Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Game for Hire - last chance to submit

Just a reminder that if you were going to submit to Matt Snyder's "Game for Hire" contest that we cross-posted about at the beginning of the month, well, you've got until the end of tomorrow to get your submissions in.

I've got three ideas, all posted earlier here on Attacks, that I'll be sending off later today. Because after all, the whole idea in the first place for posting our ideas here was that we didn't have time to do anything with them, but maybe someone else would...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Why we Talk About System - a Manifesto

Roger raised an interesting point his response to chapter 2.

I think that systems thinking might be well put to use as a diagnostic aid, to try to solve problems at the table, and perhaps has less utility as a design tool.

This is a very salient point, and one I want to address. First, I totally agree that it's all about what happens at the table. However, I think there's an assumption that rules aren't about what happens at the table. It's easy to see why this should be the case. Most early game systems, like say any early edition of D&D are nearly unplayable as written. Not only do they offer little guidance over how to actually play, they the sometimes contain rules that cannot be used as written. The first edition of Gamma World is an extreme example. The game you buy cannot be played.

The solution to this has been a set of practices and habits that generally get lumped into a big bucket called "good gamemastering" (and a smaller bucket called "good playing"). Here are some things that are missing from D&D:

- how to resolve disputes between players
- how to keep player interest
- how to handle the difficulty level of the adventure (addressed in later editions)
- what to do when the players decide to go off your map
- how much a player can say about what happens when he swings his sword
- how to generate color, narration, dialog
- is thing about story, or smashing monsters, or something else?
- how rich should the characters be?

These are all things that the game system can address, and do so intelligently. Over time, groups invent rules, habits, and practices to address these issues. Eventually, those practices become "part of the system" even if they're not written down.

What I want to understand is how rules effect what happens at the table, even when the rules are unwritten. Systems thinking is all about diagnosing causes that may be unknown, or may be having an effect that is unexpected (as we'll see when we get into more complex diagrams).

So yes, it's about the table, but we're game designers, and we want to design better games. Systems thinking is one way we can come to a deeper understanding of what happens at the table and what the rules have to do with it.

Plus cool diagrams with arrows are fun to draw.

It seems I jumped to some conclusions regarding RogerT's point. This is clarfied in his comment.

What I was trying to say, and obviously didn't do a good job if it, is that system thinking might be a good way to analyze actual play and then use it to influence game design.

That's more or less exactly what I was getting at.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Systems Thinking Chapter 3: Cthulu Ate my Game

First a quick note: in the last chapter I talked about applying systems thinking to game systems, but in fact I think it's more productive to apply it to actual play, whether an explicit system underlies it or not. A lot of what happens in gaming is based on those unwritten practices that groups evolve to make games work. I think a goal of good game design is to make good practices explicit, so ultimately we're still talking about game systems when we talk about diagnosing actual play.

The balancing loop is usually experienced as an oscillation around some target that never quite seems to get where you want it to go. As a graph, the balancing loop looks like this:

In the balancing loop, play either tends towards a goal, or oscillates violently around a goal. Damage output in D&D is a good example. There's an upward trend in how much damage a D&D character can dish out each round, but not all characters follow the trend in the same way. For example, a mage may suddenly leap upwards in relative damage capacity when they get a new level of spell, then dip over the next few levels.

You might also get a similar behavior in campaigns where characters need to pay out treasure to get something that helps them get treasure. In extreme cases you have characters alternately too wealthy or completely broke.

Here's a template for the balancing loop:

I'm going to follow standard procedure and put a B inside the balancing loop and an R inside the reinforcing loop to differentiate them.

Performance is some game element that has a desired target.
Gap is the gap between the desired target and actual performance.
Corrective action is how the gap is addressed.
Limiting factor is an optional component that represents the finite limit on performance.

Note that in the reinforcing limit there may be a delay in time between the corrective action and the result, making it harder to figure out what's actually going on.

Actual Play Examples

I ran a Cthulu campaign that was a huge success. I had two groups of two players each. I was getting great play out of my players and having a blast running it. Several other people also wanted to get involved. So I ran a big game with all four players and three visitors. It bombed massively, and my players left. It turned out that they were enjoying all the close person GM attention. When the number of players rose above the threshold where I could attend to each one individually, then nobody was having fun any more. My mistake was the unspoken assumption that more players is better.

Here's this play example as a system diagram:

I can also recall at least one GM who over a course of years had alternately 2-3 groups on the go or was bemoaning his lack of players. I suspect something similar was the cause. Players would often stick around for a while before leaving, making it harder to see the actual cause of dissatisfaction.

I think that good balancing loops can be invaluable for game design. I expect that in almost any case where "balance" is an issue, a balancing loop is involved (or else should be). The conflict system in Universalis might be an example where the loser in a conflict reaps a reward of coins, giving them more narrative control later on.


Sunday, November 20, 2005

Systems Thinking Chapter 2: Green Slime

There's a problem in your game. At first it's not a big deal, but over time it gets worse and worse. Not only that, it gets worse faster and faster. The probable cause is a reinforcing loop or, as I like to call it, green slime.

As a graph, this is what a reinforcing loop green slime looks like:

The vertical axis could be all kinds of things. In graph 1 it might be player dis-satisfaction. In graph 2 it might be game challenge. The point is that the problem gets worse over time exponentially.

Here's the green slime loop as a generic system diagram:

Performance is some measurable quality (not necessarily quantifiable), such as player satisfaction.

Consequences are what happens as performance changes.

Growth Action is an action or requirement that drives the loop, usually a rule or maybe a behavior.

Performance Drive/Action Consequences is simply how this action reinforces the performance change.

