A few times recently I have used the word/phrase “micro-playtesting” and people have given me blank looks, confused scowls and/or outright snorts of dismissal.

In the absence of a proper post, let this stand here for all time as the definition of what I meant – and will continue to mean – from this lumpley.com comment:

At this stage of development, an internal playtest just means grabbing a couple of friends for half an hour and trying a thing out. I “go to playtesting” when I need confirmation that what I’m designing will, in fact, work, before I move on to creating dependent systems.

It starts very small, just testing tiny system interactions: “hey Meg, pretend you’re trying to push me off a wall. Roll these dice. Say I dunno, something about pushing me off the wall, okay? … Huh. Okay, thanks!”

Or “hey Meg, you’re creating a character, a dragon slayer. I’m going to ask you a couple of questions, choose the answers from these lists here, okay? … Huh. Okay, thanks!”

When I have a complete subsystem I need to test, that’s when I ask friends to sit down with me for half an hour and give it a try. This was the case with The Dragon – I needed to test character creation, to (a) make sure that it made interesting characters, (b) see whether it gave me everything I needed as GM to launch into play, and (c) if not (which I expected), clarify what it was missing, so I could go about creating it with some experience to build on.

Eventually there’s no way to see what works and what doesn’t without just sitting down to play the game, so that’s what you do.

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I’ve been re-reading the clouds and dice series on lumpley.com. It’s a series of posts about how rules refer to fictional material and to real-world cues (like dice and character sheets). It’s a lot of material but I’d strongly recommend reading it if you’re interested in writing game rules that encourage good fiction.

I was reading part 6 – “Now where WAS I…”, especially the comment thread, when a couple of exciting questions hit me.

To summarise the context:

  • Mechanical effects that emerge from the fiction (“if you have the high ground [fiction], you get a +2 bonus [mechanics]”) help encourage good fiction because they mean the fiction matters – players have to create detailed fiction in order to use the mechanics effectively.
  • But being able to invent your own fictional bonus-producers whenever you want (“err, so, there’s probably a table, right? I jump on it for +2 high ground bonus”) can result in fictional details that are trivial and transient – only there for the bonus, not for the lasting effect – so that in fact the fiction no longer matters after all. (This is an effect I see – and dislike – in Dogs in the Vineyard, sometimes, although I think it is deliberate there in order to encourage escalation for bonuses. But I digress.)

So, ideally, we’d prevent players from creating fictional details on-the-fly just to get a bonus. My questions are:

  1. Can we enforce a system where players have to establish something a few “turns” before they use it?
  2. More interestingly, can we enforce that bonuses can only be taken for statements other people have made?

Note that both these questions are pre-empted by Vincent’s suggested mechanics in comment #43 on that thread (which I read after having the above light-bulb, but you’ll have to take my word for it). What I’m really wondering is can we make better mechanics than those somewhat simplistic teaching examples. In comment #46, Moreno suggests that point 2 is in fact mandated in Spione – I’d better check that out. I wonder if any other games do anything similar?

I think there’s a risk that unless your fictional detail is specifically angled toward someone else getting a bonus for it (e.g. “I provide covering fire”), then it may not be that usable for mechanical effects in most cases. Perhaps I’m being narrow-minded, though – I need to think about it some more. I think a bigger risk is that if such details can be used to get mechanical bonuses against you, then you might be encouraged not to provide them, which would be totally counter-productive. Hmm.

However, I’m particularly hot for Jesse Burneko’s comment #55 – it’s all about communication. By using such mechanics, players are encouraged to communicate effectively – both providing fictional input that has meaningful implications, and considering the implications of the fictional input provided by others.

I think we can rely on players to pay attention to others’ input in order to trigger mechanics (e.g. bonuses). My concern, though, is that it may not reliably get players to give that input in the first place. What encourages that, beside the hope that others will reciprocate for you?

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!

Ok I know I’m being really slack on the blog at the moment. I’ll be back soon I promise! I’ve been doing a whole bunch of gaming and I have lots of Thoughts to dump.

In the meantime, here’s a quote I just came across which I thought was a brilliant metaphor for the sort of play I like. (Thanks to Carl Rigney who sent it to me along with a whole lot of great advice for running Apocalypse World as a one-off rather than as a campaign.)

“It’s like pinball! Like a pinball table. The inclined plane
is the game’s fiction, the marble is the moment of play, and
all the paddles and wheels and bumpers and light-ups and flags
and whatever are the moves. Their job is to give energy to the
marble, make it go faster, with spin, in different directions,
unpredictably and excitingly. As player, you have more or less
control over your own set of paddles, your own moves, but none
of them let you really drive the ball.”

— Vincent Baker re Apocalypse World

Now that’s what I want from a roleplaying game.

Alright, enough theory. During my blogging hiatus a few tiny ideas have bubbled up in the cauldron of my brain, and some of them might turn into actual games. I thought I’d post them here in case anyone’s curious or has any thoughts to add.

These are all in very early stages of development – most are just nagging little thoughts that might never make the leap to being a real project. I’ve certainly no idea yet what insights they might show. But here they are.

CIC

This is the one I’ve thought about the most; a game that portrays the kind of military sci-fi seen in stuff like Battlestar Galactica, the Mass Effect series, some bits of Star Wars, maybe even a touch of Firefly. The stuff where there’s this big military operation going on, with all its tactics and plans and gunfire and “take cover!”, but what actually matters is the relationships and interactions between the people involved. (Alright that doesn’t matter that much in Mass Effect, but they’re trying.)

