Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The sweet spot: simple, creative, tactical

The resurgence in old-school gaming has highlighted the appeal of simple rpgs that foster creativity. There is a powerful appeal here. Remove the learning curve for the rules, and you can focus on the learning curve for play. Player skill becomes a matter of critical thinking and decision-making rather than rules mastery.

(This last bit raises issues of tension between roleplaying a character's decisions and making informed player choices, but this tension really applies to rules master as well: Can you really justify your character taking that highly-optimized feat combination?)

The place where games with more complicated rulesets can shine is in tactical options. (I don't mean just combat tactics here, but that's the most obvious place where they show up.) That's not to say that old-school games lack tactics - one of the advantages of such games is that players can try just about anything. Crazy ideas are often encouraged. What old-school games lack, though, are systems for tactics. Crazy ideas are often encouraged... but not always. If the GM thinks (correctly or incorrectly) that something is dumb, he can (and often will) smack the attempt down. There is, of course, a lot of variability here. Some GMs take great delight in "laying the smackdown" on what they see as dumb player choices.

What do systems for tactics get you?

First, it tells players that they can do this sort of stuff and gives them a rough idea of how effective it would be. Let's say I wanted to try to trip a giant. In an old-school game, the GM would decide if this was even possible. I might, then, get a random chance of success. It might be a better chance if I have a good plan. Still, it is unlikely that any two randomly selected GMs would give me the same odds of success. One might just rule it impossible. Another might think the idea was cool and give me a 75% chance of success. Contrast this with d20 games, for example, in which I would have a pretty good (though imperfect) idea of how likely I am to succeed... and whether success is even in the realm of possibility.

There's something to be said for that.

On the other hand, there are drawbacks: enumerating tactical options implies that these are your options. Creativity in tactics isn't necessarily encouraged here. Instead, you are encouraged to choose from the options given.

Perhaps more importantly, there's a lot of overhead in terms of rules to learn. I happen to like achieving rules mastery, but a high learning curve means that I have fewer people to play with and I spend more time teaching people how to play and looking up rules... when I could be playing instead.

So... is there a sweet spot? Simple rules that offer a tactical system that promotes creativity?

I think there is.

There might be rules out there that would do this. I'm not sure. There are certainly some that try: Savage Worlds and Fate come to mind. Fate , to me, comes closest to a system for creative tactics... but it still isn't quite there.

I feel like I'm groping toward something. Maybe it is a stripped-down Fate with a tweaked maneuver system...

If there are games you think hit this sweet spot, leave a comment and let me know. I'm wondering whether I missed something obvious here.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

How Many Stats?

What's the sweet spot for the number of attributes and skills in an RPG ruleset?

Last week, I complained a wee bit about the proliferation of attributes and skills in Eclipse Phase. One of my biggest frustrations with the Dresden Files RPG is how many disconnected social skills it has (Contacts, Deceit, Empathy, Intimidation, Performance, Presence, Rapport... ). Old World of Darkness games had a huge issue with introducing extra skills in supplements... which could be problematic when the number of skill points to split among them didn't increase.

I'm not a fan of attribute proliferation, but I might have gone too far the other way. In the Fate-based post-apocalyptic game I'm running, the skill list is:
  • Athletics
  • Combat
  • Knowledge
  • Persuasion
  • Will
  • Magic
There aren't any attributes. That's pretty much it, except for a couple of derived stats like Initiative and Defense.

Each character has a number of Aspects, though, that describe them. One of the tweaks I made here was requiring an Aspect that serves as a descriptor to each of the above skills. So, for instance, an android PC in the game has the Knowledge descriptor of Damaged memory cores alongside her rating and another has the Combat descriptor of Curl up and take it (alongside her very low combat score). Hmmm... the descriptors aren't generally negative. Those two just stuck out at me. In Fate terms, these are normal aspects. They just help to specify how the character applies each of their skills. Characters also have stunts, which let them tweak things in various ways.

Part of me really likes this approach. Another part of me thinks, "Only six skills?! Are you crazy?!" There is, of course, a perfect reply to that second part. It goes like this:

  • Strength
  • Dexterity
  • Constitution
  • Intelligence
  • Wisdom
  • Charisma

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Almost Loving Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase is almost a great game.

