17 February, 2018

LARP Game Balance

LARP groups are tricky, moderating LARPs is trickier. Especially boffer LARPs, or those where real-world physical representation of character statistics exists.

In a tabletop situation, there's an automatic degree of separation. One character might be more brawny than another, ons character might have more knowledge of certain obscure subject areas...and this can all be governed (to varying degrees of success) by rules and dice rolls. It gets murkier when statistics governing charisma or social interaction are considered, when one introverted gamer is trying to portray an outgping character with massive charisma, but even then the player can take on an authorial stance (describing what the character does), rather than an actor stance (and actually role-playing the sitiation by saying the lines and fully engaging the dialogue).

It gets harder to do this in boffer-style LARP, not only because it is expected for players to embody their characters from a social standpoint, but because a part of the whole experience involves players doing the fighting for their characters, as well as the solving of puzzles and engagement of other elements of play.

For a character to be an expert fighter, you've got two options, and both have their detractors. First, you can train the players to be better fighters. I know a number of LARPs that run weekly, or even twice weekly swordplay sessions and martial arts classes to increase the fitness, strategy, and combat prowess of their members. This is great for immersion, players know how to hit safely, effectively, cinematically. It's not so good for players with busy lives who should be progressing their characters at the same rate as those other characters with players who do have time to attend those regular training sessions. In some cases it's all or nothing, either you attend the regular training sessions or your character (and every other character you'll ever play) falls behind those who dedicate their time/lives/money to the game.

Second, we can't grant super powers, but we can introduce rules to the game that hamper one group of players to effectively give advantages to others. This might include allowing a player to make a call like "disarm", "shield-break", or "sniper", which then has to be acted out by the target of the call. It stretches immersion a bit, and even breaks it for those who have trouble with imagination in games (such as those who call it re-enactment rather than LARP). Here's where rule systems come in, giving different characters different ways to manipulate one another according to the elements of the in-game narrative. Even something as simple as "hit points" can be looked at in this way, one player gets to keep swinging while another has to mimic being knocked out or killed.

There's a middle road, but that requires balancing lots of different factors. Many LARPs might have statistically identical characters, but if one player has a sword that's 15cm longer, that could lead to a reach advantage that unfairly gives one player's character the edge. 

That leads me to what I was doing today, trying to find a middle road when incorporating NERF equipment into a post apocalyptic LARP with foam weapons and LARP archery gear.

Different guns have different rates of fire, ranges, accuracy, and ammo capacity. Many LARPs would reduce them to two or three categories and assign a common price to each, some might even ignore costs or categories and simply call them "firearms" which anyone can own or fire if they possess the right proficiency, but today's testing showed some massive differences between weapons which I might have otherwise considered similar in effectiveness before that testing occurred.

There's still a lot to think about on this, but important steps were taken today and it feels like they were in the right direction.

05 February, 2018

A Game in a Dream

Many years ago I had a dream where I was playing a clever little game where you explored a setting created on-the-fly by laying out cards. Each game there would be a general scenario where different cards would mean different things. I wrote down as much of that dream as I could remember the next day, and over the course of a few weeks, Ghost City Raiders took form.

I've had another of those dreams, this time it could easily be linked to the Goblin Labyrinth setting that I developed a few years ago, but might go an entirely different direction... either the dream was a bit vague on the specifics, or I've just forgotten those bits already.

Play involves a deck of specific cards, a pair of dice, and some tokens.

The game is fairly simple...it plays out like a street fight between two gangs. Each player has a small deck of cards representing their gang, there might be a dozen cards in this deck. Six of their cards are laid out in two rows of three cards each. The row of cards closest to the opponent are the first rank of fighters, the next row of cards are their support, and the rest of the deck are reinforcements.

Decks are shuffled before placement, players draw their first six cards and may look at them as they place the two rows, but they are placed face down so the opponent can't see which cards are where. (This is the general rule, exceptions may occur).

Play commences with each side rolling the pair of dice (actually, there must have been a pair of dice for each player). One die was allocated to speed, the other die to strategy. Each player gained a number of tokens equal to the strategy die result, and the player with the higher speed result went first.

Each player flipped over their starting rank of fighters, these were laid out in such a way that the first rank of one side matched up against the first rank of the other. The player going first would activate one of these pairings of fighters, the attack of each side was compared to the defence of their opponent to determine tbe outcome of the melee. Before the resolution is determined, the faster player may spend a strategy token to increase attack or defense by a single point, or may spend one (or more) strategy tokens to activate a special power on the fighter card. The slower player may then do likewise. Players alternate like this until no-one wants to spend further strategy tokens. If the final modified attack score is greater than or equal to the opponent's final modified defence score, the opponent is removed from the fight. If not, they remain... one fighter card could be eliminated this way, or both...or neither.

