Friday, March 24, 2006

Campaign Stakes

Something that's of great interest to me that I haven't heard people talk much about is campaign stakes. Campaign stakes are an essential part of many campaigns (and in many cases, a point of dysfunction), yet few games have any sort of mechanic for dealing with them.

My current side project is about providing processes for creating campaign-level stakes and supporting them with game mechanics.

You can split a campaign into three major realms:

  • Campaign Furniture: all the stuff in your campaign including places, factions, characters, and possibly thematic or genre elements that guide narration.

  • Campaign Stakes: the answer to the question "What's at stake in this campaign?" This almost always includes the fate of some characters but could also include the fates of a myriad of other elements up to and including the fate of the universe.

  • Campaign Mechanics: these are mechanics to help you decide the campaign stakes.

What use are campaign mechanics?

You might use your standard conflict or task resolution mechanics to decide campaign stakes. In this case, the fate of your world (or whatever the campaign stakes are) is decided through a conflict or task. What happens if I make the stakes of my conflict "I rule the universe forever"? There might be circumstances where that's acceptable. Perhaps the fate of the universe rests on the successful completion of a task: I throw the Ring into the Mountain of Fire.

But what determines when it's stake everything? Is the final epic task one of a series? Who decides how long that series can be? If it's a conflict resolution game, how much can I stake on my conflict? Campaign stakes can help decide this. Trollbabe, for example, has mechanics to determine the size of conflict I can request.

Campaign stakes aren't just about the goal of the campaign. If there's any conflict that's larger than the actions of the individual character, that can be placed into the campaign stakes, and can have appropriate mechanics to support it. Is the universe embroiled in a battle of light vs. darkeness? Maybe a character can call upon a reserve of resources by declaring an allegiance for either side. What does this allegiance mean? That's something for the campaign mechanics to determine. Here are some other questions campaign mechanics might be able to help answer:

Can my character become a local baron?
What happens when I kill the king?
Does that war over there have anything to do with my characters?

But one of the really big potentials of campaign mechanics (in my opinion) is that it opens up the avenue of exerting narrative control over game elements that are bigger than the individual character. Yes, many games already do this (and do it well). So let's codify how that's done and see how far we can go with it.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Five Fists of Science

You'll love this:
written by MATT FRACTION
art & cover by STEVEN SANDERS
May 17 • 112 pg • FC • $12.99

True story: in 1899, Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla decided to end war forever. With Twain's connections and Tesla's inventions, they went into business, selling world peace.

So what happened?

Only now can the tale be told-- in which Twain and Tesla collided with Edison and Morgan, an evil science cabal merging the Black Arts and the Industrial Age. Turn of the century New York City sets the stage for a titanic battle over the very fate of the mankind.

The header link goes to Matt Fraction's website and the info about this project; or you could just skip that and download the 22-page black-and-white PDF preview, keeping in mind that the final graphic novel will be full color.

This will either inspire Tony to finally start prepping Pulp Heroes Season 2, or make him despair. Possibly both.

Edit: Brandon just posted an hour or so before this, so scroll down and answer his question about starting a wiki.

AoO Wiki?

I was thinking that AoO needs a wiki, if only for idea storage. We have so many good topics that have come through here and once they drop off the front page, they are basically gone.

This isn't my area of expertise, but it would be great if we could record these ideas in the wiki and also reference them in the blog. That way the key comments can be incorporated into a page about the post.

Thoughts and how can we make it happen?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Attacks in KoDT

The Web Scryer column in Knights of the Dinner Table comic #113 mentions Attacks of Opportunity as a game design blog to watch, along with stellar company such as Vincent Baker's anyway, and Monte Cook's journal.

We're like, famous, or something. Rad.

Thanks, KoDT! We love you, too.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

How many In Game Resources do you want?

The gamist portion of a RPG boils down to resource management. You have a limited number of resources that you can bring to bear to get what you want. The GM (if applicable) and your fellow players also have these resources.

Resource examples:
D&D: Hit Points, Spell Slots, Attack Bonus, Damage Bonus, Defense Bonus, Skills, etc...
PTA: Card Draws (Fan Mail, Traits)
Capes: Debt, Story Tokens, Inspirations
DitV: Dice (Stats, Relationships, Traits, equipment)

How many different types of resources do you like to manage?
What influences this for you?
i.e. do you want more or fewer resource types when you are playing:
A game with lots of Player Narrative Control?
A game with lots of GM Narrative Control?
A Limited Run Game?
A Long Term Game?
Does Genre have an effect on your desire?
Do you think in these terms at all?

I am looking forward to your thoughts on this.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

who do you design for?

So here's a question for designers out there. Who's your audience? Do you design a game only with the goal that it's something you'd want to play? Do you design not caring at all if anyone else would like it? Assuming you've done more than one, how much does your audience change from game to game?

