Monday, February 27, 2006

Narrative RPGs and Advancement

In a previous post I spoke of tactical/strategic narrative RPGs. In reading games like Capes and to a limited extent PrimeTime Adventures or Happily Ever After (Narrative, but not RPG) I see that there is a place for strategy and tactics in a narrative RPG. I am especially impressed with Capes in this respect. I admit that I have not yet read Polaris, but I think it has some useful lessons as well.

Capes talks about resource management and how the game rewards successful players by giving them more resources, which in turn, gives them greater influence over the narrative. While that setup does provide the Gamist Element that I have been seeking from a Narrative RPG, Capes is still lacking any form of mechanical advancement to reward the player.

What do I mean by this? In D&D, after the player successfully navigates a number of challenges with his character, the player earns the right to advance his character and to advance the characters "power". In a pure narrative game (Capes or PTA), a characters "in-game" power can be advanced at an appropriate moment. IE, if you are doing PTA Buffy, Willow can go from cute techno-geek to hottie-Uber witch with no problem. However, the character has not really advanced. The Player has just chosen a new flavor for the same character.

A pure narrativist would say that the advancement of the story is all important. A pure wargamer would say that the control and manipulation of resources was all important. As a gamer though, I say that character advancement and differentiation (I just realized this btw) is also a key element to a healthy and successful long term RPG. I see hints of this in a game like Burning Wheel (but I will diatribe on that system soon) but it is too bogged down in itself. I get the feeling that maybe Shadows of Yesterday (which I have read only once) is on the right path.

Conclusion: In order to have a reliable "campaign style" RPG, the system must have mechanics for character advancement/differentiation. The process of advancing a character mechanically assists in keep a players attention (or at least my attention) and add diversity to the game play and allows players to mold their interaction with the system to their style.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #184: The Skotos Articles Archives: Five Great Miniseries

Skotos has been publishing great game design articles for six years now. Today they posted their five best series articles list. There are several classics on this list, including The Case for Art, a past favorite of mine.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The World is Darkening

Current project (as a break from Magicians of England, naturally):

Darkening is a true epic level RPG, where players take the role of factions or races and play out their fate across a very large canvas. Characters in this setting don't have sheets, they are elements on a larger sheet.

Players start out by collaboratively creating their universe. I'm thinking specifically science fiction settings, but this needn't be the case. They answer a series of questions to determine the scale of the setting, the existing political and cultural order, history, and so on.

During this phase, they determine (in the most general terms) the nature of "the Threat". Depending on the nature of the threat, certain rules and mechanics may or may not be in play, or may be modified. For example, if "insidious rise of the darkness" is an aspect of the threat, the game includes a "darkness" dice pool that can be called upon at any time, but with certain implications for the player who calls it.

Next, players create their own factions. These could be anything from noble houses, to religious orders, cults, or entire alien races. Races have agendas which they can change during play, but not too often. Your agenda is a way of giving other players permission to change things in your faction, while keeping other things for yourself. For example, if you choose the "against the odds" agenda, faction characters can't be killed without your permission (they always prevail against the odds), but it also limits your ability to grow and gain power through conflicts. If you choose "transformation through destruction", then your faction members may be killed, but when they do, you get a bunch of points you can use to transform your faction. An example: your homeworld is overrun by the Threat, so your race is transformed into a race of restless wanderers doomed to journey from star to star.

Faction members include characters, but can also include places, things, and maybe even ideas or philosophies.

Factions also have an assortment of in-game goals of different scales ranging from proximate (something I want to achieve in this session) to cosmic (an ultimate goal that I will never reach in the course of play, but that I get points for pursuing). An example of a proximate goal might be the capture of a strategic planet. A cosmic goal might be transcendence of the physical realm, or mastery of the galaxy.

Players must balance antagonism between one another's faction against the impending threat. When players antagonize one another, it is to their mutual benefit. For example, let's say my faction and yours are at war. I decide I have a master spy among your people. To get free points to build my spy, I decide he has a nemesis, an admiral in your fleet. You get an admiral in exchange for my spy. Later, when our forces clash, the conflict creates more points that can be used to transform, change, grow, or otherwise embellish ones faction or maybe to take a shot at the Threat itself.

