30 December, 2009

Putting together an index

It's the end of the year, my Game mechanism of the week project is winding down and I'm putting together an index for the assorted entries.

Looking back through them all, I see that I've repeated myself a couple of times with some mechanisms that are very similar (for example, my entry on Flow is very similar to my final entry, my karma resolution entry mentions GM fiat, even though that has it's own entry). At least these duplications tend to be more than 6 months apart, possibly allowing for a bit of evolution in my thought patterns.

It's also interesting to see which of the entries has developed the most number of comments. Ro-Sham-Bo drew far more attention than I had been expecting.

It's also somewhat depressing to look at entries where I've had ideas for Quincunx over the past year, and I've even playtested it multiple times (including at Gencon Oz), but it seems no closer to completion than it did at the start of the year.

Hopefully the index will be compiled and available on the Vulpinoid Studios site tonight.

29 December, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #52: No Mechanisms

The Senryaku, the Art of War, has 36 stratagems for mastering the ability to fight.

Stratagem 36...

Run Away.

Know when your battles are stacked against you and don't waste your resources in these foolhardy pursuits.

So I present that the last mechanism a gamer should have in their repertoire is no mechanism at all.

In my experience, some of the best moments in roleplaying occur when players and GM put aside the rules and let the intimacy of the moment take them. This could be allowing the story to take it's course, truly immersing in a situation and forgetting it's a game at all, or really becoming one with the character.

A good set of mechanisms facilitates this type of moment, a good GM recognises it and allows it to flourish, a good player allows others to have their moment in the spotlight without stealing their thunder and calling for a judgment according to page XX.

It's a lot harder to do than might be first thought, it's almost zen-like in it's attainment. Those players who are sometimes defined as "gamists" latch onto the rules and often find it hard to identify with their characters beyond a killer combo, or brilliant skill. Those players sometimes identified as "narritivists" become so obsessed with the story and their ability to manipulate it through the rules that they forget the notion of spontaneous story development. Those players sometimes referred to as simulationists become so hooked up on the way the rules should replicate the setting, that they forget to smell the roses or take in the nuanced details that might be present.

I'm not tarring all players with a brush of unenlightenment, but virtually every game I've played in has seen one or more players spoiling the moment because things weren't going their way, or because they didn't like the way things were heading from the perspective of story or situation. Even in games where I've written the rules and I'm running them as a demonstration of what can be achieved through those rules...there are still people who get hooked up on certain mechanisms and don't know when to let go...much to the detriment of the game and the other players.

I'm not immune to it either.

25 December, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #51: Changing the Mechanisms to Suit

As I wind down my game mechanisms for the year, I've had a few preconceived ways to finish off the series. I'll be using two of these, both of which are really meta-mechanisms.

The penultimate mechanism is the notion of changing a game's mechanisms to account for what is happening in the fiction. Changing the way characters are able to interact with the world depending on how they have done so in the fiction so far.

At a long term perspective, this can be accounted for through experience points, especially in games where these points are used to purchase character upgrades rather than simply advance through levels. It gives the players some way to inform the group as to how they'd like a story to progress.

John buys a whole heap more stealth for his character, so it's obvious he'd like a bunch of situations where hiding is important. Charlie buys up his character's piloting skill, so it's obvious he wants more chances to get some vehicle action happening.

Old-school traditional gaming doesn't seem to take this into account, but then again old-school traditional gaming tends to treat character development through classes and levels rather than point buy systems. In such games it doesn't really matter what the players want to do, it's only the whim of the GM that matters. See my comments on Heroes of Rokugan at GenCon Oz 2010.
It becomes more a matter of creating characters that meet the requirements of the scenario set by the GM, rather than developing a story to set the needs of the character.

But that's just a crude way of adjusting the systems to match the story.

What I'm actually thinking here is a game that literally changes gears on-the-fly. An example of this can be found in Rackham's Cadwallon (fansite here), most play occurs in a traditional format with players describing the actions of their characters, occasionally rolling dice if there is a chance of failure or some chance that an interesting twist in events might occur...but as soon as a moment of drama occurs, the game completely shifts gear to a miniatures game with a second set of rules. It might be a bit too much of a jump for some people and there can be a disjoint in the narrative when the first couple of games are played, but it freely admits that the basic system is a poor match for resolving combat, and the combat system is a poor match for developing story. It tries to claim the best of both worlds by using two completely different systems that are each specialised in producing a specific play experience. If you want more combat play, resolve the potential story conflicts in this manner...if you want more narrative play then avoid the conflicts through conversation and diplomacy. Two groups could play the same scenario in very different ways and under very different rules, each perfectly viable.

Another example is typically found in gaming accessories and scenarios rather than the main rulebooks. A certain scenario might have the characters facing off against a scary monster, so it introduces a fear mechanism when confronting the unknown. In regular play, a mechanism like this might not be necessary, but it really becomes significant when dealing with the specific situations in the scenario provided. You add the subsystems when you need them, you ignore them altogether when they are no longer relevant. A good supplemental mechanism is one of the few lures that will prompt me to buy a game scenario or gaming supplement.

I'm told that D&D4 has taken steps in light of this revelation, but many reports have indicated a slightly different tack. It also takes heavily to the miniatures route for conflict resolution, but has basically eliminated the narrative side completely except for some very limited die rolling.

The new edition of Warhammer also seems to have taken some steps in this direction...it's one of those games I'd love to get a good look at one of these days.

19 December, 2009

A New Gaming Theory and Lexicon

I've been a member of The Forge for a few years now. One of the things that took me a while to adjust to in that gropup was the usage of specific terms that describe elements of gaming theory. The problem is that many of these existing terms have a different usage in common language, or they are used to describe something in a way that just doesn't quite give a good mesh between the actual word and the element being described.

Story Games is always quick to shoot down someone when they mention Gamism, Narritivism or Simulationism...and whether the motives are honourable or not, I think it's good that they do this, because the words in themselves are poorly defined (or hold different definitions to different people). Confucius began one of his books by saying that much conflict in the world derived simply from a lack of shared definitions, that a common language would prevent many of the world's wars.

I've hinted that I'm working on a new theorum of game design. Not quite ignoring the "Big Model" or continued work of Ron Edwards, I'm trying to dig at the methods of play, the interaction of mechanisms, the structure of story and the reflection of what people put into a game compared to what they expect in return for their investment (and conversely what they actually get for their return).

Andrew Smith has pointed out that the work of Ron Edwards comes from an anthropological viewpoint. This seems a fair comment, and is certainly an appropriate manner by which a social pastime ould be analysed. But anthropology has a nasty tendency to pigeonhole people and when people don't fully understand the nature of the labels being applied to them, they can react badly to the description. The "Big Model" and it's subtheories tend

I'm more interested in the work of John Kirk, and his Design Patterns of Successful Role Playing Games, which has been circulating the game design community for a few years now. I've mentioned it a couple of times in this blog and it';s been a really influential part of my own game design techniques over the past two years since I've been made aware of it. An updated second edition of the book was also made available this year.

I'm not sure if I'm just going to be treading the same ground with my own work, or if I'll develop an interesting fusion with a fresh perspective. I'm hoping that I strike something revolutionary and special in my approach, something that might inspire a new generation of designers...but that would just be a welcome side effect. The theory is intrinsically a method to clarify the process of assorted roleplaying games, to analyse what goes well and what goes wrong within a variety of game types and play styles.

It's not going to be easy, and I'm sure there will be discussions and arguments along the way, but that's going to be my project for 2010.

18 December, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #50: GM Fiat

You could call it Deus Ex Machina, the hand of god, or if you are really against the concept you might even call it "railroading". I've wondered many times over the course of the past year whether it even constitutes a mechanism.

If you're not familiar with the concept of GM fiat it works pretty simply like this.

The GM simply decides whether your idea will work, the motivation between this choice is usually based on where the action will take the game or story. It can be done well, but it often gets a bad rap because the concept is usually associated with GMs who do it poorly.

In traditional rolplaying games, a group of players gathers to play through a story. There is a subtle difference; they don't gather to communally tell a story, they gather to put a group of characters through a series of set pieces pre-defined by the GM. When a GM uses GM fiat as one of the mechanisms for their game, they simply allow characters to take the actions that will logically lead the story from one set piece to the next, while they make any other actions difficult for the characters to engage.

