Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Things I asked Mearls & Crawford

When you’re in charge of making the new Dungeons & Dragons and you offer to do a live chat on the internet, there’s no way you can get to everyone. Thousands of people were tuned in and asking questions, so there was no way to get to everyone. Still, I kept track of the questions I did ask, and decided to post them here, and why I think they’re important.

How do you plan to deal with the five-minute-workday?

This is one of the most important points of Dungeon Crawl games, and it’s something I saw very early in the game. The player characters would play hard for an encounter or two, and then take a four-hour walk back to town, or secure a dungeon room to rest in for the next six hours. With long rests getting you all of your hit points and all of your hit dice back, this gets to be a big pacing problem pretty quickly.

Is there a plan to break up combat pacing mechanically, or will that be largely left to the DM?

Combat in the playtest is monotonous. And I don’t mean that to be harsh, I mean that it hits the same notes over and over again, which may well be the direction they’d prefer. “Move, Attack, Minor Spell, Major Spell,” are pretty much your only options in a fight, which is fine as long as you have a Dungeon Master that’s keeping things interesting in other ways. There are a few outliers (rogues hiding, for instance), but this is how entire combat encounters roll, and while that was certainly enough ‘back in the day,’ it makes for some pretty boring encounters without a way of shaking things up.

My players have lamented the loss of Awesome Daily Powers. Are there plans to include options that will have a much more pronounced “Wow” factor?

The playtest player characters look good, and they don’t lack for interesting, but there isn’t anything on the sheet that made my players go “Holy shit, check this thing out!” The games that do this better than anyone, in my experience, are Warmachine and Magic: The Gathering, and both of those are doing really, really well. It hits one of those psychographic cues that I think is really important in gaming: it’s fucking badass. A 14/14 with flying and trample that costs 12 mana is going to make your face drop. Same with a warcaster that has RoF infinite. There’s something visceral and attention-grabbing about something that’s bigger and cooler than it has any right to be, and as long as it can be generally balanced, there’s no reason to not include more “Wow” factor abilities.

A small point, but I found the concept of Hit Dice was ambiguously worded. At second level, your Hit Dice are 2dX. Does this mean your roll 2dX? If so, how many times can you do this? Or do you roll 1dX and you have two uses? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write that as 1dX (2)?

We played with the latter, but it’s vague.

Monday, May 28, 2012

I am the RPG 1%

Browsing through Lumpley’s blog on a lark, I came across this lovely article on how to sell Dread to people who don’t already want to buy Dread. Now, I’ve never really had that problem because the good folk of Whyte Ave in Edmonton are a role-playing lot, and they love them some innovative design. Dread’s Jenga-tower resolution mechanic is about as innovative as design in role-playing gets, so all I have to tell interested parties is “When it looks like the shit could hit the fan, you take a block from the bottom and you put it on top.” I’ve sold out of Dread.

But there’s a concept in that article that I found particularly interesting, and that’s her use of what seems like an entirely made up statistic that 90% of players show up to a role-playing game to consume the medium, 9% are occasional participants, and 1% are active participants and content-creators. I’m a content-creator. I like to fiddle around with game design, and I appreciate design from a consumer’s point of view. I am like a million other role-playing game enthusiasts who is “writing a game” that will likely never see the light of day. More importantly, I write a blog, and while my level of participation is low, I’m still creating content that some people find interesting or valuable. That’s really important.

But I’m not. In the role-playing game industry, at least at a design level, I’m nothing, nobody. I’m certainly important in other directions, mostly in sales and community leadership, but people should not be designing role-playing games with me in mind. I’ll play damned near anything and find something to like in it. Hell, I played RIFTS for years, and had a blast.

The 1% of people in the role-playing game industry aren’t the people you need to design for. You need to design for the 99% that aren’t us, because if you can get those people buying your product, you’re going to make a lot of money. You need to make product for the guys who just want to show up and play, who spend hours reading the books because they’re neat. And to go back to RIFTS for a moment, nobody does this better than Kevin Siembieda. One of the constant refrains I hear in my position behind the counter is “I can’t believe this game is still around.” Then four people come in and buy RIFTS: Lemuria and they’re super-stoked about it, not because they’re going to go home and play it, but because they’re going to sit at a Starbucks and read the book cover to cover, Oohing and Ahhing at the awesome pictures of Dragon Mech Warrior King Insect Demons and the stats for power armor that makes no godly sense whatsoever. This is why Kevin is still in business, he understands the Wow Factor of your average gamer better than most of the people currently designing role-playing games. If he could get his feet back on the ground and start pumping out product like he was in the late nineties, he’d be laughing.

