Fluxx and Uno; system and memory

12 April, 2008 at 9:14 pm (game design, game element) (, , , )

My sister and a friend of hers visited my humble apartment. We played more than a bit of Fluxx. Here’s some reflection on that and on the numerous Uno games I have played along my short life.

Accessibility

Uno is extremely easy for even young people. Fluxx requires fair amount of skill with English (even my father had problems, surprisingly). I think they both are casual games. There’s a few factors that affect this.

Unpredictability

Fluxx is the epitome of a chaotic game. This chaos is amplified when there are several people. With two or three people, your play actually has a visible effect on your next turn; with six, it does not have too much of an effect. There’s some, but not enough to count on.

Uno has few variants that are played among the circles where I have played it: First is to draw one or two cards when you can’t play any, second is to draw up to three cards until you can play one (and immediately play that). The third is to draw cards until you can play at least one of them and then play that. The first are least unpredictable, the third most. Also, the number of players has a large effect: Usually it is possible to meaningfully affect the next player or maybe two, again depending on the rules used (stacking “draw”-cards either affect only the next player or each player gets one effect until all cards are used). As in Fluxx, the state of game can vary significantly between the turns of an individual player. This is almost the norm when there are many players.

Why do I think unpredictability is good? First, it reduces stress; you can always blame the luck and will often be correct. In addition, both games can take new players in midplay and not make a significant splash. Further, one can take a pause from the game when the others are doing their turns and often not a lot has been missed.

No death spiral

Fluxx tends towards equality among the players due to the numerous hand limits and keeper limits, as well as rules reset. Further, winning the game is always possible by shifting the goal, stealing or scrambling keepers (and the changing the goal), or just picking the correct keepers and playing them. If you’ve got no keepers, hope someone will put a limit on them. Fluxx doesn’t so much balance itself as it screws everyone equally and always keeps victory a possiblity.

Uno self-balancing in a very elegant way: The more cards one has, the faster one can get rid of them by playing many at the same time. Also, as one gets more cards, the chance of drawing cards that match them in symbol only increases. (People rarely forgetting to say Uno is also something of a balancing mechanism, though very weak one).

The lack of death spiral means that skilled players don’t seem to dominate, because they could be toppled at any moment.

General observations

Take any system where participants have turns, take some action during a turn, then wait for the next one (examples: Heroes of might and magic n, most rpg combats, ADOM, roleplay with a split party). How much does a single turn matter?

Number of actions

Obviously, the number of actions one can take are very important. If one can somehow get more actions or deprive opponents of theirs, such abilities often are extremely valuable. For example: Haste in D&D 3rd, reflexes in Burning Wheel. If the number of actions or action points that are used when doing anything can be altered, one would do well to start with a fair number of them. If everyone starts with single action, getting another is worth very much. If everyone has 10 action points, getting 1 extra is very nice, but won’t as easily break things. Getting 5 or more does break things.

Whiff chance

There may be a chance that the actions one takes simply have no effect. High whiff chance is undesirable, because it tends to be frustrating (I want to hear a counter-example for this one). Further: With a significant whiff chance, the system becomes more chaotic; a given amount of play may give no results or be hugely effective, depending on luck. Obviously low number of actions and high whiff are a bad combination.

Power

One has actions and does not whiff. What happens? In all examples I can recall right now the power of different actions (choices) is different. This may be balanced by different costs (in actions or other resources), different whiff chances (magic missile always hits), or other factors.

Memory

Memory may not be quite as obvious a factor as the others. In a system with long memory the effects of the choices one makes linger for long. They may change or weaken but one can easily see that a particular effect is there due to a particular choice made. System with short memory obfuscates these relations: The status of the system changes rabidly or radically. Or maybe there is a large number of choices made, so that the effects of single one are effectively buried. Or maybe there is a strong attractor the system tends towards, so choices tend to be lost as the attractor is approached again.

In roleplaying context: Traditionally, system has long memory with regards to character generation. Choices there count for a lot (hence the flames around point-buy vs. rolling and the tendency to let people do minor changes after actually playing a little). Character death is another event that games tend to remember for long.

Gamers try to avoid effects that are harmful and have long memory: D&D examples are level drains and ability drain/damage (prior to plentiful restorative magics). In the Mountain Witch the wounds that have duration for “rest of the game” tend to be nasty (this one is from experience), even if that duration is rarely more than three sessions. Generally speaking, permanently disfiguring a character is something that many gamers really dislike (exceptions abound). In some games, losing items is more harmful than character being wounded, because healing is fast and wounds matter little in the long run.

An interesting rules element

Whenever a player loses a conflict/roll (as suits the game and situation in play) any participant can suggest a permanent consequence, or at least one with long memory. If the player does not want that, damage time, for whatever values of damage the system recognises.

Example the first: A troll subdued the would-be trollslayer. Options: Take the harm (given the circumstances, may very well be death unless there is help coming) or take a semi-permanent nasty effect, such as a trollslayer cast into the river from which he is rescued with only his clothes on (or so the villagers insist), or the troll consuming the slayer’s right hand and leaving the slayer to die, not liking the taste.

Example the second: Negotiations with the high king. A failed diplomacy check. Options: Beaten up and thrown away from the castle, a humble apology (and charisma damage due to the humilation and loss of confidence), the ire and later assassins of the high king, losing some allies from the local nobility, being branded an outlaw, …

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Game design =/= rpg design

8 April, 2008 at 6:37 pm (definition, game design) (, , , )

During brief discussion with Phil I verbalised the idea of good game design not being the same things as good rpg design. This is obvious when discussing, say, Chess. I argue that it is also true when discussing roleplaying games, given the way I define good game design.