Difficulty can be defined a few ways; psychologically (it is implied that really bad things will happen if the characters choose to follow the specified course of action), mechanically (any action that takes the characters beyond the predefined scenario faces a target number or difficulty much higher than it really should be), interpretively (any successful actions that push beyond the scope of the pre-defined story seem to have less effect than they should) or even blatantly ("No, it doesn't work!"). It's this last case that really makes a GM stand out as a user of fiat. The first few cases, if used carefully and subtlely, might fly completely below a playing group's collective radar.

Like tables in an earlier mechanism, I've had my attitude to GM fiat change over the years. I once thought that te idea was simply the hallmark of a bad GM...that a good GM could craft a decent story from the actions of their players rather than forcing their players down specific storylines. I looked at the hundreds of modules on a gaming store shelf, never thinking that I'd play straight through them because this type of pre-defined linear narrative belonged in novels, not in games.

I've played in live games where the GM fiat became noticeable, and then blatantly obvious to me...only to end up frustrating me out of the game. Yet other players have really loved these games. I thought it was perhaps naivety on their part, but came to realise that it all links into the concept of illusionism within a game, and determining how much of my creative voice I was willing to give over to a core visionary.

If the core visionary is telling a story that makes sense in my eyes, or is weaving a tale that I'm finding interesting, I'm happy to sit back and take the ride. Engaging enough to keep my interest levels active, but not trying to rock the boat too much.

Looking back on GM fiat in that light, it is actually a useful tool for driving a story forward, especially where more modern games might get mired in a bog as multiple players pull against one another with the actions of their characters. So GM fiat can include the introduction of any element that drives a plot toward a predefined goal. This interpretation means that I'm as guilty of GM fiat as the next GM, I just hide my efforts in the colour of the setting, and the flavour of the actions, trying to subtly use psychological, mechanical and interpretive means to push a story to an outcome I'd like to see.

I have been developing an idea of game analysis through vectors over the past couple of days, defining game concepts through vectors passing from, to and through specific scene nodes. The place of GM fiat pushes a vector in a specific direction, or places boundaries on there a story vector might head...more of this should hopefully start making sense next year, as the gaming vector model is explored, detailed and discussed through this blog.

12 December, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #49: Saving Throws

The bane of a high speed gamer.

This bugbear of gaming appeared early. I pull out my tattered old D&D Red Box...Save vs Rods or Breath, Save vs Poison or Death Ray, Save vs Staves or Spells.

We move through several generations of games..

I move on to a generic product from the Palladium lineage, Heroes Unlimited...Save vs Coma/Death, Save vs Magic...my favourite nonsensical saving throw...Pull/Roll with Punch/Fall/Impact, and dozens of others to cover resisting any type of effect that could possibly hinder a character.

Lets move onward to advanced games where storytelling is more important than mechanics (or so was the claim)...I'll pull out the more socially oriented of White Wolfs original World of Darkness, Vampire the Masquerade (I could have pulled out the more combat focused Werewolf, but we expect more detail in its combat resolution mechanisms)...even in this combat is divided into a roll for attack, a roll for damage, then a roll to soak (and hopefully avoid a chunk of that damage). Most actions in the game series follow a similar procedure...aggressor rolls a bunch of dice to claim successes (often with a difficulty based on the situation at hand), while the defendant rolls a bunch of dice to negate those successes.

A quick detour over to wargames...the common conflict pattern in these games follows the same structure...roll to see if it happens, roll to see how bad it is, then roll to see how much of it you can avoid.

Attack, Damage, Armour Save.

As originally intended, saving throws were designed to allow characters a chance of avoiding things that might otherwise simply happen automatically. In old D&D, spells just happen; without saving throws, there would be no way to avoid the incoming sleep spell or magic missile.

...but rolling to prevent the impact of something that you've already rolled to avoid...I think that's taking two bites of the cherry and really just slows the game play down. I prefer to think of the outcome in two simple terms, either a person is hindered or they aren't...a situation is defused or it isn't...the specific details of the event can be narrated through the story.

He shoots me but I take no damage.
a) He missed
b) He hit, but my armour deflected the shot
c) He hit, but my armour deflected the worst of it, I suffered a flesh wound and now I'm frakkin' MAD!!! The adrenaline surging through my veins prevents me from suffering ill effects at the moment.

Each would be a different outcome according to dice with saving throws. Using said dice would take some of the narrative control out of the hands of the players, and deprive them of the chance of portraying their characters as they envision them. But then again, some people don't like to work their imagination overtime while playing, and they like following the whim of the dice.

Another reason I'm not a big fan of saving throws is that they are effectively story buffers in another sense. A GM can craft an elaborate trap, and a player can successfully make their save, effectively eliminating that part of the story. A player can be an absolute idiot through the course of a session, knowing that they have a saving throw that will probably negate the effects that other players can throw at them. With this in mind through, I guess that saving throws are a great tool for gamist play, they allow a player to step on up while reducing the chances of detrimental backlash.

Still, I'm not a big fan. Unless someone can really show me an elegant way of incorporating them into a story game.

09 December, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #48: Tables

I'm surprised I haven't really delved into the topic of tables earlier. I know I've thought of the idea a couple of times over the past year, but usually in context with some other mechanism.

Love them or hate them, tables are a part of many games.

The random monster and treasure tables in many early RPGs.

The devilishly elaborate tables that refer you to other tables when engaging the combat sequence in Rolemaster.

Tables designed for rapid generation of cities, regions and worlds in a variety of Game Master guides.

The curious tables scattered through the sourcebooks of RIFTS and GURPS.

Even the "modern" indie games fascination with oracles, due in no small part to the game "In a Wicked Age", are really just a new form of random data table accessed through the draw of cards rather than the rolling of dice.

I used to love tables, because you could introduce all sorts of elements into a game at random times, or when specific triggers were met. My early games (written in my high school years of the late 1980's/early 90's) seem to have a table on every page now that I look back on them. But this was an era when "realism" was sought in a game, and the quickest way to get "realistic" descriptions was to create a few cool effects then determine the likelihood of them happening and array them into a table of some sort.

Then I went through a phase where I hated them. They epitomised a lack of imagination and a constraint on the ability to tell a good story.

I've verged back to the concept of tables, as long as they are used sparingly and used with a specific purpose.

Like most mechanisms, if tables are used well they can really enhance a game, but if used poorly they just become dry collections of data stored in a randomly accessible format.

Good uses for tables include the ability to inject some thematic detail into an otherwise dry system. Good descriptors can help to provide an effective way of grounding a system into the "reality" of the game world. They can also be used to streamline certain effects, by offering a quick die roll that can then be referenced once for an immediate outcome (as long as they don't simply refer you to other tables....which might be good during character generation or story development, but can be incredibly frustrating in a high tension moment like combat).

Many of the features once found in tables are now handled behind the scenes in many computer roleplaying games, crunching numbers and generating outcomes based on random events are a forte of computers, so it makes sense to handle these things out of a player's sight. This is probably one of the many reasons why tables have gone out of fashion in many of the current crop of games.

...it's probably also a reason why tables often feature so heavily in the genre of game called the "heartbreaker", a longing to return to the old days of roleplaying before computer games became so prominent.

06 December, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #47: Outsiders

I hate it when I'm at work and I can write a bunch of notes on a scrap of paper, each of those notes forming the trigger for a great blog entry about game mechanisms...only to lose those scraps of paper when I sit down at the computer. It's happened quite a few times over the course of the past year.

...and it's happened again now.

Since a new idea has come to mind, I'll consider it as something worthy to write about.

Player characters are all outsiders. This is a part of the quintessential hero myth, if the hero was like everyone else, they wouldn't be interesting to tell stories about. If a group of player characters were doing the same stuff that everyone else is doing, then it probably wouldn't be worthy for us to dedicate our imaginative efforts toward them.

A lot of early games played of this specifically. You are an adventurer who travels from town to town, ridding the local dungeons of their unsavoury inhabitants, and trading unearthed treasures for tools that will continue to help you explore new towns and dungeons.