And this is sort of what the guys at Wizards of the Coast have been trying to do for a while, now. You can see it all over the design of Fourth Edition, and having played the Fifth Edition playtest thingie, I can see a lot of work being put into getting some of those people back. Fourth Edition had REALLY COOL POWERZ and your hero was a balls-to-the-wall ass-kicker from the word Go. There were entire books full of COOL RACEZ and WICKED GEAR that were trying to reach something in the 90% gamer that made them go “Whoa!” One of the problems, though, was that Fourth Edition was dedicated to a sterile brand of balance that made it impossible to reach that visceral WANT reaction. I think some of this came from a miscommunication between Brand and Design, and like one of my friends constantly says “The biggest problem with Fourth Edition is that it was built to fix all of Third Edition’s problems, and it did, but then nobody liked it because it didn’t feel like D&D.” It made balance a primary concern, and while that’s great, while that is a brilliant goal to try and work towards, it’s a goal that makes players like me happy. It doesn’t make players like my friend Matt want to play.

Matt doesn’t want to play a balanced game. If we’re using Mark Rosewater’s “Timmy, Johnny, Spike” chart, Matt’s a Timmy. He wants to experience something, and he wants that something to come in the form of Awesome Wish Fulfillment. His favorite character was a troll called DeathStalker. He wanted a character that was Huge and Powerful and Awesome and Strong and nobody ever fucked with him ever. Because that’s the sort of thing players like Matt, players who are the 90% of gamers, really want. I think Matt’s a pretty extreme example, for sure, but what about that quiet guy who shows up and uses his powers but doesn’t really say much? He’s probably just there to watch the story unfold and have a drink with his buddies, and designing a game that gets players like him involved is actually really tough.

Designing for the 90%

Some of this comes back to my Busted Game Theory.
ShadowRun, D&D 3.5 and RIFTS are the three games that most immediately come to mind when I think about how to design a game for the 90% of gamers who aren’t me. They are all, intrinsically, games about wish fulfillment. You get to be exactly as cool as you want to be, in whatever direction you want. You want to be pretty, agile, flexible? Be an elf. Looking for big, brutal and smashy? Rock a troll. Want to be smarter than everyone? Hackers and rogue scholars. Looking to be faster, stronger, better than normal? Juicers are the way to go.

If you’re looking to design with these players in mind, you need to understand that what you’re looking to build isn’t a game that’s cool. Because wish-fulfillment is seldom actually “cool.” It just seems cool to the players who are into that specific direction of wish fulfillment. You need to cater to the people who want to be an Action Movie Star and the guys who want to be in World Wrestling Entertainment. You need to build a game that is complicated and fiddly, a game that can be “broken” in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different directions.  Third Edition D&D did this flawlessly, and it’s still the most popular version of the game ever printed.

With that in mind, it also has to be fun. Setting has to take a back seat to your player characters’ awesomeness. Have you ever really looked at the setting of RIFTS? It’s a ridiculous hodgepodge of settings and milieus that serves as nothing more than a backdrop for how awesome your character is.  Sure, there are dragons out there, but they’re mostly there in case you get a hankering to prove you’re more awesome than a flock of dragons. There’s a tyrannical cult-nation of human supremacists, too. You should probably go kick their asses so that you can punch Future-Hitler in the face. The setting for Shadowrun is, honestly, no better. It’s a stew of fantasy tropes and horrible 1990’s cyberpunk bullshit. Why? Because trolls are cool. You know what’s cooler than a troll? A troll in a trench coat punching Future-Corporate-Hitler in the face.

