Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Clickable Map

Ok, so this is the overland map for the video game, Dragon Age:As you might expect, you click on one of the little squares to go there. The images in the icons have meanings (town, dungeon and so on - that one in the upper right is "make camp") but the base idea is pretty simple. Predictably, there are a few other twists: the map changes over time for one, and when you click to go from point A to point B, there's a chance you may have an encounter along the way.

There are similar maps within cities and such, and it works pretty well, but what I want to really look at is how this interacts with tabletop play. See, I think there's an instinctive resistance to this kind of model in play because it's so obviously and (seemingly) arbitrarily restrictive. We treasure our broad, open ended maps with the idea that if that spot right there is of particular interest to us, then by god that's what we can set out for.

The problem is that, in practice, things end up looking a lot like this map. There are points of interest the players are aware of, and more of them are revealed over time, and those are where they go too and from, encountering things along the way. The only real difference is on those occasions where the players might actually "pick a spot" that doesn't already have an icon, but when that happens, there are two possible outcomes:

1. The GM already has something prepped, so effectively it's a hidden icon.
2. The GM needs to make something up, effectively creating a new icon.

I like both options. Stuff like that is why you have a GM and not just a computer.

And, heck, it's not like this is unprecedented. Replace every icon on that map with a number and you have the map from pretty much every adventure ever. The difference between that and the video game is sleight of hand, and I wonder if we might be better off dispensing with it.

Anyway, this is obviously not applicable for all games. If you are actually interested in hard core exploration with full on Oregon Trail dysentery and inventory management, then obviously you want an open map because you're in it for the _process_. But for the rest of us, perhaps acknowledging the role of structure can help free us up to focus on whichever part of play we're actually interested in.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Deus Ex-ing it up

Played some Deus Ex: Human Revolution this weekend. Startlingly fun game, especially noting that I’ve never played the original or the (badly panned) sequel. Very interestign game to look at in terms of its relationship with tabletop for two reasons, one abstract one one nerdishly specific.

Thr abstract one is something that’s held up as one of the great strengths of the game: That almost any problem has multiple possible solutions. Faced with a goal (get in and get something) you can sneak, climb, hack, fight or god knows what else to get the job done. HOW you do it matters less than the fact that you actually do it.

It’s a great idea, though it’s much stronger for solo roleplay than traditional group play. One thing it depends on is thae idea that there are areas where the character is stronger than others, and by making the right choices he can play to his strengths. With a group, the expetation is that the weaknesses of one character will be compensated by the strengths of another, so you don’t want to offer challenges that play to only one character’s strengths. As such, the explicit range of approach variety DE:HR provides may be excessive for tabletop, but if you can look at your group as a whole, you might be able to find a way to assess their aggregate strength and weaknesss and build options that way.

The second point is one which warms my little nerd heart. The hacking system looks like it could easily have come out of any of the past century’s cyberpunk games, with their pseudo-network maps and their disposable viruses. These sytems, I shoudl add, pretty much universally sucked.

However, the model translates to the video game medium much better than it has any right to. Gaming is full of old systems which were cumbersome on paper but which can come to life with automation, and this is probably the most visible example I can think of. I’ve made my character a super hacker almost entirely for the sheer joy of playing the hacking minigame.

Anyway, good game. Definitely scratching some of my Bioware itches, while still bringing something new to the table. I’m enjoying it enough to see about maybe playing the first sometime.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reading Fudge Dice

It should come as no surprise that I'm quite fond of fudge dice, and I've put a lot of thought into the different things that can be done with their three outcomes. I've shifted things on several different axes, and I've failed as often as I've succeeded, but it's a fun area to play in.

One idea that I'm quite fond of is less about altering the dice or how they're rolled and more about what that mean. Specifically, you can get a lot of mileage out of separating the dice from the outcome.

To illustrate what that means, consider that on a normal df roll, you are judging an outcome, generally based on die roll plus whatever skill is in use as well as any other bonuses or penalties. The final outcome is expressed as a number or an adjective (or both) and that's what's used as a basis for narration.

Now, as gamers we have always implicitly understood that there can be some separation between the dice and the outcome, specifically in situations where the dice roll badly but the roll is a success or vice versa. What I propose here is to make the distinction a little bit more explicit, and make the roll itself as important to the narration as the outcome.

To do this requires a little thought about what the die roll means. Most often, we think of it as representing the role of luck in an activity, but that doesn't hold up under any real scrutiny. Luck maybe part of our lives, but it's usually something we consider as part of what happens to us, less about what we do. If we miss a target, it's because we need to get _better_, not luckier.

So instead, consider the dice to represent all the other factors that the system hasn't already accounted for. Distractions, coincidences, a good nights sleep and anything else. Think of all the reasons you succeed and fail and - unless you're a terrible egoist - those external factors will become obvious.

With that in mind, the dice represent the "swing" of the world at large. For narrow results (-1 to +1) nothing of any real note happened. You tried, you succeeded or failed, that's just the way things go.

For slightly broader results (-2 or +2) something went right or wrong. Someone gave you directions. The wind was at your back. The wind _wasn't_ at your back. The lighting was off. THere's something you can point to and say "That helped" or "Man, that got in my way".

Rarer results (-3 or +3) represent rare strokes of luck or bad luck. Coincidence falls for or against you. The librarian just happens to be and expert on the topic in question. The supplies you need were destroyed in a freak fire. Your opponent slipped on a patch of oil. You take a nail in one of your tires.

By this thinking, critical results (-4 or +4) are just a logical extension of this model. They're the truly preposterous strokes of luck, good and bad, that turn a situation around.

With this in mind, you can combine this information with the outcome (which won't be changed) to be able to describe action in terms of "success because" or even "success in spite of" to get a better picture of how a given even transpired.

This combines interestingly with aspects. If you do a dice-flipping bonus (that is, invoke to turn a die to a +) then you need to describe how the aspect is changing the situation, maybe turning a drawback into an advantage. That's very colorful, but also makes using aspects more work.

If you just go with the +2 bonus, this has the nice effect of making your efforts look more heroic. When you spend to get a +7, it's awesome, but bland. It's cooler to my mind if you also take into account that you had to do it while the floor is shaking (rolled a -2).

Either way, if you use an invocation for a reroll, this makes the story of the reroll much clearer, since it has now translated into a problem which has been overcome or worked around.

This also has some interesting interaction with bonuses, penalties and uncertainty. In this model, you can legitimately have someone roll fewer dice to simulate "lab conditions". In fact, if you think of that as pre-setting those dice to zero, then you could actually just fold penalties right into the dice.

Now, be aware this only really works if you take a light hand with bonuses and penalties, but doing so makes them much more concrete and makes them feel more toothy while actually making them a bit more normalizing. Consider - if you're rolling with a -2 penalty, you could generate anything from -6 to +2. If two of the dice a pre-flipped to -2, then the roll will be somewhere from -4 to 0. Now, some people might miss the more extreme outcomes, but I'd wager that the latter case will _feel_ more like the penalty mattered - both narratively as well as mechanically.

(as a bonus, you might allow aspect rerolls to "clear" a penalty, if you can come up with a justification for it, since a reroll represents a change of situation)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

PAX - More Bitter Envy

I am not at PAX, nor am I at PAX dev. This kind of sucks. I mean, it sucks a little bit less than not being at Gencon because it's at least _possible_ for me to go the Gencon without punching a huge hole in my life, but all the same? Sucks.