As a rule, I don't like science fiction games set in space. I just don't get excited by them. I'm not sure why. I mean, I went to Space Camp when I was a kid. I like space travel.

My best guess is that in space games, you're typically just playing a normal guy. I don't think that's all of it, though. I don't know that it really matters, though. The point here is that I got excited about Eclipse Phase. I just started thinking of all sorts of character concepts. Given that a central conceit of the game is that people can download/copy/backup/reprogram/reupload their minds (into multiple bodies, no less), I think that the philosopher in me was intrigued by the idea of playing with different notions of the self.

The point is that I got excited by Eclipse Phase.

Then I tried to make a character.

As long-time readers of my blog know, I'm not afraid of game mechanics. Still, a ridiculously complicated spreadsheet was pretty much required for character creation. Even then, it took hours. The sad part is that it isn't necessary. Character creation allows you to tweak your character a lot, but the steps described for it are fairly inefficient and could be simplified quite a bit. Moreover, a significant number of stats are redundant. For instance, there is a Willpower aptitude. There is also:
  • Lucidity (Willpower x2)
  • Trauma Threshhold (Lucidity /5)
  • Insanity Rating (Lucidity x2)
These are all multiples of Willpower... Couldn't we just have a single stat and build the mechanics around that? Willpower isn't the only stat that gets multiplied like this. There are ten stats and seven aptitudes (basically extra stats). Five of the ten stats are derived from a multiple of one other stat or aptitude.

Eclipse Phase also has you separately define your Ego (mind) and Morph (body), because the two can become separated. Everything on your very long skill list is based off of both your Ego and Morph. Determining the changes to your character sheet that would come from replacing your Morph would take a significant amount of time without an impressive spreadsheet. In some games, though, this could happen all the time - an important means of travel is Egocasting: in which your ego is sent as information and downloaded into another (presumably temporary) Morph.

This is cool. It is also really annoying.

From the small amount of the game that I've actually played, it seems to run well... but we also haven't run into any of those situations that would call for switching out Morphs. As cool as the idea is in theory, I kind of hope we don't.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Open Atrium for Collaborative Campaign Websites

Open Atrium is an online team collaboration tool that's used for intranets and project management.

I've recently found that it makes a pretty kick-ass campaign website, as well.

Essentially, this is a free (if you have web space), open-source alternative to Obsidian Portal. It is built on the Drupal CMS, so it is extremely extensible. Built in features include:
  • blogging - Anyone on the team can write a blog post. So far, my group has used this to discuss character ideas, generate setting questions, and discuss rules.
  • microblogging - This is kind of twitter like. My group hasn't used it for anything useful, but it is mildly amusing. I might dedicate it to off-screen, in-character discussions down the road. or something.
  • a calendar/event system - good for scheduling games. If you are running a modern game, I suppose you could use it to track in-game events as well. That could be interesting.
  • Notebook: a wiki alternative - This requires some explanation. It is based on Drupal's Book module, and it allows hierarchical structuring of pages. I've set up one notebook for rules and one for setting. I'll probably also create one for NPCs. You can use this for just about anything you can use a wiki for... though it isn't precisely the same.
  • case tracking - I haven't enabled this. It might be useful as a quest log, but is probably overkill.
All content is, by default, restricted to your group, and you can allow group members to create all and/or edit the different types of content (or not, if you prefer). Commenting is enabled by default on the blog, but you can add it to the Notebook as well. You can also use Drupal's powerful taxonomy system to categorize content across blogs and notebooks.

There are some additional features you can download for Open Atrium that look pretty cool, such as an ideation tool and integration with Graphmind. There are also thousands of other modules for Drupal, but they will require varying levels of configuration and customization to work the way you want them to work.

So far, I'm a pretty big fan of the way this is working out. I have no complaints about Obsidian Portal, but this gives me a bit more control over my own content.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

System Matters... Sometimes too much...

I'm going to be running a Wasterunners campaign for some friends scattered across the country. This is exciting, but it is also a bit frustrating. I have a good idea of the setting, but I don't have the necessary game mechanics down.

