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.