21 January, 2011
19 January, 2011
Game Mechanism of the Week 2011: 2 – Legend of the Five Rings 2nd Edition Core Mechanism “Roll and Keep”
The version of L5R that I’m most familiar with is 2nd Edition. I’ve played a bit of 3rd Edition, so I know that a lot of the fundamentals are very similar….as for other versions I’m not as sure.
The basic system for the core mechanism is fairly similar to the structure I described for the percentile system, but there are enough differences to make it worthwhile examining…especially the fact that it allows players to take a bit more control for themselves when the GM is using the system correctly. It should also be noted that a GM can use the system incorrectly, and when they do this it is barely any different to the basic percentile system. I’ll describe this later.
The basic system follows 4 steps:
1. Scene is set for the action. Target number is determined, along with a pool of dice to roll based on the attribute and skill to be used in the task.
2. You may choose to raise the difficulty to gain an added effect from the action.
3. Dice are rolled, the best are kept (the number kept depends on the skill of the character) and totalled, the total is then compared to the target number.
4. One of two results occurs
a. You beat the target number and you either gain an advantage or avoid a penalty (if you applied any raises, you get the benefit of these as well).
b. You fail to beat the target number and you either suffer a penalty or don’t gain the advantage.
It the addition of that new second step that makes this system more interesting; it integrates the idea of player choice into the action and allows characters to be more dramatic in their actions. Any time a player decides to introduce a raise for their character, they make a conscious choice regarding the events at hand. Such a choice is grounded in the events at hand; with certain options provided by the skill being used, others becoming available through certain character advantages, and some possibly being made available by the GM to reflect the specific circumstances of the scene.
A raise invokes the possibility of a new event node. It might create an additive filter to provide extra advantage to the character at a later time, it might alter the velocity of the story (giving the characters extra time to prepare, or reducing the time for a nemesis to ready themselves), it might open a diverging lens to take the story in an unexpected direction, or it might allow players to avoid an upcoming mirror. Each of these options is a wild card, and an open GM will often be able to run with the choices provided, while a closed GM will simply say something along the lines of “No, you can’t make that kind of raise in this situation” or they’ll simply ignore the effects of the raise. I’ve ranted about this type of “GM shut-down” in L5R games before. Without the subtly of the raise, you might as well just be playing with a percentile system (or a “beat the target number” system).
A basic diagram of the system shows how this added step provides a new degree of complexity into proceedings.
(I could draw up a half-dozen permutations of this flowchart, some where the player introduces different types of raises, others where raises are not added in, then I could vary whether the specific actions has positive filters resulting from successful actions, or negative filters resulting from failed actions, but by this stage you should get the general idea. If an action has a potentially beneficial effect, then the positive filters apply; and conversely if the characters are caught in a potentially bad situation then the negative filters apply.)
The important thing to note about these charts compared to previous charts is the outlined diverging lens. This is where a deliberate choice is made by a player. In L5R this inclusion in the mechanism has a reflection within the setting. The players portray heroes (and villains) of the setting; they are the active agents who make the change within the world. Without them, the masses of peasants and honour bound nobles would become locked in stasis. If a character doesn’t make a conscious decision to go beyond the call of duty, they will not make their mark on history and they will be forgotten. Anyone can take the safe route, engaging the standard target number and accepting the standard conditions of victory or failure. Once you step up and start pushing for your own thing, things might get harder, but the success is all that sweeter.
It’s this synergy between mechanisms and setting that make games more interesting, and that’s the sort of thing I’m trying to focus on in this series.
I’m going to start this analysis with one of the old chestnuts of roleplaying, the percentile skill system. This is found in earlier versions of D&D, as well as the range of Palladium roleplaying games, Call of Cthulhu, and plenty of the Old-School Renaissance games. It’s a simple game mechanism following three basic steps.
1. You have a target number; the target number is typically based on your character’s skill level plus or minus a difficulty factor. The reason for the difficulty factor is typically described in the fiction.
