saying that there's only one answer to these question - handle summaries however you think is best, for example - but if you don't think about these things then you're begging for trouble.

It can be hard for the writer to ask these questions because they have such a personal relationship with the text. A good editor will push these points, but that depends a lot on the editor's role in the project. A good layout guy can make up for a lot of mistakes of this type, but it's a shame when they have to. But the real danger is that these points pass without comment or thought.

With that in mind, it seems I might want to return to this, and run down a few other red flags and questions a designer might want to ask about how a game can and should present information. Seem like a worthy topic to folks?