Monday, April 25, 2011

Holiday Week

Ok, it's not really a holiday, but I'm making it one. Short form, I'm taking the week off, and will resume blogging next Monday.

Longer form has nothing to do with gaming, so feel free to skip over this and come back next week, but I feel a little explanation is warranted.

As some of you may know, this has been the year I decided to really tackle my health. My physique is what one might best describe as "internet-like", so I need to lose weight and generally get in better shape. I've tried before, of course, and that's gone as you might expect. Of all things, I think writing this blog is a big reason this time has been different. I started this blog to make myself write every day, and after a certain point, I could look back on what I'd done and it was pretty amazing to see the results of that kind of extended effort. Getting healthy is a similar process, and I took some inspiration from that.

I've actually been at it since January, and it's going well. I'm going to the gym, I have a trainer, I'm eating better and I'm down somewhere over 40 pounds. All in all, I'm really pleased. However, the past few weeks have been iffy - pretty much since PAX. The combination of getting very sick (PAX Plague!), my wife starting a new job (which is great, but changed our schedules) and my trainer changing gyms has been very disruptive. I haven't fallen off the wagon, but I've been kind of half-assing things: exercising a little less hard, being more lax about food, all the things that point to a downhill slide. This became pretty clear this past weekend, and it became equally clear that I need to focus on getting back on track.

Now, it would be wonderful if I could disappear on some monastic retreat or movie-montage boot camp, but life doesn't work that way. I still need to work, and I still need to honor my commitments, but I simply need a little more bandwidth this week, and the reality is that while I write for me, I'm getting healthy for me and the people I love. From that perspective, it's pretty easy to prioritize.

Anyway, I actually will be shocked if I don't end up writing some posts this week anyway, but if I'm smart, I'll put them in queue and get ahead of things. I like writing, and it's hard for me not to do it, but it is useful to absolve myself of the responsibility to write for a week. That commitment is, in some ways, harder than the writing itself.

So, that's the story. As usual, when I return you will be spared this sort of personal jibber jabber in favors of cool dice tricks, but I figure the occaisional detour won't hurt anyone.

See you on Monday!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Concrete Information

I am fascinated by information that is also a thing. In this day and age, we have no real problem viewing information as something pretty abstract. It can be easily copied, moved, passed around and even altered with only trivial effort. This is, by an large, a pretty cool thing, but I like thinking about the exceptions to it (or in some cases, the variations), both for what it suggests and (because I'm a shameless nerd) how it creates hooks.

Ok, so what do I mean by this? The easiest way to think of it is historically. Flash back to sometime before the printing press - if you have a book that details some complicated procedure, that physical book is, for all intents and purposes, the book _is_ the information. Copying it is a serious effort, so the main way to procure the information is to steal the physical book. That makes it an excellent macguffin, and it also suggests that the person who could copy or transfer the data (through, say, photographic memory, or some manner of duplication spell) would have a distinct advantage.

However, what some of you are noticing is that, even in this extreme case, the information is not _really_ the same as the object. The information is still abstract, and you can still _do_ all the same things (copy, transmit, etc.) it just is harder. And that's completely true, but it's important to note that "harder" is not necessarily a trivial obstacle. It is, in fact, understanding these obstacles that makes the questions surrounding information as a hook.

As an ilustration of this, consider codes. They are a classic element of much adventure fiction, and the simple reality is that while codebreaking is a fun exercise for a certain kind of mind, it's not really much fun in game. But practically speaking, a code is just some incomplete information: having the coded note doesn't help you, but having the coded note and the cipher key is something complete. As such, if you have one, then you have an almost automatic hook for the other, and that's where things can get wacky. It is entirely possible that both ends (the note and the key) are simple information (as in the case of a letter substitution cipher) but assuming that secrets actually need to be kept, things are often a little more complicated than that.

One common trick is to embed the key in a physical object (see how we come back to the premise?). For example, you can put a message on a strip of paper so that it only lines up when it's wrapped around a cylinder of the right size. This is not a great precaution - if the other side knows about it they can just keep trying different size cylinders until they get a match, but if they don't know to do that, it can be a daunting barrier - but it illustrates something. There are actually _three_ things at work here: the message, the key (the cylinder) and the knowledge of how to use the key.[1]

Suddenly, we have three hooks, all without the necessity of some sort of convoluted "You need the sword to kill the dragon, you need the scroll to get the sword" epic fantasy kind of chain. All by itself, that's a win.

There are about a zillion books on the history of ciphers, and any one of them will provide a font of ideas for play. heck, just poke around Wikipedia - start with the Playfair Cipher and just start following links. The big thing you'll find is that most of the cleverest methods aren't technology dependent, which means they're just as useful for your D&D game as they might be for your Leverage game.

1 - Systems like this are actually surprisingly common and are sometimes referred to as "Security through obscurity". If you have all the necessary information, they're trivial to crack, but there may be some barrier to finding the information, especially if it's a needle in a haystack. Consider bible codes: If I send someone a message that is entirely composed of "Page:Line:word" references, that's very easy to crack _if_ you know what book I used and you can get a copy of it. If you don't, then it may well be impossible (even in very modern contexts). This is a great way to make an old book a great adventure hook without making it magical in the least.

As a bonus, this sort of code is great to throw into a modern game as something to stymie supercomputers or hackers, in case these things come up.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hooking Other Players

So, what makes a good hook between players?

Assuming that you want to use connections between players to drive play, then this puts an interesting question to the player: What sort of thing would they like to see happen? Normally, this is something that the GM needs to pick up on and fold into the game, but since we're talking about lateral play, this is an opportunity for the player to think about this a little more concretely. Some players won't like doing that. If so, then just don't sweat it - this is an idea for people who want to try lateral play, not for imposing it on people who don't.

So, the obvious place to start is in the character's background. Odds are good if you're interested in lateral play, you've put some thought into your character, so there should be some material to work with, unless you've made the cardinal mistake of writing a resolved background (that is, a background where all the interesting things have already happened to the character). If you've done that, or if you don't have a lot to work with, then you might need to build some ideas from scratch.