In fairness, much of this grumpiness stems from how awesome PAX East was. Yeah, I know PAX is primarily a video game con, but as I gushed at length, it was one of the best all-purpose gaming (and really general celebration of the tribe) cons I've been to, and in my mind, PAX offers more of the same.

Anyway, if you're going to be going, you should know two things:

1) I hate you.

2) Take some time to swing by Games on Demand. You can find out more here and here, but what you really need to know is that it's free and it's the place to get any amount of awesome gaming in. You know those rooms where they set up all the consoles so you can just walk in and play cool stuff, old and new? Imagine it like that, only with Pen & Paper RPGs. As with other walk-in rooms, it's just as suitable for someone curious to check out one thing as it is for the person who wants to spend the whole con soaking in this particular brand of nerdery.

Now, here's where I admit an ulterior motive. The PAX guys run a tight ship, and they only include programs if people use them. If Games on Demand does not see much traffic, then the PAX planners will probably decide that next time around they'll use the space for something else. I can't blame them for that, but I wouldn't want to see it happen for several reasons. Yes, G.O.D. is awesome, but that's almost secondary.

See, one of the things I liked about the PAX vibe was that there were lots of people there who were willing to consider RPGs a normal part of things without viewing themselves as RPG gamers. That's incredibly healthy and reassuring, and it's something I'd like to see get the opportunity to grow, and things like this are how it happens.

And, more selfishly, if it's a success, there's more of a chance we'll see it at PAX East.

Anyway, if you're not at PAX this week, feel free to join me in my bitterness. If you are, please feel free to ignore my death rays of envy and have as awesome a time as possible.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What Else Compels are Good For

One of the curious issues I have with Aspects these days is that I almost never compel them. Not because I don't bring their negative implications into play, but because my players are sufficiently enthusiastic about playing up the negative side themselves that I don't even need to bother.

It's a good problem to have. I can easily swap to a pile of fate points in the middle of the table for them to draw out of as appropriate, but I tend not to do so because those few occasions where I offer a classic compel tend to be fun and memorable, and I don't want to lose that.

The problem, of course, is that this experience is not universal. A lot of people have encountered a lot of different problems with compels, and these problems are wide ranging enough that there's no one solution. They are either too much power for the GM or too much power for the players, depending who you ask. They're too restrictive, or too open ended, also depending who you ask. This has always made them a bit rough to write about because if you speak to one set of concerns, you inflame another. This is why I've steadily fallen into the pattern of talking about what I consider good or rewarding practices rather than seeking to solve specific problems.

So with that in mind, there are two things that go on around compels that I'm not sure get enough airtime, and which offer a slightly different perspective on things.

The first is something my players make clear to me on a regular basis, and that is that a compel is really the GM offering you an opportunity that isn't immediately visible to you. That is to say, the GM has a slightly different perspective on what's going on - maybe she has more information a broader perspective or whatever - and that means she will occasionally look at a situation or choice and go "Wow, that speaks _directly_ to this thing my player finds cool" and calls the player's attention to it with a compel. The assumption is that if the player had seen this opportunity, they would have already taken it (and that assumes a certain type of player-GM relationship). If the player has seen it and declines, then all is well and good, but the GM's done her job.

Obviously, this is harder to do if you're doing all hard compels all the time, and I tend to treat these compels as soft (that is to say, can be declined freely).

The second is that a compel can zoom the camera in on a moment, ideally a moment of choice. If the player is faced with a choice, the compel flags it as something significant, that it's a choice that means something for the character. Not every choice is necessarily this important, and some might merit hard compels and others soft, but the bottom line is that the compel is a spotlight, and it's worth using to shine on things worth seeing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Noun is a Person Place or Thing

I love the Discworld novels. They're fantastic, and I enjoy the heck out of them, but like many fans I am partial to a particular subset of them. In my case, I'm a huge fan of the City Watch books. Nothing else comes close (except perhaps the Moist von Lipwig stuff, which I'm willing to acknowledge as a fair second). Now, there are many reasons I love these books, but there's a particular element about them which I think is very relevant to setting design.

See, I should also note that I'm a big fan of cities. I have purchased city books for games I will never play because I'm always fascinated to see how people present cities and urban adventures. I am, by and large, disappointed. The bulk of city products tend to be a handful of really interesting pages about the shape of the city, then piles and piles of pages that turn the city into some sort of above-ground dungeon.

Now, thankfully, this is less common with more modern products (and as noted, the recently released Neverwinter Campaign setting is not half bad) but what's gotten me thinking is the difference in how Ankh-Morpork (the city of the City Watch novels) is presented. Certainly, there are a handful of places (The Unseen University, the Watch House, the Opera House, the river Ankh, Guildhouses and so on) but the city is primarily defined by trends and people.

Now, people are kind of an obvious part of things, albeit one that is often undeserved in setting design. It is possible to design a setting that is almost entirely characters, but it's trickier to do it in a way that preserves player agency. That is, there is a strong tendency for a character-based setting to become about the NPCs rather than the PCs. This is where the Forgotten Realm soften go wrong, and it's where Amber often (but not always) went right by firmly tying the characters to the setting NPCs.

Trends are a little more interesting, because they apply to people and to places equally. They're the answer to broad, semi-specific question - where would a high class scribe work? How do people on the street respond to a mugging? Things like that. I can answer those questiosn about Ankh-Morpork because they're the parts that get detailed in the books much more than the specific drilldown of street addresses.

The thing is, most good city books have this information, but they tend to present it in a very different manner. They provide raw data from which a savvy reader might be able to extract trends, but only rarely do they make that leap of abstraction themselves.

Now, I'm a firm believer that one of the most useful things a published setting can do is let the GM answer when a player wonders "What's here?" It's a good, often relevant question, and I've seen a few products that have sustained the level of detail to actually be able to answer it explicitly (The Birthright campaign setting for one, the old Thieves of Tharbad city book for MERP for another) without being ENTIRELY overwhelming, but it's a lot of work.

The alternative would seem to be to arm the GM with the understanding to know the answer, or to create an answer that is consistent with the greater whole. But how do you convey that without a series of bestselling novels? The answer, I think, demands experimentation.

(Oh, and we will be getting back to prep in 4e, but let's just say that one is a many-headed beast)

Monday, August 22, 2011

4 on 1

I had the unexpected pleasure of playing in a first edition AD&D game this past weekend. It was a long-standing game that my brother in law participates in, and they had an opening. This was pretty much the classic AD&D game in just about every way imaginable. They’d looked at other editions, played a little third, but stuck to first as adjusted by elements from dragon magazine and a few house rules. They were sufficiently committed to this that they had their own modified PHB, which was basically a scanned PHB with all the classes, spells and such inserted into it, and several players had printed and bound copies of it (I used the PDF – iPad FTW).

The DM did a clever thing where I was effectively a ghost helping the party out because my body was deeper in the dungeon, allowing me to establish rapport with the party before actually joining, so it’s a bit less of a “You meet a guy on the road” sort of situation. Unfortunately, the pacing of things was such that despite the very long session. We did not actually reach my body, so while I had fun, it was mostly observing and making wry comments (which I enjoy). But it also really created an opportunity to think about the game and contrast it with my 4e experience in a way that has only really been hypothetical for me until now. It’s been long enough since I really played 1e that I was doing a lot off old memories.

