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.