Why don't the townsfolk go and rid the dungeons of evil?

Because they are either too weak, too frightened, or prevented from doing so by the local authorities (and this is where the extent of politics came into old school gaming).

More recent games have often sought to bring the player characters in contact with the world around them, integrating them into societies or factions (as I've described in previous mechanisms), byut it's still a case that the only independant thought in a game world typically comes from the player characters. Everyone else is going abut their daily duties, following their masters, reacting to the actions of the player characters, or engaging in their own grand plans that have taken weeks/months/years to set into fruition.

The players characters come in to upset the status quo, and for this reason they are treated differently by the people of the game world. They may be feared, hated, or sought for their skill and abilities.

Of course this is a bit of an over-generalisation. Villains are also removed from the population, and they may be feared, hated or adored just as much as the player characters.

A few games have mechanisms that show how much the key characters are separated from the rest of the world. Consider the class levels in early D&D...most regular folks are considered level 0, maybe level 1 if they've got a bit of experience, possibly level 2 or 3 if they are a part of the local militia or have marked themselves as prominent from some reason. The key characters in the world can quickly ascend to levels 10 or higher, and at this point they are truly removed from the regular folks.

Later editions of the game have allowed regular townsfolk to ascend through "NPC" classes, but these classes provide far less benefits at each level, and a plyer character at level 10 (in anything) far surpasses the abilities of a townsfolk at level 10 (in any NPC class). Those who choose to think for themselves and push against the world around them are both rewarded and cursed.

Another system to look at in this way is the Storyteller games of White Wolf. Vampiric Generation describes how far a character can transcend mortal bounds, but it also bring new levels of danger with every step removed from humanity. Magical Arete shows a persons ability to percieve the true nature of the universe, but with that knowledge comes susceptibility to the forces of paradox.

Many games play on this notion in other ways.

A character might possess a reputation trait that grows as they perform specific deeds. Gradually notifying to the outside world that this is someone to be noticed/feared/adored.

Looking back on my game "The Eighth Sea", I incorporated this concept into character's coherency ratings. Those characters who sought to make changes to the timestream based on their inner desires found their place in the timstream strengthened and their distance from the regular masses enhanced. Unlike some games though, I decided that if a character chose to give up their swashbuckling ways and fall back into the ebb and flow of the continuum, their coherency would gradually drop them back to normal levels.

I can't think of too many other games that reflect this side of the heroes path on a deeper level...the journey back to the mundane world. Sure, an adventurer returning to town after a dungeon is bringing back their find, but can an epic level hero settle down to a family life after years of adventuring? In most games it seems unlikely...but maybe that's just the crowds I've been playing with.

Once a hero transcend the world, there often seems no turning back.

28 November, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #46: Factionalism

How do you drive story in a game? How do you inject a bit of conflict between characters who would otherwise co-operate? How do you bring a bit of co-operation between characters who might otherwise be constantly at one another's throats?

A simple answer to all of these questions comes in the form of factions, and many games have made use of this idea.

From the clans of Vampire the Masquerade or Legend of the Five Rings, the orders of Magi in Ars Magica, the corporations in assorted cyberpunk games or even the chapters of Space Marines in Warhammer 40,000.

Factions add instant ties between characters, whether those ties come in the form of communion or conflict.

Of course, factions don't always make a game better, in the same way that conflict doesn't always make a story better. Many kung fu movies are great because they bring creative conflict to the screen, but few kung fu movies are considered masterpieces of storytelling.

Like all mechanisms, you need to consider what you want the outcome to be, and how the mechanism plays toward that outcome.

24 November, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #45: Character Peaks

I've had a few ideas over the past couple of weeks, but I keep forgetting to write them down. When I forget to take a note of the fleeting ephemera, I have a hard time trying to capture it in words when I sit down to start writing my blog...it's frustrating and it means that I haven't written a lot of game mechanisms lately.

Working on other projects hasn't really helped in that regard either...but anyway, time for number 45.

In many roleplaying games, a character gradually accumulates experience and becomes more powerful over the course of a story. They learn new things, they discover new tools that make them more effective and they face ever more dangerous foes.

This typically applies within the context of a single story, but often also applies over the course of a series of narratives. Characters simply escalate until they ascend to rival the gods themselves.

Fun (in some situations), but certainly not realistic.

There are a few games over the years that have offered an alternative type of story.

Instead of chronicling a rise into power, they reveal a character's responses to a fading glory. There are plenty of mechanisms that have tried to encapsulate this notion, but they all have a similar pattern to them. Character growth is inverse exponential...it starts fast, then gradually gets slower as a character becomes more set in their ways, or simply finds it harder to learn new things.

On the flipside, character degradation is constant.

As a result a character starts gaining strength at a far faster rate than they lose it. Gradually they reach a peak point where their gaining of new abilities retreats to a level comparable to their losses. Eventually, they find that they are unable to learn things as quickly as their injuries and frailties accumulate.

Such characters have passed their prime and the game now becomes a very different beast.

I've yet to find a game that really focuses on this type of story...not that I've really gone out of my way to look for one.

The closest I've probably seen is the miniatures game Mordheim from Games Workshop, which replicated this arc for the characters within a team even if it didn't really focus on the psychology involved. Many times I had characters who reached a point where thir injuries were just accumulating faster than their new skills and advancements...this became a good time to retire the figures and recruit new members into the team.

It's another of those ideas I'd like to play with, when I get the time.

14 November, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #44: Modular Characters

Here's a concept I've played with a couple of times.

It can be applied in a couple of different ways; some of which I've tried, some of which I'd like to try.

The concept is pretty simple, and you could even look at stalwarts of the roleplaying world in this light.

The basic idea is that a character is made up of modular templates.

A bunch of race templates...a bunch of occupation templates. Add one to the other and voila, a character is instantly playable.

Let's try it a different way.

Here's a design I produced for a contest a couple of years back.

This design ended up becoming a part of the foundation for The Eighth Sea, but I'd really like to go back to it at some stage. The idea of a quickly producible character, with everything right there for a player to use in a couple of minutes.

Not sure what else to write on this one.

Of anyone's got comments, please fire away.

01 November, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #43: Fluency Play

There seems to be something interesting happening in game design at the moment.

I've noticed it in a few games, and it's something I've been aspiring towards in some of my own games.

Jason Godesky has made a post about it and has referenced the phenomenon as Fluency Play.

It's an amazing concept and something that many boardgames have done effortlessly for years.

I can't write the concept more succinctly than those who have written about it previously, so here's a bunch of links...

Pedagogy of Play
Story Games Thread

I'd love to do this in Quincunx, and Brigaki Djili has this concept directly in mind.

It;s a method to introduce instant immersion, because the players don't feel like they are "playing a game", instead they are sharing an experience.

The first game I've played to implement this in an elegant fashion is "Penny", but I've raved enough about that one. Apparently Jason has implemented a similar concept in his Fifth World game, I'd like to see how that's been done.

For my own implementations of it, I think a Quincunx character generation process that worked like an HR questionnaire for a new recruit coming into the company. The GM would function in the role of a work advisor, or someone introducing the characters into the company, and this would work well as an introduction to the role for them as well. I'm thinking that a series of questions like the Myers-Briggs personality test could be used to fill out a decent chunk of the matrix (and probably assign the character to a role within the company, with it's relevant paths), while a few deeper questions would fill the rest of the paths. This would have the twofold effect of getting players into the headspace of their characters, and also give them a precursor towrd the types of actions they be expecting during play.

Actual play examples of fluency would be a little harder. I had never really considered desighning the game in this way, and it would take some rigorous overhauling to get it functional in this manner. A step in the right direction might be to increase the interactivity of the characters sheet, with small notes scattered across it to jog the memories of players, and perhaps providing a few more "cheat sheets" that help to explain what is necessary in the different phases of the game.

I was aiming toward this anyway...I just wish I'd prepared these in advance for Gencon.

Brigaki Djili is a differenty beast altogether, and I'm really hoping to get a game that's playable on a few levels. Something that's as instinctive and intuitive as using a ouija board, and can be used ina s similar manner to divine the mysteries of the past and the hidden secrets of the stories being told.