It was pretty interesting, because it really highlighted to me a lot of the things 4e (and, to be fair, 3e) did right, but it also cast into relief the bits that were missing that were very clearly part of the groups enjoyment of the game.

First and foremost, man, 4e makes the actual moving around and fighting better. There are several reasons for this, but the one I really want to call out is clarity. There were a lot of situations where figuring out what someone could do was sufficiently involved as to really bog things down, especially with regard to movement. This was particularly highlighted by one of the more RP-oriented players very clearly getting frustrated by her inability to engage in the fight the way the more twinked out guys were. (The fact that this was addressed with Manly Explanation likely did not help).

4e also really keeps fights more dynamic. Things took a kind of dull turn when the Big Climactic enemy cleric got silenced and cornered. It was a reminder about some of the insta-win elements of magic, but more, it made me think what a shame that there was no real push/pull/slide to keep things moving.

Where things were more telling was on the borders of the fight. Planning for an encounter and using spells and trickery to overcome a fight were really big focuses. The group made heavy use of Haste & Invisibility to make the fights into these terrifying blitzkriegs that were twice as much time spent prepping as fighting. Not necessarily as satisfying as fights, but definitely scratching a problem-solving itch. The ability to make a fight unfair through clever planning is very rewarding and not particularly supported in 4e.

There was also a lot of use of out-of combat magic, things like animating enemy corpses or using the item spell. This was most interesting to me because it was clear that some of it (healing, identifying stuff) was pretty much just exercises in bookkeeping, but other stuff (like item or enemy zombies) was cool stuff that the players felt it was cool that they were able to do.

There was really no more or less roleplaying than there would have been in 4e. The scenario only gave itself to that so much (Old temple, overrrun by Yuan-Ti) but the system really didn't speak to that. Outside of the fight, the amount of RP really came down to the player's interest in it.

There were also small things. The use of the vs. Armor Type table made weapons selection a little more interesting, though I'm not sure it's addition is worth the tradeoff of complexity. Chargen was also interesting: creating a level 10 1e character using only paper? SO MUCH EASIER than 4e.

Now, this comparison has all been useful to me so far, and offers interesting insights into the two games for me. I think it partly underscored why encounter powers are a cognitive problem for some players while daily's aren't. 1e is FULL of once per day kind of abilities, so that's part of the logic, but narrative time is a different method of thinking. On some level, I think that if encounter powers were framed slightly differently - perhaps in terms of needing a few minutes rest to recharge - they'd probably have more traction.

But what was also telling was that there were definitely two big elements that clearly were part of the fun for at least some of the players, but which are not necessarily things I'm inclined to support.

The first was related to system mastery. There was a very clear range of powers within the group, even though everyone was at similar levels. Some characters just had better powers, better gear and (not coincidentally) a better understanding of the rules that allowed them to exploit that (and yes, this included a guy with psionics). Worse, there was clearly some self-perpetuation of this. It was pretty clear in the dynamic that the most badass guys had first dibs on loot because making them more badass was "good for the party". I don't blame the guys for this - there's a solid tactical argument for it - but that's not the kind of arrangement I'd want to encourage.

A corollary of this was that it had clear balance issues. The big fight included enemies who were clearly tuned to be a threat to the party as a whole, which meant that they were keyed off the most powerful members of the party. Upshot being those powerful guys got their awesome on, and everyone else got to kind of play a supporting role. I admit I was watching that fight and I am not sure that my character would have been able to contribute at all, had I been corporeal.

For players who thrive on this element of the game, 4e must feel like castration - system mastery (and magical gear) can only pull you so far ahead of your peers. I can completely understand why that would be frustrating, but that's definitely not my bag. I'll play along - I'll have to to be effective - but it's a necessity more than something I'd enjoy. It also reminds me of the statement made early in 4e that it's less about the choices you make in chargen than it is about the choices you make in a fight. Looking at that now, that statement really holds up.

Anyway, the second element is a little more mixed, that of preparation. Now, I actually like the idea of prepping for a fight, arranging to bushwhack guys and generally benefitting from my own cleverness, but I think there's a balancing act. While there were a few bits of trickery and strategy, there was a lot more brute force application of "I Win" spells like Haste & Silence (to say nothing of the illusions) which feels a little bit less rewarding, but at the same time is utterly necessary because the DM needs to prepare for the possibility. There's sort of a vicious circle/arms race element to it. I actually remember this being an issue in 3e as well, but it's really noticeable how profound it is in this case.

But at the same time, this is perhaps the most interesting question to take back to 4e. Is there a way to support prep that's rewarding but not so overwhelming?

I think the answer is a clear yes, esp since I can think of two different ways to do it. But that's probably fodder for another day.

Friday, August 19, 2011

4e Skills

Mike Mearls wrote one of those great articles that so typical of him that reveals that as much awesome 4e stuff we see, it's just the tip of the iceberg of his understanding of the game. It's about skills, and you should go read it if you haven't.

Since I show my love through graffiti, I'm going to suggest that the idea is really, really good, but I'd tweak it a little bit in play. For those too lazy to go read, Mike proposes that skill ranks be broken down into a descriptive ladder:

And that the DM should use those guidelines for setting difficulties, such as "It would take an expert climber to go over this wall". If you have the skill at a level higher than expert, you don't bother to roll, you just succeed. If you have it lower than Expert, its out of your league. If you have it at expert, then you roll against a DC of 15 to see if you succeed.

This is pretty slick, and because it explicitly removes the "+ half your level" element of the skill rolls, it makes skill difficulties feel more coherent (rather than requiring EPIC WALLS to challenge climbing at level 25). Mike also slips in a nice trick whereby player cleverness and planning can change the difficulty category of the check rather than give themselves a modifier to the roll. Very slick.

Admittedly, there are no guidelines for how to determine character expertise, but that's a two line rule - Everyone's a novice at everything, everything you're trained in you're a journeyman at. Each feat bumps it one step. If you want to support epic chars being awesome at everything, then characters get an-across-the-board bump at 10 and 20. There, done.

Anyway, I want to call it out as a nice tweak on things, but also as one destined to disappear. If Mike could convince the Character builder to support ideas like this, I would be SHOCKED (and utterly delighted). But I'm intrigued because - unlike most web mods - it's not impossible that it could be supported. I'm going to keep one eye on this, just to see.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Zooming In On Neverwinter

There is a writing technique that is commonly used when writing about a physical thing. The author starts from a very high level view, sketching a brief picture of the broader context, then steadily zooms in on the scene until focus is at the level of whatever's being written about. Lots of novels start out this way, zoomed out to the empire or nation then slowly narrowing in on our farmboy protagonist or the like.

It's also the default mode for many setting books, and I gotta say, the Neverwinter Campaign Setting book has really left me wondering about it's use as a technique in setting books, because it very nearly poisoned my impression of what is otherwise a pretty solid book.

The rub is that NWCS is a Forgotten Realms book. It's presented as more of a free-standing thing, but there's some smoke and mirrors going on there. The first ten pages of the book are basically a summary of everything I dislike about the Forgotten Realms, a mix of contextless proper nouns and uninteresting background elements given special focus because there was clearly a novel or other tie-in related to them. It's pretty bad, and I was willing to press on because so many people had so many good things to say about this book.

I'm glad I did. Not to say what follows is flawless, but people are right to be excited because NWCS has done some things very well indeed. Every time it steps away from the Forgotten Realms at large and focuses on play in its own context it becomes a stronger product.

