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.


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