Friday, May 18, 2012

Innovative Design

One of Dieter Rams' Ten Principles of Good Design (and mind you, it's only one; the others are just as important, if not as flashy) is "Good design is innovative." A good game design requires innovation, it has to do something that hasn't been done before, or do something that has been done before in a way that is appreciably unique. Because board games and card games are so reliant upon rules to remain interesting, we see a lot of cool rule innovation happening in both of those sorts of games. Collectible card games, in particular, are constantly innovating, and it's really neat to be able to watch innovation occur at three month intervals (that might seem long, but it's blistering fast...). One of the hot new CCGs that's on the market, Cardfight!! Vanguard, uses cards for everything. Damage is cards. Response triggers are cards. Buffs and debuffs come from cards in your hand. They're using zones in a way I've never really seen them used before, and I think that's really neat. Most of the game is very similar to Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon, but they're doing old stuff in a unique and interesting way, and those innovations have made the game incredibly popular among our Yu-Gi-Oh players.

Role-playing games can get away with sloppier innovation than other games, largely because a huge amount of the fun that comes from RPGs comes from sources outside the defined rules set. You can come up with really interesting rules, and people will certainly appreciate them, but how those new rules are utilized on a table is largely up to the group of people playing. So we see innovation less often in role-playing games, generally, but the innovations we see are really, really neat. Today I'd like to talk about a few of my favorite innovations from the last ten years or so, and why I think think they're a big deal. Now, I'm not going to claim that I have all of my sources in order; I'm listing innovations based solely on where I became aware of them, but they could easily have shown up in other works before that.

FATE Aspects

Attributes define who our characters are. They tell us what the character can and cannot do, what he or she is good at and what he or she is poorly at. Generally, though, attributes have failed in that they are sort of an arbitrary collection of statistics. They don't tell us anything about the character, they simply determine the limitations of that character in specific types of tasks. Really, what is the difference between a character with Dexterity 16 and another with Dexterity 17? Not too terrible much. There isn't even a mechanical difference; they both get the same bonus.

FATE introduced Aspects, which were more personalized, free form and provided meaningful information about your character right on the character sheet. Free form attributes didn't make their debut in FATE (they'd been seen previously in Sorcerer, Over the Edge, and Hero Wars). Aspects, though, pushed the idea into new territory, encompassing items, careers, catchphrases... anything that can be used to define your character.

Gumshoe Investigation

Someone once said of Robin D. Laws: "If you give Robin a job, he comes back with something that is somehow infinitely better than the thing you told him to do, and at the same time exactly what you told him to do." I believe that person was Kenneth Hite, who is himself an accomplished designer, but he's managed to describe Mr. Laws as a designer pretty spot on. Robin Laws is one of the best in the role-playing game industry, and the simple, elegant solution to The Investigation Problem is a great example of that.

The problem is something anyone who has played role-playing games for a long time will recognize. You enter a 10ft x 10ft room with a clue in it. You roll your Find Clues check, and it comes up empty. The game crawls to a fucking halt. That isn't fun, no one is enjoying that. The options become "The GM spoon-feeds you the clue," or "You roll over and over again until you finally get the clue, which makes the skill check arbitrary and ridiculous." The solution was one of the most incredibly elegant pieces of games design I've ever seen.

If you are trained in finding clues of a specific type, you find the clue as soon as that clue becomes available to you.

This gets the focus back where it belongs: putting the clues together and getting chased by frog men down the streets of Innsmouth. Just having the clues is seldom enough to solve a mystery, and the closer you get to solving the mystery, the more intense the resistance to your solving it gets, which leads to all those crunchy-fun actiony bits.

Dread Conflict Resolution

It's tough to do horror role-playing games well. It's a medium that extols the virtues of wish-fulfillment and power fantasies, and those things actively hinder your character in a horror game. This is, in my opinion, the greatest failing of White Wolf's games, the key reason that Vampire so often devolves into a superhero game with trench coats and fangs. As much as I would love to partake in the introspective navel-gazing that Vampire games advertise, I never really get a chance to. There are too many explosions.

To get horror done right, there are a few requirements you need to fulfill. Characters have to be less inherently powerful than whatever they're up against. There needs to be a sense of rising dread as the stakes get higher and the options get fewer. And sometimes, the shit has to hit the fan and everyone dies. Dread hits the last two notes brilliantly, using a Jenga tower to ramp up the anxiety and constantly move things towards a room covered in fecal matter and shame. Every time something happens that could be horrible, take a block from the bottom and put it on top. If the tower falls, people die.

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