Now, it's worth noting that this is basically a city book. There's more stuff in it, but it's really all the material for a heroic tier, city based campaign. Cities are one of my favorite things in games, and I had been wary. The previous city from WOTC - Gloomwrought in the Shadowfell boxed set - had erred too far on the side of gamey-ness for my tastes. It was interesting, but the city felt like an excuse for colorful encounters.

That may seem like enough, but I admit I kind of feel that this is what dungeon's are for. Cities (or, more broadly, campaign elements that players keep coming back to) need more of an internal dynamic, a sense of how they self-sustain and behave when the adventurers aren't looking. Gloomwrought lacked that, but Neverwinter seems to have hit the right balance for 4e. It still streamline's some details, but there's a sense that the mundane considerations of a city (like where food comes from and how trade happens) are actually in play.

More tellingly, I think I could happily run Neverwinter without ever using any of the adventure material in it. I wouldn't, because they're good (sometimes great) because of the amount of time and effort put into laying out the factions in play and making them playable. If anything, I could have happily taken more material like that, but I think there's enough.

(Also, the factions benefit from the explicit Heroic level range of the setting. It means you don't have to come up with strange logic to explain how one faction has a bunch of level 5 guys and another has a level 25 patron, but both of them are players in the context of the city.)

Still, all this pales next to 4e finally doing something that has been lacking from many games - tying chargen directly into the adventure. This is accomplished by introducing character themes which are a) mechanically more potent than themes we've seen before and b) explicitly hooked into the campaign book.

For example, if you take the Noble theme, the adventure in the book dealing with intrigue among the nobility has a special sidebar about tying this adventure into that character. Basically, this is the closest thing a published adventure can do to writing things for specific players, and it's an idea that's been a long time coming. The rest of the book could be crap, and I'd still celebrate it for this addition to the technology.

It makes me a little sad as a writer, though. This is one of those ideas that you could really go crazy with in a third party product, but since third party themes won't have character builder support, there's no real point to it. Still, that sadness is the refrain of 4e - not much to be done about it.

Anyway, the book is worth a read, and it's good enough that it could probably be used for something other than 4e. Just be prepared to just sort of blah blah blah over some stuff if you're not already steeped in Forgotten Realms lore.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Using Less

I had an interesting conversation about 4e yesterday that revealed something I've been waiting for. Somewhere along the way, it has crossed the tipping point where the way to do really awesome things with it is not by adding things, but rather by taking them away.

This point was easy to see coming. As early as the PHB2 it was reasonable to look at things and think "What kind of setting would I have if I removed this class or power source?" This kind of pruning makes for a great thought exercise, but early on it had the problem that if you removed any significant portion of the game, you were limiting the range of available play. If, for example, you were to remove all Arcane classes back when the only options were PHB1 and PHB2, you've just really diminished your options.

But now there is enough material that a decision like that is a lot less impactful. Yes, you might create a problem for someone who wants to play a specific class because they want that specific class, but you're not creating a situation where a player has a really narrow class selection if they want to play a particular style. The bucket is big enough that you can take a big scoop out and still have a large element remaining.

One very nice example of this was put forward by Gamefiend on twitter, suggesting that you could treat the new Thundercats as all being psionic heroes (an idea I like at least in part because none of them have the stupid looking halos that apparently denote psionics in default 4e). Story-wise this is pretty cool: they have a world where powers are defined by certain boundaries (the psionic power source) but are now encountering enemies and ancient mysteries outside that understanding (the arcane power source). It's a classic theme, and it's classic because it works well.

Now, admittedly 4e supports this sort of things very haphazardly. Power sources have very little mechanical weight, and they have almost no meaning beyond how they apply to character classes - settings, monsters and the like have no real resonance with these ideas, which is kind of a shame.

However, while the idea has very little support, it's very supportable (and one could point out that the Dark Sun setting is pretty good evidence of this). The rub is it's never going to be an idea that WOTC is really going to get behind because it hinges on removing things, and that's bad for their business model. But they've made it pretty easy for a DM to decide what power sources mean in his world and remove things that suit his sensibilities.

Now, obviously, there's more to this than the DM tossing things willy-nilly, but I wan tot come back to the premise: 4e has reached the point where you'll get more out of it by treating design of your game as sculpture rather than painting - what you add is less important than what you take away.

(Huh. Note to self - maybe the alternative to multi-classing rules is multi-power-sourcing rules. What happens when your Warlock switches from Arcane to Divine? Must think on this. )

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Jumping Turtles

I've been playing Bastion lately, and enjoying it very much. It's a very pretty Xbox game with some reasonably fun gameplay and fantastic music and visuals, but what's been keeping me hooked is the story it's telling. Some of this is from interesting gimmicks, like a narrator who is very responsive to events in play, but some of it is because the story being told has absolutely captured me, and I'm curious where it's going (it does not hurt that the story in question speaks right to some of the sensibilities that I like to bring to Amber). It's not a long game, and I find myself playing it in only small bits to stretch out the experience.

I've been struck by how well the narration works to illustrate the relationship between the story and the game. This seems to be a result of the narration being in a true storytelling cadence - that is, one which speaks to the essentials of a story more than the details. To understand what I mean, consider the difference between the telling of a legend like Hercules or Beowulf to a modern fantasy novel. The old epics, designed to be told rather than read, might have as much violence or as many events as a novel, but they're described in a few sentences rather than some number of pages.

This is, I should note, not a criticism of either legends or novels - both are awesome - but they definitely deliver the story in different ways, much the same way that movies or comics do so as well. What's interesting to me is that most modern methods of storytelling tend to drill down further into the details because they can, and because they have the tools (Special effects, cool art, patient and well trained readers) to be able to do so. They take pains to make the scene interesting and compelling and - if all goes well - the scene reflects well up onto the story being told.

But there is a disconnect between that level of detail and the story. A master can smooth over that disconnect easily, but the seam is usually visible. A tale may have fantastic scenes but little real story or vice versa. The thing is that, as an audience, I think we are better trained to be forgiving of good elements/poor story than we are of the reverse (though it may also be a case where it's hard to make a good story out of bad parts).

This, in turn, leads to some interesting shifts in perspective to the point where the details can _becomes_ the story, and that gets very weird because then the story is something very different than we're talking about when we go back to King Arthur and Theseus and such.

If all this seems a weird set of distinctions, there's a very concrete way to illustrate it - pick a movie or novel you like, then think about how you'd tell its story. You won't be able to remember every detail, and even if you could, just giving a blow by blow is not a very good story. You're going to drop details, smooth hings out and change focus so it's interesting to your listener. Much the same way a movie changes for a novelization, you're to change the story to tell it. Try is with Star Wars.

Anyway, this comes back to video games because the disconnect between the details and the story being told is MUCH broader than it is in something like movies or books. It's not a total disconnect - the details (that is, the part you actually play) can feed back to the story, but usually only in highlights and details. But at the same time, the width of that disconnect means that there's more freedom to actually tell the story without fear that the details will overwhelm it. Compare this to a movie: If you have a cool story, but make every scene awesome, it's possible the scenes will be what people will take away. In a video game, making play more awesome does not intrinsically detract from (or add to) the power of the story. That's pretty potent.