I'm a firm believer in the fact that system matters, otherwise I'd just run this in Shadowrun or something generic. Unfortunately, Shadowrun has some mechanical bits that just won't work for this setting (the opposition of magic and technology, magic as physically-draining on practitioners) and a whole host of mechanics that promote a different feel than I'm going for...

A generic system is... well... generic. It sacrifices flavor and focus for flexibility. A generic system might be able to model the powers and such in my game, but it isn't going to provide mechanical support for the game's spirit. Also, I want to go relatively rules-light, and most generic systems aren't.

What game systems do get at the spirit I'm going for? Well, Unknown Armies isn't far off... unfortunately, it has some limitations. It is a very human-centric system and isn't well-suited for things on a superhuman scale. Also, I really don't like the combat system. The combat system I can modify, but the human-centric nature of it is a bit rougher, since it is a percentile system scaled to set the 'human maximum' at 100%.

FATE is nicely flexible insofar as it can be tweaked to support different tones, but I'm a bit burnt out on it at the moment.

I feel like I'm missing something.

If I had the time, I'd just write up my own system for this... but I'd like to get going with it in the near future.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Old thoughts on Wraith

My wife is planning on starting up a tabletop Wraith game. Wraith has a bit of a bad reputation, but it is one of my favorite games out there in some ways. Its game mechanics required PCs to care about things. Its setting was rich, and it could handle stories both intensely personal or epic in scope equally well.

Unfortunately, Wraith used a very old set of White Wolf's rules. It never got the revision that most other old World of Darkness games received, much less an update to the new WoD. I remember writing some things about Wraith rules long ago. Here's a post, verbatim, from an old blog of mine (from most of a decade ago). It still has an interesting point (though one that is, perhaps, not so revolutionary anymore).

Thoughts on Wraith and game mechanics
I play in a wraith LARP every Friday.

I enjoy it quite a bit. It is a relatively small game. The players and storytellers are generally good (and, more importantly, good friends). I have had a fondness for Wrath for quite awhile. It is definitely my favorite WoD game, and it is in strong contention for my favorite RPG.

My biggest problem with the game? The rules.

The rules we use are a modified version of the MET rules published by White Wolf. The original MET rules are fairly simple, but not particularly evocative. The ones we use are more complete and marginally better.

What Wraith really ought to emphasize are a character's Passions and Fetters - the things that makes a character a wraith. The tabletop game does this to a point, the LARP version soewhat less so. Even the tabletop version of the rules, however, I find lacking. The Wraith-specific rules are shoehorned into a familiar, but ill-suited system (i.e., Storyteller).

I remember when I first read Unknown Armies. The first part of character creation contains the personality mechanics - because that is what is important to the game. I remember thinking that Wraith should have been more like that. I think that was why I got excited when someone (a while back) started a RPG.net thread about converting Wraith to UA mechanics.

Even that, though, never quite sat with me as completely appropriate. Wraiths are, essentially, supposed to be composed of memories, ties to the earth, and driving passions. Why aren't these things the main attributes in the system? Wraiths have corpus (health levels). Why isn't their Corpus score equal to their points in Fetters (the objects that matter to them - the things that literally tie them to the world)? Wraiths have Passions (the things that motivate them, the actions they habitually take) - which I see as metaphysical grooves in the world through which a Wraith will tend to naturally flow. Why aren't Wraith naturally more successful at fulfilling their passions than they are at acting counter to them?

Then I thought... why limit these insights to Wraith? If they are treated more metaphorically than literally, they could apply to games with a variety of narrative structures. Why should health levels be physical? Are characters in novels more likely to survive if they are tough or are they more likely to survive if they have things to live for? Are characters in novels more or less likely to succeed in things that really matter to them.

I think that these are meaningful questions for game design. While they might, on occaision, be addressed, they haven't - to my knowledge - been made really central before.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wasterunners: campaign idea

A friend of mine was jonesing for some Shadowrun. It didn't come together, but it got me thinking... What sort of Shadowrun game could I run? I don't know all the metaplot and setting, and I don't really see myself researching it. I like some of the basic ideas, though... and I was feeling a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe... so this is what resulted:

Wasterunners: The year is 2030... but for the past thirty years, the world has been a different place.