THIS IS ONLY AN ILLUSTRATION. It's meant to give a generic idea of how the loop functions. It's not a template into which you can plug bits of your game and get a magic result!

Actual Play Example

This isn't a great example, but it's the best one I can think of right now.

When my friends and I were relatively new to RPGs, we achieved the impressive coup of getting my older brother to play with us. A buddy of mine GMed a pretty standard D&D adventure. The GM wasn't sure how to determine what monsters to put us up against, so he went through the Monster Manual and looked for monster whose combat damage was low enough that even if the monsters did maximum damage, it would take two hits to kill us. The monsters were underpowered, and the players started to get bored and restless. In an effort to fix the problem, he upped the number of monsters. Instead of 4 goblins, there were 6, and then 8. Combat took longer, but the monsters still weren't able to actually threaten the survival of the characters. This made the players even more bored and annoyed. Eventually, my brother suggested a better foe for us: an ettin. "But that can kill you in one hit!" the GM objected. "Exactly" was the response. The GM relented and we had a close combat where a couple of characters almost died. Everyone had fun.

The problem was the GM's unstated rules of "use monsters that need two maximum damage hits to kill the PCs". This was a perfectly reasonable action to take in a game system that provided a large number of monsters, but no rules for matching them to the strength of the characters. Here is that situation as a system diagram:

In this case, the solution was to discard the ad-hoc rule that was reinforcing the loop and increasing player boredom.

The point of the whole systems exercise was to identify the issue so that you can work towards a solution. In this case, the more experienced player (my brother), could see the trap the GM was falling into and use his own experience, or perhaps his own ad-hoc rules to suggest a better solution.

You might have noticed that this loop was also a symptom of a lack in the larger game system. In this case, it's likely that more problems would crop up later in the campaign because there's still a bigger root problem to be tackled. Figuring that out is part of systems thinking too. Hopefully we'll get to talk about identifying larger systems issues later on.

Can anyone suggest a better example of a reinforcing loop? Anyone have an example of a case where a reinforcing loop has a positive impact on gameplay, rather than negative? PLEASE COMMENT even if it's just to say you think this is a load of bunk. I really want to hear if anyone else is finding this as helpful as I am.


Systems Thinking Chapter 1: Introduction

Systems Thinking is a mangement diagnostic methodology for ferreting out hidden problems in systems and suggesting solutions. It is often used for large management structures such as corporations but is almost directly applicable to game systems.

I've been reading abou systems thinking lately, and I'm going to write a series of posts applying some of what I'm learning to game theory.
This is from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook:
A system is a perceived whole whose elements "hang together" because they continually affect each other over time and operate toward a common purpose.

That description applies pretty straightforwardly to game systems as far as I can see. I'm going to focus on role-playing games.

Conversation is incredibly important to productive systems thinking. "Perceived whole" in the definition above means perceived through conversation and, in the case of game systems, actual play.

We also want to keep the purpose of the game system in mind. My view is that primarily, games are designed to be fun. Secondarily, they produce a particular kind of experience of fun, which can vary greatly from game to game.

There are many archetypal system relationships in systems thinking. I'm going to write a little bit about each of the elemental systems and how I think it applies to game systems. In each case I'll try to start with a story drawn from actualy play and then appy systems thinking to that story.


Friday, November 11, 2005

Magicians of England Playtesters

I'm looking for playtesters who can commit to running at least one session of Magicians of England.

Magicians is a gamemasterless narrative rpg suitable for hard-core and casual gamers alike. This is meant to be a game you can run as a regular periodic rpg or pull out at a party and play with people who may only game once in a while.

About the Game:

In Victorian England, magic is all the rage. The poor in their slums flock to fortune tellers. The wealthy entertain mediums in their parlors. Scientists speak seriously about telluric currents and parallel worlds. In the moors, rumors begin to fly about a faerie army on the move.

The English have always known about magic, of course. Their nannies whisper tales of magic in their ears from birth, and their libraries are full of magical legends and histories. But now Magic is returning to England with a vengeance. Scholars, adventurers, scientists, and skeptics rush to learn about and perhaps manipulate this growing force.

I'll have playtest packets ready somewhere in the next 2-4 weeks. Please respond in the comments, or E-mail me at tony -dot- dowler -at- gmail -dot- com.


Saturday, November 05, 2005

Mathematica Revisted

Some time back, the campaign concept Mathematica made an appearance on this forum.

I was re-adapting Mathematica for Matt Snyder's game contest when I had some more thoughts.

To recap: Mathematica is a game set in the rennaisance, only in this rennaisance, DaVince builds giant spider robots, Machiavelli trains ninjas, and one man armed with the power of Euclid can overcome an army.

Originally Mathematica was presented as a campaign setting, but I'd like to revisit the idea as a narrative game. This is a game about the power of ideas made radically overt. When Archimedes says he can move the world with the right level, he means it literally. We're talking moving Jerusalem to the coast so that the Venetian fleets can bombard the city with Greek fire. Players are encouraged to introduce their favorite historical figures, events, and ideas and make them walk the earth as never before.

Yes, I have been drinking.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Game for Hire

So, Matt Snyder (author of Dust Devils and Nine Worlds) has a very cool idea for a contest: Game Design for Hire. Send him your oh-so-clever RPG idea, and if he picks it, he'll design and write it.

I figure since these kind of sketchy game ideas are the whole point of Attacks of Opportunity, we should bury him under an avalanche of ideas.

I'm sending over U'Duasha, Section 8, Circus, 44, and The Company -- plus anything else sitting in my idea folder at home. I'm looking at you, Phil and Tony. I know you each have at least 4 ideas you could submit, if you were so inclined.