I'm hoping for a single page of game mechanisms, written in a way that could be read out to a group as they start play. Then maybe a paragraph of text to be read with the passing of each round of play, expanding the complexity and revealing new depth as the story develops.

In all, no more than two pages of general rules. The rest is the immersive ritual to get people into the right frame of mind for communal storytelling, and guidelines for how to prevent the story deviating into unintended territories, or guides for keeping a consistent theme in a story.

Time to do some further research...

23 October, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #42: Escalation

I've just read through Elizabeth Shoemaker's Mist Robed Gate.

You've got to love a game where over a third of the text is a filmography of great martial arts movies, recipes for Asian cuisine to eat during play, and a quick guide to tea.

But those aren't mechanisms.

The game has at it's core, a sequence referred to as "the knife ritual". It's dramatic, evocative and a little dangerous...It uses a real knife.

The knife can be in a range of states, it begins sheathed and covered by a cloth when the tension is low. It becomes uncovered when things get a little tense. It becomes unsheathed when things are drawing to a head. It is stabbed into someone's character sheet when the edge of danger has been crossed and something nasty occurs. Character successes can increase or decrease the escalation of the knife, depending on their actions in game.

It's symbolic, but that symbolism is pretty clear and obvious.

I tried to do the same with Quincunx, using a series of scene types "vague", "unfocused", "focused" and "visceral". But my own effort to achieve this sort of tension lost something in the translation during my Gencon playtests.

A lot of people have raved about Mist Robed Gate, so I'm going to have to go back to re-reading it. There seems to be an elegance to the knife ritual that needs more exploration.

11 October, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #41: Making Player's Decisions Matter

At Gencon Oz, I was reminded why I have a dislike of many traditional roleplaying games. I have to admit here that it's probably not the game that's at fault, it's probably badly written adventures or modules, and bad GMs.

I really enjoy the L5R setting. I've got a thing for Japanese culture after studying martial arts for a few years and over-indulging in manga/anime and other forms of Japanese culture. Last year (2008) we played in a game called Heroes of Rokugan twice, once as a tabletop and once as a freeform. Leah and I didn't get much of a say in how the adventures went, we were just two lowly ranked characters amongst a group who were all willing to take things as they came. We came to the table with no preconcieved notions, and were willing to take a back seat to enjoy the narrative developed by the group.

During a couple of occasions we knew that our characters had abilities that might have been useful to push the narrative in the direction that it wanted to flow. We gained a bit of table respect for succeeding in certain rolls, or assisting in others.

But toward the end of the session we decided to start pushing boundaries. There were rumours of a troll nearby, but the game was designed to allow players to chase down such a monster. I was playing a character naturally inclined to research, and a few of the players had more combat ready characters and wanted to get their teeth stuck into something that wasn't political.

This wasn't the way the story was meant to go, but the GM was willing to allow us to indulge this for a while as the game was running fauirly quickly and a nice detour might help pad things out a bit.

The GM had to look up a troll from the rulebooks, and while she didn't make it far tougher than it needed to be, the monster could have made a quick breakfast from us.

Some incredibly lucky rolls meant that we actually made mincemeat from the troll...at which point the GM panicked. That wasn't supposed to happen.

Quickly some "more influential characters" come by and claim the kill as their own. Under the L5R system, we hadn't followed the intended story, so we weren't awarded any experience for killing the Troll. Neither did we get any renown/glory/honour for disposing of a nasty creature because someone else took the credit for the kill.

It felt like half an hour wasted. Nice story, but it made no impact on the in-game world, and it didn't benefit our characters at all either.

We figured that this might just have been because we were low ranked characters, perhaps after a year of play, we might be able to show up with more experienced characters and might be able to claim a bit more of that glory for ourselves.

Alas we were wrong, 2009 was even worse.

We were playing the same characters under a new GM. This time the module/scenario required investigation and the use of specific skills that few people on the table seemed to possess. It was a game also involving some combat, but we were all magic-users bar one.

The spells of my character involved talking to animals, and while it might make logical sense to progress a story vioa any means available to the table, the story hadn't been written with this as an option. Only talking to specific people would get the story progressing, and those people often seemed to be connected to the criminal underworld (and thus we would lose honour for talking to them), or they were highly rabnked in society (and thus they would lose honour for talking to us).

A catch-22, and we while we exhausted all of our options to get the narrative moving forward, we were blocked with simple comments of "No, you can't do that", or target numbers that were ludicrously high. On the occasions when we actually managed to meet these ludicrous target numbers our successes were dismissive anyway..."Yeah, you succeeded in getting them to talk to you, but they don't tell you anything useful).

Blocked at every avenue because the module/scenario hadn't been written to allow experimentation or thinking outside the square.

Eventually, "hand of god" kicks in. An NPC shows up right before the climax to reveal everything necessary to get a battle scene happening.

Leah and I knew that battle commonly occurs in L5R games, so we've set ourselves up as archers. As magic users, the archery seemed a good way to keep us out of the thick of things.

At range we fire into the melee, I can't remember if either of us hit...at this stage, the game had run over time and I was late for starting my own game session. The next thing I know, an opponent in the thick of battle (on the other side of the conflict), has traversed the gap between us and gets his full actions dice to make an attack against me.

My decision to engage in ranged attacks beyond the immediately melee was rendered null and void because the GM simply said so.

I took it, because I didn't want to start an argument.

A player on the table had specifically cdesigned his character to make use of a vicious spell combination that would augment a single warrior to superhuman capacities. The final produict basically allowed this augmented warrior to wipe out a person with each strike, and take four or five complete actions during the turn (while others have to be content with taking two or three strikes over consecutive turns to take out a single opponent).

The GMs face was aghast. L5R is often about the choice between what is honourable and right, or what is acceptable to the status quo and easy. Running with our tails between our legs would have been easy, taking the fight was the right and honourable thing to do, but it could have gotten us killed. The GM thought that he'd be able to simply wipe us all out with this combat.

Out come the rulebooks, the errata sheets from the publisher, the errata sheets for the Heroes of Rokugan campaign...

...I walked off. I had a game to run and I was already running late for it, my players had actually abandoned me as a no show and were getting their refunds by this stage.

By the time I'd managed to track down my lost players and sorted out the mess, the conflict on the table between GM and players (and between sides within the story) was drawing to a close.

Since he was a "by the book" GM, he had to live by the sword and die by the sword. Nothing prevented the combo from going off and the super augmented warrior sliced and diced the corrupt samurai who were under investigation. Their deaths proved their dishonour according to the module.

Any previous investigation would have been rendered useless anyway, because life and death comes first, while the word of those bearing the highest status comes second.

While I love the setting, from the card games to the miniatures. This really didn't gel with the way the game made it's reputation.

L5R became big because it evolved according to the decisions made by the players. If a certain clan wins a whole heap of card tournaments, it gains an advantage in the global storyline. If a common tactic involves two clans working together, then this will be written into the setting. If a certain combination proves to be broken, then a storyline event will cause it to become unusable.

For over a decade, the players have helped to shape the L5R world of Rokugan.

It's be nice if the writers of Heroes of Rokugan modules took this into consideration. Or at least if the GMs allowed the spirit of experimentation and free thought that has helped make the game thrive.

I don't think I'll be playing again next year.

10 October, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #40: Wide Games

Again, not really a mechanism, but more a style of game that has some distinct differences to tabletop roleplaying.

Wide games are fairly simple and most kids instinctively play this style of game..."Hide and Seek" is an example, as is "Cops and Robbers". But wide games tend to apply a type of ruling mechanism into the game, rather than just having them degenerate into arguments. The game of "Murder" commonly played on university campuses is another form of wide game.

There are some distinct similarities between wide gaming and live roleplaying, and I understand a bit of historical precedent between the two. But I think that the field of roleplaying can probably learn a bit more from this distinct evolutionary gaming path.

If you're still not sure what I mean by wide gaming... here's an excerpt from a website.

'Wide Games' include any game requiring or making use of any large area of land. Provided you stick to a few simple rules they are very easy to set up, very popular and can take advantage of any suitable area. Areas that are particularly good are where it is easy to hide such as woodland or heath, but they can be played in large open fields, its just not so much fun!