Thankfully, whether your building new ideas or rooting through existing ones, the general model is the same, and based very much on a trick I've talked about. The temptation for lateral play is to create connections between characters, but that solves the wrong problem. You want those connections to be the _result_ of play, not causes. It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but I think it will become clear.

What you want to do is find an external thing (A person, a cause, a location, an idea) that both characters are invested in, then make that the rub of the plot. Seems simple on the surface, but that raises a question: how is that a lateral plot rather than just an external plot with multiple hooks?

The trick is that the characters need to have different kinds of investments in the subject. That is to say, they need to have different relationships with it and (more importantly) different needs from it. Provided that one character has a strong enough need to be a hook, that will draw in the other player as the subject is engaged.

To do this well, I'd usually suggest that one player have a passive, positive relationship with the subject (that is, be happy enough with the status quo to not be looking for a change) and one have some element of tension (that is, there is something they want or need). I would suggest against making that want or need something that harms the subject (unless you're really comfortable with direct player conflict) but rather make them want or need something that is, in turn, a step removed from the subject. As such, the active player wants something of (or from) the subject, but isn't necessarily threatening the subject itself.

This is easy enough when talking about concrete subjects (Ser Reginald is Orlando's old duelling instructor, and they chat at times. Davis needs Ser Reginald's approval to marry his daughter. Bam, instant lateral hook) but you need to be a bit more creative (or more straightforward) when the subject is more abstract. A simple example might be: Tom is an expert[1] on Valisian artifacts, Anne needs to get past a Valisian Guardian statue to get a widget. A more complex one might be Tom's family made it's money in the slave trade. Anne needs to find someone who might have been sold into slavery.

In each of these cases, the trick is that the active player (the one who wants something) is in a very normal play position - they want something and need to take action to get it - but the difference is that rather than the GM introducing NPCs or resources that could help, the GM stays clear. The tools needed can be found in another party member, and it's up to the players to find their way to that.

It's not a foolproof model. There's always a risk that some ideas will get dropped on the floor, or go in unexpected directions. But it's a simple enough structure that it shouldn't be hard to rope in players willing to give it a shot.

[back] 1 - Expertise is an interesting point. One other way to create a lateral hook is to have player A need expertise player B has to solve problem C. This can work very well, but it's not well-supported by some systems. In the absence of some real mechanical hook for expertise, this can be an unconvincing hook, so I mention it as useful in specific cases, but not in general.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Gamer's Choice

I'm on my second playthrough of Dragon Age 2, and I'm trying to make it end differently than it did my first time, because while I "won" the game, I was unhappy with many of the events surrounding the endgame, and I have a very strong sense that at least some of it is a result of choices made along the way. There's a huge, spoiler-laden post coming as a result of this when I finish (whether I succeed or not, because the experience has been fascinating to me) but one curious thing struck me last night while playing.

One advantage of forcing conversations down trees in a video game is that it can force the player to make a choice. There are only so many options, and the game doesn't proceed unless you pick one. This can be heavy handed or annoying, but if well constructed, it can work pretty well. The problem, of course, is that this doesn't really work on the tabletop. You can't narrow down choices that way, so the idea doesn't really transfer.

Or does it?

Bioware did a very good job of constructing their menus, and they did something that was sufficiently subtle that I missed it the first time through. In almost every situation where they offer a hard choice (such as supporting one person over another), they almost always offer the Gamer's Option, which is the non-answer that avoids locking you down and leaves you with the maximum range of options available. In a classic play sense, this is the "smart" choice, because by the logic of gameplay (as opposed to the logic of the game) it is most likely to optimize your outcome.

There's a less subtle version of this that's common in RPGs that is often shorthanded as "always choose 1", in large part because of how Bioware has constructed these conversation trees in older games. Option 1 is usually the nice or good option, and you can usually successfully make it all the way through a game by rarely choosing anything else. It's pretty clear in play that DA2 subverts that - all good choices all the time has consequences too, some of them quite bad - but what was less clear to me is that they also seem to have subverted the gamer's choice. The optimal-seeming, low pain, don't offend anyone path may be there, but it is not necessarily the path to victory. On this playthrough, I'm taking more risks and choosing more sides, and I've been seeing good results.

I'm hopeful that it may pay off in the end. Maybe it won't, though kudos to Bioware for making me try. However it goes, I'm taking this lesson to heart.

In my experience at least, the problem with presenting players with choices has never been the lack of an explicit conversation tree. I don't want that kind of ham-fisted force. For me, the question is usually what to do if they don't engage. The instinct is to push the choice harder and harder, but that's counterproductive.

If you value hard choices at the tabletop, then it's worth explicitly planning for "none of the above." Give it meaning, but allow things to proceed if players choose that course. The goal is to move away from pushing the choice hard and creating a "You didn't choose and I will punish you!" response in favor of a "failing to step up does not go unnoticed, and your protections as a protagonist don't mean that because you don't choose, nothing happens" sort of approach. Just as it's important to put effort into offering good, meaningful choices, it's worth taking some time to give them good, meaningful context, so that a non-choice carries weight too.

Remember that a choice is also an opportunity. Maybe an opportunity for something good, maybe an opportunity to prevent something worse. Either way, forgoing the choice is also forgoing the opportunity.

A GM can absolutely use this as a carrot or a stick in her game, but I think it's more important to use it as an element of setting continuity. The choice comes and goes, and things happen as a result of it - what those things are should be impacted by the choice (or lack thereof), but whatever the choice, things will happen.

With this in mind, it's worth making sure there's some pressure driving the choice (or non-choice). With a few exceptions, leaving choices available indefinitely to players is a pretty boring path, since the absence of pressure removes any need to do anything but push the decision off as long as possible until it is either irrelevant, or a truly optimal route is discovered.

