Archive for the ‘System Design’ Category

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned a game idea I had, provisionally titled “CIC”. It’s inspired by Battlestar Galactica and Mass Effect, among other things – military sci-fi in flavour, but primarily about very real and very flawed people in positions of power and under a lot of pressure.

Back then I said that I might use Apocalypse World as a model, primarily because (a) its mechanics enforce a “nothing’s ever straightforward” narrative pattern that fits perfectly with the source material, and (b) I really like it.

And indeed, as I’ve started actually thinking about the design, I’ve decided that at least for the prototype, it will essentially be an Apocalypse World hack. That’ll give me enough framework to get started, and once I have something to test, I can adjust and move a bit away from AW if I want to.

(As it happens, there’s already an AW hack for BSG, by Sean Nittner. Sean was kind enough to let me see an early draft he was working on, and it looked excellent – but a little too BSG-specific for what I’m wanting to do here. He’s updated it a lot since that draft, though, and I really need to go and catch up with the developments.)

Anyway, after a whole bunch of writing, editing, re-thinking and procrastinating, here are the high-level basics so far. It’s not yet a full prototype, but it’s a start.

Basic Moves & Stats

These essentially go hand-in-hand. Once you know what moves people are going to make, you can group them into associated blocks and have a stat powering each one. So I started by listing all the things I’d want characters to be able to do – not literally everything, you understand, but all the things that should be dramatically important, i.e. the things the system should focus on. I came up with a whole bunch of moves, far more than would be usable, but I combined some and removed some and have whittled it down to:

  • Command
    • Tell someone “or else…”
    • Drive a hard bargain
  • Charm
    • Promise someone something
    • Bluff, lie or misdirect
  • Fight
    • Make a daring attack (physical or social!)
  • Grit
    • Remain calm under pressure
  • Tactics
    • Control a situation
    • Read a situation
  • Mystic
    • See visions
    • Get a bad feeling about this
  • Hx (as per the AW stat)
    • Read a person

That’s still a few more than I’d like, but I’ll run some playtests and see how I might be able to cut the list down. There are also some obvious things missing – e.g. the first move I came up with, “Give someone an order they don’t like” – but they’ll come later as part of the character-specific moves.

I’ll go into more detail on these in future posts, or maybe just by releasing the damn game :-) There’ll also be a separate set of moves for battles – along the lines of the battle moves in AW, but very slightly more detailed, and in this game they won’t be optional. (Those rules are right for AW, but I think for a military game the battles need to have more support for driving the story. I may be wrong! We’ll see.)

Character Creation

To me, the unique playbooks of Apocalypse World didn’t fit with the source material. I decided to go with a more modular approach, building stuff in from a few different lists to construct a full character. So, characters will have:

  • Area of Operations: Senior Military, Junior Military, Tech, Political, Religious, Scientific, etc.
  • Position: this is the official position in the fictional social structure – President, Aide, Chief Scientist, Admiral, XO, CAG, Priest, etc. Available Positions obviously depend on the chosen Area of Operations.
  • Role: this is the persona of your character – something that’s only identifiable outside of the fiction, unlike Position which is an in-fiction concept. Things like Hotshot, Prophet, Troublemaker, Agitator, Paragon, etc. Needs a better name, I think.
  • Virtues & Flaws – just to add a little definition to your character. How does your President/Prophet behave? How does your Admiral/Paragon come across?

These choices will give the character their stat adjustments, character-specific moves and Hx setup details. The top three at least will be changeable via the character development mechanics – e.g. becoming a Prophet when previously you were a Troublemaker.

Cast

For this game to work well, I think it needs quite a big cast of characters. One of the key things to focus on is the inter-relationship between the different types of power – essentially the different Areas of Operations above – and there need to be enough characters than we can examine interactions both within and between those groups. As a result, I think the game will ask players to play more than one character (*gasp*).

Each player will have a handful of characters, and indeed the GM’s (or MC’s, in Apocalypse World terms) characters will be limited only to supporting cast – pretty much anyone who’s going to be significant in the story should be played by a non-MC player. (There may be exceptions for characters on other “sides”, but they won’t be the focus of play anyway.) The MC’s job will be to put pressure on if needed, but largely the story will come out of the interactions among these many protagonists. Note this also means everyone will have Hx (which is a PC-only stat) with all other significant characters, which is why Hx for Read Person (way above) is hopefully not as unusable as it initially appears.