If you are familiar with organizing this style of game then feel free to carry onto the index of ideas. But if you are not then there are a few points you need to know

All wide games need you and all players to be aware of the size and type of playing area. This is mainly from the point of view of safety particularly if you are playing in area open to the general public, as the playing areas used can be anything from a small field to several Km2 or more of woodland or forest. It helps when setting boundaries to take advantage of natural ones like paths, streams, edges of woods or fields. If necessary walk everybody around the boundary and/or spend a little time placing boundary markers that are within sight of each other (this could be anything from strips of bright cloth tied to a tree to custom made posts and lights) boundary markers are only really necessary if is difficult to determine a boundary.

Depending on the age of the players, size and openness of the playing area it may be worth while having several marshals patrolling the area to make sure boundaries and rules are being adhered to and you may even want to consider using mobile phones or short range radios.

The website can be found here.

I remember particularly fondly playing wide games in my childhood and early teens.

There would be entire suburbs marked as the boundaries and anything up to 200 players involved in a complicated game that might last a full day from 9am to sundown.

It was the attempt to capture this type of interactive environment that first lured me into live roleplaying, but I was never able to capture the thrill that wide games provided in my nostalgia.

I thought of the wide game concept yesterday at work, just out of the blue. I guess I'd been thinking in the back of my mind about the "LIVE 3:16" I've now [promised to run at Gencon Oz next year, and the LARPs I've recently participated in. It got me thinking that maybe Widegames were a dying pastime, I had only remembered them from my youth and from what I remembered about them, they involved organised groups of people running around over wide areas, planning attacks, setting up defences and generally engaging in activities that a post-911 world would deem suspicious and dangerous.

But a quick google search has shown a thriving wide game community. It seems to be focused on the boy scouts, but that's hardly surprising given the fact that you typically need 20+ players to get a good critical mass for this style of play. Somewhat more surprising (but logical now I think about it), wide games have been adopted as corporate tools for teaching teamwork and reliance on others.

If you're interested in some of the links I've found about this style of game play...

84 Wide Games

Girl Guide Wide Games

Wikipedia Article

08 October, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #39: Card Suits

One of the quickest and easiest methods I've encountered for integrating a mechanism with a setting is through the use of card suits.

I've encountered this a couple of times over the last week, so it struck me as a good idea for this week's mechanism.

I'll illustrate the mechanism through a number of examples...

First, I used the mechanism myself when I wrote The Eighth Sea. In this case I paired the suits to different types of actions that can be taken by the characters. If a character manages to draw a card with a suit matching the action type, they gain an advantage when performing that type of action. It's a pirate oriented game so I gave the actions piratey names: Thumpin', Talkin', Thinkin' and Feelin'.

A few players have instantly gotten the right vibe from the game just by seeing these terms on the character sheet.

Second, I saw the mechanism used in the seminar/panel feedback that I posted in my last blog entry. The game discussed focuses on the mental processes and tactics employed on a baseball field, and the mechanism is highlighted through with the idea that hearts might be used to represent off-field dramas playing psychological havoc in a competitors mind.

Other suits aren't really elaborated, but presumably each would apply to a different style of pitching (fastballs, curveballs or slowballs), or different styles of batting (bunts, drives, or whatever else is used in baseball)...being an Aussie, baseball doesn't mean a whole lot to me, but I can instantly get a feel for the tactica play when the suits are applied.

Third, a new miniatures game that I've picked up called Malifaux. Spellcasters require specific suits of cards in their hands to reflect their attunement with different primordial forces when calling on their spells. Coincidentally (or maybe not), each of the four factions in the game so far focus on one of these energy types.

I've seen it used in a few other games (notably Castle Falkenstein, where I first saw it...and if I remember correctly, it corresponded suits roughly to attribute types.) It's simple, and it makes use of a major feature found in cards that can't really be replicated in dice. I'd like to make use of it a bit more in future games.

Perhaps if I do end up using Tarot cards in Brigaki Djili, then this will be a method of pulling story narrative with game mechanisms.

Game Design Panels

One of my regrets about Gencon Oz 2009, was the fact that I didn't get to participate in any of the seminars or panels...that was actually one of the things I enjoyed about Gencon Oz 2008.

Still it's good to see that there are panels and seminars dedicated to game design running at conventions elsewhere in the world.

V-Con Design Panel


Now I'm just waiting to see (or hear) some of the information from those Gencon Oz panels that I missed.

Hint. Hint. (for those who might be reading...)

04 October, 2009

The heady days of the Mid 1990s, Ukiyo Zoshi and a rant

I think the mid 1990s will always be my golden age.

I had just left high school and was starting to truly forge an identity of my own.

I had gotten a job and was earning my own keep for the first time.

The cold war was ending and the feeling of hope in the world was echoing my own feeling of freedom and the chance for a better life.

Nirvana was showing the world that you didn't need make-up and big hair to play good rock music. And you didn't need to spend far too much money on film clips to get into the top 40.

White Wolf's Storyteller system was showing the roleplaying community that games could focus on story rather than a quirky set of skills and abilities (but it still included these anyway).

I had a good core group of friends, and it felt like we'd all stay friends forever...

I could go on...but that's not the point of my post.

Around this time, a friend and I developed a game called Ukiyo Zoshi (translated from Japanese it roughly means "Tales of the Floating World).

We ran this game at conventions in and around Sydney, and developed a cult following, with all of our games fully booked out (often forcing us to accommodate for more players at the last minute). It was a fun game, but it never really eventuate into anything.

Every now and then I check on the site I developed for Ukiyo Zoshi. You can tell it was written just after the first Matrix movie came out, and you can tell it was something I had grand plans for which never came to fruition.

I'm surprised that it still comes up on the front page of a google search under the terms "Ukiyo Zoshi", especially when the term is actually a form of traditional Japanese literature with dozens of texts written in it's style.

It's one of those projects that's been 15 years in the making, and it will always be a work in progress. I haven't updated the Ukiyo Zoshi website in quie some time because I don't remember it's passwords and I don't even rememebr the email accounts I was using at the time to reclaim, the passwords.

I've just thought of it now because I've started looking into a new miniatures game called Malifaux from Wyrd Games. It's just reminded me of a plan to create a nice generic set of miniatures rules that can be used with ANY figures. I'm getting a little sick of obscure manufacturers producing great figures then linking them to a specific game that is good, but not great....then specifically naming their characters and preventing you from using the nice figures from other manufacturers in their game.

Just a personal pet peeve.

What would I be doing if I didn't roleplay? (Pt 1)


Rollerblading down rollercosters.

02 October, 2009

Brigaki Djili: The Big Three (or six or more)...

I've commented on the Power 19.

I'm deliberately not going to generate one for Brigaki Djili at this stage.

But I will look at the Big Three...three questions that help to focus a game design. The problem is, that I've encountered at least two different versions of "The Big Three".

  • What is your game about?
  • How does your game do this?
  • How does your game encourage / reward this?
I'm told that respected game designer John Wick likes to add..
  • How does you game make this fun?
Another version of "The Big Three" uses the first three questions of the Power 19, and often implies that these are the most valuable responses for the 19 questions.
  • What is your game about?
  • What do the characters do?
  • What does the GM do (if there is one)?
So that makes six different questions for "The Big Three", each of them reflects something distinctly different about the game without delving to deep into specifics. Probably a good series of points to start. It's also useful to remember from my engineering days that it takes 6 references to specifically identify a point in space (notably used in the Stargate movie and TV show to explain the need for 6 locking chevrons around the ring...even though their illustrations of this point weren't mathematically accurate).

So with 6 questions, here's an outline of where I'm heading with Brigaki Djili.

What is your game about?

At a deep level, it’s about weaving together tales through tapping into a communal subconscious; using this method to unveil stories that may have been hidden by the civilised and educated/indoctrinated conscious mind. Perhaps even exposing the arcane truths of the hidden world through apocrypha, allegory, ad-lib and Dadaist absurdity.

At a shallow and more immediate level it’s about having fun with friends, telling stories where no-one is sure what the outcome may be, how it may be reached or what might be revealed along the way.

How does your game do this?