This, by the way, is something you can do at the tabletop much more effectively than video games. The nature of electronic play means that it's often easy to put off choices for a long time while you run around and do sidequests, unlock secrets and whatnot. You have many more tools available for pressure and consequence, and it would be a shame not to use them.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

One Night In Starkhaven

We had a guest in town last night, so rather than run the Cold War game (which had no good insertion point for an NPC and was, more importantly, not necessarily up the guest's alley) I opted to run another game on pretty short notice. Leverage would have been the obvious choice, but I was feeling a little contrary and knowing what the new player liked, I opted for some Dragon Age.

I've written a lot about Dragon Age in the past and in general, my opinion did not change. It is by and large a fantastic, fun, lightweight and speedy engine with a few bugs that annoy me, and in final reckoning, the parts I love FAR outweigh the parts I don't.

That said, MAN I want to hack this game. I keep resisting because I want to give Green Ronin a chance to finish first, because they will clearly do awesome things, but it gets harder every time I dust it off. I'm pretty confident in my faith in GR, reinforced by my use of some of the Beta material for the next set. Of our four characters, two of them used new backgrounds (Duster Dwarf and Orlesian Exile) and having those options really opened things up some. Yest I also had to do little tweaks along the way, like any time someone's background rolls suggested they learn Heraldry, I so very much allowed a reroll. I like some weirdness in random distribution, but "I got +1 Cunning!" "I got Heraldry!" is not a comparison I like imposing on my players.

I also did the "fair" randomization approach for stats. Rather than rolling a bunch of 3d6 stats, I had everyone roll a fistfull of d8s. The # of 1's was your communication, the # of 8's was your willpower and so on. It meant everyone had positive stats, but it also put people on roughly equal footing and while still imposing some randomness. Definitely produced some interesting results (our Orlesian Exile had huge strength and communication, but no Dexterity). However, it reminded me that the stats are a little wonky.

Specifically, Magic (and to a lesser extent, Willpower) are kind of dump stats unless you're a mage. That kind of hurts in a random distribution system, so I'd be tempted to change up the dice next time to either d6 for non-mages, or d8's but make "magic" results into wildcard results, so you can put that point anywhere.

(Alternately, you can allow players to add magic to their spell resistance rolls, which is what I did, or would have done if the one mage they encountered had not gotten chewed to bits before she could do much than summon help).

Anyway, the big success is that mys wife (who played a mage, and upheld my experience that every mage who gets a choice learns Walking Bomb) was ok with the system. Her crunch tolerance is not very high (4e gives her hives) so any system she actually enjoys playing is worth making a note of. I'm looking forward to getting back to the Cold War game, but this was an enjoyable enough distraction that I definitely wan to take it for a spin again.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pulling Teeth

More on lateral connections is coming, but I got sidetracked by a thought this weekend. Someone on twitter was talking about bringing "Roleplay" oriented mechanics, like Aspects, into 4e, but was worried that getting his players to RP would be like pulling teeth. I sympathize with this a great deal, so I just wanted to throw out a few observations about systems out there and what purposes they serve, in hopes of finding a toolset that might appeal to recalcitrant players.

First and foremost, if you're going to do anything like this in 4e, you need to retool action points. As they currently exist, the limits on spending them make them poor rewards, so you want something that makes them easier to use more often. There are lots of cool ideas for this, but I favor using the model introduced in 3.x Eberron - each AP is a 1d6 that you can add to any roll after the fact. You can limit it to attack and skill rolls, or you can expand it to things like damage and saves - totally a function of taste. The only real limiter I would suggest is that they be a one shot thing - you can't keep spending them 1 at a time until you succeed. Just spend however many as you like, roll them, and move forward (and if you really want, put a cap of, say, 5 rolled at once).

Making a change like that make it much easier to hand out AP rewards for whatever you want more of in your game. In this conversation it's broadly "roleplaying" but it could be different or more specific. If you want to reward playing to alignment or engaging NPCs or even just following the plot, then you can do that. Just try to have a clear sense of what you're rewarding.

(Plus, as a bonus, you can get some cool colored d6's and physically hand them out as the action points, rather than using chips or tokens.)

Anyway, given that, I would strongly suggest against using Aspects in straight 4e, if only because they can cause too much whiplash. Invocations aren't the problem, but compels can be a sticky wicket, especially since they can seem to be a tool for GM fiat or bullying. Some groups take to the idea easily, but don't rely on that, since it's very much a taste thing. You're much better off with a less fuzzy mechanic.

This is one of the smart things about Leverage's distinctions. For the unfamiliar, they either grant a d8 bonus or a d4 penalty and grant a plot point, which is structurally aspect-like. The big difference is that it is totally up to the player whether something helps or hurts. The GM might quibble about whether it applies (usually resolved by the player incorporating it into his narration more fully) but the player is choosing to take the penalty himself.

This is hard to map directly onto 4e as there's no good standard model for penalties, but it's still useful as an illustration - things that players might be uncomfortable with the GM imposing on them, they are often more than willing to do themselves if you give them the chance. To this end, it's not unreasonable to put out _offers_ of plot points in return for bad or dramatic choices, nor is it unreasonable to reward players with PP when they do awesome things, but they will balk if you start telling them what they MUST do.

That said, some players still aren't happy with the GM having his power, and one other option is to move the reward mechanism to the table at large. The most common model of this is "Fan Mail" (from Primetime Adventures) , where players give points to each other when they do awesome things. Generally, this requires some sort of method to keep the points straight, such as giving each player a budget, or putting a common bowl in the center and letting people pay out of that. That may sound simple on the surface of it, but since we're assuming worst case here, you want to have some reason why players wouldn't just optimally distribute points to each other (even though that's pretty lame). One option, for example, is to have them grant them out of a common bowl, which the GM replenishes occasionally, with replenishment based on how many points remain, or how the points were distributed. In this case, you're trying to incentivise using the points as intended, but if your players REALLY won't, then you're better off falling back on a simple reward model.

Alternately, you could use the trick that Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies uses. Players start the game with a small number of points, which they can use for bonuses, or they can give to other players when the other player does something awesome. If the GM agrees it was awesome (which he usually does) then the GM can match that gifted point with one of his own. That is the only way new point get added to the economy, so it creates a curious situation where generosity is the best way to reward the group.