2. You roll a percentile die and compare it to the target number.
3. One of two results occurs
a. You beat the target number and you either gain an advantage or avoid a penalty.
b. You fail to beat the target number and you either suffer a penalty or don’t gain the advantage.
This mechanism can be applied in a few ways in a game.
In many “railroaded” linear games, the percentile roll is simply used to determine whether advantages are gained while on the inevitable path to the confrontation at the end of the story.
Some percentile rolls have a chance of providing bonuses.
Other percentile rolls have a chance of inflicting penalties.
Some novice GMs think it’s clever to create scenes where there is a chance of both bonuses or penalties. There is nothing overly revolutionary about this and when analysed, it follows the same basic event structure.
When moving to “non-railroaded” storylines, the simple percentile roll still only offers two possible outcomes. Either you are successful and you follow one story path, or you are unsuccessful and you follow another story path. Depending on the specific scene, one character might make the roll for the entire group, or multiple players might get the opportunity to try their luck.
At a more complex level, some systems may allow players to introduce advantages to maximise their chances of success (such advantages might be equipment that provides a +X% bonus, or special benefits that decrease a difficulty number in certain situations). Some systems do the same with penalties (perhaps injuries cause a general negative to all skill rolls). In a computer roleplaying game, these advantages and disadvantages are often calculated automatically before randomised outcomes are generated; in a table-top game players and GM need to remember which effects modify the target number at which times. On the whole though, a percentile system such as this doesn’t offer a lot of player agency. Instead, it’s binary; either you do it (you follow one set of results), or you don’t (you follow the other set of results). Any chances of maximising a character’s potential are resolved before the scene begins (during the character generation phase), the rest is basically a crap shoot. To properly protagonise the characters, you need to incorporate other game mechanisms….but then again, some players don’t like being forced to make decisions for themselves, they just like to build their characters then sit back and enjoy the ride.
Real Play Example: A story has a tyrannical despot as the core antagonist, he is gradually gaining power and there is no way out of the land except to face him. Regardless of what the characters do the despot will gain power and eventually he will have to be confronted (either on his terms or the character’s terms).
Diverging Story – A story with a fixed starting point. The GM specifically sets the opening scene to put events into motion. The events that occur later within the story are commonly derived from this particular opening moment, or from a fixed series of events that lead to that moment.
Real Play Example: A story begins with the characters stranded somewhere, they don’t know why, they don’t know how. Events leading up to the stranding are fixed (but they might be explored in flashbacks, and these might give new perspective to later events); events after the stranding are purely left in the hands of the players and their characters. The story could go anywhere.
Event Node – The point at which a Narraton changes due to events imposed on it, such events could be choices provided within the story, reactions to outside forces, results of specific game mechanisms, real-world time constraints or anything else that might affect the way the story is being told. An event node can change Story Vectors (Heading or Velocity of the Narraton) by adding or resolving Tensions. An event node can change a Narraton’s Intensity by applying bonuses or penalties to the characters or the situations around them. An event node can change a Narraton’s Wavelength by playing with the Narraton’s specific tendencies within the story.
Real Play Example: Any time the players roll the dice or make some kind of choice that affects the ongoing story or their effectiveness in it, that’s an event node.
Field – A field is a wide ranging effect that might gradually change the velocity, heading, intensity or wavelength spectrum of all Narratons that encounter it. Unlike a mirror, lens, filter or other event node, it doesn’t make a sudden change to the Narraton, instead it gradually subverts the Narraton over a period of time.
Real Play Example: An example of a field effect might be the social dynamic in a bandit town. Everyone distrusts the characters, and it takes specific actions to gain their trust. But over the course of time, if you don’t keep up those actions to maintain that trust, they level of distrust gradually builds back up again. Another example of a field effect might be the concept of “natural healing” where characters simply improve their state of being over time (gradually restoring their wavelength spectrum to its optimum state).