The game is specifically designed so that no single person dominates the entire narrative. One player may take centre stage for a while, but there is no telling when another person might get the chance to integrate a twist into the tale being told. Players take on the role of storytellers, while also taking on the role of avatars within the story. Events are continually narrated and players are continually encouraged to react to these events as they unfold. The story need not always make sense, but then again neither does life. Those players who engage the complexity of the tale or who take more risks through their avatars gradually gain more control over their destiny and have more power over shaping future chapters of the story.

How does your game reward this?

Players are encouraged to take risks. This may be done by deliberately choosing to face more threats within their own stories, or by attempting to place their own narrative voice within the stories of the other players/storytellers. Those who face more risk give greater power to their avatars within the story; those who narrate within other stories may find that they can turn the perspectives of other avatars to their own advantage.

How do you make this fun?

The game is specifically divided into discreet chapters focused on one or two characters at a time. These chapters a divided into tableaux punctuated by moments of tension; a tableaux begins with the resolution of a tension, the reaction and movement to a new event and the movement to a new tension moment. After a moment of tension, the narrator may change depending on the luck of the draw; this means that a narrator has to make the most of their time in the spotlight. Anyone could be the next narrator (given that they showed an interest in this avatar’s story, and offered their tokens accordingly.)

What do the players do?

The players take on the role of a group of storytellers, the default archetype is a circle of old gypsy raconteurs, but they could just as easily be oracles (of the type encountered by Greek heroes), totem animals (sought by native shamans), or a cabal of intelligence operatives (in a modern or sci-fi setting). The players take turns narrating aspects of the story and guiding characters through the situations encountered.

What does the GM do?

There is a GM in this game, but the person taking on this role does not tell the stories, they merely ask questions to help pace the stories told by the other players. The GM represents a person who has come to the circle of players for their advice, wisdom and insight. The GM may interrupt each player once with a piece of evidence that may confirm or contradict a specific story element being narrated. Once used, these pieces of evidence become indelible facts that may not be removed from the story.

30 September, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #38: Roll and Keep

Legend of the Five Rings has an interesting mechanism for resolving actions.

You basically roll a bunch of dice, keep some of them and sum up the face values of the dice you've kept.

In that specific game, the pool of dice rolled is equal to a total of attribute and skill, while you keep a number of dice equal to your attribute. In this way, attributes are more important because they both provide dice for the pool and provide the number of dice kept...skills are less significant because they only add dice to the pool.

In L5R, there is an added mechanism that natural 10's are rerolled, with the new value added to the previous result.

As an example, 7k4 (Roll 7 dice keep 4). [5],[7],[3],[6],[2],[8],[10+8]...keep the best 4 [18],[8],[7],[6]...for a total of 39.

During Gencon Oz we saw another version of this, flipping around the last game mechanism presented. Instead of rolling under but aiming for the highest score, we saw duels of precision which saw players trying to beat a target score, but choosing the dice sum that would beat it by the finest margin.

It worked well, providing drama and reflecting skill while minimising the risk to characters.

It's another one of those mechanisms where I can't think of an immediate use, but I'm sure the inspiration will hit me eventually.

Racism in Gaming

One of the inspiration words in the Stockade's game design challenge is "Gypsy".

I haven't really done a gypsy inspired game, but I've considered it a couple of times. I love the unusual cultures of the world and like the chance to do some good research in a field that I haven't explored too thoroughly.

Over the years I've had a couple of ideas for unusual mechanisms that might be used in a game and I thought I'd really like to tie the gypsy concept to the token bag.

I started with my usual method of opening up a word processor document and starting to type away with a stream of consciousness style of writing that often gives some great insight as I start digging through the words later.

Brigaki Djili is a romani/gypsy term meaning "Sorrow Songs".

I'm using it as a name for a new project in which players take on the role of Gypsy seers who reveal the past through communal storytelling.

Each player takes on the role of one of these gypsy seers, while the GM takes on the role of someone who has asked the seers to reveal a hidden story of the past. Each seer takes on the twin roles of narrating the story and playing out the actions of characters within the story, the GM purely acts as a prompt in case the narrative related by the players starts to slow down, or needs a new impetus.

The basic mechanism of the game involves something I've been toying with for a while, drawing beads from a bag.

Each player has a bag and a dozen or so tokens of a specific colour (each player's colour is different). There is also a pile of threat tokens representing the difficulty of different stories being pursued by the characters.

At the start of a session of storytelling, each player may place their tokens into their own bag, or into someone else's bag. They also apply threat tokens into their own bag. The more threat tokens, the more chance of failure, the bigger the risk for the character, but the bigger the pay-off if they succeed. The character who applies the most threat tokens to their own bag and who survives their story earns some kind of reward at the end of the round.

The play of storytelling follows the draw of tokens from the bag...

At the beginning of a story a single token is drawn to set the tone of the narrative.

Own Token followed by…
The player who controls the character begins by narrating how their character explores the world around them, using the skills at their character’s disposal to avoid problems or complications. Nothing beneficial or detrimental occurs to the character through the narrative. Before the next token is drawn, the character must be faced with some kind of a critical story point

Other’s Token followed by…
The player whose token is drawn begins the narrative, they may choose to describe events that occur in the character’s favour, or may describe events that cause problems for the character. explaining

Threat Token followed by…
The player who controls the character begins by narrating how their character has immediately encountered a problem, arriving at a situation where their skills weren’t appropriate or where they simply failed miserably. Nothing majorly wrong happens to the character, but from the outset they are on the back foot and must react defensively to the next token draw.

Once the initial scene has been set up, a second token is drawn. Further scenes are described through a combination of the last two tokens drawn.

Own Token followed by Own Token followed by…
The current narrator continues with their scene, showing how their character has successfully resolved the issue they have just faced. They show how the character gets another step closer to their goal, or how the character overcomes a setback they have suffered. The scene is concluded by setting up another issue where the character could face a turning point.

Own Token followed by Threat Token followed by...
The current narrator shows how their character has faced their issue unsuccessfully, and how things have put them on the defensive. They must now describe how the character faces up to the issues at hand and tries to get things moving forward again. They narrate a new turning point that might allow the character to take destiny back into their own hands.

Own Token followed by Other’s Token followed by…
The narration duties pass to the player whose token has been drawn. This new player now describes a twist in the events, a way in which the scene has changed away from the current character’s intended plans. Not necessarily for the worse, but certainly deviating the characters path. The character’s player gets the chance to react to the changing circumstances, offering a course of action to be determined by the next drawn token.

Other’s Token followed by Own Token followed by...
The narration duties are resumed by the player who controls the character. The character doesn’t specifically get an advantage from the situation, but they are able to get things back onto the right track.

Other’s Token followed by Threat Token followed by...
The narration duties continue being held by the player whose token had been drawn last. The twist in the storyline has led the character into trouble. The character suffers a setback due to this unexpected change of circumstances, if they wish to continue a sacrifice will need to be made on the character’s part.

Other’s Token followed by Other’s Token followed by...
The narration duties continue being held by the same player. The character’s actions have in some way advanced the agenda of that player’s character (they may be present in the scene, or the actions may be helping in a more obscure fashion). The character may or may not realise what they are doing to further these goals.

Other’s Token followed by a different Other’s Token followed by...
The narration duties move from the former player to the new player whose token was drawn. Another new twist has developed, and the character’s path has turned in yet another new direction. Once again, the character doesn’t specifically suffer a setback due to their change of circumstances, but they do find things shifting around them in such a way that they probably haven’t anticipated.

Threat Token followed by Own Token followed by...
No matter who may have been narrating the events leading up to the drawing of the threat token, the character’s player resumes the narration duties and describes how the character has overcome the issues at hand and has resumed control of their destiny. They may now narrate a new critical point to drive the story forward.

Threat Token followed by Threat Token followed by...
Narration duties do not change, the same player continues to describe the events as they get worse. The setback previously suffered has escalated and has now dealt a permanent injury to the character involved. In most cases, the characters story draws to a temporary conclusion unless they are able to draw upon a specific strength or special ability which helps them in the immediate situation.

Threat Token followed by Other’s Token followed by...
The player whose token was drawn takes over the narrative and may describe how the character has failed in their attempt to overcome the threat, or they may describe a new complication that has the potential to make things even worse for the character.