Anyway, my general advice would be this: Get players used to the idea of d6 action points as rewards before you do anything weird with them. Give them out as reward for skill challenges or cool scenes. Get the idea that they're rewards into people's heads. Once you've done that, start being more explicit about what they're rewards for. Tie them to specific things, like milestones or quests, but also give them out when a player makes the table laugh, or does something awesome. If they get comfortable with this, then things like fanmail or specific incentives using action points as rewards will not be much of a stretch. If they stay uncomfortable with this, then you know it's not for your group. If they call it metagaming, then they need to spend less time on the Internet.

But the bottom line is that introducing in-game rewards (mechanical bonuses) for roleplay is, for many players, a non-intuitive leap. They're different things, and the difference can be jarring. Far better to ease them into it and see if it works than it is to just throw them into the deep end and hope they swim.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What Not to Write

Thinking about other characters and how they can drive play lead me back to a thought that lives in the same orbit as the thinking in my Getting Villainy Done post. The hang up I’ve been running into is this: games are full of things that are _interesting_, but just because something is interesting as a fact does not automatically make it interesting to *play*.

If you look at a random setting, it is probably chock full of color, and much of it will be compelling and, as a reader, really help you bring things to life. Griffon-riding mailmen! Elemental Zeppelins! Randian Cults! Whatever they may be, most of this information will be presented in a way that makes an interesting read, but very rarely in a way that directly suggests _play_.

This is, I think, by and large unintentional, or perhaps to put it another way, well-intentioned. The idea is that if the written material is reasonably comprehensive, then the GM is capable of extrapolating interesting adventure hooks from it. Cynically, this also allows for material to cater to more tastes, as a certain category of buyers doesn’t want adventure hooks, since those go outside the bounds of “How the world works”, which is what really drives their need.

The problem with this approach is simply that it allows for unhelpful writing. I won’t call it lazy, because I know it’s not - these writers bust hump to make things interesting and fun to read. But if the author doesn’t need to think about how the setting material’s going to be used, then she may not, and the net result is really interesting color that does little to nothing to drive play.

This problem becomes more profound when you start talking about lateral play. Players who write back stories have even less interest in playable information than setting designers. They often have deep piles of self-reflective information or arbitrary (and usually lame) SEKRITS that they absolutely won’t tell any other player about.

That’s not a terrible problem in its own right. Lord knows that’s how it’s always been. But this becomes a more pressing issue when you start thinking in terms of what playable information characters are going to have in their background. That is to say, players are well served by mastering playable information too, if only to help come up with character backgrounds that will actually engage other players, rather than be just another failed special snowflake.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lateral Connections

One thing that has really been sticking with me about Dragon Age 2 has been (as is so often the case with Bioware titles) the relationships and personalities of your companions. Certainly, the arc of your hero is interesting, but it is the people around you that make it feel personal and compelling. DA2 does well enough in this that a few of your companions feel like they could be heroes (well, protagonists) of their own stories, yet this does not diminish your story in the least. Of course, the conceit that your story is being told by one of them does not hurt this perception.

Translating this to the tabletop is an interesting challenge for unexpected reasons. Certainly, there are lots of ways for a GM to make NPCs more compelling, and I’m all for those, but I don’t think they apply. It is far more apt to consider the other characters to be comparable to the other characters played by your fellow players.

Through that lens, the challenge is obvious: How can you create and encourage that kind of lateral play?

For all the reams of advice about players dealing with GMs and GMs dealing with players, there’s precious little about how to drive play between players. I suspect a lot of that is a result of game books being primarily written for GMs, and thus assuming the GM-Player dynamic out of habit. A few games address this, at least indirectly. One of the most subtle and brilliant rules in The Shadow of Yesterday is that you refresh your pools with certain types of actions, but those actions MUST be social in nature. Since everyone has the same pools, there’s a mechanical incentive to go do player-initiated stuff together.

Smallville deserves mention in this regard because I cannot think of another game where lateral connections are so essential. Relationships with other characters are an essential part of your character sheet. This is mighty stuff, but in some ways its _more_ of a solution than I’m looking for. I don’t want things to be quite that explicit, but at the same time I want character issues to be drivers of play with each other, at least occasionally.

Specifically, I love the idea that character A's issue creates play for Character B (and perhaps the whole group) rather than just being something that Character A deals with. Maybe this demands that issues come with an explicit "and here's the reason I can't deal with it myself". That's a good start, but I might go even further and find a way for character B to pursue the issue because it indirectly creates a problem for character A, if only because character B is distracted. Hard to do persuasively, though.

I am not entirely sure if this is possible, but it’s a problem I’m chewing on right now, and if nothing else, it’s producing some interesting flavors.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Origins Awards

I haven't seen any official announcement yet (EDIT: List is here), but scuttlebutt on twitter has the Origins Awards nominees up.

For best game:
DC Adventures
Dragon Age
Dresden Files
Gamma World

Best Supplement:
Song of Ice & Fire Campaign Guide (SIFRP)
Our World (Dresden Files)
Advanced Player's Guide (Pathfinder)
Sixth World Almanac (Shadowrun)
Sunward (Eclipse Phase)

There are other categories, but I don't yet know how they've shaken out.

Obviously, I'm blown away that Dresden made both lists, and given the quality of games this year (including the many fantastic games that didn't make the final list) I am happy to embrace the cliche and just be happy to be nominated. I could happily lose to anything else on either list.

Interesting also to see the clustering. This is a good year for Catalyst and Green Ronin (and deservedly so), but very weird that between them an Evil Hat, that's 7 of the 10 slots, with the three "outliers" being WOTC, Paizo and Bully Pulpit (not a grouping I would have imagined). I wouldn't read too much into it though - there were enough good things this past year that it would be hard to limit either list to 10, much less 5.

ANOTHER EDIT: I somewhat boneheadedly forgot that Sunward was a Posthuman Studios, not Catalyst, for reasons that are a story of their own. So, that undercuts my point, but in a fuzzy enough way that I am either Internet Right or Internet Wrong, depending how you look at it. But apologies all the same.

