Saturday, November 27, 2010

Game design by idiots, part II

Oh, how I love the way that Google Buzz doesn't link into Google Blogger...

Sam H - System wise, I like the idea.
In terms of implementation, perhaps have x number of skill slots, and the player can fill them as they first come across the need. This allows relevent skills to be useful early on (and thus preventing early death). For character advancement, new blank skill slots?

Stats - I'd let Strength apply both physically and mentally. How do you envisage the bad things for running out of a stat?

I like all the settings apart from 01A, because like you I don't see how it works

Good feedback, Sam. The idea of having instantly assignable skills is interesting, and i've seen something similar used for languages in Gumshoe games (in which you just state that you know X number of languages, and assign them as and when the need arises). 

My thinking behind the free form skill system, which I didn't articulate in the last post, is that there exists a contract between player and GM. As a player, if I buy a skill, I want, no, expect, the opportunity to use it, otherwise I expect the GM to have a quiet word and tell me to spend my XP on something else, and possibly suggest an alternative that the group may require in the next couple of sessions.
I also expect GMs to tailor challenges within a game so that they are challenging to a party, and don't require specific skills the party do not possess to overcome.
Let me rephrase that - that don't require specific skills the party do not possess to survive. There's nothing wrong with non-essential encounters that require a specific skill set to beat, as long as the main plot or the characters survival do not depend on success.
Failure builds character.

I digress.
A contract between player and GM. 
I have started writing up my system, and in it I explicitly state that a player and GM must agree on a skill as it is chosen - what it is, how it works, what it covers and most importantly that the player character is allowed to take it. 
By buying the skill, the player agrees not to take the piss, and by allowing it, the GM agrees to give the player opportunity to use it. 
This is a bit deus ex machina, but plays out like a TV serial in which a new mcguffin, fact or ability is introduced at the beginning of the episode, and oddly becomes crucial to the resolution of the plot about ten minutes from the end.

So, at character creation, I have specified that players should initially choose two skills, one which they think would be useful to the group, and one which they think is cool.
The GM then designs the game sessions to call upon these skills. All other actions should then be achievable through a basic die roll or through the expenditure of Strength, Sanity or Luck.

Also, failure on a dice roll does not have to mean that a character does not perform the action - they could still scale the wall, but twist their ankle as they climb down the other side, or hack into the bad guys computer and access his files, but download a virus at the same time.

The uses of Strength and Sanity are pretty interchangeable, you just have to come up with a reason why Sanity is applicable to the physical action you are attempting, instead of the default Strength. 

Strength also acts as a characters hit points / health levels, so it's best not to burn the one stat at the expense of the other. 

What happens if you run out of either stat?
Here's an extract from my notes:

Running on Empty
What happens when a character exhausts their reserves of StrengthSanity or Luck?
A character can lose Strength due to two reasons - they can burn it, or they can sustain damage. If a characters last point of Strength is lost due to damage, the character falls unconscious for 1d6 minutes. After this time they regain consciousness, but are weak and in great pain. They can only walk slowly, or crawl, and any sudden or vigorous exertion will cause them to pass out again for another 1d6 minutes. Any further damage sustained whilst on zero Strength permanently reduces the characters maximum Strength score. Once a characters maximum Strength score is reduced to zero, they die. Trying to burn Strength whilst in this state counts as physical exertion. If this is attempted, the character does not gain an additional d6 for their roll, and passes out upon completion.
If the final point of Strength is burnt, the character does not immediately lose consciousness, but is totally exhausted, and does not have the energy to run or exert themselves. If they sustain any damage whilst exhausted, then the character will pass out for 1d6 minutes and lose a point of their maximum Strength  score and all affects described above will take affect.
When a character loses their last point of Sanity, they become emotionally exhausted, tired and unfocussed. They are quick to tears and quick to anger. 
If a character suffers further Sanity loss whilst on zero Sanity, they can develop and suffer from any number of severe phobias, extreme rage, obsessions, compulsions, ticks, delusions, experience paranoia or fall into a catatonic or fugue state, depending on the situation that caused the Sanity loss.
Running out of Luck does not impose any mechanical penalties, and a character can still function as normal, they just cannot benefit from burning Luck points. The Narrator, however, may wish to torment the character with a run of bad luck, unfortunate coincidences and fickle fate until the character regains at least one point of Luck.

I do like the concept of 01A, I just think it would work better as a hack of another system rather than shoe-horning it into this one.
Conceptually, it's a sci-fi mystery thriller. It's almost a superhero game, where all characters share the same origin - their mothers were artificially inseminated by the same alien/enhanced/bio-engineered/non-human (delete as appropriate) donor. The characters slowly realise that they are more than human, that they can do things and that there are numerous secret organisations - Government agencies, scientists, corporations, religions etc - that want to use, study, understand or destroy them.
So, setting wise, it would be a struggle to remain hidden whilst being hunted, not knowing who to trust, and trying  to discover the truth behind their parentage.
I know what I mean.
I think it would run better if the players didn't know they were playing it.