Filter – Filters change things that pass through them; polarising filters align the oscillations of light along a certain axis, coloured filters prevent certain wavelengths of light from passing through them and thus they change the colour of the filtered light. We don’t use an analogue for the polarisation of Narratons (there’s enough complexity in the theory as it currently stands), so Filters in Vector Theory merely manipulate the wavelength of a Narraton. In the real world, filters only remove (remove the randomness of oscillations, remove parts of the spectrum passing through them); in Vector theory, filters may also add to the Narratons passing through them
Real Play Example: . Any event that reduces the effectiveness of a Narraton is considered a subtractive filter, where examples include characters taking injuries, a loss of status, suffering from a curse or developing a bad reputation. Any event that increases the effectiveness of a Narraton is considered an additive filter, where examples include finding a magical sword, acquiring useful information, gaining status, finding a new ally or being bestowed with a beneficial enchantment. Some filters neither add nor subtract, they merely change effectiveness; examples include trading in a favour for a specific material possession or paying money for the services of a henchman.
Heading – A Narraton’s Heading is a general overview of where the story seems to be going if things continue on their current course and the players make no changes to their actions. Heading may be altered in two ways, blatant and subtle. A blatant heading change is a specific event node described to the characters and prompting a response. An example might be a damsel in distress (change heading to follow the story into a series of scenes about rescuing the damsel, or continue straight ahead and avoid the diversion). Another example might be the death of a loved one (many choices: mourn the passing, fall into depression, avenge the death, avoid the topic and gradually become jaded/cynical, every choice has consequences and the chance to lead to new story opportunities).
Real Play Example: A GM might have a general idea about how consequences of certain actions will lead to different changes in the environment. If the players indulge in violent actions, the people around them will react more violently; conversely if they take a low key conversational approach, intrigue might become the order of the day. These two extremes could be plotted on one axis (let’s say the vertical). A second axis might simply measure degree of success within the story (in this case the horizontal; left = failure, right = success). If players are progressing through violence, their heading is up and to the right. If their violence is leading to problems that are preventing them from proceeding, they are heading up and to the left. If they are succeeding through political intrigue, they are heading down and to the right…etc. The GM could set up certain trigger scenes to occur when the Narraton’s heading takes it to a specific part of the chart. For example, in the lower left of the chart, there might be a scene with a political figure who gives them a boost in the right direction. If the players have been too violent, their heading won’t lead them to him. If the players are too successful, they won’t need his help so there’s no point introducing him. Entire campaigns could be plotted out in this way, perhaps using three or more axes for multi-dimensional charts.
Intensity – A Narraton’s Intensity is a measure of player agency, the ability of the player controlling that Narraton to alter the events around them, make choices for themselves, or overcome the obstacles in their path. A Narraton with low intensity is subject to the whims of the event nodes they encounter, in some games they might have a severely reduced ability to introduce event nodes of their own into the story. A Narraton with high intensity is more able to confront event nodes on their own terms, in game where players may introduce their own twists into the story, a high intensity Narraton may indicate an ability to impact the story’s flow (trading some of that intensity for a shift in heading or a change in velocity).
Real Play Example: In a traditional game like D&D, intensity could be easily identified by a character’s “level”, the higher the level the more effectively the character will be able to overcome adversity. In games without levels, intensity becomes harder to gauge as it requires combining all the relevant data and individual abilities. In certain situations, Mr Blue might be more powerful than Mr Grey, but when you average out their chances in a wide variety of circumstances they might have an even chance of beating one another.
Lens – Lenses are capable of converging beams of light into points or spreading them into diffusions. Similarly, the event nodes referred to as Lenses in Vector Theory are points capable of converging the paths of Narratons into single stories, or diverge a single Narraton’s path into a range of possible options. Convergent lenses don’t offer new choices, instead they simplify the possibilities, collapsing waveforms into predetermined states. Divergent lenses open a world of possibilities. The use of these two types of event node are often used to determine whether a GM is considered to be “railroading” a story to a predetermined outcome, or allowing the story to evolve naturally from player decisions. This is especially true if players are allowed to introduce their own lenses into a play session.
