Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Levels and Pacing

Last night we played the 3rd session of our super-hero playtest. This is the game where we randomly assigned power-categories to the players (and NPCs) leading to the taking of powers most of us would never have gone for given our general preferences.

This is an astonishingly good playtest ... considering (a) that I have what should be considered the "final document" (proofed, mostly type-set, etc.) and (b) I've made like 40 major changes to sections as a result of trying this thing out.

The three episodes thus far were like this:

  1. Play as non-powered normals for a session. At the end we get powers through the Origination Machine (it gives you a super-origin back-in-time). It turns out that power grant can be taken from you if you can be "beat up" and reprocessed before the time-wave settles (or something).
  2. We fought the more junior team (approx. 1/4th our points). We beat them easily--but they were colorful and fairly nasty.
  3. We fought the more-even (but not quite) "adults" who were a much closer match--but one we slated to beat.
We went up "a level" (8 APs) after two sessions of combat!

Huh? Levels?
Back when we played mostly Hero and GURPS we were pretty much not just down on the "idea" of levels but, I would say, actively anti-level. Thankfully we were not rabid about it ("Look at those fools playing with levels!? Ha! I'm so much more sophisticated ...") but for my part I saw levels as a wholly artificial part of the meta-game that just served to get between me the "fiction." After all, characters in most good fiction don't exactly Level Up--and while they might, yes, "Take A Level In Bad Ass" you rarely see a lengthy progression of minor steps. 

It happens--but it doesn't drive most fiction--at least not most fiction I think of myself as really liking. 

When we started looking at JAGS as an 'infinitely expandable game' where you could play things like skyscraper eating Kaiju we also started looking at "levels." When we played our epic 2-year Have-Not game it focused on levels and used them as part of the in-game story (our characters thought of people as having levels just like we could collect chaotic-attractor probability-manipulating Success Points that looked like video-game spinning coins).

There was one thing we all agreed on though: Leveling up had driven both the action and the story--our characters knew if we cleaned out a dungeon level we'd get somewhat more powerful. We endeavored to do that ... repeatedly ... in order to gain parity and then superiority over our foes who, for the very large part, were not running missions in the massive, world-spanning underground complex.

As a game designer I could also see how leveling created a beneficial pacing mechanism.

What do I mean by that?

Levels and Pacing
Back in the GURPS/Hero day we allocated experience points more or less the way the book said to: 1-4 points per game session (sometimes zero if nothing really concluded) and the GM did kind of try to dish them out at a rate congruent with "the fiction" (so the characters didn't change unrecognizably over the course of a day or two of game-time).

The GM-handling (and as often as not I was the GM) of the XP pacing worked well for two reasons. The first was that in a point-buy game there was no specific required direction on what you bought with the points. In AD&D each level came with specific stuff. In GURPS XP could make you a better fighter or a better scientist ... or some of both.

The second was that people expected advancement--but at different paces. We never knew how long games would last (some we played for one session before deciding to do something else). We had all kinds of time so there wasn't the same urgency we have today to get things right.

We also didn't have the concept of "best practices" as well articulated as we do today. Today, before a game starts, there's already a good deal of time for prep (we play 1x a week instead of daily). We also have firmed up some ideas about how to structure games so that things tend to go well. As such, when we make characters today we are pretty sure we'll get some mileage out of them.

But prior to that--in the more free-form model (which we still use for some games: we did it in the Ghost Game we just played) one player might make a character with a strong intention that s/he go up in effectiveness quickly while another might work on their conception so that the initial character was "more or less finished." In other words, Player A might build a beginning karate guy with the idea that he'll go through an arc and become a seasoned master and Player B might build his Kung Fu fighter as, already, a "master."

This isn't really a problem in theory (guy A would have a lot more raw stats, guy B higher skill rolls)--but if the players are doing that because of the length of the game they're expecting that could be a huge disconnect.

It also made a strong point: there was nothing you 'did' to get XP.

We rejected "good role-playing" awards. We believed in equal advancement for everyone. We didn't see giving XP for a "big battle" as especially interesting (we did tend to give XP for the death of a PC ... for reasons I can only kind of articulate--mostly because it was rare and impressive to us when it happened). In short the game-mechanics itself had no direct influence on the pace or nature of advancement.

Levels and JAGS
The major purpose of the re-write of the JAGS rules system was driven by the idea that using the Java Simulator to run millions of test-combats we could "get things right." A big secondary driver, however, was the idea that we could move, almost completely, to an open-ended buy system. That is, instead of there being a Trait 'Built' 8 AP (big, tough, muscular) that you could buy or not buy we could have multiple (infinite) levels of it and so Hercules could have like Built Level 8 (64 APs).

This might sound simple--but it was a hugely complex endeavor--especially as we didn't want to just break things all over the place.

Once we had this though, we wanted to use it. We knew that JAGS Have-Not would be the place to try that out. It lent itself to Level-based gaming.

The GM came up with the idea that every time we "went in a dungeon" (about a month of play usually--4 sessions) we went up a level--nothing else (almost) did it. It was, after all, part of the world (going into the General Continuity Complex changed you).

By the end of the run almost everything about the game was deemed wildly successful. We especially liked the pacing (from 8 AP to 128 AP or so). It seemed to drive the game and work well with our expectations.

When we followed it up with the Ghost Hunters game we didn't use levels at all. We did get a handful of AP at one point--but mostly we just got Character Points using the old method. We also got Success Points as a reward--which was interesting as different play styles (save 'em for the big battle at the end vs. use 'em ruthlessly) were able to be tracked and examined.

We noticed, though, that the number of "Ghost Investigations" was roughly analogous to the number of dungeons in the Have-Not game. The Ghost game was around half the length--but we could see there was a pacing methodology at work there: the blocks of content for a successful game had similarities.

This isn't to say we ought to have used a leveling mechanic for the Ghost Hunters game--it would not have been served by us becoming nearly superheroic--but there were pacing elements at work even if we weren't aware of them.

Should Super Heroes Get Levels?
A question we did--and still are--batting around is whether or not superheroes ought to get levels at all. After all, Spiderman doesn't change a whole lot (or, well, if he does, he changes back). Superman might unveil a new power once in a while or something ... but not in the better written stuff. Do superheroes change?

I think so--at least to a degree. For one thing gaming is a different model of fiction than comic books or movies (and Spiderman is also underwear and lunchboxes as much as a fictional character). We like being able to upgrade characters to a degree.

We are also different levels of "finished." I think that each of us might have different ideas of what an 'end-state' of our characters might look like. Mine? Pretty much done (not that I can't find stuff to spend the points on, though). The guy who is the champion of the gods of cars with their black gloves and chrome teeth--to whom more blood has been sacrificed that to the Aztec nightmare deities? 

I bet he can find some places to spend the points (Armor).

But there's a third reason: in our game world--this specific one--there's some specific stuff going on. The world we're playing in uses the Supers are Jerks model that some (more recent) comics have adopted. They are like badly behaving celebrities--often untouchable to the local authorities. They are not murderous badguys (for the most part) but in this world, even the more shiny heroes are pretty petty and often flawed.

Our characters are not so much upholding the status quo (which is a big part of Marvel and DC as the world still has to be pretty recognizable and, at the end of the day, the title characters still need to sell a lunchbox)--as they may be changing the world--or at least finding their ways in it. The characters may well have arcs that exist outside of the general realm of "traditional super characters."

Having a way of upgrading them is valuable in facilitating that.

So how do you do it?

One Level Per Big Fight Or Something
I had discussed with the GM how we might have characters go up in level--and we didn't have a good idea. What, in this game, was a "dungeon" (or a ghost investigation?). What was the general unit of play that the game would be built around? I came back with something that seemed pretty obvious: it's a big fight!

Our characters are various breeds of combat machine--when we fight a number of APs "equal" to us, might we go up a level? We used that for these first three play-sessions--but I think that might be too fast. Maybe 2x our points (and remember: our points go up)? That seems like it might be a bit better.

In any event--two sessions of interesting, involved combat (5 hrs of play or so) to get a level doesn't seem absurd. It appears we might have a really big battle (say 1-3 play sessions) about as often as we went in dungeons or moved between investigations. That pacing-element seems "about right."

The Importance of Pacing Elements
We were going to do a big space game and we never quite got it off the ground (maybe next?). One of the reasons was that we wanted levels--but weren't sure what the leveling mechanic was (maybe sector-jumps?). We weren't quite thinking about things like this--but now that we are, we might come back to it from another direction: what is the basic element of story in this game?

Is it going from planet to planet? Buying a new ship? Completing a sector's missions? A planet's missions? Could each "mission" have an XP count? Something like that?

It's gotta be something like that.

I think it's interesting to think of the game play--absent of specific mechanics--and ask what the innate demarcation points are for its basic narrative. I think that tells us something about the nature of it beyond what we get from the high-level overview. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

What's My Motivation: Unit Cohesion

We are about to start our new game--in this game we are members of a family headed by a mad scientist who lives in Holiday City. He has a machine--the Originator--which creates origins. So we wind up being 4 family members who got run through the machine.