Anyways, good feedback and questions. Cheers Sam.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Game design by idiots

I've been toying with various game ideas - both setting and mechanics - for years now. The first game I ever ran, back in my halls of residence in 1996, was one I 'designed' myself.
It was rubbish, of course. You couldn't even say it was a good first effort.

Anyways, since then I have always felt the urge to design my own game, and have attempted to do so several times in the past. I have posted links to examples of these failed designs, such as Ghost Britain and the first attempt at Modern Mythic, in previous entries. Feel free to go back and have a look. 

At the moment I am mulling over a system and have started trying to pin it down on paper. 
It has a few (hopefully) simple core concepts. 
There are no defined skills. A character can attempt anything that the GM and player agree is theoretically possible, and the action is resolved by rolling a dice (any dice) with an even number being a success, and an odd number being a failure. 
My rudimentary grasp of maths tells me that this is a 50/50 chance. 

A player can add more dice to the roll in the following ways:

  • They can possess a relevant skill. Skills are not defined, and are free-form instead. Therefore one character could use their Murder skill to fight with, whilst the other could use their Bitch Slap skill (these are off the top of my head examples). Possessing a relevant skill allows the player to roll an additional dice
  • They can burn a point of their characters Strength or Sanity, which are slow refreshing resource pools. Strength is commonly used to augment physical actions, and Sanity for mental and social actions, although exceptions exist for compelling arguments (I burn a point of Strength to stay up all night researching this ancient language). Running out of Strength or Sanity are bad. Burning one point of either allows the player to roll an additional dice. Only one point of either stat may be burnt at a time.
  • A player can burn a point of Luck after a roll has been made to change the result of one dice. Luck can be spent to alter another players roll and even the GMs roll. Only one point can be spent at a time. Luck is a slow refreshing resource pool, like Strength and Sanity. Running out of Luck is also bad.
  • Certain bits of equipment may add a bonus dice, although these should be rare. I'd like to keep the number of dice rolled down with a cap of 3, making Luck a powerful stat.
Strength and Sanity also act as measures of a characters physical and mental health, whilst Luck can be used as a plot tool to get characters in the right (or wrong, if they've run out of Luck) place at the right time.

Damage drains either Strength or Sanity, and weapons do a set amount of damage.

I've been trying to draft up a basic intro to the rules, along with a character sheet and develop some settings for awhile now. Hopefully i'll be in a position to publish soon. Although probably not

I have a number of settings in mind, some of which feature rules variations.

  • Modern Mythic - the Vanilla setting, using the basic rules. Maybe with the addition of magic. Not sure yet. The setting is street level struggle between competing secret societies to possess and comprehend the secrets of the universe. These secrets are found in unexpected places, such as junk DNA, statistical data (such as the frequency of fatal to non-fatal car accidents in Calcutta) or audio recordings of one second of every single telephone conversation happening at midnight on Christmas Eve slowed down and played backwards. 
  • Danger Illustrated - A title i've had knocking around for over ten years. High adventure. Tomb robbing. Assassinations. Espionage. Danger Illustrated is an exclusive magazine available only to a select few (although it's probably a website in this day and age) that details where adventure can be found, for those brave enough to seize it. The system variation is that characters can burn multiple points of Strength, Sanity and/or Luck in one go, equal to a new Stat, Courage. This could also be applied to a pulp Sci-Fi setting as well.
  • Legend - A fantasy setting, in which all the characters have a great destiny, and are capable of performing legendary deeds related to that destiny. There's a new stat - Legend - that allows the character to perform one legendary deed per point of Legend a day, as long as it relates to their destiny. For example, a character with the destiny 'Greatest swordsman ever' would be able to automatically succeed at a number of legendary sword related feats each day equal to their Legend score, whilst a character with the destiny 'Powerful Archmage' would be able to cast a number of spells per day equal to the Legend score
  • 01A (Zero One Alpha) - A Sci-Fi setting, in which the characters discover that they are all related, that they all share the same biological father (but separate biological mothers), and that there are hundreds of them, scattered across the earth, all with a tattoo somewhere on their body with an alpha-numerical code that ranges between 01A and 99Ω. There are several possible explanations posited for this, from cloning to alien DNA, divine intervention to eugenics, with any number of motivations potentially driving them. The system variation would include psychic abilities and a stat called Potential, or maybe Perfection. Still not quite sure how it would work though.

The longview

[I found this draft post in my list, which I started, God, months ago. Hell, may as well post it]

Earlier today I was reading the Wikipedia entry for Pendragon, which states:

"...campaigns often carry over across generations, with players retiring their character and taking the role of that character's heir. This is quite different from most role-playing games, where one set of characters is played fairly intensively, and there is typically little consideration made of what happens to their family or descendants. The influence of this idea can be seen in the Ars Magica RPG, which also encourages stories taking years or decades to unfold..."