Real Play Example: Pre-written modules often have decision paths that will lead players along a different series of scenes depending on the choices they make. At the most abstract extreme, consider a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book; any time a page offers you a choice of “Do you perform action A? If so, go to page X. Do you perform action B? If so, go to page Y.”…that’s a diverging lens. It gives you options. Converging lenses sometimes exist in these books too, but they are harder to pick up. If two different pages both direct the reader to a single page further in the story, the twin storylines merge and a converging lens has occurred.
Mirror – In a perfect world, a mirror deflects a beam without changing its speed, wavelength or intensity; in the real world, a beam of light becomes a little dimmer as parts of its wavelength are absorbed by the mirror while the remainder are deflected. By this same logic, in Vector Theory a mirror is an event node that deflects the path of a Narraton in a new direction.
Real Play Example: The players have been fighting their way through armed guards on their way into the halls of the corrupt sorcerer. Near the inner sanctum they find a note written by one of the sorcerer’s henchmen; the note describes a plan to use naïve outsiders to kill off the last of the loyalist guards, thus allowing the sorcerer’s revolution to occur with minimal resistance. The story suddenly changes from a sequence of fights into something a bit more sinister and political; the actions of the characters are seen in a new light and the story shifts direction.
Mixed Event Node – Many event nodes seem to have multiple functions, they might deviate the narraton’s path along variable vectors while changing the Narratons wavelength. In virtually all cases, these mixed event nodes can be broken down into specific Event Nodes with small Story Vectors between them; combining their incremental effects into the mixed overall effect. But for the purposes of brevity it is often easier to simply combine the smaller Event Nodes into a gestalt entity.
Real Play Example – A discussion with a local priest is a mixed event node, if things go well the characters will be blessed (resulting in an improvement to a certain part of the Narraton’s wavelength) and will gain access to a few key story scenes (directing the story in a specific heading)…if things go badly, the characters might be cursed (resulting in a deterioration to a certain part of the Narraton’s wavelength) and will require facing a different set of story scenes (directing the story along a different heading).
For simplicity, when mapping out the story, a single decision point might be used.
When analysing it more deeply, there might be a few decision points.
You’ll note that in each case, the story still alternates between simple event nodes (in grey) and short story vectors (described in the blue boxes). The entire sequence of event nodes defines the procedure of this particular scene within the story.
Narraton – An imagined particle of roleplaying experience. A Narraton can change its heading according to the direction in which the story is proceeding. A Narraton can change its velocity depending on the pacing requirements of the story. A Narraton can change its intensity depending on the degree of player agency within the story. A Narraton can change its wavelength depending on the tactical options available to it.
Real Play Example: This one is hard to give a real play example for. The manifestation of the Narraton is the instance of play, where things are heading, how they are getting there, and why. The Narraton might be perceived by different participants in different ways. One player might be looking at the specific journey of their character through the events of the session, another player might be looking at the movement of a Narraton cluster as the overall journey is chronicled. The path and the effects of the Narraton are far easier to analyse than the Narraton itself.
Story Vector – The heading of a Narraton between Event Nodes. A Story Vector has no changes in heading, velocity, intensity or wavelength without encountering an Event Node, it simply proceeds in a straight line infinitely until it encounters a new node or loses relevance. As an example, a “Happily Ever After” Vector might lead away from a story in a generally positive direction but it doesn’t prompt new story events. Another example might be a “Conversation” Vector, where an event node might prompt the conversation to start, while the conversation itself will lead to a new event node where the players must either make a new decision or react to a new change in circumstances.
Real Play Example: If you know the general tropes of Kung Fu movies, you’ll know that many sessions of roleplaying games follow the same principles (and virtually all computer roleplaying games also). A fight scene occurs, jam-packed with all sorts of action, stunts, manifestation of powers learnt along the way…then once the fight scene is over the fallout of that scene is described, often leading to a new scene of revenge (by the protagonists or the antagonists), or a movement to a new location where a new menace can be faced in a fight scene. The fight scenes are clusters of event nodes, the atmospheric scenes and dialogue in this genre are the story vectors (no choices in themselves, they just lead to new fights or critical moments).