Our guidelines were:

  1. Read the 4pg write up and PDF of family relationships
  2. Make a 50pt family member
  3. They'll get super powers ...
  4. Away we go ...
So, we each went away and made characters. We got:
  • Gothy spoiled brat artist
  • Young Republican like Michael J. Fox in Family Ties
  • Older son who races cars
  • Older son who has a gambling problem / mad gambling skills
Now, we all do have family ties--we have other siblings with super powers and there are things about the "family name" and what-have-you--but in terms of motivation we're all over the map. Only the Young Republican character (who took a Trait 'Obnoxious: Republican') has any direct relationship with one of the other super characters--they don't like each other for some reason.

This is all kind of chaotic. I don't doubt we can make it work--but I want to talk a minute about party cohesion.

Two Kinds Of Cohesion
Party cohesion requires either a shared goal or some kind of narrative structure (even if it's just agreement of the PCs) that organizes the action. There are three kinds of shared goals:
  1. Internal shared goals. In this case it's the Scooby Doo gang. Everyone wants to find ghosts--but why is up to each of them. Still, they're all in one place and what do they all have the burning desire to do? Bust ghosts.
  2. External shared goals. Members of a Special Forces Group. Each might have their own real interests -- or their own reasons for joining up with the service--but when command gives them a mission they all do the same things.
  3. A variety on the External Goal is one where it's enforced on the characters against their wills. This is the "you're all stranded on the jungle island" game. Character's goals may shift over time--but they are heavily influnced by external events the character did not sign up for.
These might sound the same and the end result is very similar but the internal effects are quite distinct. If you ask me to make a Navy SEAL I'll make someone who's, I dunno, a patriot or whatever. Doesn't matter. I might not even nail it down until play starts so better to fit in with whatever the tone of the game is.

Tell me to make a ghost buster character and I might make anything--but you can be sure I'll want to see some ghost--and bust them.

In the third case, probably the less internal drive I have the better: it'll either dovetail with the scenario if I'm lucky (my character is a frustrated survivalists who lives to prove himself) or suck (my character is in love with a girl he financially can't afford who is back on the mainland).

All of these have good-cases (where everything works) and degenerate cases (where something goes wrong with play).

What's the best?

Being A Team? Or Kidnapped By Aliens
One of the easiest ways to generate a shared cause is #2 or #3--my problem is it's not my preferred way of playing (and I've done games like this for years). We even had a game structure where we'd have a "major story line" and then 1:1 sessions with each group member to keep track of their individual stories. Sometimes those would overlap. Sometimes not. Back in high school we had time for this--but today we don't.

I'd rather have my character's motivation be created so as to align with the action in the game. Doesn't have to be 100%--or perfect--but I'd like some hand-holds to grasp on to. How do you do that?

Tom Petty And The  ... Uhhhhhh?
Long, long ago--in a two player game--we were going to be a music act that would be thrust into an imaginary world. I was dithering around and the other guy made 'Alan Sky and the Heartbreakers.' His character was Alan Sky. If I were someone else I might have demanded a change to the band-name. After all, can you name a member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers whose name doesn't start with 'Tom'?

If you can, props to you--I can't. But I went with it. I just changed Heartbreakers to Demigods and figured what the hell, that sounds okay. And it was an absolutely rocking campaign. Our characters were built to work together. We could shift our goals at the same time, in the same way, organically. It wasn't "My guy goes out street racing" while "I have to attend a city hall meeting" and "Whaaaa I'm stuck in 5th period Algebra!!"

Clearly having a shared link with the character is often an unambiguous good (our characters went through fantasy land playing various venues).

But here's the learning:
Left to their own devices, almost everyone makes 'the hero.'
I was good enough not to care about the name of our band--but if the racer guy had made his character first in the game we're currently going into? I'd have to think before making "One of Vin Diesel's sidekicks." I mean, it might work out--it might not--but it's not an obvious choice. And if that's what the other two players were also doing? It'd be an even tougher choice.

I remember once when playing GURPS we were allowed to buy however levels of Military Rank we wanted. Two players got into a bidding war. We wound up being an X-Files group (small off-the books paranormal investigation) with a four-star general.

So the one thing you can't do is make "the hero."

And think about it, in Scooby Doo, who really is "the leader" or "the hero" anyway? I mean, it's not Shaggy--but he gets most of the lines and Scooby Doo gets title credit. 

So you can't reliably just take one player, have them make something, and then build the game around that.

Shared Background?
In the ghost-hunters game we were diverse--but we had all had an encounter with the paranormal which was why we were recruited by a large insurance company dealing with ghosts. This was fine--we knew from the character-design phase that we would be part of a team chasing ghosts--but none of us, really, had a drive to chase ghosts. We were motivated to be part of the team--but once the agency abandoned us we could have gone home.

We also ran into an actual ghost-hunting group and I realized that we'd left money on the table. If we'd all had a similar origin and had been told to make a ghost hunting team we'd all have actual internal motivations to chase spirits. We might also have had a van and a big dog.

This (the potential dog) would not necessarily have improved things. But the key here is:
Motivations that are organic to the characters don't come from shared backgrounds alone.
Clear Campaign Direction
The most surefire method is the one that D&D pioneered: you know what you're gonna be doing--going in a dungeon. This is simple, brilliant, and beautiful. It works wonderfully. Our two-year Have-Not game was easy: make adventurers. Sure, we were students in a school--but we knew adventure was in there / down there--and we were ready for it. We knew we were going up in level. We knew there was treasure and we wanted it.

This works very well for adventurers. It does, in fact, work okay for military teams--so long as you make someone whose motivation is to go out and kick ass ... for the country. If you know what you're going to be doing, though, play someone who is dedicated to doing that.

Clarity is good. The more you know about direction the better you can prepare for it.
What Now?
I think the plan we have now--the shared familial background is actually pretty strong. Despite being diverse we have reasons to work together (questioned during the first hour and 15 minutes of gaming no less). We don't have a clear direction for the game--but that's okay. I think our characters are "in motion" enough and the GM has certainly taken some time (even if only a little) to think situation hooks that each of them might be interested in.

Even better, each of us have enough goals or drives to pretty much indicate that something will get us into motion. Some of us are in motion already.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Soul of a Player Character

I just heard from my type-setter. We're doing a last round of revisions trying to figure out why some of the images aren't showing up. I should get the completed files--make known corrections to them ... and then? Publish.


We've completed the Ghost Stories game and are now starting a supers game that promises to playtest the rules in a way we just haven't done yet.

The Soul of a Player Character
The way you distinguish (for traditional games) a PC from an NPC is that the PC is an avatar of you. NPCs are one of many characters who, to a degree, fulfill some function in the game world (even if its just verisimilitude).

The game structure we're setting up has given me some cause for reflection on something that distinguishes an NPC from a PC. I'm going to call it "a soul."

A Caveat
This distinction and phenomena I'm discussing isn't going to be universal. A lot of people play differently from me--but a lot of people (to my observation) play similarly--so I think this is meaningful but not, as I said, universal.

The Structure of The Game
The game is "super heroes." There's some back-story--I'll discuss it at some point--but here's the deal:

  1. We are told who we are in general (members of a large family with a mad scientist patriarch). He gave the children of his first marriage super powers and they turned out badly. We are either biological or adopted children of his 2nd wife. 
  2. We will make "normal" characters in this world.
  3. We know we will be given randomized powers. It works as I described before:
    • Every major heading in the 400pg book is put into a spreadsheet
    • With a few minor modifications we use use the random roller to give us each 4 headings to choose from
    • You can always choose Levels 1-3 of Fast Company (bullet-dodging action hero) to go along with some powers.
    • We have 128 APs to spend all/some/none within only those headings.
    • OR we can be Fast Company Level 4 with extra "normal person" style traits (at the levels we're playing at we won't be "normal humans" even if we do this).
So when I try this method to show the guys I roll:
  • Cybernetic Legs
  • Probability Control
  • Hard Wired Cyber-Reflexes
  • Void Control
I choose Fast Company L2, Cyber-legs (several levels), and some luck-based Probabilistic Control stuff. This guy is a bad-ass martial artist with cyber-legs and luck-based defenses.

He's weird--a stated goal of the set up--but for a world of strange supers he's fully workable. He's tough, agile, fast--kicks for a lot of damage and is pretty bullet resistant. In short, he's a viable guy to play ...

If you can stand being "Super Foot Metal-Leg guy."

I'm not sure I'd like to play a year of being that guy.

Now, to be sure, there are other combinations I could pick. I could be Disintegration Guy (Fast and Void Control). I could go heavily into Luck and stuff--but this was the best-fit that I came out with and I was, really, pretty pleased with him. He had a good range of offense and defense. He was pretty unlike characters I'd normally make. 

I could even see him as a character in a (weird) comic book.

But he wasn't a guy I was going to play.

The Soul of a Player Character
So on Monday, when we begin the next game we're going to roll up our powers together (note: I think this sort of activity really "increases the energy of play" and will test that theory Monday night and maybe write about it thereafter). Leading up to this we've done a bunch of test-rolls and the GM has built several NPCs.

