Saturday, November 24, 2012

Proofing The Opening Chapter

Gravity Control: Hector Busamante
I'm having my mother read the opening chapter of JAGS Revised Archetypes. Firstly she is a competent editor and has edited at least one other published book. Secondly she is not a gamer in any sense and, although she has, actually gamed with us (story below) once or twice, does not natively "get it." If she can understand the chapter I figure I'm in good shape.

I ran a game for both parents and an experienced game friend several years ago when Hurricane Wilma knocked out the power for several days. With very little to do and housing a friend from an hour north who was staying by himself, we figured it might be a way to pass the time. It was a success.

The game I ran was one where the characters were "Space Rangers" who were new on assignment and wound up with a disabled ship in "pirate space." They, keeping their identities secret, wound up on a hidden pirate space station (large) trying to beg, borrow, or steal parts necessary to repair their ship. The only visible supply of parts were in the hands of a local crime boss (to an extent, everyone on the station was a crime boss) and the parts could be had for "bounty hunting."

The PCs could've chosen to try to steal the parts (I made it clear that was possible but risky--they were heavily guarded) but decided to run down the bounties. It turned out the targets were two lovers on the run (Romeo and Juliet) and in the end the characters had to decide whether or not to bring them in (to get off the station), let them go and try something else, etc.

They hit on an idea of taking some of the bodies they'd accumulated and having them surgically altered to appear as the targets. It was an idea I hadn't thought of and allowed a win-win where the PCs got their bounty and the lovers got to escape--the (very short, tightly run) was deemed a success--and fun.

I have observed (and leveraged this) that new players really like price lists. I created the game with a short list of gear that they could choose from (not knowing what would happen--but knowing something would) and let them take a few minutes to make trade offs. This seems to be a way to generate interest and energy early on. I think AD&D really benefited from it's (often obscure) price list. I think a lot of people miss this.

I also wanted to give the players strong parameters (you are on this station, there are these things around) but no strong guidance. Even the core decision to attack the crime boss or try to play the game was explicitly left open (of course bounty hunting was so attractive I doubted they'd gravitate to the riskier solution). The big decision (what to do with the lovers) was left completely open. There was no easy answer (I figured they would not send the two kids back to face death--but I thought they might do it).

For making characters, I think it's clear that the full number of options is overload for new players. I gave them basic character templates and let them pick from a set of equal cost "packages." This is "simplification for new players" but it illustrates a point that should never be forgotten: the more work you do to make everything in play relevant to the game the tighter the experience will be.

I didn't put in cyber-hacking because I knew that there wouldn't be cyber-hacking in the 4-6 hours of play we were going to do in a blacked-out house. Now, this rule can (and has been) taken and run far too far with: if I didn't put cyber-hacking in JAGS because "JAGS isn't about that" it'd be a huge mistake. In a game that is designed to, maybe, be run for 2 years with the same characters and players you are necessarily going to want to do things differently than in a 4 hour game for players who have never played before and may never play again.

For those players they expect--and are reasonable in it--that whatever formative decisions they make, they will be relevant. When making a character for a game that may run hundreds of hours those expectations are often going to be different. A player who understands both role-playing and the dynamic of their specific group well will know how much agency they can expect to have when introducing elements into the game (i.e. a cyber-hacker space ranger will, in a long enough game, find places with a cyber-net and will generate situations where the hacking is likely to be useful even if the first pirate space station they crash on isn't one).

This is also something behind the thinking of costs in JAGS: I find that having an "8 point" slot where you can put "one really good thing" (8pts), "two pretty good things" (4pts each), or "four okay things" (2pt costs) is easily grasped and that the ease of understanding and responding makes for a good dynamic during play.

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