Action Stations!

So those are the first steps. More in subsequent posts, but probably not until I’ve put up some stuff about the other games I’m working on… :-) As ever, if anything catches your interest and you want to hear more, let me know!

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Alright! From the (lengthy!) discussion on the last post comes this question, which I wanted to bring out as a separate post. It’s an inspired-by-a-guest post, which is a bit like a guest post, except I get to abuse the fact that it’s my blog to get my argument in first. Hurrah!

It’s a terminology discussion. If you aren’t interested in terminology, that’s understandable (!), and you should probably look away now. The “official” definitions for the terms come from The Forge Provisional Glossary, and my interpretation of them may be wrong.

The question comes from Rabalias. Our discussion went on for a while, and (I think) clarified what I see as the difference between Gamist play (tactical decisions), Narrativist play (thematic decisions) and Simulationist play (neither, or bits in between those two).

Then Rabalias said:

I think we probably do need another name here. I’m not sure why we’d call the non-narrativist stuff “simulationist” any more. It’s more like the distinction between Battlestar Galactica (constant moral judgements and decisions about what goals one should pursue with limited reources) vs, say, Stargate SG1 (most of the baddies are obviously bad, most of the time the characters seem to have adequate resources for the task at hand and the questions are more tactical in nature). (Try not to get hung up on the choice of shows there, I’m just trying to use them as an example.) Anyway, I’m not sure what the right term is right now, but simulationist just doesn’t seem to cut it for these purposes.

Cool! Here’s my opinion.

Thematic decisions, answering questions like “which is more important, X or Y?” (friendship or family, for a single example) / “how far would you go to get Z?”, that’s Narrativism. BSG, in your TV series example.

Tactical decisions, answering questions like “can you overcome X challenge?” / “does your plan work?”, that’s Gamism. SG1 in your example, I think? If so, there’s slight confusion when compared to the previous sentence; this is non-Narrativist but I wouldn’t call it Simulationist. It’s Gamist :-)

Both require real, meaningful questions to be asked of players/characters. Real= “having more than one valid answer, and not forced in a particular direction by another player, such as the GM”. Meaningful = “having a significant effect on the direction of the game”. What *type* of question it is determines whether it’s Gamism or Narrativism, as above.

So what about play where you have neither?

Well, it depends. What are you doing instead? I’d argue that in most cases you’re exploring the world / story / characters / whatever that the GM has created for you, or that you’ve created yourself. (I’m focussing on traditional GM / player models here.) That exploration, to my mind, is Simulationism.

However, there’s also the term “Illusionism”, which refers to play where a GM gives the illusion of real meaningful choice (tactical or thematic), but in fact the choices are not meaningful – they don’t change the direction of the story, which proceeds according to the GM’s plan. (There’s also “Participationism”, which is the same thing but where the players know that’s going on, and are ok with it.)

To my mind, those are a subset of Simulationism – the players are exploring the GM’s story. But perhaps it’s a separate thing altogether.

So, two-or-sort-of-three questions for you, Rabalias:

  1. Do you agree that play without real meaningful decisions necessarily relies on exploration to provide its primary focus of interest? If so, doesn’t that make it Simulationism?
  2. If it’s not Simulationism, do “Illusionism” and “Participationism” cut it for you? Are they the other term(s) you’re looking for?

Clarification: A game can be broadly Simulationist and still provide real, meaningful choices. It just doesn’t do so very often, because it doesn’t see that as the primary goal of play. I certainly don’t want to imply Simulationism = no choice = bad gaming. Neither of those equalities is true – please ask if you’re not sure why.

Over on the RPG Theory Primer (which I’ll be touting from now till the end of time – fair warning), I mention the idea of “El Dorado”, a term that’s been coined to refer to the ideal some gamers hold where their game is both Simulationist and Narrativist. (Check the primer for links to explain those concepts.)

As I’ve read more about these terms, and been exploring my own games for understanding of the theory, I think I’ve clicked the essential difference between the two – and I’d like to put that up here.