Everything has gone swimmingly: almost no rolls were entirely useless. The characters were odd in the ways we wanted (we are channeling the Villains and Vigilantes vibe here). We believe the various header-sections we've separated out mostly work.

However: so far we have NOT rolled a set of powers for our Player Characters.

We don't think we can test that until we are actually going to play these guys. 

Why is that?

Well, basically because our attempts to test this have always been influenced by the fact that we're not playing these characters. We don't have to role-play being metal-stompy-foot guy week after week. He can have a rich imaginary life as an NPC--but I don't have to do the "I'm going to stick my metal foot up your ass, punk!" dialog.

In short: making a character you know you will play seems to be quantifiably different in terms of evaluating how "suitable" the character is than making a character you know you will not play. We've made many "good" NPCs. So far it's hard to say if we've made good PCs.

Now, there are a few obvious things to look at here:
  1. Personal suitability. If I like playing tough-guy gunslinger types and I roll a bunch of sense sand ESP I'm going to be a bit out of my comfort zone. That's not hard to understand.
  2. Heroic aptitude. You can say that being metal-foot guy is just as good a fit to being the "hero of the story" as anyone else--but I'm not sure I believe it. I'm not totally sure I don't--but it's worth thinking about.
  3. The other PCs. The GM doesn't really need to worry about how NPCs fit in to the rest of the PC's team if they aren't on it. Even if they are regulars in the game the range is broader. If the NPC is slow and always goes last that might be annoying for a Player but (probably) shouldn't be a source of frustration for the GM. If an NPC entirely over-powers / eclipses (makes the PC irrelevant) a PC that likely could be a problem--so it's not like any NPC is fine--but it's a slightly different issue. Note: if one PC eclipses another PC that's also an issue--but the dynamic is different--the GM can easily dump the NPC. The other Player may (rightly) be attached to their character.
However, I think there are still a few more things going on here.

Immersion has been a tricky and contentious thing for some people writing about RPGs. I won't claim it's "simple" or means "the same thing" to everyone--but I think it is, across some spectrum, (a) getting inside your characters head so you feel an emotional charge similar to what the 'character feels' and (b) to some (mild, usually) extent losing yourself in the fiction of the game--getting caught up the same way you do in a movie or book where you are focused on the game (in this case through the agency of the character) and are less detached.

Both of those are possible and desirable to me (some people find the above absurd or undesirable: YMMV)--I think that while it's possible for me to eventually get behind any character, I might have some issues with characters that simply don't "click" with me. This is hard to define--but I think Cyber-Legs guy might be one such bad fit.

Out Of Order
Our mechanics are weird. Almost no super heroes (none that I am aware of) were envisioned as normal guys before the creator determined what their powers would be. For all I know, maybe the first draft of Spiderman had him as the school jock --but I'm pretty sure he always had "the powers of a spider."

In our case we have to make normal guys. We might even play them as normal for a while--and then we will give them powers (we'll give them powers during the first session--that's our agreement--but we might either (a) play them back-in time before the powers or (b) roll the powers but then play them as normal for a little while or even a few sessions before actually giving them to us in the game. 

I'm not sure.

However it asks a question that, to my understanding, is very, very rare for RPGs: how do you create a super hero when you really don't have any idea what their powers will be?

Usually super powers are integrated with the normal-guy personality. Often they play off it (Thor has to learn a lesson about humility so we, the reader, get introduced to Dr. Blake). Often the "real character" is the guy in the mask and the normal-guy persona is really reverse engineered by the author.

In this case though, the natural order is broken. I have to make someone with in-flight issues, problems, etc. who will THEN get super powers of a sort I have only limited control over. This means I can't create anyone who will get themed powers--or powers that play off their personality or anything like that.

This, for me, is weird.

It's interesting--but it's strange.

Now, to be fair, I can take the Batman option: Fast Co L4 and make my guy a super-human level badass. 

I also have control over HOW I buy powers--depending on what I roll I can make numerous different characters.

However, I may wind up:
  • With options that largely mutate me. Do I make a character who is still playable being non-human? Do I assume that won't happen--or if it does I'll take the Fast-4 option?
  • Cybernetic. How I approach this will be interesting (we are opening the door to having the character 'crippled' and augmented, wounded at war, etc.)
  • Limited offensive options (it's rare, but can happen). If I make a character who is fighting with people that could be a let-down.
So I have a lot to consider.

Classic V&V actually had an answer to this: you played yourselves (and the game had almost nothing that referenced your normal character guy anyway). I doubt a lot of people religiously did this--and, instead, rolled powers and then fit them to their "mundane character." 

I don't think this stuff is really a problem--it's more (at this stage) like very interesting to us--but there's the chance the game could "fail on launch" and we'll have to go back to the drawing board. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

End Game

How would you play if it was your LAST NIGHT!? Would that change things?

Tonight won't, I dearly hope, be our last night ever--but it's going to be the end of the Ghost Hunters game. Things have come to a head--plot lines have resolved. We're about to (maybe) make some big moves.

How does knowing you'll (probably) never play a character again change things?

How Do You Know It's The Last Night?
The first (valid) question I would think to ask is are you sure it's the last? The answer is, of course, not really. We're tending to play beginning-middle-and-end games these days for a variety of reasons (as we are at least nominally play-testing JAGS Revised Archetypes we want to have things that end so we can do other things, we are starting with fairly controlled 'situations' so there are ways to tell where / when they resolve, and we do, indeed, like having "an end.")

But could we go on?

Sure. If the players really wanted to keep going we could do that. I'm sure the GM (also one of the players, in his way, of course) would oblige.

Also, I have inside knowledge: I know that the GM thought about running his next game in the aftermath of this game. Which would be interesting ... but we're probably gonna do Supers next so that's not likely.

But yeah: we don't know it's the last. There could be like one-more-session anyway.

Live Every Day Like It's Your Last!
The truth is that most motivational advice is horrible. Living every day like you were going to die the next day would be filled with a tragedy of lamentation. Living every day like "YOLO, man--let's score some heavy shit and get drunk off our asses and ride stolen shopping carts at full speed down the big hill" is what asshole college students do.

Making bad there's-no-tomorrow decisions is, actually, stupid, not enlightened.

Pain is nothing more than weakness leaving the body--that's how you know when your work-out strategy leads to crippling injuries you're doing it right!

So what I think is that the knowledge that things are going to end doesn't change my play all that much, nor should it. I know the game is going to end some time (they virtually all do--even if we aren't playing with some end-state in mind)--if it doesn't change my play on day one, why change it on day 52?

And, I'll note, I envision an imaginary life for my characters beyond the story. It's not that I expect to play it--or even dwell on it later (although: maybe?)--but when playing "my guy" I often do things that are either in the mind-set of the character thinking long term (Jack Revald doesn't know his last day of play is tonight) or imply a long term narrative (will Jack's potential dark future come to fruition? It (probably) won't in our play--but unless I got a perfect chance to make it or miss it in the last 2.5 hrs of game-time I wouldn't force a decision about that).

In other words, from both an immersion perspective and a narrative perspective, I'm not looking for a major direction change "on the last page."

A More Interesting Question
What if your game had a mechanical end-state. Polaris does--I believe it all has to end in tragedy no matter what. What if your game was like Dungeons and Dragons--but a pacing mechanic led the party towards an inexorable TPK ... eventually. Like, for sure--if you keep adventuring sooner rather than later the Dire Dice will land and you'll start losing guys ... like they had 1 HP or something.

Would you play that differently than D&D?

Sure you would--you'd start ... I dunno ... fighting less as the danger level climbed. Maybe the GM would throw less can't-avoid combat encounters ... assuming you liked your characters and the fun was seeing how far you could get.

Or maybe you'd figure you were going out sooner or later so screw it: NO RETREAT. NO SURRENDER--JUST FIGHT. Actually, to my memory, that's just like D&D.

Oh--and there's one other way you'd play that game differently: Most of you would only play it once.

However, the point is that end-states, whether they are built into the mechanics or the situation are different from a vast open-ended no-known-end state game in some ways.

Tonight maybe I'll get to answer my own question.

Friday, September 20, 2013

RPG Expertise Part 2: GM's For Hire

I'd Play
Why Aren't There GM's For Hire?
Unless I'm gravely missing something there is no 'Dungeons Masters Guild' that an 'expert GM' can join, hang out his electronic sign, and get bids with real money to run games for people. To be sure, there are cases where someone has or has tried to game mastered for money--and there are individual cases where people have offered to pay for the service--but there is no standing "business model" to it.

Why not?