Now, some qualifications are in order. There are plenty of video games where the story follows a more traditional model, and which do so by making the gameplay experience more like a movie or book. Most modern RPG's are like this, including some of my favorites like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. There is art and skill to doing those right, but it's familiar to me.

Wat has surprised me is how much story I've been finding in simpler games, ones which are much more about gameplay. Side scrollers like Braid & Limbo or fighting games like Bastion. Yes, absolutely, video game designers have used story as a coat of paint & spackle to justify the details of their games since forever. Some have tried to buck this trend by making the game into the story (think MYST) but it's always been an odd match.

But now, as the games have matured to a certain point and there's less of a need to desperately justify why the blue colored blob of pixels wants to kill the green blob of pixels, story has moved beyond mere explanation and started finding a home in surprising places. I'm pretty happy with this.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Your Better Instincts

I admit that I'm usually all about taking advantage of your instincts to hose your players to make things more fun for them, but I want to take a second to turn that around.

See, while I've gotten better, one of my real weaknesses as a GM is a tendency to be too nice. If things fall apart or go horribly wrong, my instinct is to step in with my GM authority and help save the day. This is a terrible habit - I just can't stress it enough. Even if I'm not setting forth to show the players the story of my cool NPCs (which I'm not), having them step in to dramatically save the day has the same net result. My game's no longer about the players, it's now about whatever the stakes of this particular adventure are.

This is a sinister problem, in part because it comes from a well-intentioned place. Your players are maybe upset and disappointed with the way things have gone, and you want to mitigate that. It's totally human and understandable, but it will suck the fun out of your game.

However, like all bad habits, advice to "Just stop doing it" is basically useless. There are reasons people have the patterns they do, no matter how "obvious" things may seem to people outside those patterns. So if you have this instinct and you want to change it, then the trick is not to stop, but rather to redirect it.

So, the net time you find yourself in this situation, stop for a second as you pull it all together. Things have gone badly, so you've got the cavalry ready to ride. This is the point when you should stop and think - _how_ is the cavalry going to save the day? You need to have a better answer for this than "With their sheer awesomeness" and you probably will have one, because hey, you're a good, thoughtful, conscientious GM and even if you're helping you're not just going to pull an Elminster.

Once you've thought about that, think of it as a plot seed. Specifically, think of it as something that's ready to go but is missing one key element. Then make that element the player's responsibility.

This may sound tricky, but it's surprisingly easy, and it's something you see in fiction all the time. Consider the scenario where the cavalry literally shows up to help - they've got the men, they can win the battle, but they're pinned down by the artillery up on that mesa. Clearly, someone needs to sneak up there and take out that artillery team! Really, look at almost any fiction where the backdrop involves huge, powerful forces (like a war) and you'll find eamples of how the story narrows down to some lynchpin action on the part of the protagonists.

And now here's the real dirty trick - once you've gotten the hang of doing this, it becomes a trick you can incorporate into all your adventures. This is especially true if you want games against a big backdrop, or ones with powerful NPCs calling the shots, like The Forgotten Realms or any of the older World of Darkness products. If it's important to you that things and people be bigger than your PCs, then you can still keep things robust by getting the movers and shakers up to 90% but have them need help to get that last 10%.

This works in most play models, even classic mission-based play, but it has the advantage of giving the missions a reason that is somewhat more significant than "The Prince can't be bothered. You go do it". And more, by given the players even a small part in big events, you'll find that it ties them into events more tightly over time. These events, after all, are the things that NPCs respond to, and if players have a tie to the event, that's a one-step-removed tie to most of the interesting NPCs.

Plus as a bonus, it makes something that's historically a drag into a real play booster. Normally, the more invested you are in what Khelben Blackstaff or the Malkavian Antediluvian are up to, the less invested you end up being in your players, but by looking for that 10%, that lynchpin, you turne that investment back onto the players, hopefully to a good end.

Anyway, I try not to be a nice GM these days, but the habits are still there. For me, it's useful to have a practical way to channel them.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dropping off radar

Sorry for skipping yesterday, and ditto for today. I wrenched my back working out, and sitting up to write is not much of an option. Should be back on track on Monday.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ow Ow Ow

Gah, gonna be a short one today. Wrenched my back, and my attention span is SQUIRREL.

I am cautiously optimistic about some of the things WOTC has had to say about the future of 4e at Gencon, most of which I received via Critical Hits coverage of the new product seminar. The funny thing is that I'm not terribly excited about any product in particular (except perhaps Lord of Waterdeep - people I trust keep saying good things about it) but there seems to be a shift in emphasis in adventure, setting and material design that gravitates towards a little more setting buy in and dramatic focus. That's ambitious.

I'd be excited if it could work. Every now and again I get the urge to drastically crack 4e open to better support such things. It wouldn't be hard - the core engine is pretty robust, and it would be easy to make a handful of changes (Change skills, connection between stats and attacks, revamp rituals and try some different power ideas) to make a game that would probably be a lot of fun to try. However, it would be terrible to share and on sufficiently shaky legal ground that it's just not worth the risk. Still, there's a specific area where this raises my curiosity, and that is setting.

4e tends toward static settings. This Is not a failure of writing so much as a function of the way NPCs and powers are handled. Very little in 4e has much effect longer than scene length, and there is barely even a concept of recurring enemies. The result has been settings which are magnificent set-pieces but which don't necessarily have a lot of dynamism to them. Coupled with the fact that the system is a fairly abstract one (rather than representational) it's hard for a setting to come to life on its own.

While there's some criticism in this, I feel I should also point out the upside - 4e material has been much more focused on going from Zero to playing something cool in no time flat, and that's a pretty good goal. What's more, the desire that a setting be dynamic is directly at odds with a lot of the source fiction people draw on - settings are often static backdrops except where the main characters interact with them, and there's a lot of virtue to that. Like many things, it's a trade-off, and how well it works depends a lot on how you value the elements and how they're balanced.

But the thing is, while the mechanics exert a certain gravity, it's far from inescapable. I feel that encounter design has matured a lot since 4e came out, and it's mature enough that focus can now be shifted to setting and adventures. If so, I'll be really curious to see what comes of it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

That Also Happened

There doesn't seem to be anything to link to about it yet, so I'll hijack someone else's coverage of the announcement. Short form, Margaret Weis Productions has announced that they got the Marvel license and that it will be a Cortex+ product. I should also add that I will be involved in the design process (as are a number of other really awesome folks).

One thing I want to note: MWP has announced what can only be interpreted as a very aggressive release schedule (16 products in 15 months) but that is not quite as crazy as it sounds. They're following a particular model of releases which I think is very much in line with the material while also being novel in ways that I think will pay off very well.

Anyway, it's not something I can really talk about much yet, but I'm excited about it, and optimistic. I have a great love of supers RPGs in all their various forms and shapes, and on some level I think you can argue that it's the most essential of RPG genres - almost every game out there with powers and badassery and limited trips to the emergency room is some narrow slice of supers. Yet for all that, it's a well that has a lot of potential to be tapped for more goodness. Or so I hope!

Monday, August 8, 2011

So, That Happened

So, the 2011 Ennies were announced on Friday night. I watched most of it via live-streaming (thanks to neoncon) and caught the parts I missed via twitter. I greatly regretted not being there.