I think Apocalypse World will be a good model for this – it’s nice and simple, and its partial success rules fit perfectly with the “nothing ever goes smoothly” feel that is so prominent in the source material. With that in mind, I’ve adopted a “moves”-based pattern like AW, and I’ve started listing the moves I’m going to want for this game. In keeping with the military theme, I’ll probably need a slightly more detailed combat system than AW – but hopefully not too much so.

Horde

In my notes this game is literally no more than that single word: “Horde”. I guess it must have been just after I watched 28 Days Later for the first time (I know) over Christmas.

I think what I’m interested in here is mechanics that really make a story out of a zombie apocalypse. Can I make an endless sea of repetitive enemies into an engaging and ongoing plot? I guess I’ll have to look to films like that for my inspiration – if they can make a story out of it, then I’ll bet it’s possible to make a game that makes those stories.

Shadow

I came across Carl Jung’s concept of “the shadow” recently. Very (very!) roughly, the theory is that shortcomings and instincts that we consciously repress from our personalities linger in a “shadow” in our unconscious mind. This got me thinking.

I’ve barely read anything about it (yet), and the game is by no means meant to be an accurate representation of the theory, but I did think it would be interesting to have two different players playing different aspects of the same character – kind of like Sorcerer but where the demon is played by another player, not the GM. Obviously this could easily get frustrating; it might not make a workable game at all.

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

Some roleplaying games leave you tingling, walking home after sessions still immersed in the fiction you’ve been creating. The games that have done this for me most consistently have been those in contemporary horror settings where the GM has succeeded in producing a real sense of menace lurking round every corner.

… And I’d like to try my hand. The biggest challenge will be writing a system that actively contributes to the evil-is-everywhere mood. No clunky dice pools or sanity checks to get in the way here, please – just simple mechanics that allow the horror to emerge through play rather than being rated on a sheet. I’m quite intrigued by the Unknown Armies setting; while bits of it were absurd, a lot of it was interesting and its flavour text was often really sinister. So I’ll look at that for inspiration.

From little acorns…

So there’s a handful. There are a few other mini-ideas rattling around but until they’re a little clearer this lot will do. I’ve done a bit of work on CIC already, so more on that in future posts. Meanwhile, do drop me a comment if anything piques your interest.

I’ve recently started playing Mass Effect 2 – late, as I usually am with computer games – and I’ve also just fired up Skyrim, the latest offering in the Elder Scrolls series. (Not late on this one!) They’re both great representations of the typical RPG styles of their developers – Bioware and Bethesda respectively – and I’m enjoying them both a lot. But their styles are very different, so I’ve been enjoying them for very different reasons – and it occurred to me that something similar applies to my enjoyment of tabletop RPGs as well. (Possibly to LARPs too – I don’t play many so I’m not sure!)

Before we move on to the contrasts, let’s point out the big similarity: combat. Don’t get me wrong, combat is handled very differently in both games, but the basic challenges of combat – can you pick the right tactic for this fight? can you execute it effectively? – are the same.

Between combats, though, the gameplay is markedly different. Bioware’s games are generally fairly linear in plot, but allow considerable flexibility in how the player’s character reacts to that plot. The player is encouraged to judge how they feel about each situation, and can choose how they react to it – which has a small, but not insignificant, effect on the progression of the story. As Chuck Wendig put it on Twitter, “Our Story, Your Way”. They also tend to have a very tight narrative – something that I think can only be achieved (currently!) by enforcing a linear plotline.

Bethesda, on the other hand, focusses much more on flexibility and exploration. The philosophy behind Bethesda games seems to be “go anywhere, do anything”, and they build huge game-worlds populated with numerous NPCs, quests and locations to explore – of which the “main” plotline is just a small, optional, fraction. This is fascinating and exciting, but as a result the narrative is a lot less tight, and in general the player/character’s input is less critical – they pick up quests and do them, and aren’t generally encouraged to think about their reactions to what’s going on. Chuck’s summary of this style was “Our World, Your Story”, but to me it’s not “story” enough for that – I prefer the “Our World, Your Gamesuggested by Rick Carroll.

There are exceptions to both patterns, of course. In Bioware games, the focus is on the story and the character interactions, but that doesn’t mean exploration isn’t possible – usually it is, but the exploratory side-quests never feel particularly meaningful. In Bethesda games, the focus is on “here’s a world, what do you do in it?” but that doesn’t mean none of the quests provoke judgements or difficult decisions – some do, but again they often feel a bit shallow.

So. The point is that, in my experience, tabletop RPGs often tend towards one or other of these game types too. Sometimes the focus is on the characters as they are pushed into difficult situations and make difficult choices to get out. Other times, there’s a whole lot of content to explore, ready for the players/characters to go and prod and poke at their discretion. Usually there’s a bit of both, but often one dominates.

In general, my preference is for the former – the “Bioware style”, if you like. Perhaps this is just personal preference, but I think it’s at least partly because it is something that’s much more satisfying in tabletop than it is on a computer. Computer games necessarily restrict “the story” to whatever it is the game designers have written, whereas pen-n-paper games can write the story as play develops – but still keep that tight narrative and pacing that I like about Bioware’s games. Exploration-style games, on the other hand, I find similarly satisfying in both tabletop and computer formats (albeit in slightly different ways).

Thoughts welcome! Have you played any of these games? Do you think the parallel is valid?

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.