Importantly, power creep is not a thing you need to avoid in a game that caters to the 90%. It should be actively embraced. It should be crammed into books as often as it can be justified. One of the lessons game design has learned from Yu-Gi-Oh and Warmachine is that if everything in a game is broken, nothing in the game is broken. If you put a bunch of crazy over-the-top machine-gattling-rail-guns in your first book, you’d better have something that one-ups that bitch in the next book, because that’s gonna need some one-uppin’. Power creep allows those players who are enjoying the media while expressing their wish fulfillment to continually reach for a new wish to fulfill. If you already have a Hackmaster +10, the +11 coming out in the next book is going to look pretty sweet, whether you can obliterate small villages by yourself or not. This keeps people buying books, it keeps people playing your game (or buying your game without playing it, in the case of many RIFTS folk), and it makes sure that no matter how “cool” the last stuff was, the stuff in your next book will be even “cooler.”

And this isn’t going to make people like me very happy at all. I will probably complain about your game publicly and wonder why the hell I can’t keep it stocked on my shelves, because seriously, who plays this garbage? But I already know who plays this garbage, and there are a bunch of people I could point towards it with a clear conscience, because that’s the game experience they’re looking for.

And there are more of those people than there are people who could appreciate Burning Wheel.

D&D Playtest Session One

So, the public playtest is out and running around, and my group just finished our first session of it.

My crew ran the gamut from second-time players through to AD&D veterans, and most had similar things to say about the experience: it feels like a step backward, and that isn’t meant as a compliment. There were some differing opinions about how far we’ve strayed, some players saying it feels like third edition, with others saying it plays more like second or first, but there is general agreement in the fact that it plays a lot like previous versions of the game, and that this is not necessarily a good thing.

The best points about the game are that it is very much Dungeons & Dragons. The character sheets are familiar, and without much in the way of rules tweaking, we found ourselves in familiar territory. We knew what we were about, and everyone was able to make informed decisions based on their understanding of D&D in its previous incarnations and from other media that mirrors the conventions of the game. It was really easy to pick up and play, and there were only a few occasions where we had to stop and look something up to see if “this version” of the game had such-and-such a rule (in particular, critical fumbles and attacks of opportunity). The flow of the game was less immediately heroic than Fourth Edition, which is in many ways both a benefit and a flaw, but we all had fun, and that’s the important thing.

As a Dungeon Master I found myself settling into a comfortable role, doling out boxed text and sending waves of monsters at the players. The monster blocks were instantly recognizable and easy to work with. The descriptions of sounds, smells and lighting all helped my descriptions work, and I found the game flowed really easily and a lot like my experiences of playing First Edition as a DM.

The worst points about the game were the same things that make all of the editions previous to Fourth less than great. There was a real sense of slogging, even though the hits were harder and the combat rounds faster. The battles were quick and bloody, sure, but there wasn’t a lot to  work with. Every player on the table bemoaned the loss of Awesome Daily Powers, noting that the player characters had fewer options for mechanically-enhanced ass-kickery. Singlue use spells for the casters couldn’t quite make up for the loss of Serious Face Kicking that would result from the busting of a massive daily power. Skills were another sore point, with each player wishing that they had different skills on their sheet than the ones they were presented. A rogue without Perception? No one had Bluff? Really?  One player in particular found it atrocious that the laser cleric would have a minor spell that does nothing but damage. It doesn’t heal, doesn’t provide a bonus, doesn’t debuff the enemy, doesn’t do anything but hit a guy with lasers. Yeah, the damage was solid, but rogues and fighters are there to cause damage. Clerics are support, and that spell doesn’t support anything other than killing things faster.

As a Dungeon Master, I found each encounter made the game seem longer and more boring until eventually we just stopped because one guy had to go home. The adventure we were presented had a lot of choke points and it often felt as though one or two creatures were In the Shit, and the rest were standing off on the sidelines while stuff happened. It was tough to make the encounters interesting because a) they were very short, b) they lacked the tactical depth of Fourth Edition or even Three-point-Five, and c) it’s just another room full of fucking bugbears. I used some of my best description to liven things up, but it was turning into a real grind towards the end. Contested strength checks to move a guy out of the way would have been great, if there wasn’t always someone right next to the guy you’re trying to move.