Which got me thinking - Should there be more games that focus on the long view? I can think of number of computer games that do - Populous, Black & White, Settlers et al. Games where the main premise is to develop a tribe into an empire, through technological and cultural change and compete against other similar tribes.

So why aren't there many RPGs with a similar focus? Pendragon follows a quest through generations, and Ars Magica develops the PCs Covenant, why don't we see games that do the same?

Infrequent monthly update

I've not really had time to concentrate on my hobby for, ooo, about a year now, and this blog has suffered. I apologise to my legion of followers (Alex, maybe Andy. Who knows who else).

I have been randomly becoming incredibly interested in specific games of late, Exalted being the most recent.
I have a love/hate thing going on with Exalted. I love the setting, I love a number of the game concepts, I hate the rules.
Unfortunately, certain aspects of the rules are entwined with the setting.

Earlier this week I started flicking through the main rules again, vowing to keep an open mind. I told myself that the basic rules structure was solid, and the weirdness came in as an exception stemming from the irregular use of charms (magic powers).
Yes and no.

Let's quickly go over some background. I own Exalted 2nd Edition. Back in 2005/6 I had to reduce the amount of crap I own, and decided that one way was to rationalise down my gaming books. I owned about 15 Exalted 1st Ed books, most of which I had never used. I also noted that the books were being superseded in the current edition - The first Sorcery book, the Book of Three Circles, was replaced by the Sorcerer and Savant book, which clearly stated that the spells and rules presented in Three Circles were broken, and should be replaced with the ones being presented within.
The Exalted Players Guide featured a chapter which basically said "The combat rules and weapon stats used in every book before this one, including the core rules, are broken. Use these rules instead".
Baring this in mind, I ditched all my 1st Ed books and committed to the 2nd Ed, which would incorporate all this errata and would clearly work.

2nd Edition rolled around, and mechanically it is a massive departure.
The first alarm bells started ringing when the first paragraph of the combat rules stated that trying to hit somebody was the most complicated thing you could do in Exalted.
I had my misgivings about 1st Ed combat, where we regularly ran out of dice during attack rolls. They were excellent compared to 2nd Ed combat rules.
Combat now has nine stages of resolution, including three stages of dice rolling to determine if you've actually damaged somebody.
The combat order abandons the traditional turn based concept made popular by every other game in existence and instead uses a varying speed action system - Combat takes place second by second, and different actions take different amounts of time, and different weapons strike with different speeds. A knife may be used to attack every three seconds, whilst a great axe may be used every six seconds. Weapons with a quick Rate of attack inflict less damage, whilst those with a slow Rate of attack inflict more damage. There are also accuracy and defence dice adds.
I find the Rate of attack system counter intuitive, as everywhere else in the game a big number equals a good stat, whilst a low Rate number is a good stat. Mental gears clashing.
It also means that you have to keep thinking about how long an action takes. I like the simplicity of knowing that an action always takes a turn, be that 3, 4 or 6 seconds (depending on games - White Wolf, Warhammer or D&D, I think). I don't like having to think 'This knife attack takes 3 seconds, whilst this move action takes 4 seconds and this bow attack takes 4 seconds and this tend wound action takes 5 seconds.'

The game also includes the concept of Social Combat, which applies combat rules to courtly debate and intrigue.
Why? What value does it add, other than making the social charms offensive? Well, it does allow munchkins to approach a roleplay situation as though it were a tactical assault, without having to worry about actual characterisation. That could be seen as as value add, although not by me.

I also have a massive problem with the editing and layout of the book. It's really badly written, falling back on formula at every step.
One of the main criticisms raised about writing for D&D by an acquaintance who wrote some d20 Judge Dredd material was having to come up with a new and interesting name for every feat, ability, spell and power. Exalted has a similar issue, and they have a set naming convention, which appears to be to unimaginatively add the words Prana, Stance, Mantra, Method, Meditation or Technique to the end of a power.
Charms are presented as trees and mapped out using flow chart boxes and arrows. 1st Edition actually mapped them out as trees. 2nd Edition, no doubt to conserve space, just presents a block of boxes with the minimal amount of space between them, and arrows crammed in at angles. It's poor visual management, it's poor documentation.

The developer tellingly didn't use the normal playtest methodology employed by other writers and developers, which is to circulate the game around established and differing groups and solicit feedback. Instead he just used his mates.
Which probably explains why there's so much errata being produced for 2nd Ed.

Now, there is a lot I love about Exalted, most of which is the setting. I like the way they've fused classical mythology with Wuxia/Manga and the established old World of Darkness mythology.
I like the defined world - geographically, politically, theologically etc.
I like the way that the setting is so open, you can legitimately play a wide range of games, from classic dungeon crawl to courtly intrigue to high fantasy sword and sorcery to insane martial arts to low fantasy grit to world exploration to epic world conquest to reality bending magical effects to simple quests.

One day i'll try applying the setting to a better system, or find somebody who has.