If you think about it, the model ought to exist:

  1. Players often have invested real money in gaming materials. Between books, miniatures, maps, and other play aids, the collateral for a single game like Dungeons and Dragons 4th Ed can easily run more than 100.00 (and way more than that if you buy a lot of miniatures). When you look at some of the gaming collections with multiple games, we can see that, even for players who will never GM (which, presumably might run less) the cost can be into the thousands.
  2. That investment is useless unless someone is Game Mastering.
  3. While it is "traditional tunnel vision" to say that the GM is the "most important aspect of the traditional play experience" I think no one would argue that a competent GM is pretty much the low-bar to clear in order to have a decent time. If your Game Master sucks (whatever that means) it's going to be harder to have a great time.
  4. Gaming takes at least 2.5-4 hours per session (as a generality). Even conservatively, with a 4-person group, that would be about 160.00 USD (assuming $10.00 per hour for a 4-person, 4-hour session) that is the opportunity cost for gaming (i.e. if you were all getting paid for your time, which you are not, the sum total would be more than 100.00 to play the game--that's what you're 'giving up.'). This is not insigificant. For professionals who make a lot more than that, the 'cost' for even a short session could be much higher.
  5. If having a good or great GM makes the experience better you would think there would be numerically fewer of these people out there ... and therefore if you wanted the peak-experience for your gaming hour and gaming dollar you would want the best GM possible. Wouldn't you?
In other words: people have spent the buy-in money--why isn't there more market-pressure to spend money to get use out of that collateral? You'd think market pressures would create GM's for hire ... wouldn't you?

Some Possibilities As To Why Not
Let's look at some basic possibilities as to why we haven't seen pools of GM's for hire.

Games are Extremely Local?
One possibility is that your need for a GM-For-Hire is restricted to, like, a 10-15 mile radius. If there isn't a GM-for-hire down the street that doesn't do your group much good, does it? As the travel-radius is so small the market pressures for a Guild of some sort (some easy way to find a GM-for-hire) simply don't exist.

The problem with that is (a) there should still be some in dense places like major cities (b) the Internet makes the barrier to just listing yourself as a GM-for-Hire pretty low (c) with electronic / online gaming your GM could be anywhere (even another country) and (d) some people drive a long way to play anyway. Once you get to, like 30min of travel-time you have a potentially very-large-radius.

People Do It For Free?
As parents have been telling their kids (mostly daughters, I guess) for years, no one will buy the cow if she gives the milk away for free. Perhaps the problem is that there are enough free GMs out there right now that there's simply no need to pay?

The problem with this is that we know it's not true: for a significant number of groups (apocryphally, at least)--there are groups looking for GM's. We can also assume that even if someone in the group is willing to GM, if, indeed, there is a concept of "expertise" and it is important to the quality of the game then there would be a role for 'expert' GMs, even if you had an available free one.

Maybe We're Wrong?
Perhaps the problem is that there is no such thing as an "expert GM" and the problem is that paying for someone to run a game simply doesn't make it better? Or maybe, if you have a GM and are 'generally happy' there's no one else that will make it better--maybe bringing in a hot-shot is always worse? Maybe the difference in expertise isn't significant and, therefore, not worth paying for? Or maybe, simply, no one knows if the game would be better if you hired Skippy?

While this is all possible--and some people will find it true (there are people who find the traditional model of gaming implicitly dysfunctional)--I think there's no reason to think that's so. After all, one could make the case that best-selling authors are no better than Bob-down-the-street at writing novels--but no one is going to go very far with that. There's no reason to think that the experience of RPG-play is so unique that time and expertise doesn't improve it.

Furthermore, most people agree that one of the keys to a good GM is preparation on their part--moreso than for a player. It's also generally agreed that the GM needs confidence, a knowledge of the rules, and, probably some personal charisma. If any of this is even close to true, the greater time-commitment alone should be "worth paying for." Right? I mean, speaking purely in terms of economics.

So, okay: there's no killer reason as to why not. So why not?

What Would It Look Like If There Were Paid DM's?
We don't have to guess: we kinda know. Here are some points on a line.

The Iron GM
You don't exactly "get paid"--but if you are part of an Iron Game Master event you get prizes (players can get prizes too). They give you three secret words, you get 60 minutes to make an adventure around them. Players, randomly assigned to your table, get 60 min to make characters. Then you play--and they give the players a review / scoring sheet to fill out and you get rated. This, frankly, is a good idea and sounds like a whole lot of fun. Problematically, while it's good for a convention, it wouldn't be good for week-by-week play for groups that want on-going characters and the like. No problems, though: they have a scoring system and prizes. This is a glimpse of what such a thing might start out as (also note: the system is SDR 3.5 by default but if your table unanimously agrees to another system, everyone can play that).

Also Note: The sicko would-be child cannibal guy in the news recently was wearing an Iron GM shirt and, in fact, was an RPG gamer. Yuck (but nothing on the Iron GM guys).

Niche GMing
In what was described as potentially the saddest bachelor party ever,  a group of guys was looking for 30 min with an attractive, topless, female game master. They were willing to pay--for nothing but 'an exciting game.' I can only imagine what the miniatures would look like. While it's not exactly "normal," I think most of us can agree that there are conditions that would require money to entice a game-master.

One guy was apparently ready to hire a live-in-GM with his massive inherited wealth. Full time? Bleh. I love gaming and you'd have to pay me to do that. Still, while there's no evidence it went down, at least we know these things could happen.

Paid LARP Events
There are paid events where you can go off and adventure for a few days. It costs money. There are "extras." In some cases you get a guide to help you along. Apparently it's a load of fun. In this case you have to pay: they feed you, they have a venue--stuff is set up. There are live-actors playing NPCs, and so on. In this case the GM is the group that sets up the adventure and manages it--this was the idea behind the Dream Park novels and, clearly, it's something people would pay for. It's not normal GMing though.

But the fact is that we don't see a working model out there where a GM shows up each week for about 4 hours of face-to-face gaming with a group of guys playing a traditional game. It just doesn't happen--at any cost point.

So Why Not?
I knew a guy--a friend of mine--who went to a wealthy private college in the northeast. He told me a story about one of his frat-bros who had been taken under the wing of a bookie. This guy--a friend--facilitated sports betting from the other bros for a year. By the end of the year? They tolerated each other: they weren't friends. The betting bros had 'bought' their bookie-bro a new Mustang or something (some kind of very nice muscle car). It was hard to respect your friends when they were forking over money and you were taking it.

I think paid-GMing would be a bit like that: I think it would erode the experience because of the implicit lack of equality between the guy paying and the person forking over the money.

While not all gaming groups are formed of friends--and, indeed, sometimes in long-running groups gamers may not know what each other do for a living--I think there is a give-and-take dynamic that virtually precludes getting paid. You don't have to be friends--but you have to be friendly. I regularly pay a personal trainer I am friends with who helps me work out--but once when I worked out with my personal trainer (he was doing his exercise routine and I was helping) I didn't pay for that.

With friends, if I feel something in the game wasn't right, I can bitch--but with a paid GM? If there's a Total Party Kill and I feel the encounter was unfair? I might not just want my money for the session back--but what about the whole adventure--my whole investment? And can the paid-GM really keep all the players satisfied? What if what I want and what Bob wants conflict? We're all paying our money ...

The RPG-dynamic is far more creative and give-and-take than the traditional forms of paid entertainment where you sit passively and let someone else present to you. The GM and the players are all in-it-together in a way an author and readers are not.

We do see a common form of pay in the GM-doesn't-pay-for-the-pizza standard many groups have. This is a way friends compensate each other for extra work--not raw dollars on a regular schedule.

In short, I think the traditional mode of RPG play works against a paid-GM dynamic by its very nature.

That's why we don't see it.

Monday, August 26, 2013

RPG Expertise

CV of Aristotle Bancale
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the "10,000 hour rule" in his book Outliers. The book makes the case that an investment of 10,000 hours in an activity can make you reach master level in an activity. While this is disputed in some cases (natural talent, activities requiring very unusual capabilities, and certain innate limits) the basic idea that "practice makes perfect" (or, perhaps that "perfect practice makes perfect"--or even that consistent practice leads to improvement) should not be alien.

I have been gaming for roughly 35 years. As I have almost unquestionably put in over the 285 requisite hours per year, I am now Gladwell-qualified to be a Master Roleplayer.

If such a thing were even possible what would that mean?

Expert GMs? Expert Players?
Someone once noted that, when it comes to "growing the RPG hobby" the problem isn't a lack of players--it's a lack of GMs*. I don't think it's controversial to say that Game Mastering has recognized levels of mastery or excellence. It's my observation that we generally don't for players with the exception of players who evidence a mastery of a game's rules--and often this isn't a compliment.

When asking if someone's an "expert"--I'm asking myself if I'm an expert--we need to start with our criteria. How would we judge? Let's look at a few axis of potential expertise.

Rules Expert
The first and most obvious place to look is the game rules. If you spent 10,000 hours playing Game-X and were hard-core using the rules (looking them up, referencing them, memorizing them), by the ten-thousandth hour you would likely evidence "mastery" of them. You would know where that hit-location chart breaks down if you use a pole-arm at close range and then can't hit anything but the groin.

You would know that if charging the auto-cannon with 21 people the auto-fire rules for it don't allow anyone to be hit.

You'd know what page to find the Healing Tables For Fire Damage (With Disease) but you wouldn't need to look because you'd have memorized them.