I am, I admit, a little sad Leverage didn't make the list, even if it would have lead to a fistfight with myself. Realistically, if one Cortex Plus game were to make the cut, it would probably be Smallville, and I'd be good with that too. Again, I'm pretty sure Cortex Plus merited a top 10 slot on many lists, but there's no shame in getting bumped out of it by that particular top 5. Or so I keep telling myself.

Anway, I know there are reasons to be cynical about any awards in the RPG industry, but all the same, I watch these lists with great enthusiasm and curiosity. I take pride when I see my stuff on them, and I feel a little kick when I don't. It's not rational, but some part of me just loves these lists and awards, and I don't think I'm the only one. So long as we keep getting that little buzz, the awards aren't going anywhere.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Some Random Cortex Hacks

I've been randomly hacking things in my head for Cortex plus and it's produced a few usable widgets that I figured I'd share.

Cracking Dice
- This is a pretty simple concept, but it struck me as something that might streamline any dice distribution system, especially in the case of something open ended, like super powers. The idea is simple: any die may be "cracked" into two dice of on step lower, so a D12 might become 2d10, which in turn might become 1d10 and 2d8, or 1d10, 1d8 and 2d6. It's a good way to get width out of height.

Now, applying this mechanically has a few possibilities. I wouldn't suggest applying it to actual rolls, though I suppose you could do it. What I was specifically thinking was that you could just hand someone a d12 and let them use that "budget" to buy powers. If they just want Invulnerability d12" then that's fine, or they could crack it and get "Superstrength d10, Invulnerability d10" and so on (Obviously, this implies an entire powers system but that's another discussion.) It could even support the spontaneous purchase of new powers if deemed necessary, by cracking dice in play.

Five Step - So, the simple fact is that Cortex plus maps very tidily to a 5 step system (d4/d6/d8/d10/d12 and 1,2,3,4 and 5 respectively). This is noteworthy because there area lot of five step systems out there, most notably the various World of Darkness games. Certainly there would need to be a little tweaking on the powers (# of successes could be calculated by the number of winning sets you can built, frex) but I'd be really curious to see about running something like Mage as a straight up conversion (well, maybe not Mage. Dave Chalker already has a fantastic Mage hack for leverage. But you get the idea).

Best Friends - Carl Rigney had the most brilliant idea which I am taking and runningn with. Basically, you can take the Best Friends character creation system and apply it to Cortex+.

For the unfamiliar, best Friends has a wonderful chargen mechanic based around a core set of stats like strong, tough, smart and so on. The list isn't important, and I change it to suit. What's important is that in chargen you go through the list of stats and say who you hate because they'r better than you. That is, you have a list like "I hate Lisa because she's stronger than me. I hate Tina because she's richer than me" and so on. Everyone's stat is the number of people who hate them.

As noted previously, it's easy to turn small number numerical steps into dice, so that Cortex+ conversion is easy. But what intrigues me most is that _other_ thing I like to hybridize with Best Friends: Amber. It calls for a slight change in stats (Including "Because dad likes him better") but that's easy. But better yet, If you do this for the core stats and something else for the roles, then stats can be done _secretly_ and kept obscured. That is to say, Players write down their hates in secret, and the GM uses that to hand out stats. No one knows who is really the best, and Cortex+ very naturally supports "faking down" your high stats if you want to - just use a smaller die. Simple as that.

Anyway, this is what rattles in my head when I don't have a good audiobook. Figured I'd share.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Taste of Gaming

This weekend was A Taste Of Leverage at Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC, and it was pretty awesome.

Labyrinth regularly runs "Taste of..." events where they dedicate an afternoon to running several tables of the game in question. They recently did Fiasco, for example, and in the near future will be doing the Founding Fathers boardgame (May first) and Savage Worlds (May 21st). For Leverage, there were four tables running, each with 4-5 players and a GM, running a game over the course of 3 or four hours. I was envious of the tables I wasn't at, since each of them sounded great, including the Pigskin Job (where I'm pretty sure the team stole the Redskins-with-serial-numbers-filed-off), the Tween Dream Job (which is what it sounds like, except withthe extra villainy of dog fighting) and a job who's name I never caught revolving around evil pharmaceuticals, a cruise ship and, by my understanding, no small amount of Halo.

As is my wont, I went in pretty much unprepared and we generated a scenario from scratch at the table. It ended up being a tricky one because the mark had a tricky strength - attractiveness. Wasn't 100% sure how to use that, especially with a team that was basically Charlie's Angels (Three Hot Chick badasses, a Grifter face man and an enigmatic Hacker who didn't like to show his face in public), until we got a nice dovetail between the twist (it's personal) and the background detail that one of the team members was a single mom. Turns out the mark had basically taken all the money from the day care that served as the after-school program for her kid, which lead to her needing to take him to the "office". After two days of his enthusiastic interest, the team decided that this job should move to the top of the list, and thus, The Latchkey Kid Job wads born (though by the end, the alternate title was probably "The El Gigante Action Hour Job").

The mark, a soap opera star, had used the money (plus a loan from the mob) to fund a new project which he would write, direct, executive produce and, of course, star in. The job ended up revolving around filming different scripts, convincing the mark that the show was going to be a loss and the real money was in his clothing line (which had some enthusiastic buyers, strange that) and getting him and the mob to sign off rights to the show while also stealing the Mark's secret reserve of cash. There was also a mexican wrestler (Luchador d12!), a team member with a fake leg, an L.A. Douchebag disguise, a fight scene on a sound stage, scriptwriting collaboration between the hacker and the twelve year old and the quick application of an allergen to keep the mark from playing through the love scene with one of the team members that he'd hastily written into the script the night before.

It was insane, and I loved it. I think everyone had fun too.

I did up handouts and cheatsheets beforehand, but as I did them very hastily, they're error-ridden, and I need to clean them up to re-post them. I also didn't hand out as many plot points as I should have (I often forget to do so when players roll 1's) so i did a cheat at the end that basically gave them the benefits of a coordinating flashback without needing to pay for it. It also reinforced my fondness for making Fixer created assets free for d6. And speaking of assets, it was wonderful when we reached the point where the table realized all the assets in play could potentially be leveraged. They totally took that ball and ran with it.