Mechanically, the playtest isn’t all that different from Dungeons & Dragons Second or Third. Movement has certainly improved, but the encounters we played didn’t really build on that too much. Using Attributes for Saving Throws makes mechanical sense, but one player pointed out that not having Int attached to Armor Class or a more general saving throw made the Attribute feel a lot less mechanically important. Advantage and Disadvantage were stunningly intuitive, and likely the best version of the concept I’ve seen thus far, though when something grants Advantage or incurs Disadvantage is a little murky in actual play. The loss of Attacks of Opportunity is a massive blessing, and has sped up combat considerably. It’s also made running away a much more viable option in combat, as you don’t have to give your opponent a free chance to kill you if you want to disengage and get out. In future sessions, I will be working on putting player characters into specific situations that will test out how some of the rules work, specifically movement, magic, conditions and hiding.

Until then, may your adventures always remind you of adventures from your past.

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.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Meditations on Resolution and Detail

I was reading a blog post about how D&D has really boring scenery most of the time, and the first thing I thought about was Mouse Guard. Then today, there was a news post from the guys at Wizards of the Coast about how D&D doesn't do skills in a way that's really interesting or compelling, and there's a few different systems for skills and that sort of suck. Again, I thought about Mouse Guard. To me, both of these things stem from a single issue, and that issue is addressed head-on in Mouse Guard in a really elegant way.

In D&D, skills actually serve to limit player authorship. In early versions of the game, versions without skills, a player had to clearly describe every single action he or she was going to take, and ask a lot of important questions about the surrounding area to make sure they weren't making an insane mistake. The advent of skills allowed a player to quickly and simply describe the task he or she was about to attempt in a sort of gaming short-hand. "I'm going to search for traps," and then rolling dice was a perfectly acceptable way to handle situations that would have taken a lot of thought and consideration without the skill. And that's actually pretty cool, that's a neat piece of gaming technology that gets the focus back where it belongs, on the violence.

But somewhere along the way, we got lazy. We started replacing ingenuity and thought with skill checks almost entirely. Rather than try and remember a pertinent detail yourself, you'd roll a History check. Rather than role-play your way through a sticky situation, you'd roll a Diplomacy check, and that was it. That's all that was expected of our players, and while that certainly made it easier to get to the violence, I think D&D design has sort of lost its way when it comes to skill design and why and how skills are used in the game. Players aren't authoring things anymore, they're rolling dice and calling it good.

And Mouse Guard presented some really elegant fixes to that problem, while still retaining the shorthand. A really good example of this is how the game handles weather watching. If you'd like to know what the weather is going to be like in the near future, you can make a weather watching check. If you succeed, you decide what the weather is going to be like at the start of the next session. If you fail, the GM gets to throw a weather-shaped monkey wrench in your plans, or you take a condition.

There are two parts of this that deserve a closer look: 1) you decide what the weather is going to look like and 2) if you fail, things get worse. Deciding what the weather is going to look like is a hell of a lot of power to put in a player's hands, but properly balanced with the threat of a massive drawback, it's not that big a deal. But imagine that power (and that threat) applied to other aspects of the game. To take an example from the Wizards post, let's look at a history check.

You're in the middle of deep, dank dungeon, and you come across a statue of a beautiful woman in her middle years, holding what looks like a spear, but the haft is busted halfway to her hand. With the current resolution system, you would roll a d20, add your skill bonuses, and compare them to the difficulty. If you succeed, the DM tells you stuff about the statue (or not). If you fail, nothing happens.

With the Mouse Guard system, you'd roll your D20, add your skill bonuses and compare the result to a difficulty number again. This time, if you succeed, YOU tell everyone what's up with the statue. Make it up. Tell a story. If you fail, the DM gets to throw a twist at you. The statue attacks, it crumbles and a horde of scarabs crawl out, the ceiling collapses, the statue's sculptor begins haunting you for getting it wrong, whatever.

What this does, and I think this is important, is provide a mechanical reason to add detail to the world. With success, players get a chance to author bits and pieces of the world, and with that duty spread among multiple people, more interesting details will begin to emerge. With failure, the DM gets to throw in twists and challenges that add further detail to the world through their very existence. Used while travelling, this will give players and DMs a chance to flesh out the scenery. Used in dungeons, it will provide a powerful tool for adding depth to a simple treasure-hunt. And in the right circumstances, it might encourage players to rely less on their skills. If you're in a room with three sleeping dragons and a kobold is about to sound a gong to wake them up while you're on a ladder over a river of lava, let's face it: you don't need any added complications in your life. Maybe you should think this one through the old-school way.