Certainly, if there is expertise in a given game, the 10,000 hour rule works.

But that's a boring question. What does it mean to be an expert player or GM for any game? Can such a thing exist? And, let's be real, there are a lot of games out there where the system just isn't that deep or fiddly. I might get my master's-worth out of Rolemaster--but The Window? I think not.

Expert RPG Theorist!
A great deal of electronic ink and Internet battle has been spilled and waged over the idea that there are several different "types" of play and that these distinct experiences, goals-of-play, and 'agendas' can be used as a sort of set of 'requirements' for your play experience. This is interesting from an engineering standpoint: Quality in the engineering discipline is described as adherence to the requirements.

Generally these categories are something like:

  • Game-ist: you are looking for overcoming a challenge and demonstrating mastery with the rules-system. You want a competitive experience (not necessarily with the other players). You want (to a degree) to "win."
  • Dramatist / Narrativist: You want the game to feel / play like a story. In the Narrativist category you want, as a Player (not a GM) to have the plot turn explicitly on your decisions (No railroading!!). 
  • Simulation of Some Sort: You want the game to feel like "real life"--possibly "real life in a fictional world" or even genre. In other words, things don't happen because they are more exciting or move-the-plot-along--but rather because "that's what would happen in real life."
  • Experiential: that people play for a variety of specific experiential reasons ("I want to feel like I'm an elf!") and while that may map to one of the above categories, really, there might be a number of different modes that could achieve them. 
Needless to say, all of the above are gross simplifications of ideas that some people think are very complex / important. The question I'm posting here, however, is this: if you were given one of these theories--read all the Internet posts on them--did all the research--could you then run a game to those specifications? Would they be "actionable?"

I think the answer is more-or-less 'yes.' After all, while the above theories all break down (in some cases, immediately) on contact with reality they are passable at the 30-thousand-foot level to dictate how a game might play or look.

The problem is, despite what people have said, I think that as a manifesto of "how I want to play" any of these will, in practice, be a warning label. If someone comes to you and tells you they're an X-ist, unless you are a member of that tribe and describe yourself as an X-ist, my experience is that you ought to run.

Why is that? I think it's because most play that I've seen that's been fun is not designed by trying to adhere to a specific set of conventions of play and most of these categories are, in practice, negatively defined ("Don't do THAT to me!! NO! NO! NO! Bad GM!"). They are also subject to a lot of different approaches and not all of them will work for a given person.

Expert Improv
RPG-Play has been compared to Improvisational Theater. The idea that everyone is (a) playing a character and (b) to a degree, at least, making it up as they go along is pretty interesting. There's also an element of having things thrown at you whether you are the GM or a Player. Which ever side of the GM's screen you "sit on" it's generally better to "roll with it" than to be inflexible (in the GM's chair this leads to railroading--for the Players, it's usually power-struggle).

What if being an expert RPGist meant you were really, really good at interaction with others?

What Do I Think?
I've played RPGs with indie groups. I've played Hero Quest online with Mike Holmes. I played Forward to Adventure down in Uruguay with The RPG Pundit. I've played--for well over a year--online with Clash Bowley. I've played at cons. I've run games for church groups. I ran a game for my parents in 2004 when we were trapped in their house after a hurricane knocked out South Florida.

I think (blows on fingers), I'm an expert.

I think, online, almost everyone thinks they're an expert (and not just at RPGs--at everything--read a message board sometime!). 

Of the above list, it's that the last--the Improv one--that is the closest to the truth. Gaming is a complex interactive dynamic and having a spirit of openness and a willingness to compromise (at least to a point) is useful at home, at work, and at the gaming table. What I "get out of play" is a multifaceted thing. If I were trying to use RPG Theory to tell someone "What I wanted" I would have a hard time of it--and I've read pretty much all of it

When I'm playing with someone it turns out that what I want from them is always the same anyway: the best they've got at that moment. I expect a certain degree of adult team-work. I want to be able to call a time-out and talk about things if it feels like the game is going to fall apart (this happened once in the IRC game Clash was running--to dramatic effect--maybe I'll blog about that some time). 

I'd like to have feedback from players when something is working--or when it isn't--but mostly? It's my experience that, just like life, if everyone is doing the best they can then your odds of success are the highest. 

Next Up: What Would You Pay For A Great GM?

* In some formulations the response to this has simply been to do away with the Game Master role altogether--many indie RPGs do this. This is fine so far as it goes--but the resultant game is not a traditional RPG and is outside the scope of this post.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What I Learned From 'What I Learned From Getting Shot'

Here are some points on a line:

Many Years Ago
Before JAGS was up and running I was told a story by my mother: a son of a friend of hers was shot by a random man at an intersection. Apparently the shooter, perhaps thinking the son was involved in some kind of drug violence, fires a shotgun at him through the door of his car. The son apparently thought "He threw a rock at the car" and drove off. He later looked down, discovered he was bleeding out--and barely made it to the hospital in time.

During The Development of JAGS
I got my hands on a book called Handgun Stopping Power. The authors had tried to definitively address the question of 1-shot-stops with handguns of various types. They had collated records of shootings as well as taking inch-by-inch segments of the human body and asking doctors the question "If a bullet went through here would it instantly stop you?" Part of the conclusion was that 9mm guns resulted in 1-shot-stops more than .357's.

While (as I recall) the authors gave no explanation for this, the rationale to me seemed that the kinds of people who carried 9MMs  (professionals) were more likely to effect a 1-stop-shot than the kinds of people who carried .357's (usually not-professionals).

In other words the likelihood of a 1-shot-stop was all about placement.

One of our favorite games, The Morrow Project, had done a great job of simulating this (for humans--how would it work for a Hydra?).

Yesterday: What I Learned From Being Shot
Brian Beutler writes about the experience ... of being shot:
The kid opposite Matt drew a small, shiny object from wherever he’d been concealing it and passed it to his accomplice, who was standing opposite me. A second or two lapsed — long enough for me to recognize they weren’t joking, but not long enough for me to beg — before it discharged clap clap clap; my body torqued into the air horizontally, like I’d been blindsided by a linebacker, and I fell to the ground.
I stood up right away. Strangely I felt fine. Something had knocked the wind out of me, and my shoulder hurt a little bit, but ridiculously in hindsight we concluded it was an extremely effective prank.
And then ...
Half a block later I didn’t feel so good anymore. I removed my T-shirt (a red one, inconveniently) and realized it had masked a badly bleeding shoulder wound. My adrenaline-fueled defiance gave way to the gory injury staring me in the face, and some important things dawned on me: I’d been shot. 
They run--and call 911--but:
We turned north onto 17th Street and made it another 30 feet before I couldn’t run anymore. Couldn’t breathe very well either. That was the moment I realized I’d suffered more than just a flesh wound on my shoulder. I slumped down against a fence on the east side of the street, in pain, but mainly just winded and growing sleepy. No good. I noticed intricate metalwork on a fence across the street and forced myself to focus on it.
The paramedics get there just in time ...
They found an exit wound in my back. They ran fluid into a vein in my left arm to revive my sinking blood pressure, but it worked too well. I no longer felt like I was on the verge of unconsciousness, but for the first time I could feel the full extent of the pain wracking my upper body. I’d strongly advise against getting shot. It hurts very badly.
He'd collapsed a lung. They had to remove his spleen.
In my case there were three bullets, including the one in my shoulder, and the injuries were pretty severe. Punctured lung, punctured diaphragm, punctured stomach, ruptured spleen, broken ribs, a hematoma on my kidney. One bullet tunneled harmlessly around the bones and muscles in my shoulder and remains lodged in a back rib on the upper-left side of my body. Doctors removed another with my spleen. The third missed both my aorta and my spine by an inch or less, exited my back and landed on Euclid Street. 
 He spends a week in the hospital--he's lucky to be alive (slight misses to lethal or paralyzing vital locations).

Optional Rules For Shock / Adrenaline 
How would we model this in JAGS? One way to do this would be to have each attack have an "immediate impact" based on its base damage and to-hit roll. Often that could be "nothing." But it could also be "knock down" or "degrade" (other possibilities, like losing the use of a limb would make sense).

Then, after the combat, start rolling for each wound on the long-term damage effect chart. The GM might even keep these rolls secret if the character didn't have certain traits, medical skills, etc. This would create vast uncertainty about the future (you take a sword blow to the torso--how bad is it? Wait until combat is over to find out!). It would, assuming it was modeled on "real life" be far more deadly than most RPGs.

I suspect a great deal of combat would resolve to ambush where the PCs would refuse to fight unless the odds were heavily in their favor. This is real--but would it be fun?

A better question that would it be is could it be?

For that, don't have to wonder. A game called Bushido Blade came out in 1997 and it featured a combat system where most hits were instant death. You could cripple arms and legs and such--but mostly? If you got hit in the torso? That was it. There were no time-limits or health bars for the duels. It was considered a hit and got rave reviews.

While it didn't have the uncertainty effect, the common instant death result didn't turn it into a market failure.

What About RPGs?
RPGs, though, are different.