The Threat itself develops in play, starting as a vague list of aspects, and becoming more pronounced (and more powerful) in play. For example, I decide that the Threat's source is in the Black Nebula. I write this on the Threat's sheet. This gives me points to create an exploration fleet to go poke around in the Black Nebula and cause trouble.

Play proceeds by the players attempting to manipulate the universe through the agency of their faction members and to antagonize other players either by using their own faction, non-aligned entities, or the Threat. Naturally this 'antagonism' is to everyone's advantage and is the only way to get enough points to define and ultimately defeat the Threat. Or maybe they don't.

I have an idea this could be gamemasterless, but I'm holding that decision back until I see how it plays out.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Character Tiles

A couple weeks ago while having lunch together, John and I came up with a few ideas about making character sheets a central part of the gameplay, not just a player aid. The initial idea came from something John was telling me about - I've forgotten now, it may have been a board game - but whatever it was, it inspired me to point out that I've talked before about how a "map" doesn't have to be a geographical representation, it could be a flow chart or any other kind of relational diagram; further, I now suggested, perhaps the character sheet itself could be the game map, or vice versa the game map also serves as the character sheet for everyone. The map/character sheet would be filled out or changed as play progresses.

From that suggestion, John went into exploring the concept of a modular, tile-based character sheet. Each tile would have certain information about your character, but the way you arranged the tiles together would directly affect your abilities. For example, you might have skill trees or webs, and rearranging the tiles would let you connect skills together in different ways to get different bonuses or competencies. Or the game might use dice pools created by matching abilities to skills, so each tile would have particular abilities and skills written around the edges, and matching them up in different ways would open up different dice pools or change the size/number of dice available.

We then merged these ideas. The character sheet could go back to being a single sheet rather than multiple tiles, but it would still have some kind of connectors along the edges. The game map meanwhile would have other connectors, and you could change your abilities in the game by changing which edge of your sheet you connect to the map - or perhaps also by changing where on the map you connect to.

Finally we brought tiles back in, and abstracted the "map" out into a kind of game flowchart. The center tile of the map would represent the goal that everyone was working toward. Tiles radiating out from the center become the steps to the goal, and players connect their character tiles at the edges of the map. You might not fill in the whole map, and just have different tile paths, but no matter what, all the character tiles would have a path to the center. You also could have secondary goal tiles out along the edges or at the corners; each player could choose which if any of these to connect to as well. That way all the players would have a common goal to work toward but also separate personal goals that might bring them into conflict with each other. The choice of character tile sides to connect to the map/path/goal tiles would still directly affect your abilities in the game; you'd probably have some mechanism allowing the players to reorient their character tile, bringing different advantages and limitations into play.

John actually took notes and drew a couple diagrams during our conversation; I'm hoping he'll edit this post to add further comments if needed, and post the diagrams.

The very afternoon that John and I had this discussion, Joshua posted an idea called Web of Shadows, based upon his thoughts for a game system that would support the political and conspiracy gameplay that the World of Darkness line claims to be about but doesn't really support in its system. Joshua's concept included creating a literal web by connecting index cards with strands of yarn; the center of the web is the pivotal figure of the game, the "Chosen One," and through play the players' cards become connected to the Chosen One card and other cards representing various elements in the game. Joshua's concept ultimately is rather different from ours, but it's definitely very cool and worth reading both for its own sake and also to contrast with ours.

The next person to post here

Should be someone other than me or Tony. I'm just sayin'.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Brand Says The Most Important Things

Get thee to Brand Robin's blog. This post explains the most important things about game theory and game design, and why what we're thinking and doing really matters. I had a similar conversation with my parents when I visited them recently, about how the issues of game theory and design are really the issues of human interaction and human life in general. This is big, important stuff, and we will do better by recognizing it as such.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Cloud of Stories

Vincent is leading a discussion on anyway about the ways that "story" arises from RPG play, and what we as designers can do about it. Very interesting and inspiring stuff. Get over there and check it out.