First experiment in emphasizing the mastermind's out-of-crime specialty was a bit bumpy. "The Captain" was ex military, and while that was a great mastermind model, it was a little bit of a mismatch with t he job the dice created. The player did a great job with it, and I think the idea is still a solid one, just trickier in a one-shot with an improv'd scenario.

I am also started to get tempted to just give all Masterminds the Archangel talent for free. It let's the team spend points on each others, which benefits everyone, without much special coolness for the Mastermind. Just a random thought.

Anyway, it was a fantastic time, and i want to give a special thank you to Labyrinth Games. For those unfamiliar with the DC area, it has a serious shortage of game stores. Since the Game Keeper chain shut down, there hasn't been a game store in DC proper - everything is out in the suburbs - so when Labyrinth opened up in DC and just off the Metro, I was excited but wary. It's not hard for a game store to be enthusiastic, well intentioned and totally suck. Thankfully, I had nothing to fear.

Labyrinth is a genuinely lovely store, clean and well lit with an array of lovely wooden puzzles and games up near the front, and a deep selection as you go towards the back. It is definitely more of a boardgame than RPG shop, but the RPG selection is diverse and thoughtfully selected, which counts for a lot. The boardgame selection is fantastic, and the staff is friendly, enthusiastic. It's basically the antithesis of every bad stereotype of a game store. I ended up leaving with one game I knew about, one I'd never heard of, and a carved wooden puzzle box for my wife. I hadn't _planned_ on picking anything up, I just couldn't help myself.

What's more, it's also in one of the neat areas of DC, between the Eastern Market Metro and capitol hill. Lots of other neat shops and excellent food. As the weather gets nicer, if you find yourself considering a trip into town, it's totally worth stopping by Labyrinth.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Action vs. Adventure

I realized yesterday that my genre expectations for 4e have been skewed. I think of it (and most RPGs) as being adventures, but I think it might be more accurate to describe 4e as part of the related-but-different action genre.

What's the difference? Speaking in terms of films, think about adventure movies vs. action movies. In an adventure movie, the hero or heroes are taken out of their usual context, face an array of challenges. While many of the challenges may be dangerous, they are not necessarily fights. Eventually the hero finishes the job and returns home (or to his original context). Essential in this is the idea that the hero's non-adventure existence is important to him. Indiana Jones teaches. Jack Burton drives a truck.

On the other hand, the action hero gets into a dangerous situation because that's who they are - the guy who gets into danger. He might have the trappings of some other life, but usually that life is an avenue to action (soldier, cop, dangerous courier) or a forgettable fa├žade (like whatever Schwarzenegger does for a living in his flicks). At best, it provides an excuse to put the character in the situation required by the story. The character will then overcome successive challenges with escalating violence. There will be elements external to the violence, but mostly they're just there to move things on to the next fight.

Now, the lines here aren't clean cut. Die Hard, for example, has elements of both, and most exciting moves pull a little bit from column A and a little bit from Column B. What's more, the genre is not a measure of quality. Action may have interchangeable Van Damme flicks, but it also has Jackie Chan. Raiders might be an adventure film, but so are the vast array of direct-to-video Rutger Hauer masterpieces. They can be done badly or well, just as in the case of a game.

4e is designed for action. It's characters are primarily defined by their relationship to action, and elements external to that are very thin at best. Their arc is one of progressive violence, and the mechanics of the game steer things that way. This is perhaps best exemplified by the primacy of fights and the shaky footing of skill challenges.

But so what?

It would be easy to stop here as some sort of sneering dismissal of 4e, but that would be a waste of effort. The important thing to me is that in understanding what 4e is skewed towards, it makes it easier to tweak it. It means that if I want to play is straight up, I might get a more satisfying experience if I am in the mental space where I recognize that these characters would be played by Jason Statham or Milla. That is to say, I would be well served proceeding under the assumption that they are not adventurers, but rather, awesome badasses.

On the flipside, if I feel that I want something other than the action movie formula, I can do it with an understanding of _why_ it is that anemic skill challenges and boring skills feel like they're not working. Knowing why they don't work (because they're designed for action, not adventure) is incredibly useful if I want to change them since I can do so with better understanding of what I'm trying to accomplish.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

1, 2, 3, What Are We Fighting For?

There's a big question, in games and fiction, of how to include fight scenes that matter. If you go to a movie which has lots of cool fight scenes but no real reason for them to be there, or no real stakes on the line, then it's ultimately going to be a flat experience. It might make a great music video, but that's something else entirely. Logic suggests that the same thing should be true of games, but experience suggests otherwise. We have LOTS of fights, often purely for their own sake.

There are a few practical reasons for this. Certainly, most games strive to make fights fun, so theirs some intrinsic reward, but classically, there's another reason. See, in a movie, the stakes need to come from the story because we are bound by the strictures of storytelling. That is, if the hero is fighting a bad guy halfway through the movie, then the stakes need to be something other than "Will the hero survive?" because of course he will. He's still got another hour of movie ahead of him.

A lot of the foundational games in the hobby didn't _need_ to create stakes out of the narrative because death was an option. Lacking the movie star's immunity to death, the consequences of defeat were enough to make every fight meaningful. In that context, the fact that the fights were arbitrary and gygaxian wasn't really a bad thing. A coherent narrative _improved_ things, but it wasn't necessary to create a sense of investment. That investment was already there.

The problem is, of course, that character death creates other problems beyond the immediate emotional impact. It often leaves a player at loose ends while his friends continue to play, especially if generating a new character is cumbersome or punitive (and, arguably, those out-of-character consequences and difficulties increased the emotional punch of death). To minimize this, a lot of games started moving death from its central position, sometimes removing it entirely.