For one thing, if you die there's no start-over button. For another, the average UFC fight takes several minutes and has dozens of blows--if you were to simulate that, even with a single die-roll per blow (combine to-hit and damage in some way and have no roll for how well they take it) that's still orders more than the average JAGS battle has.

There certainly is a place in RPGs for ultra-deadly combat systems. Morrow Project, The Riddle of Steel, and a bare bones military system called Recon had this feature. There are different ways of modeling realism too. Certainly what happened in these cases was more of an anomaly than not. It may not be an extreme-edge case--but according to the stats, most people shot go down and stay down.

Friday, August 16, 2013

JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker

In 2002 game designer and theorist Ron Edwards published an article titled Fantasy Heartbreakers. The crux of the article was more or less this:
Boy, there sure are a lot of games that "try to do D&D better" and while they may have an innovative element or two (or think they do due to the designer's lack of experience in the field) they (A) are more labor-of-love than a serious game and (B) don't significantly improve on D&D, overall, in a meaningless fashion. This breaks my heart
He lists a lot of games you (likely) have never heard of (Hahlmabrea, Pelicar, Darkurthe, etc.). To be fair to Ron he does suggest you play one or more of these--if only to check it out and think critically about it--and part of (or maybe all of?) his broken heart he ascribes to pity for the author(s) for producing games that will fail in the marketplace.

Fair enough, I guess.

On the other hand, as with all things RPG-theory, a huge amount of bullshit both accrued around the stated idea (i.e. people using the term X-Heart-breaker* to apply to any game they think is derivative and don't like--while claiming their dismissal is sorta 'scientifically based in theory') and, potentially, lurked behind it, unsaid (example: these games support a traditional mode of play Ron doesn't think much of. Ron's advice to play them is in an anthropological go-amongst-the-natives-and-see-their-simple-ways type of engagement. The player is expected to have a jarring time trying to play these gems).

I'm not too fond of the presentation here--largely because of the anthropological stance the articles and Ron's RPG-theory in general takes (a lot of so-called RPG-theory is used to say "we roleplay--they/you roll-play--but in fancier language).

For better or for worse Fortunately a lot of the RPG-theory dialog died out when The Forge (a site dedicated to independent game design) closed its doors so you don't have to deal with that theory ... all that much.

On The Other Hand: JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker!
I've been reading, and enjoying, Jacob Poss's FATEsy Heartbreaker series of posts. He's taking FATE and doing "everything he hates with it"--making a fiddly, complicated, fantasy game with lots of off-shoot rules and definitely sort of 'referencing' D&D as its 'source material' rather than, say, Tolkien or whatever.

Would his game qualify as one of Ron's Fantasy Heartbreakers? Ron's second article lists these requirements:

  1. the imaginative content is "fantasy" using gaming, specifically D&D, as the inspirational text;
  2. the publishing context is independently produced as a labor of love, essentially competing directly with D&D in the marketplace;
  3. the rules design recapitulates either D&D or innovations made immediately after D&D, i.e. early 1980s.

So, no. It isn't actually published. It doesn't 'reform D&D's rules' (it uses FATE, an entirely different system), and while I'm not sure it claims homage to D&D, the lampshading of the Heartbreaker theme means it's clearly not just ripping it off.

We've talked about doing a JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker (and I wonder if we could get away with using that actual name without people thinking we were crazy. Probably not. We'd discussed having iconography of "broken hearts" throughout the illustrations ... )

What Would It Look Like?
The point of making a JAGS Fantasy Heartbreak (JFH) would be to mine the gonzo weirdness that was D&D--along with some of specific flavor of playing D&D (classes, levels, etc.), while still keeping some of the JAGS advantages (such as how combat works or having a skill system or whatever). In other words, it would be to try to "do D&D better."

As we'd, you know, actually publish it we could hit #1 and #2--but hitting #3 would take some work.

I also wouldn't quite be interested in copying D&D exactly--the point of making the book wouldn't be as a theory exercise--but rather playing something that gave me a similar feel while still keeping a lot of the stuff I otherwise like (this could be its own article, really).

Here are some things I'd want to try to do:

Classes -- Especially Weird Ones
I loved The Dragon (magazine's) NPC classes. You'd get an article that was clearly supposed to be a playable class but was listed as NPC only because, hey, Gygax didn't approve of it. I'd like to have something like "starting classes" and have them expand to other classes of stranger natures. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does this well.

Maybe there could be rolls to see if certain "prestige classes" were available to a given character (even if, in the end, they were all balanced).

Leveling is an interesting pacing mechanic. You have these specific, step-wise, demarcation points where the nature of the game can change a lot or a little. Leveling up can be fun. It can drive play all by itself (your motivation is totally meta). We have played with our leveling mechanic in the 2-year-long Have-Not game and it was a riot.

Non-Human Races
Having a set of non-human races available would definitely fit the D&D mold. If you combine races and classes you get a pretty good 'pre-fabricated' character concept right out of the starting gate. Of course none of these races would be, actually, alien. After all, very few people I knew played D&D with 1st level Elfs with the same grandeur that the Lord of the Rings movies had (nor, for that matter, the competence).

Essentially everyone is mostly human with a few stereotypes blow out of proportion.

I think I'd have a set of races that were "standard" and then things you could do to get some "unusual races" (possibly including random rolls to see if they were available to you).

Random Roll Character Generation
JAGS is point-based character design--but as you can see in the JAGS Supers, it's possible to combine rolls and point-buy in interesting ways. I think having some random-roll / life-pathy type stuff at the start of the game to give you some "raw material" with which to start your character off and then have you make some character design decisions might be interesting..

Like rolls for choice of races? Some starting aptitudes?

Equipment Tables!
We love detailed equipment tables. Random-roll Pole-arm creation chart? We're there. A dozen different kinds of torch and lantern? Might be too much: half-a-dozen is good. Two different kinds of 10' poles? Cool (is one collapsible). Equipment is interesting as part of a challenge: you have limited resources and need to take stuff that will get you through the dungeons--how do you do that?

Dungeons! Wacky Monsters!
The basic concept of the dungeon is genius. It combines a free-wheeling chaotic and dangerous environment with a sense of mystery and exploration. There's absolutely zero question about what your goal is, what your role is, or how to approach them. Done well it's a "sandbox" environment with a number of possible routes / decisions open at any time.

Wacky monsters can be absurd, exciting, and dangerous. A Gelatinous Cube makes no sense--but it's scary and cool. Rust Monster suck. Elementals are awesome.

Guidelines for using existing web-based dungeon generation tools are a must: random dungeons are great (especially "to start with"--and then the GM can customize them and add specific cool stuff).

Treasure Tables!
Remember that "mini-game" in Gamma World where you rolled to figure out items? I could see something like that for magic items. I'd like to see a mini-game where you actually rolled for treasure itself (possibly where players could spend their character's Success Points to change rolls!).

When you find a horde you determine its age and you know the bad-ass rank of the monster. So you start rolling: for each 'age' the monster accrues treasure based on its kills. The treasure (especially magical treasure) has a lot of stuff about the world encoded into it.

So when you find a haul, you break out the tables and flow-chart and dice up some treasure. Maybe there could be a player-based element of gambling as well ...

Optional Rules
I'd probably deploy the JAGS Critical Wound rules (where you can mitigate a damage effect or even actual DP-loss by choosing to roll on a "permanent damage table"--so if you took a Dying result you could roll on a table and get "Lose an Eye" and that would take the place of losing your character.

I think there are other optional rules that we might use as well (lower Initiative for wearing armor?).

One of the reward systems JAGS has is Success Points. If you could get SPs for "acting within your Alignment" that might drive some interesting play. Especially if we could come up with weird or clever alignments (maybe 'subheadings' under the major ones) that could help drive some fairly strange or funny behavior (Chaotic Annoying: Scold. You get a SP for any scene where-in you scold another PC or Named NPC for 'not doing it right.').

Who Would Play This?
Well, us, of course. The point here though isn't that "I want to play D&D--but just use some other system--" but rather that D&D did, in essence, a lot of things right. Taking those things to heart--even if we modify them somewhat in translation or change them more to our taste--is a best practice.

And one other thing: the (currently hypothetical) JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker wouldn't be a non-serious game. Our Have-Not game had "Success Points" as floating spinning coins, bizarre nonsensical dungeons, really weird monsters, levels, classes (we could not 'equip and use' the Emperor's Sword-Guns despite being able to pick them up), and so on. There was more than a little meta-gaming going on there. But we had a serious, engaging, satisfying adventure anyway.

* JAGS has been called a GURPS Heartbreaker. It totally is--but it was a Hero Heartbreaker first, eh?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Magic and Super Science

How do you handle Magic--or super-science inventor types? Or are those the same things?

Rules Only The Character Knows
One way to make magic "magical" in fiction is to have rules to it that the reader never really sees. This is the case of, for example, Gandalf (at least to my reading of Lord of the Rings years ago) where I wasn't really sure what he was capable of--but man, did he have some tricks up his sleeve. He was mysterious.