The definitions have my bias clearly articulated; they are there for all to see. If you have different base assumptions or definitions, your conclusions may also be different.

Definitions

Game design is building a (semi-formal) system where players can make mechanical choices that have mechanical consequences. Good game design makes this process of decision-making interesting: There are few null choices that have no effect and the best choice is often enough very hard or impossible to see, if it even exists and is unique.

Rpg design is building a fiction and a system that describes how the choices the players make affect the fiction. Good rpg design makes the process of play interesting: There are actual choices to be made, they are about something the player cares about, and there are several roughly as lucrative alternative ways of making many choices (in this paragraph several can be arbitrarily large, but not too small).

Good rpg/game design does not imply that the game itself is good, because there are numerous other factories related to that. As such, if one is only interested in how much enjoyment can be derived from a (roleplaying) game, fixating too much on the quality of the (rp)g is not advised. There is correlation: On average, well-designed stuff is more enjoyable.

Do note that the other kinds of design are immensely important (and not part of the above definitions): Designing the game so that it has a suitable social footprint (the time, effort and commitment gaming takes), building the game so that it encourages the creation of certain kinds of fiction, building functional character sheets, elegance and other usability issues, and doubtless other factors. I may someday extend this post to explicitly include some or all of those things. This is not that day.

The thesis

My thesis is that good game design and good rpg design, as defined above, are not very tightly linked. One can have an rpg that is well-designed game but not very interesting fiction-wise; likewise, a well-designed rpg need not have interesting mechanical elements.

What I am not saying is that the two design issues are orthogonal; they certainly affect each other. I am also not saying that they are independent; the quality of one factor tends to influence the other for the positive, because it is common to link certain fictional and system-level effects together.

Examples in the abstract

Assume a game with very complicated (and intense and fun) combat system. Assume the output of the system is the amount of hit points the participants have at the end of the combat. All other variables that change only affect the single combat encounter and any used resources are recovered with a moment of rest or such. This combat system is (one can assume) good an instance of game design, because it has many (mechanical) choices that are interesting. It is not good rpg design, because none of those juicy choices are persistent; all that remains is the number of hit points one is left with. To be honest, there are other potential choices one can make: Which opponent to kill, how much of one’s abilities to reveal, for example, but they are pretty minor and would work with almost all combat systems.

A game where each (player) character has a number of memories (some of which are utilitarian, some have emotional value, some both) and the character can sacrifice them to demons in order to get wishes or other benefits could be well-designed, rpg-design-wise; if the character sacrifices too much, that character can no longer enjoy from the achieved victories; if too little, something bad will happen. OTOH, sacrificing the utilitarian memories (where was the artifact hidden again?) can have much the same effect as sacrificing nothing: Failure at preventing the bad things. Game-design would only make this interesting if the memories with emotional value gave some sort of benefit; otherwise they are like spell points.

On D&D 4th

From what I have read, 4e is focused on encounters and the designer are doing game design. What about rpg design? No idea. Experience for achieving certain story points could do that, but I am more than slightly doubtful. This does not mean that “there will be no roleplay in D&D 4th”. The system just will probably not do all that much to promote the kind of roleplay I am looking for.

Bonus: Proof by antithesis

Assume that all good rpg design is always good game design. See the two example above. They are non-trivial counter-examples to the antithesis and hence the antithesis is wrong, from which it follows that the thesis is true. QED.

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Dungeoncrawl: The anatomy of a player character

6 January, 2008 at 11:43 am (game design) (, , , )

Given my concept of a game, characters need to be able to perform certain tasks. For more-or-less arbitrary reasons, I decided to go with skills as the defining factor of characters. “Skill” suggests a value associated with character that can be fairly rabidly increased in play and it further suggests that all characters won’t have all skills (that is, they are not mandatory). All of that won’t be true of all skills.

Attributes (a fixed set of values that chances only slowly if at all) are one way of setting a default for skills, but they should also have mechanical effects in play to be worth it. One common use is to use attributes as hit points (or other measure of resiliency), but I have another solution for that. So, in essence, I don’t see a compelling need for attributes.

The lack of attributes implies another way of resolving simple rolls, which I don’t have, as of yet. It may end up being unnecessary due to the exact nature of all tasks in the game. Further design will tell. A default for skills must also be defined in some way. My current idea is to have a fixed default. If I end up adding rules for nonhumans, they will have different defaults or some special abilities.

Skill: actual rules

Every (human) player character starts with all skills at the value three. There will be a number of skills the player can select at different values. I’m thinking about three skills at 10, three at 7, and the remaining at three. Or something like that. Different combinations allow for more or less powerful and focused chars, so some options are in order.

Getting hurt

Character has an undefined number of tracks, but at least three: Wound track, strain track and rest track. When the number of wounds (the track) equals some skill like toughness, the character is unable to do anything and can be killed with a single action. Essentially: Hit points, but in the reverse direction. Wounds are earned by being hit with sharp, pointy, hot, or otherwise inconvenient objects.

Straing track is a measure of exhaustion, both physical and mental. It accumulates when being attacked, being hurt, being scared, or failing rolls related to straining oneself. When strain equals the sum of two skills, something like toughess and will, something bad happens. I’m thinking a number of possible effects the player can choose between.

Rest track starts at zero and goes up by one when the character rests. The two other tracks can’t be reduced below rest track’s current value. The track is reset when the characters relax and use their loot between adventures. The function of the track is to make resting always a choice: If you do it too often, it simply is not useful any more and you have to get back. It is a soft time limit, in essence. The diegetic explanation is that no matter how skilled a healer you are, the dungeon environment is far from ideal: There are limited supplies, the place is dirty and cold, and it is very tiring to be constantly on guard. Short breaks help for a while, but total recovery demands a good rest at far better conditions.

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