The flowchart held up decently well, but it's clear I overestimated the power of WOTC. The reality is that I could have gone with a much simpler chart that was basically "IS PAIZO IN THE CATEGORY? THEN THEY WIN!" There's a bit of a joke to it, but that's kind of the reality. Paizo walked away with 9 ennies, and the only one which was silver was for Best Adventure, where they also took the gold. Now, I totally don't want to bust on Paizo - they do great stuff - and it seems mean spirited to suggest that there's any reason for the wins other than their quality, and so i shall not do so. Instead, I'm going to cheer them - it used to be that you had to handicap the ennies for several companies, but now it seems it's just Paizo, and that speaks well for how well they've done.

Of course, I can say this without sour grapes, primarily because the Ennies were very kind to us indeed. Evil hat took home 6 ennies for The Dresden Files - Silvers for Best Production Values and Product of the Year, and gold for Best Writing, Best Rules, Best Game and Best New Game. That was...jaw dropping. I was hoping for us to take home a few silvers, maybe a gold if we were lucky. There was just so many good competition and I had expected to be beaten by Pathfinder: Bestiary 2 for Production Values (and we were), Delta Green for writing, D&D Rules Compendium for rules (that was the real breaking point for the flowchart), The Laundry for Best new game and Mutants & Masterminds for Best Game. I didn't even expect a showing for Product of the Year (which we lost to Paizo, natch).

Were I a younger man, this would be insecurity talking, but the reality is far more about the fantastic quality of the Ennies slate this year. And with that in mind, even though it's just for this year, I'm going to encourage folks to handicap for Evil Hat. We did great, and thank you all for your support. It means the world, and the best reward you can give yourself is to check out some of the folks we beat because, man, there's real metaphorical gold in them thar hills.

Friday, August 5, 2011


Man, one thing leads to another, so here's another sidebar about mook rules.

This was inspired by my reading of the new webcomic, Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, which is basically "Greg Rucka's the Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies Webcomic" (which is a pretty cool thing). It hasn't been going very long but the most recent strip reminded me very clearly of why I don't like mook rules.

Aside if you're unfamiliar: Mook rules are rules for handling the "nameless extras" in a fight, allowing large numbers of opponents to be put in play but be casually cut down by the hero. The term comes from Feng Shui, which is the daddy of this. Some people claim the less-than-1HD rules from AD&D are the basis of this, but the similarity is - to my mind - shallow and cosmetic.

You can go read it is you like - there are only 8 comics or so at this point - but to sum up, this is the point where we see the heroine kick the asses of multiple badguys at once without breaking a sweat. This is, theoretically, supposed to impress us with just how intensely badass and awesome the protagonist is, but in practice it tends to fall a little flat. Partly because it's so blatant, partly because it's so overused, it tends to feel like the author going "See! See!" more than anything which tells me about the character (which is, I note, an interesting contrast to the page before, which is both badass and says something).

There's a trick that bad writers use to make a character seem smart - they make everyone around them stupid. This is a terrible, lame, dissatisfying trick and mooks tend to be the badass equivalent of it. By making the opposition so trivial that they are casually knocked down, you don't make your protagonist look awesome, you just underscore how lame everything is.

This is not to say that mooks can't be done well, it's just that they're often not. One of the magnificent things about Hong Kong cinema was that it made fights with lots of guys seem awesome when compared to the same number of guys fighting John Rambo. There's a balance to strike - the opposition needs to seem dangerous enough that the protagonist's triumph does not seem inevitable. This same is true of games.

Games use mook rules for a variety of reasons, but there are three big ones: Genre simulation, Bookkeeping, and reinforcing awesome. Now, I have no real beef with the first two. If you want to model Hong Kong cinema, you need rules to model the big fights. Similarly, if you're playing a system where tracking a lot of lesser adversaries is cumbersome, a system for aggregating them can be a lifesaver. The problem is the last.

Mook rules rarely illustrate character awesome for the same reasons they can fail in fiction. Unless there's a sense of real opposition, then it's just a stylish pantomime. If that's what you're really looking for, then that's fine, but I point out that you're making a tradeoff to do it. Mook rules tend to do a great job of reinforcing the lethality of a system - hundreds of peopel get shot or cut down, after all! - but they often do so in direct contradiction to the way the rest of the system works. This is not a bad thing in its own right, but you need to realize that there is a cognitive cost in introducing such a clearly meta-gaming rule, and when there's a cost, you better make sure you're getting what you pay for.

Now, Chad Underkoffler challenged me to say how you handle Zorro, Inigo Montoya and Batman without Mook rules, and I think those are GREAT examples of other ways to think of th e problem.

First, Batman's an oddball because there's some question of which batman you're talking about. Grant Morrison writing JLA Batman could fight a million ninjas and win but he wouldn't have too because he's ALREADY BEATEN THEM, but that's the extreme case. Going with something like the Animated series, Batman can take on 3 or 4 thugs at once, but he'll have a hard time of it. With that in mind, the only time he ends up in that kind of fight is when he's the one getting ambushed. If he's in control of the fight, he isolates enemies and takes them down one at a time (something easily handled by rules that handle difference in skill + surprise). If he's outnumbered, he'll try to break the fight up so he's taking on few people at a time.

Zorro follows almost exactly the same pattern (and, in fact, has the same question - lots of Zorros out there) which is no surprise given the connection between Batman and Zorro. The main difference is one of flash - Zorro may face large numbers of opponents, but a lot of the whole swashbuckling, umping around, swinging on things and so on is that it keeps him from ever being in one place where he has to fight them all at once. The exceptions to this tend to be the cheesiest, lamest of fight sequences (such as when Zorro, surrounded by men with drawn blades, sings his blade in a wide arc, hitting all their swords and - by some dark magic - knocking all his opponents back.)

Inigo is the most interesting case. He can explicitly take on 10 guys (Maybe 20 - it's been a while) because he's just that awesome, though we could only guess what that would look like. The problem is, it's clear he really sees that as a stretch - this is something that's really freaking hard, possible only because of his awesome level of skill. He's not casually dismissing the guards. Now, this doesn't rule out mook rules - you could do it with mooks that are reasonably dangerous - but it doesn't necessitate them. The same logic that we've applied to Zorro probably is equally applicable here.

Now, this does reveal something interesting - in all of these examples we're really talking less about the actual fight and more about controlling the situation. It's a somewhat different focus, and one that not all games necessarily support, but I think it's a powerful perspective.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Quantum Aspects

OK, I've gotten knocked off on a tangent, and I'll stay on it for the moment. What the heck, it's Gencon week, so things are weird anyway.

First off, feedback to yesterday's post was fantastic. I want to thank everyone who weighed in. Lots of good thoughts, and the starting points of some solutions, I think. Going to percolate a bit.

But the fact that it spun off into Fate lead to me thinking about aspects, and some thinking I've had regarding them. I very rarely make concrete declarations about aspects because they are not terribly concrete. Oh, sure, there's an idea there which can be used, but its borders and shape are quite fuzzy. This is, I think, very much a good thing. It's the reason the idea of aspects can be so easily inserted into so many different contexts, but it also addresses a harsh reality of gaming - we're a painfully inconsistent lot.

Nothing reflects this more than the rules for compels, and it's no surprise that these may often be the most confusing or problematic thing for players to work with. Some of this is because they're different than other games - players who are used to implicit limiters may balk at explicit ones, for example - but I think there's a deeper, more essential issue.

So, one of the core principals of gaming in my mind is that bad things are going to happen to your characters. Some people object to this, but I'll stand by it on the simple grounds that bad things are the basis for almost every interesting thing that can happen in a game. It's theoretically possible to have a game where players just build everything up positively, but given the relative rarity of such games, I'll stick by my thesis: Bad things happen in good games.