I'm working on some ideas for incorporating character abilities into the system (if a character has a special ability the player gets to redraw certain tokens, upgrade threat tokens to other's tokens to own tokens, if they have a weakness then they might be forced to redraw successful tokens).

But first I'm just seeing that this core concept makes sense.

Ask as many questions as you want, I'm still trying to work through this in my mind and any queries that other people have might help me to really get it clear...

V

With my first set of thoughts out in the open and sorted into a rough semblance of sense, I posted these ideas to the Forge to see what ideas might strike a chord. There seem to be a few people around who are interested in my designs and ideas.

I didn't expect one of my bites to be a claim of racism on my part.

I never really thought of myself as a racist, and I know of many games that are actually far more ethnically stereotypical in their depiction of minority groups. Call of Cthulhu is based on the works of HP Lovecraft, and in many of his stories, the native Americans (and pretty much anyone of non-white/protestant background) tend to be worshippers of dark beings, deranged cultists (or at least sympathetic to them). What little I know of the indie game "Steal Away Jordan" indicates that it's about slavery, particularly the Negro populace of historical America. Other games play up manga stereotypes, which could easily be considered denigrating to certain minority groups...

...or how about treating every Nazi as an occultist?

It's got me thinking though.

A little bit of research indicates that the Rom have been the butt of racism for centuries. I know a Hungarian person who considers Gypsies to be the scum of the earth (and that's when he's putting it politely and not swearing about them). The way I understand it from him, his family and many of the Hungarians I've met through him, virtually all of the mainstream Hungarians think the same way.

Personally, I'm more interested in learning about them, and using this game as a possible touch-stone for other people to do some research into the subject matter. I'm probably a bit more inclined to make sure I get the game to work well, to do justice to my subject matter and to really get the immersion factors right.

I guess that means my game won't sell well in Eastern Europe, but that would only be an issue if my games were selling well in the first place.

28 September, 2009

Brigaki Djili: The Elevator Pitch

The light of truth is revealed in the shadows of gypsy firelight.

There are tales that have changed our society; while the repercussions have been felt far and wide, the details of these stories have been deliberately hidden. Those outside our society have a unique perspective of our history; gypsies, vagabonds, nomads. Their insight and communion with arcane forces allows them to penetrate the fa├žade and reveal the truth. The elders of the kampanya, gather after a feast; a solitary visitor has asked them to reveal a hidden story of the past.

Thus Brigaki Djili begins…

27 September, 2009

Brigaki Djili (Sorrow Songs)

To maintain a tradition of unpronounceable game names, I'll be working on a project called "Brigaki Djili" for my entry into the Stockade's game design contest.

Brigaki Djili is actually a term from a Romani dialect, which is fitting for a game about gypsies. It's direct translation is "sorrow songs", so the game will be about revealing the past. Sort of like gypsy fortune tellers who reveal the hidden past instead of looking into the future.

At this stage, the very raw basics of the game follow the notion of a group who commune with one another through dance, ritual and sacred herbs. Each tapping into an all knowing communal conscious to reveal the actions of a single individual in the context of a forgotten story. The role of the GM is that of a lone traveller who has asked the group to reveal a story lost to the mists of time (or deliberately hidden by the "powers that be".) The group weave together their narrative, and the GM asks occasional question to prompt the story into specific directions.

I guess I'm trying to develop a focused version of "A Penny for My Thoughts" with some heavy input from "Baron Munchausen", a dash of influence from storytelling games such as "Everway" but with the flavouring of a tarot deck to reinforce the gypsy feel. The aim is something very immersive, where the players take on the role of communal storytellers who are in turn trying to reveal the past through their communion with ancestral spirits.

I'm worried that this step of removal from the actual story might be a break in the immersion for some players, but I'm hoping that the mechanisms of the game will be subtle enough and elegant enough that the flow of storytelling will be magnified rather than impeded.

I've really been inspired by Baron Munchausen, Penny and games like Chronica Fuedalis where the game is written as an in-game artifact. So that where I'll be aiming with the text.

According to the challenge specifications.

The inspirations I'm using are:
"Gipsy/Gypsy" - The core context of the game.
"Yarn" - In the form of spinning a yarn or telling a story.
"Ball" - In the form of a dance, because I see the game as being focused on movement and cycles. Almost like the way a game of Uno moves around a loop, but incorporates reverses, skips and other conventions that toy with player placement and interplayer interaction.

I tried to work in the inspiration "Chromosome" by applying benefits to specific gypsy families, or allowing character to channel specific ancestors through affinities of blood, but I think this might be pushing the envelope a bit far.

The game stars I'm aiming for are:
"Iron" - I want the character sheets to be something simple, no real attributes because gypsy storytellers wouldn't care about "strength", "dexterity" or things like that. Instead, The character sheet will be like the handkerchiefs used in gypsy dances, carefully folded at the start of play, gradually unfolded to reveal their complexity and to reveal tarot card symbolism hidden within. This would represent through play the characters within the narrative revealing who they are. I'm still trying to work out a good way to accomplish this.
"Hat" - The wearing of metaphorical hats could be applied to many roleplaying games, and as a big fan of props in my games I could easily incorporate them into this game. But most of my games tend to require a lot of accessories before they are playable and I'm trying to break out of that pattern. I think that if
"Boot" - The way I'm using the movement of players with respect to the storytelling circle intricately links to the concept of the "ball" and dance.
"Wheelbarrow" - Unsure at this stage how much resource management will play a role in this game. It's certainly an aspect that has played fairly heavily in previous designs I've developed.

So I'm looking at about 7 stars at the moment.

As for Bonus Stars...

If I get my wife Leah involved in the design process, I can probably claim a "Cobber" bonus star, or maybe get her to proofread and edit the text for an "Opal" star. Then, hopefully over the course of 12 months I can drum up enough support for the game that I might get an outside blind playtest (thus earning a "Boomerang" star), and I'll definitely make sure that I get the game to Every Gamer's Guild and Eyecon (for the "Digger" star). I don't know if I can get someone else to post about my game so I can't be sure about the "Cooee" star, but I'm using at least one inspiration, so "Ned Kelly" is in the bag...

I don't think the game really unites two or more inspirations in an unexpected way, and I certainly don't use all six inspirations (I think the core vision would actually suffer if I did try to incorporate more at this point.)

Still, as long as the project is finished in the way I hope, there will be at least 10 stars and the final result will be in line for the "Tall Poppy".

Now I've just got to wait for it to be cut down.

So my game has been revealed, now to start the hard work of making it a reality.

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #37: Intercharacter Connections

I've seen this used in a few games previously, I've touched on it in a few of my Game Mechani(sm) posts, and I've toyed with it in a few ways within the games I've been designing.

The ways characters relate to one another is a fundamental part of the roleplaying experience in my mind, at least as important as a character's relation to the world around them.

But there are a few schools of thought about character's relations to one another. Should you apply specific formulae to the dynamic of players interacting with one another through their characters? Should you let players evolve the dynamic for themselves?

It's like a lot of things, different groups will work better with different answers to the question.

At one end of the spectrum there is the tradition of Australian Freeforming, purely about intercharacter connections. At the other end of the spectrum you get traditional tabletop play, where characters are defined by what they can do to the world around them (and anything else is purely resolved by unwritten social interactions and negotiation between the players).

I'll go through the spectrum the way I understand it...

Purely driven by interactions between characters (Australian Freeforming)
Predominantly driven by interactions between characters with some story impetus (Jeepform, Nicotine Girls (from what I understand about it)...)
Driven by a balance of character interactions and story impetus (Many current Indy Games, Panty Explosion, Dogs in the Vineyard, White Wolf's Minds Eye Theater...)
Predominantly driven by story impetus with some focus on character abilities (Many early Indy Games, 3:16, Zero, ...)
Predominantly driven by individual abilities with some focus on story impetus (White Wolf Storyteller System, Spycraft/Modern d20 System...)
Purely driven by individual character abilities reacting to the outside world (D&D, Palladium Games, most other "mainstream" games...)

There are plenty of games I haven't mentioned above, I've specifically only included the big names that are easily recognizable, or ones with which I'm really quite familiar. The games above can vary their place on the scale up or down by a point depending on the GM and group playing, but the placement given is according to the way I understand them to have been designed.