Doing so created a problem. Without the implicit stakes of death, there needed to be other stakes to keep players invested in outcomes. Some games never addressed this, and as a result produced fairly limp experiences. Other games started taking their examples from fiction. The logic was that if characters in a game have some of the same protections as those in a story, then investment in play can be created the same way it is in stories - compelling narrative, explicit stakes, exciting color and so on. Done right, that's pretty cool.

But it's not necessarily the only solution. The new Gamma World is chock full of death, but at the same time, death has very little friction because creating and introducing a new character is both fast and fun. There are probably other solutions too, but my point is that these are all different points on the same twisty path - they're not exclusive. If I were to go back to running Rolemaster tomorrow (because, man, it's deathy death death), I would not need to discard the lessons from less lethal games.

Ideally, I'd be able to combine them. I could have fights that are viscerally compelling because death is on the line, but which are dramatically compelling because the stakes are high. Obviously, that has always been the goal, but so many games have created so many tools for doing one or the other, what happens when we start doing both?

I'm afraid to find out. But also profoundly curious.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Getting Villainy Done

So, I'm a (slightly lax) practitioner of David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, which is a fancy way to say that I use a certain set of tricks for keeping useful to do lists. GTD has been incredibly useful for me in a number of ways. I've mentioned before how well it applies to player actions, and recently I've been thinking about how one lesson in particular translates very well into adventure design.

See, the trick I learned from GTD, and which is good all around advice, is that when you put an item on your todo list, it should be a physical action, not just an idea. Too often, people write down something general like "Set up New Desk" and it sits idle because they haven't thought about the actual actions they need to take, which might be "Clear off the current desk, haul away current desk, bring new desk to office, bring tools to office, assemble new desk". Each of those actions is something that can be envisioned, accomplished and checked off, and if you have a concrete list like that, you're much more likely to actually do something rather than put it off.

As useful as this idea is for getting chores done, it's even more useful for villainy. Just as physical actions can bridge the gap between needing to do something and actually doing it, they can bridge the gap between a villains abstract goals and motives and actual play. Which is to say, take a few minutes to look at your villain's (or other prominent NPC's) to do list. After all, every good NPC has some sort of goal they need to accomplish, and that should always demand some sort of action.

For example, let's say we have a small crime boss in the city of our game. We'll call him Mart, and he's looking to expand his holdings. That's a great one sentence blurb, comparable to what you'd see in a published product, and it makes a good seed. To create some play from it, let's drill down a little bit. He can't get up in the morning and just expand his holdings - he needs to do things to do so - so what can he do? Well, he'll need more men, more territory, or more business. So let's make that his todo list:
  • Get more men
  • Get more territory
  • Get more business
So, we've gone from a goal to a broad list (in GTD terms, these would be projects) , but now we need to break it down into actions, and in doing so, we'll see these are more complicated than it seems. Again, let's pick one: Getting more men.

Getting more men is not just a function of putting up flyers for thugs. Men need to come from somewhere, and they need a reason to work for him. He needs to find a source of men and get the resources to bring them on board. Now, if this were a real-life project, we'd have steps for gathering information and analyzing options, but in fiction, we can skip that (I say this casually, but it's a very powerful and creative capability). Let's say, for example, Mart sees three opportunities. First, recent bad weather has left a lot of out-of-work sailors. Second, it's always good to recruit early from neighborhood kids. Last, there are always mercenaries available in a pinch. Mercenaries are easy, and kids are complicated, so let's use the sailors to illustrate further.

The sailors are a good starting point, but he can't just walk into a bar and ask the room "Any out of work sailors want to do some crime?" I mean, he could, but it's not a good strategy. He could put up a posting, which might get some (if they can read) but it might get too many, too few, or unpredictable quality. Plus, it is fairly public, which may be problematic. A better plan might be to make contact with a reliable agent and use them as a go between to bring on the sailors to…what?

Here we hit the rub, and the benefit of the system. He's not just hiring sailors to hire sailors. He's hiring them for a purpose, to expand his holdings. He needs a plan of action for them. So, these are sailors, not necessarily reliable, but available. Maybe he gives them a little extra coin for drink to go to a bar outside his territory he want s to annex and be on hand when he sets up a dice game and basically lays claim. That's a plan. So, his task list looks like:
  • Speak to bartender in the docks to identify a smart, hireable sailors.
  • Interview said sailor.
  • Offer him employment.
  • Get said sailor to spread around drinking money with strings attached.
  • After sailors gather, start dice game.
  • When confronted, escalate to violence.
  • In conflict, overwhelm opposition with superior reinforcements (sailors).

All very tidy, but the trick of it is that each of those steps is concrete enough that it can either be a hook or a problem. A specific action might impact players (forcing reaction) or it might go wrong (forcing the NPC to improvise and call in help, which is to say, the PCs) . Finding the hooks is a simple matter of running through the list and asking
  1. How might this impact PCs if this happens to them or someone they know?
  2. What happens if the PCs find out about it?
  3. How can this go wrong?

Looking over that list and Mart's list, my two guy with swords might
  • Overhear the conversation, find out about the plan, and...
    ...realize a fight would be a great time to rob the dice game.
    ...realize they could make money selling out this plan to the competitor
    ...beat up the trustworthy sailor and take the money
  • Get approached by Mart after the trustworthy sailor runs off with the money
  • Get brought in by the tavern owner, afraid someone's going to muscle in on his territory
  • Get drawn into the fight as it breaks out around or near them

And that's just off the top of my head.

Anyway, what's important is that all of this built from a sentence: Mart is a criminal who wants to expand his holdings. Published material is full of similar information, but it often lacks guidelines for moving from those motives into things that generate play (unless the motives directly apply to the PCs to begin with). Going to specific actions is a great tool for bridging that gap, and it's a fun one. Remember, there's no need to do this with EVERY element in a game. Doing so would be way too much to keep track of. Instead, it's just a tool to go from "huh, I'd like to use this NPC" to "I have a plot involving this NPC" in a very natural feeling way.