It was Y2K that changed things. As midnight hit, the world held its breath in fearful anticipation. At the time, we thought it was a computer bug, as we saw a wave of darkness moving toward us hour by hour and time zone by time zone.

We were wrong. It was the fear itself - the mass of the populace concentrating their fear on one single thing. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The power went out. Computers stopped working. In cities, people began looting.

In some places, power began trickling back on in a matter of hours, but it was already too late. When the lights came back on, the world had changed. So had the people in it. Those who had turned to looting and violence had become objects of fear... and had physically transformed into twisted, monstrous forms. Those who had sheltered others had likewise transformed, gaining angelic visages so that their bodies reflected their actions. Others changed in different ways.

Something had broken. People’s shared perceptions and emotions began to have a physical effect upon the world. Memes gained a sort of magical power. Certain times and places were found that could strengthen or weaken this effect. Enclosed arcologies began to spring up in the memetic dead zones in an attempt to insulate themselves from magic.

In late 2001, a giant reptilian beast emerged from the Pacific Ocean and laid waste to the remnants of Tokyo.

In early 2002, the Godstorm hit. People’s prayers began being answered. The sick were cured. The hungry were fed. People’s enemies were struck down by lightning. Beings of various sorts appeared and wreaked vengeance upon nonbelievers and sinners. No religion had priority here. Whatever people believed in, materialized. Organized religion soon became a target. Any group larger than a small family that engaged in a religious practice together is generally considered a cult to be hunted.

The gods and beings that appeared in the Godstorm didn’t go away. They merely changed. They became (or, perhaps, always were) malleable, animistic spirits. Some shamans learned to communicate with them directly and draw off small portions of their power.

Within the dead zone arcologies, corporate interests held sway. Most world governments collapsed by the beginning of 2002. The United States became a loose confederation of states. There are 32 states, most of which are now city-states. Few of them bear much resemblance or connection to those that existed before Y2K.

Outside the arcologies are the wastelands - areas of scattered settlements, uninhabitable territory, and monster-infested regions. In the wastelands, people’s fears and legends become true. Many of the world’s large cities before Y2K were left abandoned. A few were reclaimed.

While the arcologies insulated themselves from magic, they thrived on it as well. Wasterunners are employed to retrieve artifacts or materials of use to corporate interests... and sometimes to perform other tasks as well.

Nervewire,a living optical cable that can be easily grafted to the human nervous system, is rumored to have been pulled from the ruins of a laboratory in Rochester, New York in 2013. It has been used for connecting a wide variety of cybernetic systems to living creatures. Large numbers of soldiers and security forces have been augmented cybernetically and employed in clandestine military operations over the past fifteen years.

While those who were changed in the wake of Y2K were incredibly diverse in appearance, their children tend to form identifiable psuedo-racial groups. The two largest of these are commonly referred to as elves and goblins. In more isolated communities, diversity is the norm.

Shamans pull magical power from willing spirits. Usually this involves calling a spirit to partially possess the shaman and provide some unnatural ability. Shamans can also summon spirits directly, but spirits tend to be less willing participants in such things.

Sorcerers call new spirits into being and typically enslave them. They are effectively one-person religions. They tend to be feared and reviled, but they can be very powerful.

Mages harness pure magic. Through imagination and focus, they bring certain effects into the world. Most mages can only cast a few spells (many can never pull off more than one), and it helps them when their spells have a common theme. Most shamans and sorcerers know at least the basics of magecraft, though few are very good at it.

All the basic elements of Shadowrun: shamanic magic, cyborgs, elves, and cyberpunk - all mixed up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland primed for weirdness and exploration. You can easily run a standard Shadowrun-style mission-based game here, but you can just as easily run a 'dungeon' exploration game, a political game, or something full of spiritual trippiness.

System? Shadowrun would work. I was thinking either that, Mutants and Masterminds (probably starting around PL 6), or a modded version of the old Marvel Supers game (more on that later). Really, though, there are a ton of options.

The tricky thing in this sort of game is the economics of everything. Cybernetics, weaponry, and vehicles tend to need money for improvement. Magic and learned skill tend not to - with two paths to power, you need to give some thought to balancing advancement.