But how do these games achieve their character interaction?

Looking at a simple version, I'll pick White Wolf's Storyteller system: "Werewolf" characters are typically grouped into a pack, one player takes the role of the pack alpha and other characters take on specific roles to define their place in the scheme of things compared to one another. "Sabbat Vampire" or "Kindred of the East" are perhaps the most advanced level of character interaction where specific degrees of bond between characters are monitored on the character sheet. Such a bond fluctuates through play as characters share blood, or spiritual energies with one another. In some ways these games may seem a bit contrived or forced, but this has been written into the source material as an instinctive aspect of the characters that the higher mind might rebel against (but has to accept none-the-less).

Moving up the scale, Minds Eye Theater (MET) plays up the aspect of social interplay with boons and oaths offered between players and major social ramifications applied for the breaking of these oaths. Each of the sub-games within the MET series has players who specifically take on the role of monitoring the flow of social interaction. Naturally, such a game requires a high number of players for these roles to become effective. The social interaction bestows an order on the group within the context of the game, and provides additional roles for players to take on when they aren't specifically excited by the role of "combat monster", "mystic" or "scholar". It could even be argued that these games are more easily reigned in and even self regulated, because there are players within the setting who aim to keep the peace rather than just GMs who try to railroad events.

At the highest levels, social interaction is applied in the manner of the Australian Freeform. Players are nothing beyond their connections to one another. Everyone wants at least one thing from the situation, and everyone wants at least one other person not to achieve their goals. Players don't necessarily know who to trust (because some people will be able to help their agendas, others will be actively hindering them, and many will be too busy pursuing their own unrelated goals). Players don't know the best way to achieve their goals, but they know that they'll have to keep things on the lowdown, in case their enemies gather in opposition. Some games apply basic rules for working together, others apply basic attributes to their characters for "just in case" players want their characters to go head to head. But the whole aim of these games is to get players to talk to one another, plot and scheme. It's what the set up does well, and for twenty years the formula hasn't changed much.

Players are divided into small groups with a common background or a common goal. Each individual within the group has a second goal that links them with members of other subgroups. Each individual is aware of one or more enemies existing in other groups, and they are aware of shadowy events that they must try to stop. Over the course of the freeform, events will be set into motion through the common will of the players, or at specifically designated periods by the GMs if things don't seem to be moving well otherwise. Gradually the players gather interest in one or two core storylines, and once one of these reaches critical mass, the freeform accelerates toward it's conclusion.

The biggest problem here is that the intercharacter connections of an Australian Freeform really need twenty or more players before the critical mass can be attained. I've seen it work with as low as 15, but the success rate is far lower. I'd love to work a way of getting this style of play to work in a tabletop game of five players, perhaps the Jeepform collective requires some more exploration in this regard.

Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games

One of the people I respect in the field of independent roleplaying is John Kirk, who has written a great textbook on games and the mechanisms contained therein.

It can be found at the following link...


It was actually a source of inspiration for my current series of Game Mechani(sm)s, but I've made a distinct effort not to reference it in my blog so far, for fear of simply copying what has been written previously. Despite this I'm sure I've probably echoed a lot of what John has written, but with my own bias heavily applied to the subject matter. But then against, what blog exists without personal bias.

I look forward to reading through this updated version of the text.

Relational charts of Roleplaying Systems

[EDIT: Here's an old pair of links that I had intended to add to the blog, but never got around to. I had hoped to write something useful at the time, but now I've just decided to simply share the links. EDITED 14th NOV 2009]

Indie Game Design Relational Chart

Relational Chart Main Hubs

25 September, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #36: Roll High but Under.

Back to the grindstone of writing about Game Mechani(sm)s.

I've found another one that I like, not so much for any specific effect it produces within play, but for it's versatility.

3:16 is a pretty simple game on the surface, it uses a basic mechanism where you roll a 10 sided die and aim to roll under your designated skill level. The higher your skill level, the better your chance to roll under it.

But the instant advantage that a system like this provides is that it allows a method of comparing two opponents without resorting to additions, subtractions or other modifiers. As long as both participants succeed in their roll, simply compare the numbers. Higher value wins.

It's elegant because it combines two effects into a single die roll.

I'd like to find a good use for this in a game, but at the moment I've got too many other ideas circulting in my mind.

The Stockade


Just thought that I'd share with everyone that I've joined a community of Australian game designers called "The Stockade". There are already a few talented and respectable designers who have gathered in this group, so hopefully I won't be letting the team down.

The first official project of the Stockade is a 12 month contest, launched at Gencon Oz 2009 with the aim to produce a playtested and fully playable game by Gencon Oz 2010.

As a contest junkie and a forum junkie, its hardly surprising that I've already thrown my hat into the ring on this one.

I'm thinking of combining aspects of "A Penny for my Thoughts", "Baron Munchausen" and parts of my existing design concepts to create an immersive experience using the "tokens in a bag" mechanism and elaborately folded character sheets. I think it will involve Gypsies.

15 September, 2009

Gencon Oz

Haven't been posting much lately because I've been preparing for Gencon Oz.

Writing games, writing characters, preparing to GM sessions while wearing batman armour...it's a lot of work.

I'll try to start something more regular shortly.

07 September, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #35: THAC0

Let's look at a traditional game mechanism.

THAC0, as found in D&D, AD&D, AD&D 2nd edition and thankfully gotten ridden of in later editions of the rules.

Why do I say that? Did I hate it that much?

It's not just that THAC0 is confusing (well maybe it's a bit confusing, especially for new players), it's just not that you need to reference a bunch of character class specific tables to calculate it's values, nor is it just the fact that THAC0 involves addition and subtraction to derive, it's all that and more.

I don't think I get many readers from the old school rennaisance of gaming, most of the people I relate with online belong to the indie camp of game design so it's probably safe to criticise one of the holy symbols of early gaming (there's probably not a lot of difference between the two groups, but I'll get into that later).

Don't get me wrong, I know where the concept came from, but I've been hearing a lot of people lately who've been lamenting the demise of the old style of gaming, and just as many who have chosen to forsake the new version of D&D to return to the old styles of games they remember from years past.

Personally, I'd rather move forward than try to relive old systems that never felt right (even when they were state of the art)...

29 August, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #34: Narrative Sharing

The GM sets the scene and tells the story, the players simply enact the actions of their characters within that story.

That's the way traditional gaming is played out.

You go to a convention, and you pay money for a GM to weave a story for you. It's almost like paying to gpo and see a movie, axcept that you can manipulate the story toward one of a few defined conclusions that the GM has prepared.

You play around a table with friends, one takes on the responsibility of setting up the stories, while everyone else creates caharacters to take part in those stories. Sometimes the group has an adversarial relationship with their GM, working to subvert the stories; other times it's cooperative.

But games need not always be like this.

I've alluded to cooperative storytelling in quite a few of my posts, but checking back through the weekly game mechani(sm)s I don't think I've actually brought up the notion as a specific topic. It's something that has really helped to define the new generation of roleplaying games (particularly those designated as "Story Games" and many games belonging to the Forge diaspora).

Sharing the narrative responsibilities isn't a comfortable idea for a lot of people who are happy to "sit back and be entertained". Yet, the other extreme is often considered just as unpalatable, a phenomenon known as "railroading".

But I've always run games ina collaborative manner, bouncing ideas of the actions of the characters rather than instituting specific storylines...and I've been told that my games as far better than those of a lot of other GMs. The step that causes most traditional players a levcel of trepidation is the idea that they can help shape the world around their characters, not just the actions of their characters in response to that world.

In Guerilla Television, I forced this step apon players by having a player begin a scene with a player on one side adding a sentence of description to the setting, while the player on the other side had a chance of introducing a complication into the scene. As GM, I just facilitated the events unfolding and reined in certain players when their descriptions started getting too long winded, or just didn't fit the events of previous scenes.

I also used a metagame currency to allow players to introduce scene framing elements in The Eighth Sea. The games run at Gencon last year gradually refined the notions and once the game was actually played according tothe rules I'd written, they worked well.

Yet, both of these games have definitely revcealed the fact that not all players enjoy the shared narrative reponsibilities.