Given that, the next question is where those bad things come from. It's entirely possible for the bad things to be random, capricious, or entirely external to the characters. This is fine, but it is my opinion that arbitrary bad things are less interesting that bad things which touch upon the characters in some way. This is not to say everything needs to stem directly from the characters - there's a sliding scale - but I definitely gravitate towards character-connected badness.

That's two value judgments so far, and here's an important jumping-off point. If you disagree with one or both of those, FATE Is not going to be a very good match for you. It won't automatically become bad as a result, but it'll be like a pair of shoes that's not quite the right size. You can still run and walk, but it'll rub you wrong, and you might just want a better-fitted pair.

Ok, so given that, how do we find good ways to draw things out of characters? Rich backgrounds can do it, of course, but that's a lot of writing and a lot of reading that no one really wants to do. There needs to be a shorthand. Advantages and disadvantages can do this, but they have a couple problems. First, they tend to have limited lists. Second, they tend to be dominated by mechanics. Some people may pick ads & disads based on flavor, but I don't think I'm being unreasonable to suggest that they are most often picked for maximum mechanical benefit (for ads) or minimal impact (for disads). Yes, I acknowledge that you may be a special snowflake who would never do such a thing, but me? I _totally_ would. My GURPs characters and various point-build supers over the years are utter embarrassments.

So, obviously, aspects step into that niche. And, conceptually, they're very straightforward - will it help you? Get a bonus! Will it hinder you? Get a fate point! But there's a lot of fiddle room in there, and that's where confuses emerges. Not so often for when the bonus is given, since that's very straightforward - player asserts the aspect is appropriate by declaring it and if the GM doesn't countermand or call for elaboration then the bonus is given. There's a little room for debate, but it's smooth going overall.

Compels though…that gets kind of crazy. On some level, it would have been easiest if we'd just been more draconian about it and let the GM say "No, you can't, you've got that aspect" and hand the player a point. That may allow the occasional dick move, but it's very clear. Unfortunately, that's not quite how we roll. We really _like_ that moment in fiction when someone exceeds their limitations or defies expectations, and it was with that in mind that we included the idea that the player could step up, spend a point and say "No, this matters enough that I will overcome my limitation and press on."

Nice concept, eh? But the "spending a point" bit really muddied the waters. People love their Fate points, and the idea of needing to spend one without getting a bonus is one that does not sit well on them, especially if they are inclined to see it as GM bullying or extortion. It's with that in mind that a lot of people have adopted a model of making the compel an offer rather than a demand, allowing players to simply refuse to take the point (and thus refuse the compel). I've talked about these Hard vs. Soft compels in the past, and it's mechanically addressable, but doing so kind of skips the underlying question.

The real question behind any compel is how the player perceives it. That is - how much does the player _want_ to be hindered by the things he declared important during chargen. Sometimes the answer is "not at all" and it's important to be able to recognize it. Sometimes the answer is "All the time" and you're likely to have problems with compelling these players because they're going to be pre-emptively embracing their problems.

But the rub is, how do you make a mechanic that incorporates both of these players?

This, I should note, is part of why I stick with hard compels (ones that demand payoff ) simply to make sure that they have teeth. Provided my sensibilities are in line with my players (and I hope thye are) my compels will rarely be rebuffed because what I'm really doing with a compel is offering the player a chance to do the thing he would have done if he'd seen the connection between it and his aspect. Yes, if the player's being a jerk and trying to run sprints with a broken leg, then I'm also using it as an enforcement mechanism, but I honestly couldn't tell you the last time I've needed to do that.

And that's where we come to the self contradiction. Through my embrace of hard compels, I am almost never put in a position where I have to use them, which is really the ideal space. That is - the best use of the tool is not not need it.

It's a nerdy kind of Zen, but I'll take it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Right Tool For the Job

A passing comment on twitter got me thinking about a White Collar hack for Leverage. It's doable, but chewing on it lead to me hurting my teeth on a familiar nut, one which also is worrying me a little bit in the context of the system I've been developing.

I'm going to use Cortex+ to illustrate this issue, but it is far from the only game where it's an issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it's an issue with many games, but it's most evident in games which support very flexible labels for dice pools (such as cliche's in Risus, descriptors in over the Edge, term in PDQ and Assets & Complications in Cortex+).

The problem is this: the systems have no real support for the idea of the right tool for the job.

What does that mean? In fiction (and in life) one of the best ways to solve a problem is to find the right tool for the job. If you need to drive a screw, you get a screwdriver. If you need to drive off Frankenstein's monster, you get a torch. In many cases, the real skill in an activity comes in knowing how to choose the right tools, then applying them properly.

Games poorly support this. There may be a threshold of applicability (that is, "Can I use this die in this roll?") but beyond that, all dice are created equal. If I need to make perfect croissants, it's more important to have a skilled baker than a good kitchen, but if I have "Kitchen d8" and "Baker d8" then they're equally valuable.

Now, not to say this doesn't work at all. A lot of narrative logic is perfectly fine determining what the best tool for the job was after things have been resolved. And some of this gets subsumed in the creation of dice - if you have a d8 Kitchen, there is presumably some reason why that kitchen matters, so it's no big deal, right?


Ok, so it makes me a little crazy for two reasons, one selfish and one a little more well thought out.

For the selfish one, I really like problem-solving. Figuring out the right tool for the job is like solving a puzzle, and in fact it's basically the mechanic that many games (like text adventures) use for resolution. You _can't_ solve the problem unless you use the right tool.

I don't actually want anything that restrictive, but I really like the idea of finding a clever application of a tool and being rewarded for it. Similarly, I like the idea of rewarding greater planning, though to knowledge within the game. Taken to a crunchy level, it's a similar desire to one that desires that tactics be rewarded in a conflict.

Anyway, that's my personal fun, but it's not the only issue.

The other issue is one of player choice. When dice (or bonuses or the like) are fungible - that is, can be used interchangeably - it becomes very hard to introduce situations where the player is forced to make a hard choice with mechanical consequences.

Consider, for example, the offer of help from a mob boss. It comes with certain strings attached, which would normally be enough to reject it outright, but the task is really hard and really important. Do you take his help?

Well, if his help is an extra d10, you probably don't. Mechanically, there are other ways for you to get that d10 (or near enough) that the price is almost certainly not worth it.

Now, this is admittedly an area where Cortex+ (and Leverage in particular) is a problematic example because it's built on a foundation of competence. With success as the norm, you'll be hard pressed to ever really _need_ a particular bonus so badly that you'd be willing to eat bitter for it. However, my own design has a similar success-based focus, so it's perhaps doubly informative.

This also speaks to why the interpretive solution (GM handing out bonuses to reflect this stuff) can be unsatisfying. The problem is that bonuses are - generally speaking - just as generic and easy to get as anything else.

Fate Nerds: This problem comes up with aspects a lot too, with aspects that are appropriate to the character but not the situation (or vice versa). Having your father's sword as an aspect is a great all-purpose bonus-generator when you get in swordfights, but if used that way, it offers no distinction between using it on a random thug and using it on your father's killer.

And, argh, I think that may be it. That split between "appropriate to the character" and "Appropriate to the situation" is the heart of the problem. The vast majority of game mechanics are appropriate to the character and some are appropriate to the situation, but there is almost no recognition of the synergy between the two.