Disclaimer: Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve just misunderstood the theory. That’s cool. Whether or not it’s right for Simulationism / Narrativism, I still think the distinction I’m drawing is a useful one as it’s a concrete difference that affects people’s play preferences.

Disclaimer 2: I’m pretty sure I’m late to the party on this. Ah well. Looks like there’s still plenty of cake left.

Ok, so here we go.

The key factor is the point at which the story content is created. Simulationism is about exploration – exploring material that has been created beforehand, often by a GM. A lot of games will encourage players (including the GM) to make up stuff on the fly where suitable, but if that stuff they’re allowed to make up doesn’t include decisions about where the plot is going (for example, because the GM has written the plot before play), then it isn’t Narrativism. Narrativism, by contrast, is about creating the story / plot right there, in-play, through the actions of the characters.

So that’s it. Are you exploring a story that’s already been created? Then it’s Simulationism. Creating a story in play, with no-one forcing it in a pre-prepared direction? Narrativism.

Simple, right? Maybe. A few clarifications, though, as I think it’s quite easy to misunderstand this point.

Clarification 1: Just because a game pays attention to “a good story” doesn’t make it Narrativism. A GM can write a good story up-front and then let the players run through it – that’s not creating the story in-play, and hence not Narrativism. Similarly, games that pay attention to believable in-game causality are not necessarily Simulationist. Most games do this to an extent, to keep the players’ suspension of disbelief active. A Simulationist game is one in which the primary goal of play is to explore simulated material that has been created beforehand.

(Yeah, I think the names are slightly misleading. “Simulationism” to me implies accurate simulation is the focus – but most games need that to an extent. “Narrativism” implies strong narrative – and again, a lot of games want that. Ron Edwards, the developer of much of this theory, realised this and renamed them to phrase-based descriptions, “The Right to Dream” and “Story Now” respectively. Personally I’d refer to them as Exploration and Authorship.)

Clarification 2: Naturally, a game will almost always have a mixture of the two in its flow. Even the most hardcore story-prepared GM will normally allow a bit of leeway in how that story is approached. Even a strongly written-through-play game will usually have bits of content prepared by the GM. However, for the key story-defining plot decisions, it’s rare (in my experience) to see a game pick and choose between the two. Either the GM (or, sometimes, other players) have pre-decided where it’s going, or the group finds out only through playing the game. For any specific decision, the two are mutually exclusive, and how much time you spend on each is a matter of preference.

Does that all make sense? Does it ring true? Anyone think this is accurate, but nothing to do with Narrativism / Simulationism?

A lot of roleplayers believe that game mechanics are evil things, to be minimised if not completely rejected. A common complaint is that they get in the way of “the story” – which, to story-lovers like myself, is most definitely a Bad Thing.

But is this really justified? Certainly in many games (especially traditional ones), the mechanics are convoluted and difficult to remember, and this can definitely lead to them claiming the focus of the group’s attention, at the cost of the fictional aspects. But is this an unavoidable consequence of mechanics?

I suggest not – and in fact I think mechanics can help the story-focussed group avoid other things that might distract from the story. Here are three examples.

Removing GM responsibility

A roleplaying game is essentially a series of statements made by the various players about things that happen in the fiction. In a “traditional” GM / player model, many of these statements are made by the GM, who, without mechanics, has to decide “what happens” using only their own intution. Sure, they might use some guiding principles (e.g. drama, fairness, plausibility, “cool”, etc.), but fundamentally it’s their call.

Not only is this potentially disempowering for the other players, but it’s also quite risky socially – it’s very easy for GMs to upset or frustrate players by making a call the players don’t like (too harsh, not harsh enough, and so forth). Even with an extremely close understanding between the GM and the players, no GM is flawless – and besides, such understandings are rare treasures indeed. For a new GM, a new player, a new game, a new group, the potential for misjudgement is huge.

A mechanical framework distances the GM from these decisions. If the dice (or whatever) come down against you, then Bad Things Happen, and you’ve accepted the risk by agreeing to play within this particular framework. No hard feelings toward the GM. As Apocalypse World shows extremely clearly, this doesn’t remove the GM’s creative input – there are plenty of different ways Bad Things can Happen – but it can provide a bare-bones structure for the GM to enhance and flesh out in play.