It could theoretically be possible to line up three fights where neither side is eliminated, thus leading to a stale-mate... my dream never saw this happen, so I'll have to consider a contingency plan for that.

When a fighter from the front rank is eliminated, a support fighter from the second rank steps forward to fill their place, and is turned face up. From the three cards immediately behind, a card could be shifted straight forward to fill the gap, or could be moved diagonally forward. This leaves a gap in the support rank, and that gap is filled by the next random card in the deck. This seemed to reflect the idea that battles can often start with elaborate and carefully planned strategies, but things get more chaotic as time goes by.

Many fighter cards had one or two traits on them, some cards gained automatic bonuses or penalties (to attack or defense) when confronting opposing figjters with specified traits. Some strategy effects were modified in the presence of traits too... that's where the clever deckbuilding elements came in. 

An exception to the "face down" rule was the hero card. Heroes have power and notoriety, so even when in the support rank, heroes were placed face up.

A game ended once one player had lost all of their hero cards, or half of their total fighters (whichever came first).

I think there's some potential here, it probably needs a bit of work to get it running smoothly, but I just thought I'd get it out there while the dream ideas were still fresh in my mind.

18 January, 2018

Risks and Rewards

Not risks versus rewards, because the two are not polar opposites locked in a tug-of-war. They exist semi-independently, hopelessly entangled but able to be measured independently.

Reading through this post on risks gave me mixed feelings. I was happy that other people are doing similar things to what I laid out in The Law... I was once again upset that numerous people showered the author with adoration and praise for revolutkonary thinking, when I've been stomping around in this territory for the better part of a decade.

Different actions are flavoured by varying outcomes and varying risks. This is an inherent part of "The Law". The actual rolling of dice remains consistent, but it's the potential positives and potential negatives that lock the die roll into the unfolding narrative.

A good action result might give a benefit without a penalty, a step in the right direction where the risk has not manifested. A lesser result could go one of two ways... it might allow success at a price, or if might indicate failure it that price is not met. An even worse result might require the price to be paid as the risk manifests itself, but the action still sees no benefit to the characters.

The Apocalypse World engine kind of does this, in a crude way,  ut keeps everything on a linear track.

10+ = Success/no-Fallout ➡️ 7-9 = Success/Fallout or no-Success/no-Fallout ➡️ 6 or less = no-success/Fallout

It feels like Vincent Baker took his "Otherkind Dice" system and decided it was too innovative for the masses, so he'd dumb it down a bit. The only similar analog I can think of are the dark years of D&D 4th edition, when the dual axis system of alignment was reduced to a linear scale. Instead of offering law versus chaos searate to good versus evil, it simply followed a track of "Lawful-Good➡️Good➡️Neutral➡️Evil➡️Chaotic-Evil"... it left out the fun diversity of Lawful-Evil characters and those who were Chaotic-Good...as well as those who were straight Lawful or Chaotic. A chunk of the potential richness gone.

If we tie those concepts back to action results, perhaps saying that the "Good/Evil" axis is analogous to success/failure, while the "Law/Chaos" axis is analogous to "Fallout/No-Fallout", we can start to see one of the issues I have with the AW engine.

10+: you're Lawful-Good ➡️ 7-9: you're either Lawful-Evil or Chaotic-Good (you decide) ➡️ 6 or less: you're Chaotic-Evil.

It still leaves out all those interesting Neutral cases, but if I were going to try and add them back in, I can only think of needlessly complicated ways to do it. The system just isn't built for that level of nuance. Yes, I can hear the voices of a thousand Apocalypse-Afficionados and Bakerites  all screaming "But, mah system! He's picking on it... PbtA can do anything". No, no it can't. I appreciate black-and-white photography, but don't expect it to capture the vibrant colours of a flower. Different game engines do different things well. 

In the post I referred to above, Rob still takes this mixed binaries approach. He divides the potential risks into a few areas, and makes them mix and match to adapt to a variety of situations (which I think is good), but he still links a pair of binary yes/no results into a linear progression.

As a tool for flavouring actions, it's great. I also understand that his examples are for injecting into an existing game, in this case FAE, rather than generating a new game from scratch; so the application of these risks has to be applied in a way that won't disrupt the existing systems too much.

The whole thing maps fairly similarly to the way I run my sessions of "The Law", but by breaking the success result and the risk/sacrifice result, I was able to be more nuanced by showing varying degrees of success balancing off against varying degrees of sacrifice... rather than just binaries on a simple linear path. I went with the idea that a player chooses the obvious risk associated with an action, and then that risk might manifest into a sacrifice with a moderately bad die roll on ond of the dice, or might have additional fallout chosen by the GM if the roll is abysmal. All of these elements of fallout are derived from the story and feed back into the story, separate from the successes. I'd considered this like driving a car, where the rate of success is like the car's speed, while the sacrifices and risks determine it's direction. This works well for a non-railroaded game because it allows a full range of movement throughout the game environment. Everyone wants to get somewhere, and regardless of how fast you go, you might not get there because something might divert you the wrong way. (Meanwhile someone sacrificing speed for precision might achieve the end goal sooner, just because they were careful).