One other thing: I realize that for some people, thinking about NPCs in this fashion gives them too much agency. Some feel that NPCs should only have an existence in the context of the PCs, and that this sort of thinking is inappropriate. To that, I suggest that this idea is not contradictory to that, it is merely tangential to it. The ultimate purpose here is to inspire intersections with your players that feel dynamic and like they're a natural extension of play. Whether or not this exercise produces any "offscreen" impact is totally a matter of GM taste.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Challenge is Challenge

I used to run out of inventory space on my D&D character sheets. I was utterly fascinated with packing just the right tool for every sort of situation, and I spent an unreasonable amount of time figuring out the lightest, most useful kit I could pack. As a player, it's a lot of fun to come into a situation and have just the right tool to short-circuit the challenge and move on (especially because the challenge is almost certainly unfair in a substantial and gygaxian way). There's sort of a double satisfaction to this because, outside of fiction, it's what good problem solving looks like: finding the easiest, most effective solution with the tools on hand.

Unfortunately, that can make for a very boring game (and a frustrated GM).

A lot of adventure design gets committed to keeping things from being simple. The logic behind this is reasonable enough: simple challenges are quickly resolved with little sense of risk or engagement, and that is a recipe for boring play. Unfortunately, the obvious solution (making things arbitrarily more challenging) is workable but ultimately counterproductive.

To illustrate this, consider a dungeon. There might be some reason to go into the dungeon (rescue the hostage, let's say), but how many of the challenges you're going to run into have any bearing on that? In some adventures, they might all be, but I think we all have experience with the adventure where there's a mandatory quota of fight scenes with random-seeming monsters. Those encounters "flesh out" the adventure and keep it from being too simple.

But that's sloppy design. It's LAZY. Look at it this way: if I have a bunch of cultists take a prisoner, there are lots of ways I can make the adventure more challenging. I can include an important NPC among the cultists backers, meaning I may face legal barriers keeping me from pursuing the cultists. I may face hard choices in terms of the price of stopping them. Maybe the cultists are not so morally black as I think, calling into question the righteousness of violence as a solution. I can introduce a second challenge (Burn Notice Style) and make the real difficulty in juggling both concerns.

Or I can just add a few more monsters/fight scenes.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love good fight scenes. If I want to add more of them, there are plenty of ways to do it that make more sense then "And behind this door lives a shambling mound!" Similarly, I'm sympathetic that for any published adventure, the lack of hooks into the specifics of the campaign being played limits options, but I must add that it doesn't remove them entirely. There are too many examples of good adventures to pretend it can't be done.

The specific solutions for this are going to depend a lot on your game, but the question it raises is always going to be the same. When looking at a challenge you're going to throw at your players, ask yourself how it's going to make the game better as well as harder. There are lots of good answers, including "It will be an awesomely fun fight", "I need to give this player some spotlight time" or even "Holy god, I need to fill an hour - Fight time!". Just make sure you have an answer.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Comics and Me

Comics are making me crazy. I've been trying to use the ipad to read them because, from a purely technical perspective it's a fantastic tool for it. The screen is big and readable, and the form factor makes it easy to flip through.

Unfortunately, the actual experience is lagging behind the technology something fierce. In an ideal world, I figure i could hear about something cool in comics (like a recent Walking Eye podcast made me curious about the current run of Detective Comics) and I could, y'know, go _buy_ it. But apparently, that's crazy talk. If I buy the right app (of the half dozen or so out there) then I can buy some old issues of DC, without any reference information regarding things like when they came out or where they stand in the grand scheme of things (since God Knows you can't have a big DC or Marvel title without it being tied into fourteen crossovers a year).

Crazier still, some titles stay at least semi current, others just have random gaps, and there's absolutely no logic to it. I've had better luck with smaller companies. If nothing else, the ipad has been great for getting my Ed Brubaker fix on, since it allowed me to get Criminal, both runs of Sleeper and the First Incognito run in big chunks. Similarly, despite the fact that I've grown a little middling on the BOOM! titles I follow (Irredeemable & Incorruptible), I remain hooked because they at least show up for purchase at regular intervals.

This should be a fantastic chance for the smaller publishers. The utterly ham fisted way that the bigger companies are handling the ipad market seems to scream opportunity, and I had an opportunity to look into it when a comic I had been waiting for came out, Old Soldiers, from Big House comics. (This is the one with the ARG I talked about a while back).

As it's published by a small label, I ended up having to hunt down yet another piece of comic viewing software, Cloud 9 Comics. In some ways, it's even worse than Comixology's Comics, but that's really a turtle's footrace of a comparison. Short form: despite the software, I got my hands on the comic.

Was worth it, though. Old Soldiers #1 is one of those multi-threaded stories where you open up getting a view into several different windows at once with only some of the information necessary to thread it together. It's a tricky schtick to pull off, but Stone (the creator) does an admirable job of keeping things grounded. There are hints at the edges of some weirdness afoot, but the only weirdness we actually see (one character having a dream) is well within the pale of the explicable. Doing so eludes the trap of leaning on Lost-style crutches out the gate.

It's not flawless. There's a lettering trick used to close/transition some conversations at the bottom of the page that's easy to miss, and there are small concerns, like some of the names being a little on the nose, but the biggest problem is essential to the form. You're getting a lot of characters and a lot of situation all at once, so there's a necessary amount of setup. The thing is, the moments that the comic is strongest really feel like the ones where that setup is done and the author has a bit more freedom to do stuff (said he scientifically). Those relaxed moments are a big part of why I'm really enthusiastic to see #2 when it comes out and there's a lot more freedom to take the ideas hinted at so far and roll them forward.

And when it comes, I'll almost certainly buy it digitally. For all that it's kind of a pain, it's still easiest for me.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Oh, Crud, It's April Fools

I had a real post drafted and everything, but then I remembered that today is "don't follow links on the Internet day", so my thoughts on digital comics are going to wait until next week. Like most folks, I have mixed feelings about April Fools day, primarily because so many people are so bad at it, but the folks who do it well tend to make it worthwhile. A few that I like to check every year.

For a good general roundup, Lifehacker has a bunch of today's April Fools Pages but I ask the world - any really good ones out there I haven't seen yet?