Managing Pacing

In games which focus on “story”, pacing is paramount – but tough to get right. Whoever’s responsible for managing pacing, it’s very easy for it to fall by the wayside in favour of the other jobs that player’s juggling, leading to play that gets bogged down in mediocre scenes rather than staying focussed on the action.

Using mechanics to handle pacing allows it to be more strictly guided and emerge naturally through play. Sorcerer’s advice: “Get to the Bangs!” is exactly this sort of thing in action.

Clarifying Authority

Any system, no matter how freeform / mechanical, defines who can say what, when, about the game’s fiction. The more freeform (or less strict, or less clear) a system gets, the easier it is for clashes to occur between two (or more!) players whose statements conflict – “hey, GM, you can’t put that into my character’s backstory”.

Having a clear mechanic for who is allowed to say what sorts of things can help avoid such conflicts, and keep the game running smoothly. (Indeed, I think even most “mechanics-light” systems tend to have this dictated somewhere, though not always clearly.)

What I’m Not Saying

Important note: I’m not saying a good GM / group can’t do the above things themselves, without the help of mechanics. They can, of course! But when they don’t, the results can be just as detrimental to the story as the most convoluted mechanical systems out there.

So no, mechanics aren’t the only way to get these things done, but they are another way, and one that might leave the GM / group free to spend effort on other things, e.g. contributing cool stuff to the game, playing more games, or even (shock, horror) their lives outside of roleplaying. (I believe such things exist.)

But wait, there’s more…

But those are just my three things, right? What else can a system do for story-focussed groups, that I haven’t considered?

I’m totally going to come back to that Drama Points thing sometime. But I have a lot of other things to say, so I think I’m going to drop it for a while and get back to it later.

The first thing: I’ve finally got round to editing my “here’s some RPG theory links” post into a proper reference page (with more links!), which can be found at:

The RPG Theory Primer

Take a look! There’s an awful lot of material there (and plenty more on the same sites) so book a week or two off work or something. There’ll be loads of stuff I missed – let me know if you have any recommendations!

In the last post, I discovered that my inner roleplayer is a Narrativist – I want to find the hard questions that surround the human condition (premise) and address them through play. Now I need to think about how a system might help players do that. I also promised you mechanics. Well here they are.

I consider “addressing premise” to be “dramatic” – that is, the source of the drama portrayed in the game’s events. With that in mind, I wondered if it were possible (and if so, desirable) to use some score or other function to keep direct and explicit track of whether the system is doing its job – i.e. encouraging drama. If we can monitor it, then we can adjust the system to keep the levels high, right? From that were born Drama Points. The central idea is…

When dramatic events go against a character, that character gains Drama Points. When they go in the character’s favour, the character spends Drama Points.

Simple, I know – and I’ve read games with similar mechanics, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as explicitly focussed on drama as a measurement. (That said, I’m sure there are some systems out there that do this – just not any I’ve seen.)

This opens up some interesting possibilities, though. For example, to gain drama points, players can define what the central dramas are for their characters – e.g. “I want to overcome my cowardice”; “I want to get revenge on my husband’s killer”; etc. These dramas can then be used to earn Drama Points every time they come up in play. If things go against those goals, the characters are rewarded with Drama Points, which they can later spend on making things go their way later on.

I still need to lay out the possibilities for spending those points. I envisage a mechanical system which is actually relatively harsh, but which is made survivable because the players can use drama to get out of difficult situations. For example, Drama Points could be spent to:

  • “just pass” a task attempt that would otherwise have failed – e.g. hanging on to a cliff by the very tips of the fingers;
  • survive an otherwise fatal blow, but have the conditions of survival be entirely at the GM’s discretion (e.g. Fate Points in WFRP and similar games)
  • be warned before a surprise attack kicks in – “my spidey sense is tingling”
  • buy time for discussion during combat, which might ordinarily be restricted because in-character discussion wouldn’t be possible – but this way the players can set up cool dramatic sequences for the combat, making it more interesting for all concerned.

Essentially, Drama Points could be used to power any and all “cool dramatic effects”.