14 January, 2018

Coding and Recoding

To ensure something runs according to plan,  you need to establish a distinct set of procedures that cannot be varied from. In web design this means creating pages that display consistently, regardless oc the user's browser or device set-up. In boardgame design (or most other game design), it means writing a coherent and logical rule set that functions effectively with a range of different players and play styles. I'm probably over simplifying things here, but it's what I aim towards in my designs.

At the moment, I haven't been updating the blog much...maybe getting two posts in each week, rather than a post every day or two. That's because I've been focusing on my map tutorials, and getting the website stuff done for the new LARP. I want to tell people what I'm doing, but it's more important at the moment to just do it.

It doesn't help when I'm trying to do both the web design and game design work on a computer over a decade old and a tablet that really wasn't designed to do such things.

Anyway, back to work, because otherwise those projects will never be completed.

13 January, 2018

Meta - Game - Design

There's an adage in writing that you should write what you know. Some take this literally, saying that no--one should be writing fantasy, because no-one lives fantasy...but that's a bit silly. If you read a lot of fantasy, and know the tropes, how they work, know how to modify or subvert them for your own work, then you know your stuff.

If you know art theory, then you could easily add elements of this into your work, alluding to colour, shape, and tne psychological way these impact on characters or readers. If you don't know these things, tnen trying to add them in will ring false. I guess it's a bit like that old "cultural appropriation" bugbear, if you add stuff in from  another culture just because "it's cool" then it won't seem authentic... if you add stuff in and really connect it to the other things you've got going on then it will add depth to the final product.

That brings me to some discussions I've been having with other designers recently. I've been at this for a while, whether I'm any good at it is a matter of debate, but people read my blog and buy my stuff, so I can't be too bad. I bring decades of art practice to my work, along with studies in sociology and teaching methodology/pedagogy. I don't have to turn every game into a sociological study, or a carefully tailored learning experience, but the tools to attempt this are in my repertoire. It's what I know, and I'd like to think my studies in linguistics help me adequately describe these elements when I do decide to incorporate them.

But what does a designer do, when the knowledge they bring to the table seems not to mesh with the process of game development?

That's what I've been thinking about lately. Especially in the Game Design Masterclass, and at today's Unpub playtesting session. In both cases I talked extensively to designers with backgrounds in music, both wondering how that musical instinct could be applied to the process.

Personally, I think anything can inform the design process. It's just a case of taking a step back and looking at the similarities between the activities at a meta level... perhaps using each as a metaphor for one another, or comparing both to a third activity.

Music often has a beat, a rhythm, a tempo, maybe a melody, vocals, key changes, motifs... all of those could have analogues in game design. There are probably other elements where comparisons could be drawn, but I don't claim to have expert knowledge in music, so I'll just focus on those...

Beat - What is the turn sequence that provides the foundation for the play experience? Does this change over the course of play? If so, why? Is it a syncopated rhythm that feels a bit off kilter to give an edge to the experience? Is it a common plain rhythm that lays solid groundwork for other game elements to add their flavours?

Tempo - Does it change during the game? Does tension build? Does tension ease off at any point? How should this make players feel?

Melody - Is there something on the surface to draw participants into the experience? How does this interact with the deeper levels of the play mechanisms? Does an understanding of those deeper levels change the way the surface melody/mechanisms are percieved?

Vocals - What is the obvious message in the game? Is it spoken? Screamed? Are there harmonics when two people are singing, or conveying their experience within the game?

Key Changes - In music these can set dramatic changes in mood, but what could be done in a game to get this effect? Adding new rules, pulling rules out when threshold events occur, completely shifting the dynamic in some way?

Motifs - what elements can be added into a game as regular signifiers of future events, character archetypes, or tropes?

How are these concepts used in interesting ways in music? How can those ideas find analogues in game design?

I could probably do something similar using analogues to baking a cake, but I haven't been talking to any pastry chefs who dabble in game design lately.

10 January, 2018

Signature Pieces

I've now drawn up about 30 pages of tutorials, so to break things up I'm now drawing up a few complete maps that incorporate elements reflected in the instructions.

More details coming soon.

08 January, 2018

Adding map details

I'm working on a couple of signature pieces for my mapping tutorials. These signature pieces combine elements that will have been brought up throughout the tutorial lessons... showing how they can be combined into something interesting.