And thinking about it, I can see why. It's a bookeeping challenge. The only really practical way to mechanize it is to do things in paired elements, one on the actor and one on the target. When you see this sort of thing in action (Such as attacks with a fire keyword and a creature with a fire vulnerability) it's effective, but it hinges on a lot of extra data. Could you really have a game where the bonuses are based on the interaction between two elements rather than their inherent nature?

I dunno. This one has actually thrown me for a loop - I feel like I started picking at a thread and an entire sweater has come apart in my hands. I feel like I've got a better grasp on the problem no, but am no closer to a solution.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gencon Hotspots

So, people were kind enough to help me out with suggestions about new things that they're going to get a chance to pick up at Gencon, so I may now stew in my own juices of jealousy and think teeth-gnashing thoughts while I miss the conventions. Still, no reason I should be alone in this, so join me in running through this list and stew alongside me. Oh, and if you happen to actually be going to Gencon and just happen to benefit from this, well, I suppose it can't be helped.

Green Ronin - Booth 965
Dragon Age (Second Boxed Set) - I preordered this, so I got mine a few days ago (it's awesome) but this is it's real coming out party. I've written a lot about how awesome Dragon Age is, but also complained about the ceiling that the first boxed set (which limits things to levels 1-5 imposes. This second boxed set covers level 6-10 and includes a lot of things people felt were missing in the core, like Grey Wardens.

They should also have the first big supplement for DC adventures (Heroes & Villains, I think?). If you haven't looked at this game, you need to, if only because it's all SO DAMN PRETTY.

Burning Wheel - Booth 311
Burning Wheel Gold - If you, like me, missed out on the very narrow pre-order window, this is your chance to grab it. I still haven't seen this, but I want to. The price is good, production is (predictably) fantastic but most importantly, this is the new version of a game that has seen more deep, careful thought and attention to what makes it go than pretty much anything I can think of. Luke knows his stuff, and while I don't expect this to be a revolutionary change from the existing Burning Wheel, I expect is to be pretty damn spiffy.

I don't know if they'll have it for sale, but hopefully they will have a display copy of the Mouseguard Boxed Set to show off. You want to see it.

Machine Age Productions - Booth 1356
I think (hope) they're going to have Amaranthine available for sale, and as awesome as that is, you really need to go there to see the gaming patches. Seriously. If I were there it's the first thing I'd be hitting on the dealer floor.

Cubicle 7 - Booth 711
Yes, they're going to have The One Ring, and that's a big deal, but greatly overshadowed in my mind by Airship Pirates. As far as i can tell, this is basically wall to wall steampunk porn, and I understand there's an audience for this sort of thing. They should also have a sci-fi game called In Flames that I know nothing about.

I also expect a few awesome things in the Cubicle 7 Penumbra, hopefully including Ashen Stars and Stealing Chthulu, but I can't speak to it for sure.

Third Eye Games - Booth 605

Part Time Gods - People I've needed with will long attest that I've bemoaned the lack of a "Street Nobilis" game. I am no longer bemoaning.

Flying Frog - Booth 1421
Fortune & Glory - It's a boardgame from Flying Frog who have done cool adventure boardgames with strong themes in the past (Last Night on Earth, A Touch of Evil). This one is billed as a Cliffhanger game, and it looks pulpy. I admit, that's pretty awesome.

Black Crusade - I Guess it's for playing Chaos Space Marines?

Outrider Studios - Booth 1544
Mentioned these guys yesterday for Remnants, but folding thim in here for completeness!

Other Awesome Things That Might Be at IPR, I Think
, Wherever it is
Do - Well, yeah, I'll plug it. It's beyond gorgeous, Daniel remains talented beyond all reasonable measure. I can't say enough good things about it, so go check it out.
Bulldogs - I've mentioned before how excited I am for this one - it's Brennan Taylor's Sci-Fi RPG with a fFATE engine and a chassis made of Han Solo.
Dungeon World - A hack of apocalypse world designed to handle classic dungeon crawling goodness. This is going to be, by my understanding, the basic edition, with a release schedule somewhat akin to Dragon Age (with more stuff/rules to come later) but I don't know all the details. What I do know is that I've been curiously watching this develop, and I'd pick it up in a hot second.
Shelter In Place - I mention this only so you can share my bitterness. A survival horror LARP by
the remarkably talented J.R. Blackwell, it's my understanding the Gencon copies are already sold out.
Kerberos Club (Fate Edition) - Kerberos Club was already super-neat, so adding in a FATE engine is basically a big present JUST FOR ME!
Kingdom Come - It's a LARP thing, and that may be a turnoff for some, so all is well and good. I admit, I know almost nothing about this, but I have suspicions. Specifically, I have suspicions that this is born from the brains of some Canadian LARPers who are basically the super-secret-ninja-masters of truly awesome LARPing.

So, what did I miss?

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Gencon Plug

Stepping off the design train briefly as we start warming up for Gencon (which I will not be attending, sadly), and I have a larger post in the works about all the new things I regret I won't be seeing which you should totally check out. However, I want to make a smaller recommendation today, perhaps even a request.

If you get a chance, stop by booth 1544 - Outrider Studios. There are a few reasons for this, and I'll break them down.

First, they have a game called Remnants which is pretty sweet. It's a post-apocalyptic game centered around battling suits of power armor, and while that's pretty cool in its own right, it makes a lot of little decisions that make it even more interesting than the premise. The core system is fairly lightweight, with some pretty clear Tri-Stat influence (that's a good thing) but some very clever tweaking, including it's handling of critical failures. More interestingly, it strikes a very interesting balance between providing a detailed setting and recognizing the flexible elements of the premise. Of all things, it's reminiscent of Sorcerer in that regard - a nice little engine with a strong core idea that is reasonably easy to skin in a variety of ways that stay within theme. Also, it deserves kudos for production - it's a $20 game (great price point) that looks good and is cleanly laid out.

So there's that. Also, I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with the Outrider folks at Origins, and they're good people. Perhaps more persuasively, they're folks who have decided to make a go of this crazy gaming madness, and have decided to take the risk to come down for the conventions. This is, to put it bluntly, expensive and a lot of work, and they're absolutely taking a risk in following this route, and I hope it pays off for them.

I had, I should note, not ever hear do these guys before Origins, and that was a useful reminder to me that for all I try to keep on top of things and think of myself as watching the hobby for new entrants, I can't see everything, and I'm still going to be surprised when someone comes in from a vector unfamiliar to me. This is a good, awesome, and humbling thing.

Anyway, the last reason is that it will take you over to Entrepreneur's Avenue, if you check out the map of the dealer's hall, you'll see there's a little cluster of booths. This is where you're going to see the people you've never heard of before, and that's important. It's all well and good to be going to Gencon to get the new releases you know are coming, but if that's all you get, then you're missing out. New releases can always be gotten later, but there are people and things at Gencon that you won't see anywhere else. Take the time to look at those, let yourself be surprised, and maybe try something new and unexpected.

It might suck. I have a small stack of bought-and-played-once games from gencons past, but I also have some pleasant surprises. Remnants, I should add, was one of them.

So, please, do me a favor. If you're there, swing by and just say hi. Take a look at their stuff, talk to them for a few minutes. Obviously, don't buy anything unless it grabs you, but allow yourself the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised.