Tuesday, December 18, 2012

User Stories and Adventure Design

Agile project management (and related ideas like Scrum or Kanban) is something that I deal with a lot on a day to day basis. It's too big a topic to fully explain, but in a nutshell, it's a method of doing work in small, achievable chunks that steadily move towards and end goal (in contrast to planning a big project, then building it). It has strengths and weaknesses, and is very well suited to certain types of software development. It also has a strong ethos of programmers having strong influence on what's being done, so it's unsurprisingly popular among programmers.
One of the cornerstone ideas of Agile is the User Story. A story is a structured sentence that explains something that a user can do using your system. It's easy to do these poorly or just treat them as requirements, but done properly they provide a real shape to the work to be done because they're explicitly demonstrable (That's a big deal in agile - producing incomplete things that work as an iterative process). If you have something small and concrete that you can demonstrably do or not to, it becomes a lot easier to ask yourself what work you need to do to accomplish it.
Properly structured, a user story goes something like "As a [KIND OF USER] I want to [DO SOMETHING] so that [REASON]"[1]. For example, "As a student, I want to be able to buy parking passes online so I can park my car at the dorm".
I was thinking about this today, and I realized that I would love to use this in campaign planning - specifically, I want to have a "user story" for each PC.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the DO SOMETHING for a REASON pairing can be easily interpreted as a call to action and a pointer at what might happen next. That is to say, as each story gives the GM clear direction regarding where they want to go, and the reason hints at what the next arc goal for the character might be.
Note that this is slightly different (and more useful) than a goal, because it's got an explicit action component to it. There is no question of how this translates into play - it's something the character intends to do.
It also scales well. In agile, a full project can be made of many user stories. In the same way, a larger goal can be composed of many user stories, but only if the player wants to.
Take for example, a character driven by revenge. As KROM THE MIGHTY I want to FIND MY PARENT'S KILLER so that I can AVENGE THEIR MURDER.
That's nicely concrete, and depending on how it's approached, it could be the story for a session or for an entire campaign (and that distinction should be discussed with the player). For a one shot, then it's right there - in the session, Krom must find his parent's killer so he can confront them. For a campaign, this gives something to work back from. How does he find his parent's killer? Does he know who he's looking for? no? Ok, how does he identify them? Snake Symbol? SNAKE SYMBOL! And now, his user story is:
So how many stories should a character have? Obviously, Krom has a lot of stories that build up to his vengeance, so what do we do with them?
Agile has an idea called "The backlog". Basically, all stories go into the backlog as you think of them, and then at the beginning of a sprint (a period of doing work - in game terms, consider is a session or short arc) you pull out the ones you'll be working on for this sprint. PC user stories could work the same way - a PC might have any number of stories at a time, but only one of them is "active" for a given session. Something else comes up, throw it into the backlog - maybe it's next week's story.
The only rule is that play should be pushing stories to done. If a story has to go back into the backlog, that's a bas sign.
Now, the fact that this is based on Agile doesn't mean you need to follow EVERY rule. For example, if you consider a "sprint" to be 3 sessions or so, you may end up staggering the characters, so that they resolve their stories (and pick up a new one) at different times. You also can play fast and loose with resources, since velocity isn't much of an issue (though that might be worth considering another time). If you have one user story per player and possibly a user story or to for the group, then you should always have enough material to drive a session of play in awesome directions.
1 - Agile nerds will point out that this is not the only structure, and that Reason is far from obligatory. And they will be right. But this particular model works for what I'm trying to accomplish here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Argument For Rich Dice In One Image

(With Apologies to Atomic Robo. For more info on Rich Dice, check here)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Rich Skills

Sci-fi and Fantasy author Kate Elliot has a fantastic post up today about the skills that her protagonist has and why. While I do not doubt that it's useful stuff from the perspective of writing, it is lightning in a bottle on the topic of skills in game design. You should go read it. I would rather you go read it and skip this post than the reverse. It's that useful.

For those of you ignoring my advice, the short for is this - the emphasis of the post is on the importance of sewing to the protagonist of her novels (which I have not read, but now will on the strength of this post). This protagonist sounds like very standard fantasy hero material - swordsmanship, sharp wits, stuff like that - and sewing is a fairly anomalous skill in a heroic context, yet Elliot makes the case for why it's very important.

The reasons for this translate wonderfully to an RPG context, and I'm going to lay out three bigs ones right here.

1. Every Skill Tells a Story

In Elliot's post, the reason the protagonist knows how to sew is tied tightly to her upbringing and the social and economic situation she was in. It's opens a window on many other elements of her character.

In many RPGs, these hooks are explicitly called out (in the form of things like aspects), but there is no reason that skills can't carry a lot of that weight on their own, so long as someone stops to think about them. It's a little bit more indirect than having the player hang a lantern on the character's background, but it tends to feel very organic and fits the character very well because it's driven by choices that the player has made (with their skills).

How to use this in your game:
The fact that your game doesn't have "indie" mechanics is no reason characters can't have rich backgrounds tied to the setting. Go through a character's skill and use them as a basis for conversation. Find out how and why they learned the skill and perhaps where they learned it and from whom. Look for skills that are particularly high, particularly low, missing or out of place. Even if the player hadn't thought the background elements through when picking skills, this kind of focus questioning can really spark people's creativity.

2. Every Skill is a Social Skill

In Elliot's post, one key element of sewing is that it is a largely social activity, performed in groups and forming the basis of a lot of interaction.

If you stop and think about it, this is true of many groups. Think about your own life and consider how many of your social interactions are driven by "social skills" versus those driven by common interests and practices (which social skills are then layered on top of). True, fandom doesn't map 1:1 to a skill, but the idea is a potent one.

How to use this in your game:
Consider broadening your definition of what skills can do. Take a page from Feng Shui and allow skills to also be used for contacting people within the sphere of that skill. You might even want to more broadly allow skills to be substituted for social skills within their appropriate context, or at least grant bonuses when appealing to the group that the skill represents.

3. Every Skill is Part of the World

As an extension of skills being social is that every skill exists in the context of the larger society. This can be meaningful in a few ways. It might be economic (is this a skill people get rich off of, or which only the rich have time to learn?), cultural (is this a "woman's" skill? What about in a different group?), social (Is there a stigma associated with this skills? Is it associated with a particular group?) or logistic (Are there schools or organizations associated with these skills?). Any skill can be a window into any of these issues or ideas.

How to use this in your game
As GM, stop and consider the skill's context in the setting (and, if possible, take your cues from the player backgrounds). Ask what the "typical" person defined by that skill is like, then ask yourself how that changes from place to place.

Keep these questions in your back pocket for when players travel and you want to convey that things have changed. Describing things as looking different is one thing, but it's much less compelling then changing how the world sees the character. Even if it's just a small thing, it's personal, and that's huge.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Mooks Gone Haywire

This is related to the Smart Everyman thing, but in ways that may not be immediately obvious.
If you haven't seen it, Steven Soderburgh's Haywire is a great movie. As with Mamet's Spartan it's an action movie by a very talented director (and writer, in Mamet's case) who does not normally delve into the action genre. The result is something that feels very different than the standard action flick because it does not proceed fromt he same assumptions.
Now, whether you think that's a good or bad thing is going to hinge on several issues of taste, but if you're as inclined to overanalysis as I am, these views on common things through an unfamiliar lense is utterly compelling.
Numerous elements of Haywire are noteworthy (the chases, in particular, are awesome) but the fights are what really caught my eye from the perspective of gaming. They were great fights, mostly hand to hand, that were brutal, intense and very engaging, but they were also where some of the biggest deviations from the traditional action formula could be observed[1]. Two if them in particular have stuck with me, guns and mooks, and today I'm going to talk about mooks.
In Haywire, there were no mooks. Every fight was dangerous and intense, but even faceless opponents were dangerous. Fights against them were quicker, but still involved several exchanges.
In a standard action game, this would be weird. Feng Shui's mook rules have become a de facto standard for genre[2] emulation, but that becomes a problem when you want to tweak or grow the genre. Removing them from film hilights what removing them from play might suggest - more danger and more attention.
Attention's an interesting one. Mooks do not just emulate genre, they speed gameplay, and it's taken as a given that this is a good thing, but the reality is a bit more complicated. Consider, let's say you think combat's should take a half hour. Mook rules let you squeeze more into that half hour without increasing the time and bookeeping required, and that's a win. However, if you're not pushing for any kind of structure, then mook rules can just mean faster and less interesting fights.
Less interesting fights is a fascinating point to get snagged on, because there's so much implicit assumption in RPGs that fights are (provided they're well run) intrinsically interesting. That is to say, we (usually) do not complain about "too many fights" in D&D because fights are a large part of the expected experience. The fight is supposed to be fun.
But heavy use of mook rules allow for fights that end up at approximately the same level of engagement as picking a lock. That's not automatically bad, but it requires more work on the GM's part to create extrinsic engagement because it's nto intrinsically rewarding.
However, there's a flipside - if there are no mook rules, every fight can be a potential drag on play, especially lopsided ones. There comes a point in many bad D&D fights where it's clear how its goign to go, but the fight can't end until the party has finished "grinding down" the opponenent's hit points. No one wants to get in that situation either. There are mechanical tweaks that can address that, but more broadly it really depends on the fight having genuine tension, and havign that tension be maintained consistently.
This is a pretty complex topic, and the reality is that it does not have a simple lesson. Mook rules can be super useful, but can also be problematic - there's no one right solution that fits all situations. But it does reveal something critical and fragile - If you rely on fights being intrinsically engaging, then you are walking a very fine line, and it's easy to slip off. If, on the other hand, you are ALSO making sure that fights have some external reason to maintain tension and engagement, the rest of these potential problems tend to evaporate.
In a purely mechanical sense, this idea ended up in the Tempo rules with the idea that a single hit takedown[3] is VERY hard on the intial exchange, but becomes much easier after you have established an advantage. In theory, this allows a highly skilled character to take down an opponent quickly, but usually requires at least a single exchange to establish advantage. Still needs more testing, of course, but I'll be curious if it captures that Haywire kind of feel.
1 - At this point it's also worth calling out that a lot of the fight quality also came from Gina Carano's ability to sell the fights convincingly. She was fantastic.

2 - Super nerdy aside - there are a lot of fine gradations of genre which I am casually ignoring here, but which are actually relevant to the conversation.  Action is a wide umbrella, but the nature of threat and violence actually varies greatly across the range, from the virtually superheroic highs of James Bond and gun ballets to intensely grim, lethal stuff.  Most action movies tend towards the former, but its worth noting that a lot of action-in-context films (which includes a large swath of espionage) are further down the spectrum.  Haywire is nominally a spy movie, so it's no surprise it leans gritty, but that's also no guarantee, since spies also bring us James Bond.
3 - As an aside, if a game has a high stealth component, single hit/mook rules can be applied situationally to relfect that. That is, targets caught unawares are treated as mooks. This is a simple way to capture the feel of certain games like Dishonored or Deus Ex.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Smarter Than The Average Everyman

I think the idea of a smart character may be an essential dividing line between fiction and RPGs and in turn may be informative of a major split within RPGs along similar lines. So based on that let me throw out a few points that I'm hanging this off.
First, most RPG players (at least those over a certain age) were book readers in their youth. This is not a 100% map, especially as you broaden out into those who came in via LARP and later through video games. Still, if someone came into the hobby via D&D or something of its ilk, especially if they were a GM, odds are good they had left a trail of sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks in their wake during their formative years.
Second, the ideas of being a reader and being smart are hopelessly entangled in American culture. There are other elements to be found in that snarl about escape, outcasts, isolation and so forth, many fo which also have some resonable in RPGs, but for the moment I just want to focus on the idea of reading being something the smart kids did.
Second and a half, that idea is not just perpetuated by the culture, but also by the books themselves. A huge number of books (especially several schools of sci fi) are really about the struggles of the unappreciated smart people (a group the reader likely identifies himself[1] with) against the masses of idiots or to save the masses of idiots who can't appreciate the real problem. No surprise - "You're smart and everyone else is stupid" is one of the most comforting narratives humanity has ever created.
Third, because of this, there is power in a smart protagonist. I don't mean in the Holmesian vein of smartness-as-superpower (more on that in a second) but rather a protagonist for whom being smart is an essential part of their nature. This is every fictional detective ever, sure, but it goes deeper than that. Go back to your fairy tales and consider how often they are resolved with cleverness - that's how far back this goes. It's no shock - storytelling is an action of thought and word, not muscle and power, and it has always been in the interest of storytellers to create a world where their virtues triumph.
All of which means that excepting when we read for Schaddenfreude, we look for a protagonist who is smart enough. Ideally, one who is just smart enough. If he's too smart, that's a problem because we don't want to feel stupid, so he'll need to be crazily, holmesian smart for us to be comfortable (because at that point comparison is just silly). Most cynically, you want a protagonist who values and presents smarts (as the reader does) but is perhaps fractionally less smart than the reader, but there are a lot of potential variables in that formula.
Now, like all statements about fiction, none of this applies universally. There are a lot of things that make a grippy protagonist. Some of them are unique to the protagonist, some are unique to the situations. Whatever the case, if you map it out, there's definitely a clustering on the line between "Everyman" and "Unique, special snowflake, chosen one" where you find the Smart everyman, and that cluster is full of Military fiction (Jack Ryan is the poster child for this in my mind), Sci Fi and detective stories.
Hopefully, none of this is terribly contentious yet. The books are out there, so it's pretty easy to check. The trick is where this ties in to gaming.
It seems reasonable that clusters of reading trends would be reflected in some way in RPG trends given the overlap between the groups. Even more, its possible that certain book trends will be reflected more strongly in gaming because the transition is easier. An obvious example would be Lord of the Rings vs Anna Karenina - tabletop RPGs have, historically offered many more opportunities for the former than the latter
My sense is that the Smart Everyman segment got pretty well represented, especially early on. The combination of sci fi interests and wargaming casts a very broad net over this audience.
Now, that's a lot of words to come to a point which is pretty much a "no duh" for anyone who has ever attended a convention. The presence of this segment is obvious to see, and make up a large part of the Sharks to the narrative Jets. It's a well known, well stablished divide.
But the reason I took this long route to get here is that common root of fiction. It seems to me that the Smart Everyman player is as much a product of his fiction as anyone else at the table, but everyone goes to great lengths to pretend otherwise, especially the Smart Everyman player himself. He wants the things he knows from his fiction - intelligence, challenge, high stakes and realism - and that's totally at odds with all this mamby pamby story stuff. And the serious dramatic player is ok with that as a point of division because the alternative would be accepting that Tom Clancy gets a seat at the table along with Calvino, Eco, Martin and the Coen brothers.
The problem, of course, is that this is kind of nonsense. Whether you like Tom Clancy or not, there is some serious craft that goes into what he does, and he is as much subject to rules of drama and fiction as any other writer you want to point at. But he absolutely has different priorities, goals and tools.
This intrigues me. I'm a shameless hippie narrative-leaning kind of player, and a lot of this is me struggling with my own blind spots, and the fact that I suspect we have often left a lot of excellent tools on the table because they weren't the right type. If we accept the premise that Tom Clancy style play is just as narrative as anything else, can we proceed forward from there in a way that is satisfying to those players? Can we make the game that gives them the experience they want, and will they welcome it? I have no idea, but it seems like an incredibly fun question.
You can find a lot of people who will tell you what fiction must have: conflicts, rising tension, shifting emotional charges, all that jazz. In fact, if you were to listen to most writing advice, you would think that the creation of great stories is a very nearly mechanical process. In fact, the more money the author stands to make based on you learning his lessons, the more likely it will seem that creating fiction TOTALLY MAKES SENSE.
Which is nonsense. The best advice is not couched in terms of what will work, but rather what might be worth a shot. Those who make compelling fiction can be just a surprised as anyone else at what people lock onto. The overlap between great books and books people read is always smaller than some would like.
But if you're creating or running a game, that's not your problem. You have a table to engage, and that is not bound by the rules of good fiction, that's bound by the rules of what people respond to. And while those are no more concrete than those of creating fiction, we can afford to get our hands muddy with "crap" fiction[2].
And, hell, maybe we owe it to ourselves to do so. In any case, I feel like this is the tip of an iceberg.

1 - I would normally say "him or herself" here, because the reader could just as easily be female, but i couldn't bring myself to for a simple reason. A lot of the fiction I'm talking about here is unapologetically manly. Women may be smart and capable, but only if they are supportive and sexually available, which in turn leads to weirdly screwed up ideas about "strong women". Anyway, not really intending to explore this topic except to say that some science fiction really screwed me up in some ways that it took me a long time to understand.
2 - So, no disrespect to the many talented writers at White Wolf, but the connection between the initial success of Vampire and tapping the crap fiction vein seems pretty obvious in retrospect. I doubt it was intended that way (because, man, that's a SINCERE book) but that doesn't mean it didn't benefit from it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Metatopia Panels

Just a quick post: The recorded panels from Metatopia are going up here.  Totally worth listening too.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Metatopia 2012 - Overview

It's election night, but early enough that almost all the projections are nonsense, so rather than chew my nails and start at red and blue maps, this seems like I should take the time to write about Metatopia.
Now, I wrote about it last year and you can read that to find out more about the origins of it, but the short version is this - it's a convention for game designers and people looking to design games. It's full of panels, focus groups and playtests, and last year it was completely fantastic, so the question was how the sophomore attempt would go.
The answer is "amazingly". Even with Hurricane-induced complications (which, regrettably, reduced the number of attendees and forced the cancellation of some events) things hung together perfectly, largely as a result of the fantastic Staff making things go. I have greatly curtailed my con-going since the arrival of my son, but my (long suffering) wife completely gets that Metatopia is THAT important, and it gets prioritized.
Explaining why it's amazing is difficult. Sure, there are amazing people, but that's true of many conventions, so it's not that in and of itself. Rather, it's the focus. This is not a gaming convention so much as a convention about games - it's a place for people who are excited by the prospect of if the prospect of discussing differing points of game design theory or which games influenced which games or just hearing Ken Hite tell you why you're wrong.[1]
Even more importantly, I do not know of anywhere else to get this kind of experience. You can get slices of it at bigger cons, or focused pieces of it elsewhere but having it all in one place is simply incomparable. The term 'Critical mass' seems almost a little too on the nose, but I can't think of a better term for it.
But what's crazier still is that we've barely scratched the surface on this. The origins of it are very much Indie (it ultimately was born out of events like the Double Exposure[2] Indie Roundtable) but it's already overflowed those banks. There was plenty of "mainstream" representation there, and there's a strong desire that there be more in the future, but that's still only part of it. Double Exposure has a huge LARP tradition, and that was represented as well. What's more, there was representation for boardgames (including no less than James Ernest) and game retailers. The only gaming segment notably missing was electronic, and I expect that to change too.
This is the ground floor of something fantastic. it's still growing, and I hope that if you're even a little curious, please consider checking it out next year.
Next post will be a breakdown of things that actually happened this year.
1 - That one may just be me
2 - Double Exposure is the umbrella organization that runs Metatopia as well as the Dexcon and Dreamation conventions among others.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Silly Name, Fun Idea

So, the Marvel Heroic RPG has one of the most clever initiative systems I've ever seen. For the unfamiliar, it basically breaks down as follows - someone goes first, and after they're done, they choose who goes next. Repeat this pattern until everyone has gone. This idea (which I call "pass-around initiative") is pretty simple, and while specific implementations need to answer specific questions (like, 'who goes first?', 'how can I interrupt?' and 'how do you reflect faster characters?') the core idea is portable to many other game designs.

This was on my mind when I encountered another very common RPG occurrence - rolling to determine who to do something bad to.

You've seen it before. A monster makes a surprise attack, rocks fall, a god smites - something bad is going to happen and you need to decide which player it's going to happen to. Hell, when everything is going OK, then it can be doubly important to do something nasty to keep things going. The questions is always who to do it to. GM's want to be fair, so they tend to use rules or randomization to make these choices (since just picking someone could be seen as mean) but this can produce uneven results.

So, I was struck by an idea for handling this inspired by pass-around initiative, and thus the doomball[1] was born.

So, at the start of the game, give one player the doomball (Ideally in the form of some physical token). How you decide which player is totally arbtrary, and if you want to use a classic method (like randomization) feel free. My suggestion is to give it to whoever was holding it at the end of last session (or to whoever missed the last session), but there might also be mechanical systems in the game that might help with this too; Amber DRPG has "Bad Stuff" which might be a great way to determine this, for example.

The player holds the doomball until the GM comes to a point where something bad needs to happen to someone. In this case, the GM targets the player holding the doomball, and once she's done, the player passes it to another player. The only rule about the handoff is that no player can get the doomball until everyone else has had the doomball.

How often the doomball gets passed depends a lot on the game. Combat brings up the possibility for a lot of passing, but it shouldn't necessarily be used for every attacks. Enemies often have specific logic by which they determine their attacks - a logical choice doesn't invoke the doomball, but an open choice of targets might.

This can certainly be the end of it - its a simple determinant to resolve issues as they come up - but there can be more to it. It's easy to build mechanical hooks into the system, such as abilities that make you take the doomball or allow you to pass the doomball early. Hell, this may be a more useful way to reflect luck-based effects (like blessings and curses) than the usual bonuses and penalties to attacks because this feels more like luck.

Anyway, it's a slightly silly name, but the idea is pretty usable, so feel free to go nuts with it.

1 - The name was inspired by the tvtrope of the idiot ball

Monday, October 15, 2012

Tempo Lives

A while back I posted the system I was using for a spies game, and I talked a bit about using it as a platform to design a game.  That went silent for a bit, but it bubbled to the surface this past weekend, and I finally ground out the first draft.  So, for the curious, this is Tempo v0.1.

I've already gotten some good feedback, and something that Jason of the forthcoming Spark RPG had to say has me really chewing on combat.

Warning: What follows is seriously nerdy.

So, at a high level, the idea behind combat is that one side usually has the advantage, and leverages that advantage to do cool things.  Effectively, you sacrifice the advantage to impact the situation, so if you have a minor advantage, you give it up to add an aspect to the scene.  A moderate advantage can be give up to put an aspect (like an injury) on an opponent.  A significant advantage can be used to end the conflict on your terms.  There are also some benefits to holding advantage. You get narration rights (with progressively more authority) and you win ties.  There are other mechanically fiddly bits to it, but that's the conceptual core.

Jason brought up the very reasonable point that this could be handled with a simpler currency model, where Minor advantage is 1 point, moderate is 2 and so on.  You accrue advantage, then spend it.

This is _really_ compelling. While it gives up some of the linguistic nature of advantages, it makes for a simpler, more streamlined model. What's more, it makes other mechanical hook ins MUCH easier.  Suppose, for example, I do a martial arts hack - it becomes easy to have cool maneuvers have specific tempo costs.   That's nicely elegant, and I was trying to figure out why I was resisting it on a gut level.

When facing an issue like that, I find it useful to ask yourself what you're really trying to accomplish, so that's what I did.

The goal with this system it to encourage gaining then "spending" advantage, since such expenditures should be the kind of interesting things you want to see in a fight. The cadence I'm looking for is the alternating escalations and unexpected reversals that I have previously only really gotten out of good diceless play, and that brings up a seemingly small, but utterly critical mechanical point.

At present, advantage does not help your roll directly - if you want a bonus, you want to use it to create or tag an aspect.  The intent behind this is because the behavior I want to avoid is someone sitting on their advantage, building it up, then cashing it all in at the end for a big win.  That's mechanically optimal, but dull in play.

Similarly, advantage does not accrue[1].  If you've got a minor advantage and don't spend it, then gain a minor advantage in the next round, your advantage doesn't bump up - it stays minor.  Again, the goal is to incentivize  spend.  And this is where the tension arises.

In a currency based model, I would expect accrual.  A certain MoS gets me X points of tempo, so in this case my minor advantage (1 point) followed by another minor advantage bumps up to 2 points.   Now, this is not necessary, but if I _don't_ have accrual, then currency is just another labeling method (Which is not necessarily bad, especially if it's a clearer label).

But I'm not sure if that's a problem with the system or my assumptions. Accrual is not automatically bad, but it's problematic in conjunction with the possibility of a one-hit takedown. But if you changed engame conditions, then accrual opens up some interesting possibilities.  One big one is the element of playing chicken - only one side has advantage at a time, so your entire accrual can be wiped out by a bad turn as your opponent seizes the advantage.  Thus, you have an interesting choice of spending for an effect or holding out for the chance to spend for a bigger effect.   This would call from some number crunching, but might be fun.

Anyway, I don't have a solution yet.  I definitely need to kick that part around some, and I'm nto sure what the final shape will be, but I want to call it out as the sort of thinking that happens when you really start getting into the guts of a rules system.

So, thanks to Jason for you feedback, and I encourage anyone else to feel free to read and comment.

1 - The one exception: it is pretty hard to get a significant advantage on a straight roll.  Once you have advantage, the threshold for significant advantage is lower.   This sort of works, but not very well. It rewards sitting on Advantage and swinging away, so it's going to change.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Xbox Task List

Outside of games, I put a lot of time and effort into trying to stay organized.  I've tried various systems and tools, and I usually gravitate back to some variant on Getting Things Done, usually to good effect.  The main thing I've learned in this is that while specific tools (processes, software etc.) can be neat and fun in its own right, what's important is understanding what you want to do and why so that your system solves _your_ problems.

When I was younger, I thought of the idea of maintaing task lists or neatly labeled file folders as uselessly anal retentive.  Why exert the effort on such things when you could just be doing cool stuff instead? This was a pretty useful all purpose excuses to get out of a lot of responsibilities, but at the time I at least thought I was being sincere. And I probably was, but I was also being kind of stupid.

The purpose of a good system is not to do *instead* of the cool things, it's to *enable* the cool things.  It carves out space for thought, freedom and creativity by removing uncertainty, doubt, fear and all the other little obstacles that you may not notice but who are responsible for you getting to the end of the day and wondering why you didn't write, or play video games, or go out or whatever was important to you.[1]

Now, implicit in this is an idea that I think was best summed up by Merlin Mann as "You don't need to set a reminder to play your video games."  There are things in your life which you don't need to organize because they're what you really want to be doing - the purpose of setting up a system is to build a structure around those things so that you can get to them without worrying about all that other stuff.

This concept is directly contradictory to one of the major tenets of contemporary RPG design, where it is expected that rules drive towards your fun things, and that you will pick a game based on which rules do so most successfully.  I've never been terribly comfortable with that idea, but articulating why has always been a bit of a trick, and only today did I stop and compare it to putting "Play Xbox" on your todo list.  And the more I think about it, the more it holds up.

Partly because it's not so clear cut as good/bad.  There are times when I _will_ put "Play Xbox" or equivalents on my task list.  Not because I'm going to forget that I want to do it, but because some other factors (like a very busy day) make it useful to me to put in a reminder to take a break and prioritize myself form time to time. Game rules can certainly do that.[2]

And, in fact, rules can do a lot of useful things.  This should absolutely not be considered an argument against RPG rules in general.  But it is me wondering if having rules for the part of play you love is automatically the best use for rules.[3]

1 - I still fail this more often than I'd like.  But when I do, It's usually pretty easy to track back to the source.

2 - Though if they do it a lot, I wonder what else is going on in the game (either in the system or at the table) that keeps making people forget what they want to do.

3 - Yes, blah blah blah, fruitful void. I'm not talking about theory discussion. I'm talking about how games are designed, used and clung to.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why Feats Fail Me

So, I started actually making up 13th Age characters the other day, just to get my hands dirty.  If nothing else, it's a pleasantly fast and dirty job.  The skills and one unique thing end up being almost necessary though, because the rest of the mechanics are not quite so grippy.

Not saying they're bad, but stats, class, talents and feats dont' tell much of a story.  Some of that I'm ok with - Stats and class are kind of expected to be blandly interchangeable, and it's overall a good thing that they are, since they're kind of foundational.

Jury is still out on talents.  I like them mechanically, but I'm not yet sure if they say enough about how my fighter is different from your fights, especially if we can't otherwise describe that difference in terms of differences in gear.

But feats...man, feats always break my heart.  I really want my feat selection tot ell me something unique and interesting about the character, and it doesn't.

This is not 13th Age's fault - this is a problem I've had with pretty much every incarnation of feats from 3e on.  And it's a problem with two big roots.

First off, there's something of a historical divide within feats that demands that they can have meaning in the setting or be mechanically potent, but not both.  There are a handful of exceptions, but by and large if a feat ties you into the setting, the reward is probably a (non-stackable) +2 to two skills.

There's a good reason for this. The more mechanically desirable a feat is, the fewer constraints you want to put on it. So many different types of characters are going to want to use two weapon fighting that you don't want to limit it in any way, so it's built to be generic.[1]

Second, feats tend to be a little bit too small.  Feat _chains_ (usually 2 or 3 feats) often tell a story (even if that story is 'I'm a two weapon fighter') but a given feat usually just teases at what it could be.  Again, there's a good reason for this - small rewards can come more frequently which is fun for players.

Intellectually, I acknowledge the good reasons for the way feats are, but they always result in some disappointment on my part.  I always want them to be a little bit more.

There are ways to fix this, of course. Lots of different ways. But that's it's own post, and one that may wait until we see the 13th Age SRD.

1 - Most exceptions to this are racial, and that's true in 13th Age as well.  That's a serious bit of D&D legacy which is, I think, almost habitual by now. It's also a tacit acknowledgment that it's hard to make races awesome and balanced at the same time, so a lot of racial awesome gets offloaded to feats.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Quick 13th Age thought

The obvious hack for 13th Age + Eberron is to make the 13 Dragonmarked houses into the icons.  Yeah, sure, you'll want some feats for Dragonmarks[1], blah blah blah, but that's the easy part.  I'm more curious what happens when you refocus Icons in this fashion.

The most self-evident change may be the least important. Yes, replacing the Icons as individuals with organizations removes the possibility of a personal relationship, but as I've noted before, Icons are also their organization, and that organization is the part players will usually interact with. With the switch to houses, that part remains the same.  Now, you'll probably need to populate the houses in a way that interests your players (since names and faces are still critical) but that's a good practice anyway.

What intrigues me is that in doing this you are explicitly *not* encompassing the world with the Icons.  The Dragonmarked houses are just one axis of the setting, and using them (rather than, say, the various kings and such) makes a statement about what kind of game this will be.  That is, it is a game that is going to center around the intrigues, conflicts and alliances of the great houses. The other setting elements still exist, but they will be encountered through this lens.

This fascinates me.  It takes the broad, kitchen sink nature of the average setting, and pare it down to a thematic core.  Want to use the setting again for a different type of game?  Use a different set of icons!

Now, there's something similar that happens when you look solely at the subset of icons that players choose, and one might argue that you could offer any number of icons in a setting, then focus on using only the ones that players choose. This definitely makes for a strongly player-directed game, but I don't like it quite as much as the great houses approach because it produces too clean a dataset.  There's nothing thematically tying the players interests together, and there are no rough edges of things that are important to the game, but not personal to the players.

Why does that matter?  It provides a necessary contrast.  When a setting revolves too strongly around players, it can start to ring false.  One good safeguard against that is to make sure that the setting has elements that are important, but not personal to the PCs.  Not too many, of course, but enough to make the world feel alive.

Anyway, I keep thinking of other ways to apply the Icons model, and for some reason, Eberron popped into my mind today, and I figured I'd capture it.

1 - And while we're at it, make them cool. Dragonmarks were always much more interesting as described than as mechanically implemented.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

System, Hold the Math

Just to illustrate something, here are a pair of systems that you can use as a basis for resolution.  They share two key characteristics - neither is math dependent but both are heavily expectations dependent.

Math is, I hope, self explanatory, but expectations are another matter. What that means is that they depend on the entire table sharing a reasonably common set of expectations regarding what can or cannot be done.  This tends to demand that the game be strong rooted in the real world, or be of a genre that the table knows well.   Most fantastic settings are problematic in this regard because the limits of magic or other supernatural elements can be much harder to intuit. Not to say this is impossible to overcome - sufficient familiarity of flexibility can find a way to deal with this, but it's a hurdle all the same.

As an example, consider the difference between running a game about normal kids at boarding school vs a Harry Potter game. Because the limits of what magic can and cannot do are so loosely defined within the Harry Potter world, you run the risk of a disconnect whenever players decide to address a situation with magic.

This idea of expectations is an implicit part of a lot of lighter games.  The reason they can get away with leaving out rules for a of of situations is that the table already understands those issues to sufficient resolution to allow play.  More detailed rules are a useful way to bring together a group that does not have a shared understanding, but they're certainly not always necessary.

(I am, by the way, really really interested in the idea of expectations. I think it's a keystone of gaming, but that's another topic.)

Anyway, expectations are important to both of these systems since they hinge on some of the ideas I've discussed in skills, specifically that if a character tries something they can succeed (modulo delay, sloppy work and so on) but not every character can try every thing.  This may require a healthy "no" (another topic for another time) occasionally, but the closer the table's expectations, the less often that should happen.

System 1: Oracle Dice

Requires: 4 Fudge Dice

Process: When the character is faced with something that demands rolling, have a shared understanding of what will happen if nothing goes right or wrong.  This will usually be success, but the situation may complicate it. Once that understanding is in place, roll 4 fudge dice.

If they all come up blank, things proceed according to the default established before the roll, simple as that.  However, each [-] that comes up is something that goes wrong (Dropper a wrench), and every [+] that comes up is something that goes well ("this is UNIX! I KNow this!").  These unexpected twists are narrated by the player by default (and their implications interpreted by the GM) but the player may hand that responsibility off to the GM if he is so inclined.

Optional Rule #1: Players less interested in narration and twists may allow a [+] and a [-] to cancel out.

Optional Rule #2: Differing levels of player skill or situational complication can be represented by setting rather than rolling some dice.  For example, consider the following skill ladder:

0 - No skill, no chance, shouldn't even roll.
J - Secondary skill. Not something the character can normally do, but something they *might* be able to do, like Han Solo overriding a security lock.  Set one die at [-] then roll the other 3.
Q - Skilled - This is what you do. Roll the dice normally.
K - Extra awesomeness. Set one of the dice at [+] then roll the other 3.
A - Egregious awesomeness. Set 2 dice at [+] and roll the other 2.

Similarly, the GM may set some number of dice before the roll to reflect the situation being particularly favorable or unfavorable.  For ease of use, this unrolled dice cancel each other out, so a secondary skill ([-]) character with just the right tool ([+]) will roll 4 dice with none pre-set.  If there are more than 2 fixes plusses, reconsider calling for a roll.  If there are more than 2 fixed minuses, no such caution is called for, so long as everyone knows things are about to get ugly.

System #2: Throughline

Requires: At least 4 Fudge dice, but a big pile of them is cooler

Process: Before play begins, roll the fudge dice and leave them in the middle of the table. Play proceeds until the time comes to roll the dice (assuming a situation where the character's actions remain within the sphere of expectations) and the player picks one of the dice from the middle of the table.

If it's a +, things go well, the situation turns in the character's favor.

If it's a -, things go to hell.  Character still succeeds, but it sucks in some way. There's a price. Things go wrong. Whatever. Fail forward.

If it's a blank, then roll it. Resolve a + or - normally.  If it comes up blank again, the player has two options: accept a boring success, or escalate.  A boring success is just that - success, but no particular direction with it. Escalation means that before the situation is resolved, the stakes are raised. More is on the line, success and failure get bigger.  And the die is rolled again, repeating the process.

(Really, when you can, you should always, escalate, but the path to escalation is not always obvious.  The boring success options is mostly for situations where that's not practical.)

After resolution. roll the die and put it back in the middle of the table with the others.

Option #1: If you have enough fudge dice, you can build a physical chain of outcomes as the dice get used.  This is kind of cool, but not actually useful.

(That said, if you're a fan of McKee or Laws, then the jump from this to narrative up and down beats is a pretty easy one to make.)

Option #2: This assumes a community pool - it's entirely possible to make the pools personal (giving each player their own "arc") but that adds extra bookeeping.


They're both very simple systems, but I hope thy illustrate ways you can change how you think about skill rolls.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

More Skills

So many good comments on the last post that I really can't process them, except to note that they resulted in my digesting them, and lead to this.

Ok, let's start from a premise:  If you roll the dice, you'll succeed.

The idea behind this is pretty simple - if your character is one who is capable of doing something, then that's reflected in their skills.  Fighter-guy does not get to roll to pick locks and hope he rolls a 20, and mage guy does not get to try to break down a door and hope the same[1].   So this makes the foundational decision into one of whether or not the player gets to roll.

So, why might you not be able to roll?

First and foremost, you might not have the appropriate skill.  Simple enough.

Second, you might not have enough skill.  Even before we get into the details of what a roll means, there may be some rough tiering of skill levels that says "basic lockpicking is not enough to crack open Loki's security system - you need Epic lockpicking."  This could be its own topic, but for the moment, just file away that the possibility exists.

Third, you may be missing a key element.  It might be a physical limitation, like trying to hack a computer you can't physically access,  or it might be some piece of information, like the language you need to speak.

Fourth, because it might be too trivial to merit a roll.  Sometimes success just happens.

Now, given all that, what does a skill roll mean?  Now that success is not at question, it's now all about all the other things we talk about that make skill rolls interesting.  These are potentially different for any roll, but a few of the big categories include:

Time - Can this be done quickly or slowly? (QUICKLY/SLOWLY)
Quality - Will this be a well-crafted job, or held together with duct tape and spit? (WELL/POORLY)
Style - How good do you look doing it? (STYLISH/MESSY)[2]
Durability - Is this built to last, or is it just barely going to hold together? (DURABLE/FRAGILE)
Consequences - Situationally, what else might go wrong (or right)?[3]

All of these gain some meaning when you have a clear expectation of how things are going to go - all else being equal, that lock is going to take a few minutes to pick, for example.[4]  And they gain extra meaning from the context - a few minutes may be too long if the guards are on regular patrol.

Now, if we were going pure diceless, then we could view this as a currency swap.  Imagine each of those categories as a switch that could be -, 0 or +.  0 means it's as expected, + means it does well in that category, - means its less good.  In this case, the  the problem is that the lock needs to be picked QUICKLY, so the player offers a tradeoff, that it will be MESSY (that is to say, it will be obvious upon inspection that the lock has been picked).  That brings things to a net 0 (+1 for QUICKLY, -1 for AWKWARD) which is what the character needs to succeed.

When you add dice into the equation, then the dice become the currency - you need to roll well enough to improve on your base success.

Ok, this is getting abstract, so let me ground this: Let's take a basic success-counting system like the Storytelling System.  Core mechanic is simple: Roll a bunch of d10s, if any of them shows a success (7+), the roll is a success, with the number of successes coloring the outcome. We're cheating a bit because this system does have the option of failure, but we can handle that.

In this case, we assume that one success is effectively a "0 point" success, goign exactly as expected.  Extra successes can be "cashed in" to improve the quality and nature of the roll - so, if you roll 3 successes, you might opt to succeed QUICKLY and STYLISHLY.

This gives players a chance to be awesome a lot, but it also introduces an interesting tool into the GM's arsenal, since the same thinking can be applied to difficulties.  That is, the GM can set a few things at their negative values at the outset - a very fragile lock, for example, is going to be MESSY work, and if the player gets only one success, it's going to be MESSY.  A second success will be needed to cancel out that (but, importantly, there's no obligation to do so - if the player is ok with it being MESSY, he might use his successes to be QUICK).[5]

Obviously, this leaves a lot of territory uncovered (conflicts and contests jump to mind, though  I really like the prospect of contests where opponents push on different axes depending on their priorities) but hopefully the idea is reasonably clear.

1 - Is that a skill?  Sure, the same way running or climbing is.  There are a range of tasks that don't need the skill, but the skill represents that it's your thing.  You break down doors (or run or talk or whatever) 

2 - This may be the most mechanically toothless category, but humans are vain, and we like looking like we know what we're doing.

3 - Though, really, EVERYTHING is just a flavor of consequence

4 - Yes, the setting of expectations is powerful mojo, and we'll be getting to some of the mechanical hooks into that. 

5 - Did I just suggest that something might be double or triple QUICK? Why yes, yes I did, though what that means is a whole other topic.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Fragile Foundation of Skills

This is a rant.  I'm circling an idea, and if you read this, you get to watch.

There's a truism that gets rolled out from time to time when talking about old school D&D vs newer iterations (and more generally, old vs new games) and that is this: "No one fell off a horse before there was a riding skill."

Now, the sentiment behind this is couched int he idea of letting the player describe what they are doing, such as riding a horse, unless there's a good reason otherwise.  In this mode of thinking, the introduction of the skill has created a barrier to play, and is an unwelcome addition to something that exists primarily in the imagination.  Extrapolated, this can be applied to a lot of rules, including things like feats and powers, because without the rules, players were free to do these things anyway, using the descriptive tools at thier disposal.

Now, I admit I'm skeptical of this argument as a whole. It's not that older games did not allow for this range of action, but there are procedural and presentation differences that tend to get skimmed past in the discussion.  However, I think it's a great argument for something other than what it's used for.  See, the problem is not that skill systems intrinsically suck, it's just that most skill system _implementations_ suck. And I blame the dice.

See, our first thought in terms of what skills mean in an RPG is a value that we roll to succeed or fail.  Can you climb that wall? Can you pick that lock?  Roll the dice and find out.  Because that's how we handled attacking things, we just extrapolated it into skills.   Because combat was based on a pass-fail (hit/miss) model, skills were built the same way, so the riding skill introduced an option for failure where none had existed before.  That's an implementation failure, and one we've carried with us.

The problem is,  this model sucks so badly that we've had to spend years evolving ways to make failure on these rolls is interesting and keeps things moving forward which is a lot of work to solve something that maybe should not have been a problem in the first place.  So I find myself wondering - If we were truly building from scratch, what would a skill really be?

First and foremost, it would be an **opportunity** to act.   Skills determine who does what.  In both real life and fiction, when presented with a challenge, you will more often than not fave a fairly binary question of whether or not this is something that you have the skills for or do not.  In real life, you can drive a car or you can't. In fiction, either someone knows demolitions or they don't.  Rather than providing guidance on how we roll the dice, they could provide guidance on _when_ we roll the dice (and one answer would be 'much less often').

Now, obviously, there's some sophistication to this.  Skills are not purely binary, and you need to reflect both very low and very high skills appropriately, but that's not too great a challenge.  Low skill invites more randomization and crappy successes, no problem.  High skills just require a solid understanding of what the tiering of skills means, but it still can come out in what dice aren't rolled - effectively, lower tier skill may mean more things you're "unskilled" at.[1]

Second, when they're in play, skills are usually one of two axes - it is rarely an interesting question to ask "Will she succeed?" but it is often quite rewarding to ask "Will she succeed (before time runs out | before the guards arrive | in catching the idol without stopping the protective chant| | etc.)?"[2]  This question at least re-introduces a role for uncertainty, but it depends on a different understanding of skills, and it tends to easily fall apart as soon as the GM starts calling for skill rolls without making sure the other Axis is in place.

The third point brings us back to horses, and answers the question of why use skills at all. To me, that one is simple - it's a strong tool for character differentiator.  Just like the crew in a caper heist, when characters have a thing that they do, that's an important characteristic.  If one guy is the rider, then he needs some way to be awesome at it, because that's his thing.[3] It is valuabel to have the game recognize that coolness.

Lastly, if done from scratch, I don't think skills would be beholden to the mathematical logic of combat which demands that we use a system that _allows_ you to really suck badly at a skill for a long time.  It's not fun, not dramatic, and not satisfying to anyone (but by god, it's consistent with combat!).

I dunno. I doubt we can ever really do a full skill system from scratch.  I think the mindpool is already pretty infected, and I haven't even touched on the dangerous areas like skill granularity, combat skills or the line between skills and powers.   But I think it's worth thinking about if only to help try to catch our assumptions about how we intuit that skills _should_ work, because if we can bust that, we can make some interesting stuff.

1 - It's also a genre consideration.  In many genres, certain skills are universal (everyone can fight, everyone knows how to kick a pocket and so on) and those establish a baseline.  In that case, a character is noteworthy for either excelling in that arena, or having less-than-baseline capability. This consideration should totally have been applied to the riding skill - it would have saved us years of headaches.

2 - It's a little telling that I had to think hard to come up with a qualifier other than "before".  Makes me onder if the simplest change to any skill system is to do what we do with research in SOTC - the roll is nto to see if you succeed, the roll is to see how long it take syou to succeed.

3 - The cheap way to do this is to make everyoen else suck at it.  This is roughly akin to writng a character as smart by making everyone around them stupid.  It is a TERRIBLE trick, and best never used ever.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Moving Pieces

This started out as another 13th Age post, but I ended up tabling it as a bigger issue came up in discussion which, I think, crystallized a few thoughts about games, how they're run and how they're played.

Now, here's the caveat up front: I'm speaking in broad generalizations here, not making assertions about anyone's experience. 

Ok, so with that out of the way, I have been thinking a bit about some of the divergence in assumptions that emerges over time with play.  When we start out, there's often a lot of similarity, if only because there's a certain commonality to inexperience.  As GM's, we stick to the script, and as players we take our cues from what's going on and try not to push things further until we are a lot more comfortable with all these weird lines and numbers.  Speaking broadly, the GM is offering static content and players are largely reactive.[1]  

This is, assuming everyone is well intentioned, a very safe space to play in.  It's a great opportunity for both sides to learn the ropes, and with time, it allows the group to start pushing boundaries that interest them (whether mechanical, narrative or otherwise).  It also suits fairly constrained play, whether that's a dungeon crawl or an adventure on rails. 

Now, if the GM starts getting a little bit more dynamic in her gameplay, things shift.  Functionally, this is the point where NPCs stop having scripts and start having agendas, and their interplay and actions provide a backdrop for play. Even if players are still reactive, they have a lot more that they can react to, and they can forge alliances, foil plots and generally make heroic nuisances of themselves.  This is good fun, and it really makes a world feel more alive because there are clear reactions to player actions.

This also ends up being very useful for larger games (including many LARPS) because agendas are easier to play and communicate than bombarding people with raw data.  However, this also highlights a potential weakness of this approach - it's not hard for it to turn into a puppet show, where players just get to watch cool people do cool things. 

In the other direction, if the GM still pretty much just responds to the player's needs but the player's start taking the bull by the horns and deciding what they want to do and how they're going to go about it,  the nature of play changes similarly.  The GM is no longer plopping adventures in front of the players, and instead play is emerging naturally from the things the players are trying to do.[2]  This is also pretty awesome because, presumably, the players are interested in what it is they're doing.[3]

And, of course, if you have both a dynamic setting and proactive players, then it's pretty much non-stop action, provided you can keep all the balls in the air.

Ok, so this is all well and good, but I want to call something out here: the purpose of this map is not to suggest some sort of path of improvement or Gartner style best performers.  Each quadrant of this offers the opportunity for awesome (or crappy) play, and the boundaries between them get absolutely fuzzy.  The purpose of these quadrants is not to suggest that you should seek your fun elsewhere, but rather, to offer insight on where other people find their fun.

Why is this important?  I occasionally talk to GMs who are running good games who wonder if they're doing something wrong because they're not doing X or Y.  Usually, X or Y is something that totally works in another quadrant, and which will only bring them pain if they try it as is (or leads to "we tried it and it sucked" stories).  The quadrants hopefully can remind a GM that they want to solve their problems, not someone else's (and maybe illustrate why someone else is having fun with something you'd never enjoy).

Now, yes, obviously, there's also the element that if your current quadrant isn't working for you, it's good to know that others exist in case you're looking for direction for other things to try.  But it's important to note that this is the difference between understanding the options and evangelizing one option over another. 

I've played in all 4 quadrants, and I've had an awesome time in each one (sometimes within the same game). I'm very resistant to static/reactive unless I know that's the deal going in, at which point I'll buy in whole hog.  Dynamic/reactive requires a lot of trust on my part, but I love it when it works.  Static/proactive allows for great games, but its often more work than I'm really inclined towards as player a lot of the time.  Dynamic/Proactive is awesome, but tricky to sustain.   All of which is to underscore - this is not a grading system, it's just a way to maybe get a grasp on what other people enjoy rocking out to.

1 - While this was the historical entry point for RPGs, that's no longer a safe assumption.  Nowadays, there's a lot of entry from other corners, especially the upper left.  Mostly, that just underscores that there's no right progression through this, it's just a yardstick for taste.  But it also tends to assume a novice entering an experienced group, which has always been a vector of entry.  Obviously, if a player enters with a existing group, they'll be drawn to whatever space that group occupies. The lower left is a natural direction if no one has experience.

2 - This illustrates one particular subtlety about sandbox play - letting players do anything is easy. Letting players do anything and making sure it stays interesting takes work. 

3 - Additional bit of fun - this quadrant contains a lot of narrative games as well as hard core old school sandbox play. The commonality is that players are the ones calling the tune.


Sometime after I finished this post, I ended up expanding the diagram into a 3x3 beast, which I now present without comment:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Iconic Examples

So, here are a few specific tricks you might want to consider to build an interesting Icon set:

The Icon Deck
One interesting thing about the existing 13 Icons is that they're not hard to map to half of the greater arcana of the Tarot deck. Some of that is probably intentional, but it's also almost inescapable because fortune-telling and iconic characters use the same kind of broad, recognizable strokes that it's easy to map from one to the other.

So, given that, pick the method of your choice: Tarot Cards, Viking Runes, the I-Ching - whatever floats your boat, and assign the existing Icons to it.   Then, look at the unassigned elements, and start creating Icons based on those, using some of the guidelines I talked about yesterday (specifically, put some thought into the places each one suggests).  I like Tarot for this, but that's just me.[1]

When you're done, you'll have more Icons than you can use, and that's great.  Now pick 13 of them at random, and figure out what kind of world that creates.  Or if you want some collaboration, have each player pick one, then select the rest at random.  The idea is to create unexpected combinations and see if they ignite the spark of creation.

The Family
One of the first things that struck me about the Icons model was how easily it mapped to the Amber DRPG.  For the unfamiliar, characters in Amber are the children of the Princes and Princesses of Amber, all of whom are potent, iconic characters in their own right.  Amber is very nearly the definitive "characters as setting" game, since almost everything else outside the characters is subject to redefinition.  Now, while a lot of the strength of Zelazny's character's came from his ability to sketch with a few bold strokes, there's nothing that says you can't attempt to steal his thunder a bit. A game where the Icons are a fairly tightly knit group (like a family) can have a really strong interpersonal dynamic.

Curiously, with just a small tweak, this applies just as easily to supers.  It would not be hard to pick 13 Icons from DC or Marvel and use them as the basis for a game.  Obviously, which 13 you pick will say a lot about your game,  but that's half the fun of it.

The Old Ones
When 3e came out, White Wolf released a very interesting setting called The Scarred Lands.  One of its core conceits was that the defeat of the Titans by the gods was not terribly long ago, and the dead or bound titans cast a huge shadow across the setting. For example, one's heart had been ripped out and he'd been chained at the bottom of the sea. Because the wound bled constantly, that whole area of ocean was red with it, and tainted with his essence.

If you were to model this with Icons, you would have a very interesting arrangement because these Icons would explicitly not be active, but they would still have factions surrounding them (lingering worshippers, those tainted and so on).  What's more, it would be a very lopsided set of icons, since the real story is how the world manages to move forward while still bearing the burden of these things.  By making them the icons (rather than making them SOME of the icons, but also putting icons at odds with them) then you make them central to play, but often in an unwelcome way.

Turned up a notch or two, this is also a great way to use Icons in a horror context.  If all the Icons in your game are Great Old Ones or Lords of Ravenloft, then it's pretty clear the odds are stacked way the hell against you.  The bulk of play is in opposition to these forces, but the sheer scope of them means that maybe it's worth risking a complicated (or even positive) relationship with a perceived "lesser evil" in order to fight on.

Hidden Icons
Suppose not all the Icons are known to the players at the outset of the game.  They will be revealed over time and as a result of events in play, and it's expected that player's relationships will change or evolve over time.   This is particularly useful for two sorts of game.

First, this is a great way to model a world in flux, such as is the case in the classic Dragonlance adventures.  The existing Icons are in a rough sort of stasis, but the introduction of new Icons throws everything into disarray.

Second, it's a good way to model characters whose eyes are opened to a deeper, secret world, as is appropriate for many conspiracy or espionage focused games.

It should go without saying, but in both of these cases, players should know what's up.  Even if they don't know what new Icons wil be revealed (though many players can handled that out of character knowledge quite well) they should know what the GM has planned in broad strokes.  You're trying to make for a cool experience, not trick the players.

One other subtrick for this - you can occasionally use a proxy icon when you have a mystery threat, where the apparent Icon is actually the servant of the Real Icon.  If one Icon is the main villain or threat of your game, this basically allows you to treat that icon as a procession of bosses, which might be cool, especially if you're feeling kind of video-gamey. And speaking of which...

The Crew
So, I was thinking about Mass Effect, and what Icons I would use for that.  A few obvious ones jumped out - Harbinger, Hacket, The Shadow Broker, The Illusive Man, The Council and such, but I eventually petered out.  And that lead to the weird realization that I would probably round out the list with Garrus, Liara, Tali, Wrex and the others, and that suggested something weird.

It's almost an inversion of the Old Ones model, but imagine if the Icons (or more aptly, Anchors) for your game were those people closest to you. It upends the relationship, putting the hero in the primary position, and making the Anchors primarily responsive/reactive.  It's a really weird idea, unless you've played any Bioware RPGs, in which case you're pretty comfortable with the idea that your relationships with the NPCs around you is one of the major avenues of play.

So, yeah, this is kind of a weird, one, and maybe not a great match, but I want to call it out because it has me thinking.


I may have one more 13th Age post in me. We'll see after I've gotten some sleep.

1 - If you have a real dedication to this, using an Everway fortune deck would be three kinds of awesomesauce. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Icons and Anchors

So, one fun thing to do with the Icons system from 13th Age is to start mapping it onto fiction and game settings you like.  I've done it several times, and I encounter an interesting pattern  - the first few Icons of any setting tend to be very easy to come up with, but somewhere before the half-dozen mark, I run out and start grasping at straws.

At first blush, this seems like a problem with the model and that maybe 13 Icons is too many, but I suspect there's a bit of a trick to that:  if, say, 3-4 is the "normal" number of Icon-equivalents in fictions, then each character has enough for their own story to be complete, and there's a big enough pool to make sure that every player has a distinct combination.[1]  Still, even with that in mind, I found myself bumping against a limit in using the Icons model for certain sorts of setting, but still wanting to use the model.

See, the thing that sets the Icons model apart from other approaches is the implicit importance of the Icons.  As I noted yesterday, they're definitive of the setting, and they have implicit infrastructure surrounding them which the characters hook into. Icon creation _is_ setting creation, and that's really awesome.

But it's big.  And while big and sweeping can totally rock at times, sometimes you want a little bit less scope, and in such a case, I would use Anchors.[2]  That is to say, suppose that rather than picking 13 people who defined the world, you simply picked 13 people?  The connection to them does not necessarily bring with it great scope, but it does open the doors to more personal connections.  If one of the 13 is your mom, but also someone else's romantic conquest, then you have a dynamic right there.

Anchors also work if you want to take the Icons idea down to a smaller scale - the idea that I am perhaps most excited to do is to use the model to build a single city.  Rather than being the movers and shakers of the world, consider the important folks of the city: Merchants, crime bosses, mayors and mercenaries. Like Icons, they create implicit infrastructure and put faces on the factions of the city (sooooooper important) but they do so on a much smaller scale.

Now, functionally, isn't that the same as Icons?  Yes, kind of, but the issue of scale is not entirely sleight of hand.  Icons are more or less untouchable - impacting or changing them redefines the game.  Anchors are closer to the ground (and, well, a bit less iconic) and while they may be powerful or important, they're not untouchable.  They also may or may not be essential to their faction.  If an Icon dies, it should devastate the group it represents.  If an anchor dies (depending on circumstances) they may simply be replaced.

Hell, you can mix and match if you want - If you ran a Waterdeep game with 12 Anchors and 1 Icon (say, Khelben Blackstaff), it could work fine so long as the icon is at rough parity within the scope of Waterdeep (this model probably applies to most of the Forgotten Realms, as I think about it).

Also, it's not necessary that the anchors be even locally powerful.  All that really matters is that they be tied into the story/setting at hand.  Hell, there's no reason you could not use Anchors as the basis for adventure design, depending on much more disposable relationships and characters.

So, this is me shamelessly stealing the ease-of-explanation of the Icons model to use it for some other approaches to setting and adventure design I dig.  It's not the only hack the model supports, but it's definitely the first one in my mind.  And tomorrow, we'll start breaking out some more concrete hacks.

1- If they want to. One obvious bit of game setup foo is, of course, the question of overlapping Icons. I suspect the number of overlapping Icons has a very concrete impact on a game, and mandating certain connections (like, each player must have 1 Icon in common) can build certain types of relationships and games (much the same way you could, in 3e, have everyone have 1 level of the same class to represent some common background)

2 - Yeah, there's hubris in naming it, but it makes it easier to talk about. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Personal Icons

Ok, so now that you've got the idea of icons, what can you do?

First and foremost, you can use them.  The 13 in the rules are rock solid, and the text provides lots of interesting guidelines on customizing them.  As is the nature of iconic characters, you have a lot of leeway around the core concept that can let you do a whole hell of a lot with the tools on the table.

But for many of us, the urge to create is too strong, and the first and most straightforward thing to do is to roll your own.  This may be because you want to translate the ideas to a familiar setting, and there are existing NPCs who seem like they could fill the Icon's roles, or it may be just because you want to create something new from scratch.

If you're doing this for a setting you already know and love, I don't have a lot of advice.  You presumably are already invested enough in the setting that you have a good sense of what you want to see out of your icons. My only piece of advice is to really buy into the Icon model (or at least into Anchors). A lot of settings have very well fleshed out factions, and your job as a GM is to replace the faction with its Icon.  This can sometimes require doing a little bit of violence to the concept of the faction, since most are usually written up with the idea first and the leader second, but so long as you really buy into it, you can do it.

Similarly, don't hesitate to prune a bit. Many really interesting setting have more factions and potential icons than you really want to have in play all at once.  13 is a good number, and I'd be careful going too far afield from it.[1] Not every faction necessarily needs to have an icon, especially if the factions themselves are major subgroups.  For example, I'm very fond of Fading Suns, a wonderful dark sci-fi game. By memory, it has an emperor, 5 noble houses, 5 merchant guilds, 5 church factions, 2 major friendly alien races, 1 major unfriendly alien race, 1 not friend/not enemy alien race, plus diabolists and two flavors of barbarian. That would be over twenty icons, which would just be crazy.

In that situation, figure out how to aggregate a few of them, and take advantage of the multiple factions to underscore the politics of things - if you have 2 Icons who are nobles, then you have implicitly created the lines along which the nobles have lined up.  If you have one Icon for The Church, that encompasses all the sub-factions, but if you pop out one sub-faction (say, the Inquisition) then you'e just highlighted what will be important in your game.  Don't intend Barbarians to come up much in your game? Don't bother giving them an Icon at all.  As you make these choices, you are answering questions of what your game is going to be about.

If you're doing it from scratch consider a few of the subtleties that went into the existing icons.

First, each one has a concrete, pursuable agenda (or, barring that, a very active modus operandi).  This means that while it's important what Icons are, what they do is even more important. Why is this important to designing a new Icon?  Because it means you don't need to sit down and calculate some kind of sophisticated relationship map to make sure all your Icons interact properly.  If they are driven, then the points of overlap and conflict will make themselves apparent, and that dynamism will evolve organically.

Second, and perhaps most obviously, no Icons exist in a vacuum. They have agents, followers, servants or the like - they are the faces of the most important factions of the world.  When you think about an Icon, think about the people that surrounds it (and by extension, why the icon would want to interact with adventurer types).

Last (and this is a great trick) notice that Icons built the map in 13th Age.  Most of the Icons are tied into one or more locations, and when you introduce an Icon, you're going to want to think about the impact on geography.  At the very least, most Icons have a seat of power, but many Icons also imply locations by their existence. The Dwarf King, for example, implies the existence of the lost dwarven kingdoms as well as his current city.   Sometimes the locations aren't locations s much as features - the Archmage is tied to the system of geomantic wards, for example, but the idea holds.

Note that the locations are not all unique.  Both the Emperor and the Lich King suggest an empire. The Elf Queen (via dark elves) and the Dwarf King both suggest an underdark.  The Diabolist and the Great Gold Wyrm both suggest the Abyss.  Bear this in mind when you remove or add an Icon - what locations are you removing ties to, what new locations are you introducing, and what existing locations are you changing the dynamic on?  Consider, for example, how the Abyss changes if you keep the Diabolist but remove the Great Golden Wyrm.

Anyway, those are things to keep in mind if you just want to hack the existing 13th age model.  Tomorrow, we're going to hack it a little further with the idea of Anchors.

1 - I say to you right now, the one concept I will cheerfully accept 16 Icons for is this: Plansecape. One for each faction, plus the Lady of Pain herself.  I have no words for how well that could work.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Icons and d20Tech

So, please take it as a given that 13th Age is going to be a great game.  It's got some great minds behind it, and it really feels like it takes d20, combines a few of the good lessons from 4e, and makes a "good parts version" of d20.  The last d20 game that made me stand up and take notice to this extent was Blue Rose (the precursor to the excellent True20 line from Green Ronin).[1]

So, given that, it's still curious that the most powerful idea in it has very little to do with the rules, and that is Icons.   You can read more about them at Pelgrane's site (and in other place - it's a popular topic) and I want to draw a circle around it as an important idea that's going to see a lot of emulation down the line.

The Icon model is a logical extension of the idea of NPCs as setting.  This is not a new idea, but it's a very clever implementation of it which presents the idea so clearly that I suspect it will become the common parlance for the concept.  In short, there are 13 powerful, iconic being in the setting and each PC is connected to at least two of them (for good or ill).   These icons are tightly tied to the setting - so much so that the setting itself can be sketched rather thinly around them.  They are not remote beings or gods - they are tightly tied to the day to day world, and the tie to the PCs means that PCs are similarly close to the centers of power.

At first glance, this is interesting, but maybe not compelling. However, there are some subtleties baked into this that really flesh it out.

The first, and probably most subtle, is the fact that the connection does not always manifest directly.  This is backed by the mechanics (you can call upon a connection in situations where the icon would never just show up) but the concept is straightforward - that connection implicitly includes a connection to the entirety of that Icon's "faction" - whatever organization, allies or otherwise they may have. And note, those factions are loosely sketched at best - they're an avenue for GM and player creativity, which is a nice bonus.

Now, in the hands of a lame GM, this could be an excuse to undercut the whole connection mechanic, by perpetually keeping PCs at arms length from the Icon in the worst traditions of clan-based play, but the risk of misuse is the price you pay for any good tool.  As presented, it is a means to flesh out the setting in line with player needs AND to draw the player into the world.

The second thing is that it drives a very interesting choice: the game does not guarantee that PCs will be powerful, but it does guarantee that they will be prominent. Not to say they can't also be powerful, but by necessity, they will be drawn into matters of grave import, as absolutely suits the particular flavor of fiction that 13th Age embraces.  This is an upshot of the icon-centric setting design, and it's pretty powerful mojo.

Now, I mean no sleight to the specific Icons of the 13th Age setting, but I know that my very first instinct is to build my own setting around a different set of Icons, and I suspect that impulse is far from uncommon.  In addition to building an interesting, playable world, 13th Age is presenting a tool for setting design which - to my mind - pushes setting technology forward dramatically.  Other games (Dresden Files, Burning Empires) have made similar pushes, but 13th Age has managed to do it in a way that is easy to illustrate, explain and (most importantly), re-use.  That is a big deal, and I am duly impressed.

Which is, of course, no reason not to hack it some more. But that's another post.

1 - D20 evolution has an interesting cycle which I will grossly generalize as follows: A small number of games push the boundaries of what the game is, and a larger number of them expand and refine on the model.  Games like Blue Rose and 13th Age push things, and things like Pathfinder refine them.  This does not make the "push" games better - refinement and expansion is also essential - but it does make for a difference in what to expect from the game.  It also invites debate regarding which games push and which ones refine, and there's a good chance that the ones that a given player think push are the ones the like best, but that's neither here nor there.  The bottom line is that I feel that 13th Age pushes d20 forward, and (assuming they feed back into the OGL) improves the technology for everyone.