Tension – Tensions are motivations pulling on a character, aiming to draw the character’s narraton into certain types of stories or pull them toward specific end goals. Caricature characters and stereotypes might only have a single tension pulling on them, while complex characters might have dozens of tensions pulling at them for different reasons. Tensions may be integrated into the rules, but often they exist as personal concepts written on notepads separate to the character sheet, or as vague ideas within the head of a player. The magnitude of a tension will often change due to the circumstances of a story; sometimes new tensions will manifest during the course of a story while others will vanish completely if they lose relevance.
Real Play Example: A tension might be static, simply pulling them in a single direction regardless of the events in the story; this might be the case when a character has a simple goal like “Accumulate Wealth” or “Defend the Church”. It might pull in different direction but always toward a certain point; such a tension might be to maintain the balance between different factions depending on who has the balance of power the character will be forced to confront different people using different tactics, but they are always trying to pull everything back to a central balance point regardless of where their story may have taken them. In many more interesting stories, a tension will be dynamic, transforming as the events around them change; such a tension might link a character’s story to that of another character, or it might pull them in a cycle doomed to be repeated until some specific event occurs.
Velocity – A Narraton’s Velocity determines how quickly proceedings are undertaken. When a Narraton moves slowly, elaborate and copious details are provided, there may be numerous twists and turns between major event nodes with players getting the opportunity to meander and explore the setting though minor event nodes that have little impact on the overall story. When a Narraton moves quickly, only the most significant facts are divulged and in many cases the Narraton simply skips over time (and minor event nodes) until the next major event node is encountered.
Real Play Example: In many games, a Narraton’s velocity speeds up during rest periods (where many hours might be skipped over in a minute or two) while it slows right down during combat sequences (where a matter of seconds might be described over the course of minutes or even hours).
Wavelength – A Narraton’s Wavelength is a complex thing that links specifically to the game mechanisms of the system being used. In a traditional game with attributes, skills and saving throws, the various parts of the wavelength represent which attributes are stronger than others, which skills have better capability and which saving throws have the best chance of avoiding outside influences. In a game where everything is measured by traits, each trait might be a specific point of energy along the wavelength. In general, Wavelength is probably better described as colour (but this has some slightly different predefined connotations in Forge Theory so I’m leaving it as Wavelength), it can be viewed as a spectrum with various degrees of energy radiating from different areas.
Real Play Example: If you’ve played with any image manipulation software, you’ll know that a monitor uses Red, Green and Blue in varying degrees to create the full range of colours displayed. As an example; Red might be equated with “Combat Prowess”, Green with “Social Influence” and Blue with “Mystic Insight”; a warrior’s wavelength in this simple scheme might be “75% Red, 20% Green, 5% Blue”, while a priest’s might be “5% Red, 40% Green, 55% Blue”. The average capacity of the character to influence the world around them is dictated by their Narraton’s Intensity, but their specific chance of gaining positive result depends of which part of their wavelength they choose to exert on a specific situation. This is probably one of the more complex parts of Vector Theory.
11 January, 2011
04 January, 2011
I had fun doing my “Game Mechanism of the Week” series in 2009, so I’ve decided that I’ll do it again. It’s not that I’ve instantly thought of 52 more mechanisms to look at, but rather that I could do the series better. Maybe do things in a more focused manner; then combine what I’ve developed in Vector Theory in the hope that both concepts will be stronger for it.
Where possible I’ll be trying to pull in some new game mechanisms, but I’ll be drawing on some of the previous mechanisms for a more detailed analysis. It’s the kind of things that I was hoping to do the first time around, but this time I have a better perspective, grounding in my own game design theories, and hopefully a better way to explain things.