In something like Harry Potter, there are clearly some hard-core rules* around how magic works--but we never really learn them. As a result, the characters can sometimes pull a surprise on us--a new spell or some new effect or whatever.

With super-science gadgeteers / mad-scientists, it's much the same: we don't know exactly what Doc Brown is capable of building (besides a time machine) but while we wouldn't believe he could put together and launch an International Space Station using household goods, we'd probably believe he could turn a microwave oven into some kind of ray-gun. Again: there are fictional rules or guidelines that we don't know the limits of--but presumably the characters themselves do.

But in role-playing we are the characters. So what do you do?

The Problem
The problem with modeling magic or super-science in fiction is two-fold. The first issue is that magical / mad-scientist characters can do a vast variety of things given the "right conditions." The second issue is that they are (generally) fully aware of their limitations and know a great deal more about the domain that we, the players / readers are going to.

One solution to this is the Noun-Verb method of magic where characters learn "component pieces" of magic (this could work for technology too) and then combine them in ways that are (mostly) sensible. If you know 'Burn' and 'Person' you can probably immolate someone or maybe cast body of fire on yourself. Maybe both?

Another solution is Hero's Variable Point Power Pool which allows you to "spend points" at will on a large variety of effects. Hero's excellent list of generic effects works for this--although it can result in some fairly bland results depending on exactly how the spending is allocated and works.

Are There Other Solutions?
There are. In the original JAGS magic book we opted for a huge (300+) list of spells that was, really, pretty darn 'complete.' A mage might not have many of them (compared to the total) but you could have a fair number--and the rules around them made it so that you could be pretty versatile for "not that many points." We were explicitly trying to 'simulate' computer games (and AD&D, to a degree--which is also what those computer games were simulating) so that was okay.

JAGS Wonderland's magic system is even better: It's a magic setting. The rules about different levels of reality are fixed / explained and then your degree of training allows you to bend them. You can do Truth or Place / Person by channeling your Shadow a few chessboards down (if this makes no sense go download the free PDF for the Book of Knots and look in the back).

The fact that a few chessboards down places and people display their "essence" is established: allowing you to 'see it' while being in reality is just a matter of training. To someone who doesn't know the rules, a player using those abilities would seem kind of random and plenty mysterious: for someone who has read the book, though, it makes a lot of sense.

Another Possibility
JAGS does not have a list of mechanical effects--instead we have something like 400+ individual powers. The degree of coverage with Hero is not all that different (although, to be fair, you can build powers with Hero that we don't cover--we do have power modification rules, though so, you know, maybe ...).

How might a super-science system work in JAGS? Like this: you spend APs on "Super Science gadgets" and, immediately, take both a reduction in effectiveness (having points that can be re-allocated during play to almost anything is an advantage) but you get some back because it takes time and requires a lab (presumably).

We then have a Super Science Drama: this is where you make your science skill rolls (three rolls) and try to beat a target number (each point you make your roll by counts--so if you have a 13- skill and roll three 10's in a row, that's 9 points). If you meet your number you get a power boost of some sort--so if you are going for a very powerful device you might want a Target Number of 20 (so you'd have three rolls to try to get a sum-total of 20 success points--good luck if your roll is 13 or less).

But we have a way to have you mitigate that: Between rolls, if things aren't going well you can roll on "drawback tables." These tables lower your Target Number (making you more likely to succeed) but give you some random drawback to the device (such as the Freeze Ray Gun has a 6-second charge-up time).

This produces some uncertainty about what the final result will be--but allows the player to have a decent amount of control over the process.

We can also allow for Mad Science effects where a roll can tell you things like "You need a human brain to complete the device."

For magic, the rules would be similar--but you could roll on the Black Magic table and get things like corruption of the self or 'causes mutation.' The point would be to have magicians who are exceeding their power-limits be able to take risks or simply degrade their spell in some meaningful way (such as, again, charge up time) to accomplish their goal.

Things Man Was Not Meant To Know
If I had infinite time and patience I would have a book of "drawback charts" that players would only get to read some of (and note, this would just be for some games where everyone was onboard and thought this was cool)**. The chapter the characters would read would be the "in-game rules" for the charts.

Such as: a chapter on aligning your mage with extra-dimensional entities. A set of chapters could be about these shadowy, untrustworthy entities who you could call on for help. If you do, you get your power-boost--but you get a roll on the hidden 'cost chart.' The GM then describes to you (maybe in private) what the effect was.

To the other players this is VERY mysterious (they may not have read the chapter at all--and they don't know what the effect was). To you it's still somewhat mysterious (unless you are very experienced with the hidden chapters)--but you do know a lot of the basic terrain.

We could do the same thing for super-science: have a chapter that describes the break-through and then if the character learns that break-through, they can then experiment with the hidden tables ("I'll use dimensional gateways technology to power my super-car ... oh, crap: Red Spider Invasion!!"). This would be a way for players, during the act of actual play, to explore the system and the world ...

* In Harry Potter, in a wizard battle, it is possible to connect with a punch or push when you flat out can't hit the target with a ranged attack spell. Presumably either protective wards don't stop "attacks that won't really hurt you" or else magical duelists are really missing out not having death-touch spells they can fire up.

Also, in HP, what exactly can you do without a wand? Clearly powerful wizards can do something without a wand--but it's never really described how that works.

And how does Quiddich scoring work anyway!?

** Warhammer Fantasy did this wonderfully with their bestiary: the book (the first part) is wonderful old-style text and illustrations that describe the monster. The back of the book then has the stats. This allows players to go through a bunch of it and learn cool things--but not entirely look behind the curtain when it comes to the monster's performance in game-mechanics terms. When we do a fantasy monster's book, I'd like to (at least partially) mimic that.

Monday, August 12, 2013

JAGS Supers: A Victim of It's Own Success

As I said last post, one of the books I was most interested in writing was a "Villains and Vigilantes"-style super-system. We actually took a first-stab at it.

It was so successful ... we might not actually produce the book itself.

What the hell does that all mean!?

Villains and Vigilantes-Style Supers System
One of the tests we did for JAGS Revised Archetypes was to make a list of characters we'd put in a world-book. These were some of the "greatest hits" from our several decades of gaming that we'd migrate to the JAGS format (some of them were already done in earlier versions of JAGS too). Going through them, I noticed something: almost universally these characters had very similar construction parameters.

They were 'balanced' meaning in a "mirror match" with themselves it wouldn't be a 1-shot deal. They were built to "normal humans given powers" specifications (where appropriate--where the original character was a normal human)--rather than some of the super-fast-just-because characters we'd seen (and played) in, for example, Champions (where many characters were very, very fast compared to normal people even if there was no specific justification for it).

Not all of them had an attack, a defense, and a movement form--but many did. Most didn't have more than one attack period.

In short, these characters were the product of a similar set of mechanical systems over many years that had produced characters within a set of parameters that were designed to meet the "standard play environment" we had adopted over time. In GURPS, for example, it was cripplingly expensive to give a character multiple bio-weapons (tail, teeth, claws ... and horns!? You must be joking!?) so we generally had characters with just one.

We expected to fight "at or around" our power-scale and there was, for example, in Champions, no powers that would, usually, instantly win a fight--where the concept didn't exist (or wasn't well represented) we didn't usually have characters that met that standard.

On the other hand, if a game did, for example, contain a "magical petrification gaze" that would take out anyone you looked at--unless they had specific magical defenses--which were rare--in a point-buy system you'd see an awful lot of both.

I want to note that this trend was neither a bad thing--nor was it an entirely unconscious thing. All games promote some sort of thoughtful design even if it's just simply a choice to play that specific game over another. The lack of 'rare' cheap shots, for example, that would take out 'anyone' might be a bit limiting in super-hero fiction--but in an RPG you don't want every battle to come down to 'who fires first.' The GURPS bio-attack thing was kind of a problem for us--but it was simple to just say "extra bio-attacks after you best one are nearly free" and house-rule it.

That said, we had always liked V&V for its tendency towards quirky unbalanced characters. We also felt that "rolling up a character" (usually done by the group at the start of play-time) was a lot of fun and a good way to generate energy.

So we wanted a randomized system for powers ... of some sort.

The Basic Idea Of The System
What I'd envisioned for the JAGS V&V game was a set of random-roll tables ... maybe a "cybernetics table?" Or an "Energy Manipulation Table" or whatever. We could enhance that with rolls for "character's job" or a life-path system that would give you super-siblings or nemesis's or whatever. We'd seen examples of these in other games and more or less liked them.

We were also going to do this: Give you four rolls for powers and, for each roll you elect to drop, you can get 1 level of "Fast Company Action Hero" ability. This would, we felt, lead to Batman at one end of the spectrum (Fast L4) and Superman (no bullet-dodging acrobatics--just raw super-powers) at the other.

A lot of characters would come in somewhere in the middle--and we liked that.