There are a lot of questions still to be answered – for example, I need to define exactly how they’re spent and earned, and whether there’s any limit on how many points can be moved around in this way. Also some powers (especially e.g. in a superhero game) would probably want to be an innate part of the character’s capabilities rather than needing to be powered by Drama. But it’s a start.

In the next post I’ll expand further on this concept and see if I can flesh out some of these details. Meanwhile, if you know of any games that use something like this already, I’d be really grateful to know about them! That way I can steal their ideas study them for inspiration. Drop a comment in the box below :-)

Insert whiny excuse about life getting in the way of blogging here. Now let’s move on.

After much searching, I have found myself. Too pretentious? Yeah, I know. But in fact it’s actually been quite a relief. Hang on a second, I should probably give you some context…

I’ve been reading a load of articles about RPG design (see the last post for a selection), and one of the key concepts I’ve found useful was Ron Edwards’ three suggested Creative Agendas. (Agendae? I’m pretty sure Agenda is plural already, actually. Aaanyway.) The three agendas are the three (he suspects the only three) core reasons why people play a roleplaying game. They are as follows:

  • Gamism – “Social assessment of personal strategy and guts among the participants in the face of risk”;
  • Narrativism – “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”;
  • Simulationism – “Commitment to the imagined events of play, specifically their in-game causes and pre-established thematic elements”.

The definitions – from the Forge Provisional Glossary – are by necessity quite broad; I’d strongly suggest reading the articles to get a better idea of what they mean. I had to read and re-read before I got it –

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. What I want most from roleplaying games is:

  • a realistic experience of being a person in a different world or situation to my own
  • provided that situation is interesting and/or exciting.

This confused me, because of the following sections from the Forge articles. Firstly, this about Narrativism:

Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme.

… and this about Simulationism:

The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.

What I read there was Simulationism is about presenting a realistic world (which fits perfectly with my first bullet), and that Narrativism is about producing a story. While a story should be interesting and/or exciting, and hence is related to my second bullet, to me it sounds like more than that – it sounds like a laborious and precise construction with three acts (maybe) and a conclusion and all that jazz. I’m not fussed about that – I just want my experience to be interesting.

Therefore I thought of myself as a Simulationist but a Simulationist who wants to simulate a world where the laws of drama apply, in order to keep things interesting. I was thrilled; I thought I’d discovered a new branch of Simulationism and was about to revolutionise RPG design. Unfortunately not. Something didn’t quite sit right with me – such as this example of “Simulationism overriding Narrativism”:

The time to traverse town with super-running is deemed insufficient to arrive at the scene, with reference to distance and actions at the scene, such that the villain’s bomb does blow up the city.

That seems totally wrong to me. So perhaps I wasn’t a Simulationist after all? I certainly think too much focus on realism can detract from the excitement. What to do?

Well, I read and I read and I read. I read about “El Dorado”, a term used to describe a game that (reliably) realistically simulates a situation but still produces a good story. And then I read this:

I think some people who claim to desire such a goal in play are simply looking for Narrativism with a very strong Explorative chassis, and that the goal is not elusive at all. Such “Vanilla Narrativism” is very easy and straightforward. The key to finding it is to stop reinforcing Simulationist approaches to play. Many role-players, identified by Jesse Burneko as “Simulationist-by-habit,” exhaust themselves by seeking El Dorado, racing ever faster and farther, when all they have to do is stop running, turn around, and find Vanilla Narrativism right in their grasp.

That’s me. Right there. Hi, I’m Blackrat, and I’m a Narrativist.

I hadn’t understood that “story” in the context of these articles was a much broader concept than I’d picked up initially. I’d guess that’s why Ron Edwards changed the definition to the one at the top of this post, about addressing premise (rather than story). “Addressing Premise” is equivalent to my “making things interesting / exciting”, but much better defined – my version is meaningless and given meaning only by the reader’s personal taste :-)

A long way round to a simple conclusion. One thing I realised along the way, though, is that I want my Narrativism to be focussed on consistent in-character experience and reactions, not on creating the story out-of-character and then justifying it in-character. And that’s useful.

The next thing to do is to work out how to apply these aims to the system I’m (slowly) designing. So, next time, ACTUAL GAME DESIGN at last :-) I hope your patience hasn’t worn out yet…