Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Notes on Game Mastering

What I'm Testing Right Now
I'm testing combinations of Total Archetype Point GAT's still. We are going to probably have sixteen levels of GAT (8 AP through 128 AP of character). I can't test 16 spot-checks for each of maybe sixty TAP GATs (including, now, Fast Company, Science Agents, some other Cybernetics, and some Mutations). However, I want to take some sample points for extrapolation and see what I can learn.

Things I want to know:

  • How does "minimum cost" work for things that are a % of Total AP. I know that it happens: some combinations of test win against 16 AP with 0 AP in attack and defense (just the normal character jacked up with extra bullet rounds, AGI, and so on). But the question I've yet to answer is just how do I rate performance when the damage amounts are so low that they cannot penetrate even minimal armor? If the mix is winning handily against targets it can hurt--and never against targets it can't, what does that mean (especially keeping in mind that some game types like Chi games won't have a lot of armor). I need to understand this better in the context of real games.
  • How do groups of GAT's combine? If I add enough of them it seems there's an inefficiency but is that stable? What is that?
  • What is the reduction in %-cost from 64 AP to 128 AP. My testing suggests that if you take three samples (16 AP, 32 AP, and 64 AP) and you test how much of those AP something like, say,+8 REA (2 extra attacks, always going first) is worth you get numbers like: .63, .47. .38 (so it costs 16*.63 = 10 AP at 16 AP characters, if you are a 32 AP character it costs 15 AP, and if you are a 64 AP character it costs you 24 AP). This is validated through testing--but why is it? Part of the reason is that the amount of Armor relative to "unarmed base damage" goes way, way up. The character with weak attacks at 64 AP isn't winning hardly at all but on 16 AP even with nothing in his attacks he can still beat some of the armored characters). Another part of the story may have to do with attack powers vs. defensive powers (Force Field starts being the worst of the four defenses by a little--but is usually the best at 64+ AP).

Some Other Stuff: Running A Game
In order to think about how to make a game at some point you have to think about how to run one. Clearly there's a huge body of thought on traditional-RPG game-mastering (where the term traditional is being used, by me, to distinguish between games ranging from Gamma World and AD&D to stuff like Hero, GURPS, or Exalted--but leaving out stuff like Dogs in the Vineyard ... which is pretty close to a traditional RPG ... or shared story-telling games like My Life With Master or Universalis). For the games I'm talking about, I think that we should consider the model as something along the lines of: "The GM runs the world and the players play their characters."

There's a lot that I have to say about this but I want to start with something small.

In the original boxed set of Gamma World--TSR's post-apocalypse masterpiece--there was some GMing advice. Here is the quote:
The referee is the participant who is willing to provide the mental and physical labor of completing the game within the framework provided. He will also provide of the actual play of the game itself. 
Before I dig into this let me preface it by saying that I do not hold with "textual analysis" of RPG texts as any kind of deep evaluation of truth as to the thinking of the creator(s). I've worked on an RPG and I can tell you that what I wrote in any given area is (a) what sounded good at the time (b) got proofed (hopefully) and revised and whatever and (c) was generally not studied from a variety of perspectives to try to meet the standard usually held by Internet RPG Theorists.

However, I'm calling this out because I really like it and it reads the way I think about this. Whatever the author(s) meant by the quote, I think that my read of it is interesting: the referee (which eschews the questionable Dungeon Master term--although they correctly--both grammatically and demographically--assume the Gamma World referee will be a 'he') completes the game. That is: you bought the box (yes: this came in a box--those were the days) and you got a "framework" and the game itself had to be completed.

I think in some ways--in a lot of very important ways--being a GM is like being a game designer. It's like collaborating with the actual game designers to create a finished product ... for that night of play. Then you do it all over again for the next (or even that minute or second of play, really). I think this is one of the reasons we see a limit on adoption of RPGs as a means of entertainment: there's usually no shortage of players--I got my parents to play. But try to take someone who doesn't get it and force them to GM? It's not going to be an optimal experience IME.

Secondly, there's this question of The Framework. The wonderful Grogonardia blog has a magnificent series of posts on Gamma World and the one I've linked to has a few excerpts from the rules--specifically mutations with minimalistic descriptions--and notes:
In each case, there are questions either left to the referee to answer or completely unasked (like how long a mutant with infravision is blinded by flashes of heat). The funny things is that, at the time I played Gamma World, I don't think I even noticed this aspect of the game and I honestly can't recall any significant cases where much hinged on the rulebook's lack of specificity. Now, maybe it's because we were just stupid kids who didn't understand how vital it was to have built-in subsystems for determining when the bones of a mutant with body structure change would break, I don't know. But, looking back on the game now, I can't help but feel we weren't really missing out on anything by just making stuff up on the fly as it was needed.
As you can see, in JAGS, we're kinda going the other direction: if we give you a power we want to tell you everything you can think of about how it quantifies.

But I think the Gamma World approach is right--for Gamma World. It's all about the framework: Gamma World's mechanics are not complex as these things go (veteran gamers will remember the multi-page fold-out flow-charts for Aftermath combat) but they are pretty sufficient to get you there. The Referee in Gamma World has, I think, enough to go on, that, so long as the group is more or less socially working (i.e. not arguing every rules call) it'll work.

JAGS, of course, has a much more specific framework (with things like actual distances and measurable time events ... real weights ... and so on). It's also made for groups where a depth of character design and combat tactics are meant to be relevant. This is something that had little relevance to Gamma World in most cases (although there would be strategy in how you use limited resources like ammo and grenades).

So the take-away here is this: While I'd expect JAGS and Gamma World to produce some very different experiences at the level of contact with the rules and how much work the group expects the game system or referee to do in order to reach their optimum experience, I think that my way of looking at the creation of game rules is very, very in synch with what the Gamma World creators were thinking.

If there's a train of thought that carries through from 1978 to 2011 I think that's pretty cool.


1 comment:

  1. I suspect you're including this in your degree of thought on the issue of The Framework, but I think there's a line of demarcation that needs to be examines with how specific descriptions can be: and that is, how often are the situations where the specifics going to matter come up?

    Using the Gamma World example, the flash-duration-from-heat and bone-breaking issues were not important in Gamma World for a simple reason: most of the time the whole issue would be ignored. There were no general rules for being blinded by light (in fact, I'm not sure there were even any weapons that did so), so a given GM was either going to be making it up when a situation arrived where such was relevant, or ignoring it. In the former case, the fact he'd have to go a step farther in the case of the Infravision mutant wasn't a big deal. Same for the bone-breaking; since there were no special rules for broken bones, the GM was going to have to get his oar in there if he wanted to deal with that anyway.

    On the other hand, as I recall, Gamma World had a mutation for playing with your personal density (at least some incarnation of it did); I'm also pretty sure some versions had a discussion of falling damage. Not having a discussion of how these two things interacted is more problematic, since there were mechanics for the latter, and one could presume the situation might come up several times over the course of the campaign.