Our twist, though, was going to be that instead of just rolling up a power you would roll a "group of powers" and could spend your points on anything within that group. So if you rolled 'Mutant Appendage,' 'Gravity Control,' 'Super Senses,' and ... I don't know--something else--you could decide to drop Something Else and Mutant Appendage and go Fast Level 2 with one or more Gravity Control Powers and maybe a Super Sense. Or you could just buy Anti-Grav flight from Gravity Control and spend ALL your points on some kind of mega Mutant Appendage ... or whatever.

The same set of rolls could generate very, very different characters.

We'd tried something like this with an earlier set of JAGS Archetype rules and liked how it came out (it was very primitive--with almost none of the powers "actually written out"--but by now we'd turned those place-holders into actual powers).

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The World Book
What happened, though, on our test launch, was this: we took every secondary heading from the JAGS Revised Archetype book and put it into a spreadsheet. There were 89 of them. Each L2 Heading is a group of powers like 'Gravity Control' or even 'Tails' -- stuff like that.

What I'd done in the intervening years between the first playtest and the almost finished product was to intentionally group all these abilities into logical blocks so that the (eventual) supers game would make more sense. We'd also grouped them into chapters based on commonality--which helped a lot too.

So when we used the spreadsheet's randomize function to give us "four rolls" on the Master List ... we were stunned.

It worked. I mean, it worked so well that we could find no modification (such as breaking up the list artificially into, say, Energy Manipulation--which, in this, was part of Domain Control) that we felt sure was a value add.

We did an Iron Chef test where the same set of rolls was used to make wildly different characters. It worked. We considered making some abilities more common than others (to get to 100 slots, no one has an 89-sided die). It didn't seem to add to the experience.

We sat back: Hmm ... could that be it? Give people a randomization of the Table of Contents--and some general rules (play on 128 AP, if you roll GATS you can spend as much on them as you want--but if you choose Fast Co you only get to choose up to the listed GAT points for that level--unless you go Fast Co L4, in which case ALL GATS and GEAR powers are available to you).

The set of parameters was so simple this wasn't a source book: it was a blog post.

Why Did This Happen?
As I noted above, the reason this worked out the way it did was because during the creation of the actual rules I had already organized the powers in a way that was designed to facilitate the system we knew we were going to build. I'd done the work--I just hadn't realized that the work was complete enough.

Is there anything we could add?

Yeah: firstly, characters tend to work better in our games when they have either one attack at a moderate level or two attacks at the same level (which, due to the way the rules work is cheaper than 2x the points). If we could find a way to encourage that--with the random roll rules you rarely get two attacks you might want--that might help.

We could add life-path stuff. Why not? It's easy enough to ditch if you don't want it.

We could add a Power Modification Table which you could choose to roll on and it would give you some enforced rules for modifying your abilities ...

Right now Weaknesses is one power-slot. We could make it it's own thing and make it an optional roll ...

So there's a little. But mostly?

If you want the randomization spreadsheet, it's in Google Docs. Let me know and I can share it with you.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Game Design Goals

With JAGS Revised Archetypes slowly cruising in for a landing I'd like to take this blog-space to do more gaming theory / best-practices posts. We'll see how that goes.

A Question For Game Designers
How much effort would you put into your mechanics to make sure they could "realistically" model (and distinguish from one-another) the actual human players who will be sitting around the table playing the game?

How much do you think this kind of detailed mechanical modeling would contribute to the "fun" of the play experience?

Several Points On A Line
Here's some personal history.

Point 1: Villains and Vigilantes
Before we were playing Hero and GURPS almost exclusively we were playing a lot of things. One of these--one of our favorite games--was Villains and Vigilantes:
Nobody Does 'Anatomy' Like Jeff Dee
Amongst other things, one of the givens in V&V was that you played yourself. That is: the GM was supposed to kind of tell you what your stats were (I saw commentary asking how the game master was supposed to tell the guy with the 18 Strength he had a 3 Intelligence--I doubt that would be a problem in most 80's Roleplaying groups ...).

We tried doing that about once (mostly we just did what Dungeons and Dragons did and rolled dice for our stats--usually, I think, 4d6 and drop the lowest ...). It wasn't a great success. We weren't sophisticated enough to map our lives as high-school students into something interesting in game terms and the idea of the Game Master running, like, our parents and stuff seemed (to me, anyway) a bit creepy. Also: our stats would've been pretty average (save for INT--I'm sure we'd all have demanded high scores there)--but there just wasn't much guidance for mapping things. The game petered out. We never tried that again.

Point 2: A Hero Experiment
Now THAT Was A Cover!
By late high school we were playing a lot of Hero-System (Champions, Fantasy Hero, Danger International). We had moved to this, over time, almost exclusively as it seemed to meet more and more of our game-system needs. One night in the summer our group decided to "stat ourselves." This was done in the worst possible way: each person would make out the stats for another person and then we'd share with the group and tweak it. This had the potential for amazing cruelty--however, thankfully, that didn't happen. What we did learn was this:
  • The resolution level of Danger International was pretty low. Was the strong guy in the group an 11 STR? A 12? A 13? What about the smart people? The only numbers that made a difference on skill rolls were divisions by 5 (with rounding). Who was a 13 or a 14? How arrogant did you have to be before you got points for Overconfidence?
  • I'm not proud of the fact that there was actually a debate as to whether the black guy got extra (intimidating) Presence for being black. I am moderately proud that we had a black guy in the group (two, actually--and we got hassled by the cops driving through their neighborhood to drop them off more than once). I'm also pleased that I came down on the side that while the guy (John), would have a high PRE score, it was not for being black. I'm also glad that despite having the discussion, no one (even the black guy who was there for it) got offended.
  • Our characters came out fairly sparse: we were RPG-geeks and trying to cleave to the actual rules meant none of us had really spectacular stats or skills (just because you could drive didn't mean you got a good driving roll--and none of us were stunt drivers).
Point 3: GURPS
This Is A Terrible (and Boring) Cover. Look At It: A 'Universal' System--But Everyone's In Their Own Bubbles!!
When we got our hands on GURPS 3rd Edition, while it was in some ways worse than Hero (Hero 5th Ed was not out yet) we moved to it, again, almost exclusively. By the time GURPS came out we were no longer especially interested in playing ourselves--but we were playing a lot of lower-level more "mortal" characters (One could argue that GURPS 3rd wasn't especially elegant for anything else). 
  • GURPS' advantage over Hero, for us, was in terms of 'Verisimilitude'--which usually gets described as "realism" in RPG-talk. I prefer verisimilitude as I don't honestly think any RPG systems are "really realistic" in what I would describe as the clinical sense. For us, verisimilitude means "what happens in the game more or less usually meets my expectations of what would happen in either (a) real life (b) in a movie or TV show that didn't break my suspension of disbelief or (c) what would happen in genre fiction of the sort the game falls into. Thus, a blow to the back of the head could (a) cause pain and damage with a knock-out causing lasting harm (b) cause a knock-out to a lesser character but might not take out a bad-ass or (c) could cleanly and otherwise harmlessly take out anyone. These would all be acceptable (so long as they more or less fit the profile) but if, for example, a direct hit with a LAW Rocket won't take out a gorilla (Marvel Super Heroes 1st Edition) I have a problem with that. 
  • For "very low level characters" (such as normal high school students) the system still had a reasonably good "resolution."
  • There was more variation in "low level" or "basic" hand guns than in Danger International. One of my favorite game books of all time is The Armory--but its 'stats' section was filled with identical guns which, while fine was less than inspiring. GURPS' High Tech, on the other hand, had a lot of weapons with very good distinction.
We never tried playing "ourselves" in GURPS--but we did play people kind of like ourselves from time to time and had a good experience with it.

JAGS Goals Model
Partial JAGS "Goals Model"--The Lower Goals 'Support' The Higher Level Ones
What's pictured above is a partial "Goals Model" for JAGS. The idea is that the highest-level circle (goal) is supported by the lower level ones. This means that "to make the game fun" we think you need to have reasonable handling time-mechanics that meet player expectations (for outcomes) and provide a "rich experience" (whatever that means).

In order to have "meet expected outcomes," for example, we think you need to base game mechanics on research (what fall, from what height, is usually fatal? How much weight does it take to crush someone using Gravity Control ... or rocks? How fast can a wasp fly?). We also think that the mechanics need to model "normal people" before they can model "heroes." And so on.

This is certainly partial (part of Reasonable Handling Time would also be things like limit the math, provide charts and tables where possible, don't proliferate dice rolls or systems that require interaction between players, and so on--anyone who has looked at JAGS will wonder how we could think those things and still produce the mechanics we did ... I encourage you to look at the 20 year old first-drafts!)

Our Answer
As the personal history shows, looking for a high degree of mechanical resolution around "normal people" actually drove our choice of games and systems to a powerful degree. Even today, when I look at anything on the market I mentally model it in GURPS, Hero, and JAGS. This isn't to say there isn't room and need for a vast array of rules and systems--but within certain parameters (such as the style of play the above goals-model meets) focused mechanics--game rules that zero in on a specific set of play assumptions and support those to the exclusion of all else--can be a drawback compared to a more universal system with add-ons for specific characters.

Also: Here is a picture of me just after I qualified for 12 STR.