The concept of the “Game Mechanism of the Week” is important to me for a few reasons. It’s my way of understanding the elements that make up games, and the way those elements combine into unique play experiences. Finally, the way I see it, the analysis of game mechanisms takes a step toward a new layer of game design theory. I joined up with the forge after the theory discussions had closed down, and I was one of those many people who encountered the mass of posts and essays with a bewildered WTF before sitting down to read a few of them, misunderstanding them at first, then finding elements that meshed with actual play and achieving zen-like moments of satori (“Oh, so that’s what he means by Step On Up”). Where possible I’ve tried to share my understandings in the hope that other people might also see the value in these ideas. I didn’t realise until 2010 that “The Big Theory” (around which the Forge is centred), was actually just a method of describing the issues inherent in play groups. It doesn’t really affect the design of games, it affects the way those games are played. The way I understand it now, it was never intended to be a design methodology, but numerous new designers would encounter it for the first time, misunderstand what it was truly trying to say; then they’d have a head full of slightly-off but dangerous misconceptions as they plunged off to design a new game.
In the posts describing the “Winter of the Forge”, Ron Edwards and a few others have written some great stuff that confirm a few of my posts about the Forge and the Big Theory in the last few years. I guess that I was starting to “get it”, even if I didn’t realise it. The big theory was only ever intended as a tool to show people why certain aspects of the game were falling down…different people seeking different types of rewards, different people imagining the fiction in different ways, different people using different methods to interact through their characters. Once it has been categorised we can see an issue for what it is; that’s the aim. Once we can identify the problems we can move to the step of resolving them. If we try to resolve them without identifying them we might get lucky, but it’s far more likely that well run into new problems (often without successfully resolving the first lot). “The Big Theory” gives us a starting point to fix games in play, it even provides a few tools for looking as specific inputs and outputs for the game to understand how they might best be played within our gaming circles (“What does this game give rewards for?”, “Is the game setting internally consistent?”, “If there are inconsistencies are they intended to produce competition between participants, or simply the result of poor design?”). In the past few years some key independent designers have latched onto one or two identified inputs/outputs and have used these as starting points to develop games that have shaken up the way we play. These design methods have even begun filtering through into mainstream games. Many gamers (and game designers) are not only starting to see that their experiences have been good or bad, they are starting to understand why. The core gamer audience of D&D* still have a preconceived notion of what a roleplaying game is, and why their game is a proper roleplaying game while other games aren’t. They still work off the idea that “Joe is a good GM, Dave is a bad GM”, rather than analysing the techniques used by each GM and working out how either of them could be better. Many still cower at the thought of stepping up to take control of the story for themselves, believing that this is the sacred space of the GM, while they simply undertake the role of a reactive audience (“When do I roll?”, “What kind of die?”, “What number do I need to roll?”).
I’ve also mentioned the work of John Kirk, who has created a great book on the design patterns of successful RPGs. A few steps removed from Forge theory, it gives some great analytical tools of it’s own. It offers some nice flowcharts for how systems and patterns work within a game, noting how one die roll might lead to another die roll, a table, a comparison to another die roll or a target number. For a guide on how randomisation and die rolling principles work in an RPG, you’d have a tough task trying to surpass it; and while this isn’t it’s intended purpose, if you’re looking for a way to abuse one of the mentioned gaming systems, this text is downright brilliant. But I don’t recall it providing information on how to interact with the flow of the story being developed communally through the games.
Vector Theory was my attempt to link these two ideas into a tool that could actually be used to create mechanisms of specific types. Then by mixing these mechanisms, very explicit play experiences could be tailored.
I’m hoping that this year’s round of Game Mechanisms will be more focused than the 2009 offering. With the context of Vector Theory I’m hoping that I can really show my points about why mechanisms seem to work in specific ways.
But first, a lexicon for the year (there will be a webpage for this lexicon soon, to allow for updates and amendments).
*(that should probably say d20/D&D/Pathfinder these days)