Here's one more thought, as I ramble on and avoid going back to my Milton paper. Mark Twain once commented on classics as being books people praise and don't read. I wonder how and when that will apply to the DIY gaming fringe, and how it'll affect things. What happens when there's a really profound rules idea in a game where you play sponges and it supposedly raises questions about human suffering? Everyone will be like, man, it's so brilliant, and they'll buy the book, and maybe play it once. Is that a good thing? Is it a bad thing? What do you think? Maybe another way of thinking about it is if it's both art and a game, what order of preference do you have for the two?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Spore Gameplay Video

If you want to get your mind blown again and again by gaming incrediblenss, check out the Spore Gameplay Video. I guarantee you that you'll have at least three "they made a game that does THAT?!" moments in this video. Watch the whole thing.

Update I think it's worth calling out something that he says in the last few minutes. He mentions how in most games, there's a "sandbox" mode that acts as a tutorial for the rest of the goal-oriented game. But in Spore, the envision the goal-oriented game as a tutorial for the more advanced sandboxing mode where you create and share creatures and worlds with other users. That's right on as far as I'm concerned, and it matches something I've noticed from World or Warcraft and other MMOs. There's a point when quests aren't enough to make the game interesting. Unless you're creating and sharing a compelling social reality, the game becomes irrellevant, no matter how good the gameplay.

No Game Design is an Island

Matt Snyder points out that Designing a role-playing game alone is impossible. Yet because of time constraints and the limitations of RL (rest-of-life), I rarely talk about my designs with my immediate group. Maybe we should consider a monthly Attacks meetup for the Seattle crowd and talk about what we're working on. Would you all show up for something like this?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Game Design Challenge: Conflict Resolution meets General Relativity

Here's a challenge that came into my head today: Epic scale hard science sci-fi conflict resolution game mechanics. This is not entirely academic. I'm working on modular rules for Planets, my strategic sci-fi RPG, and one of the modules I had down for consideration was "hard science", i.e. no faster than light travel.

So imagine a game that is epic scale: conflicts can take place over multiple star systems. The maximum scope of a single conflict can be limited to a single planet, but the scope of the campaign is multiple star systems. This means that the indirect effects of a conflict must be able to bleed across star systems. But to accord with the laws of physics, these effects cannot propagate faster than the speed of light. If you've read Alastair Reynolds novels, you have a good grasp of the problem (and the possibilities). Is this game possible?

Here's an example. The campaign is about whether or not the horrible entity at the heart of the galaxy consumes all life or not. A conflict happens on Planet Q in which a brave scientist learns some key fact about the nature of the Entity. How do we decide if an when a warrior on Planet H can use that knowledge to create a weapon to fight the Entity?

A few possibilities bubble up:
  • You could isolate distant characters in space time. They cannot communicate. However, allow them to discover facts that become part of the game universe and are then usable across locations. Facts about things that happened in the very distant past would be allowed for example. I can imaging a game where you play a different character every session, collaboratively building a galaxy by discovering its ancient history as you go.

  • Maybe a decade passes between sessions. Each session play picks up somewhere a decades travel from where the last session occurred with players using the same character (having traveled) or a new one.

  • Allow players to set their narration anywhere across a continuity of time. You can set a narration in the distant past and its effects become universal. You might even have a game where the current crisis is rooted in something that happened in the early days of colonization, or even in the past history of Earth itself. How about a star empire about to repeate the error of Atlantis?

I guess one conclusion from all this is that if you include relativity, the past becomes very important. In a certain sense, you could quickly create a game that's all about the past.

Addendum: You know, it occurs to me that what I'm designing is really more of a campaign creation and strategic event metagame than a standalone system. Matt Wilson (for example) is already creating a way cool space opera game and I have no desire to reproduce his work.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

What's your Alignment?

Over at Anyway, Vincent posted the first in a series of "Unpopular Ideas for 2006", the first one being "have stats." Down in comment 13, someone suggested that "character classes" would show up in Vincent's series. To that I say, classes shmasses - how about alignment? There's an idea so unpopular that D&D is still the only game using it today. Is there a place for a mechanically-enforceable alignment system? where by "mechanically-enforceable" I mean the game offers rewards for following the dictates of your alignment and penalties for breaking it.

Back in first-edition D&D there actually were XP penalties and other consequences for drifting or changing alignments, but I can't remember whether the third edition even suggests doing such a thing. Sure, there are still alignment-based spells and powers, and Paladin characters still have to maintain a Lawful Good alignment in order to keep their abilities; but there's no necessity for all characters to conform to a predefined alignment of the player's choice, and so far as I recall, no penalty for nonconformity. This makes some sense too, as the game isn't really about differing moral/ethical viewpoints and the clashes between them, and hasn't been in a long time if ever.

However, that doesn't mean the concept of an alignment system is necessarily totally bogus. Are there games today that do make use of defined moral codes and penalize or reward players based on their conformity to the code of their choice? Can a good game be made around an alignment system, and if so, to what end?