Levers and the fruitful void

24 January, 2010 at 3:32 pm (game design, rpg theory) (, , )

Theory post. It’s been a while since the previous one.

Fruitful void is a concept for designing and analysing games. Let us take some roleplaying game and assume it has rules. Fruitful void is something the rules do not cover, but point towards.

With D&D 4e rules give you plenty of maneuvres in combat so that significant number of them are interesting, but the rules do not tell which one you should use. There are characters whose powers can work well together, but the rules do not tell how to use the powers so that the synergy benefits manifest. Dogs in the Vineyard is about judging people, about how much violence one is willing to use to do what is right and about faith. There is no faith attribute (that judgment is for the players to make), there is no rule telling that you must use violence and there are no guidelines about what judgments are appropriate. That’s up to the players. Old D&D gives lots of tools for dungeon delving – combat ability, spells, items, henchmen – yet there is no skill for making tactical and strategic decisions. Those are up to the players. Burning Wheel has involved rules for fighting (in melee, with ranged weapons, with words) and lots of other rules that make other parts of gameplay or story move fast. And when fighting the player must script actions – high numbers on character sheet are not sufficient. The tactics and what one fights for are up to the players.

So: Fruitful void is the space a game leaves for players to fill, and towards which the game points players. The concept applies well to focused games and less well to GURPS or (certain) games which get out of the way. The concept applies weakly to games that take a life of their own (which, I reckon, is related to getting out of the way). The comments on Anyway relating to the subject are worth reading.

Lever as a concept was introduced by d7 just a while ago. Lever is some mechanical tool a player can use to affect the fiction. Skills, powers, aspects, so on.

I think these two concepts are related in more than a single way.

D7 uses diplomacy skill in D&D 3rd as an example of a lever ill placed: It negates all negotiation by skipping it with a single skill roll. That is bad if you want to have a game where negotiations are central. Point: Levers can certainly kill a fruitful void by bypassing it entirely. Consider: Play modern D&D, but instead of using the combat rules simply add a fighting skill and resolve all combats by rolling it. Not much point in playing modern D&D that way, is there?

Levers can skip boring parts of gameplay. This is what many skills in BW do. This is one way of seeing diplomacy on D&D 3rd. Of course it is also possible to handwave those bits away, but often the rules are useful.

Using levers can be the fruitful void. This is 4e. There is much GM advice on building interesting combats, which simply means that there is no universal best tactics – add environment factors, terrain, varied enemies with special powers and so on to change which tactics are functional and to what degree.

The decision to pull or not pull a lever can be in the void. Tactical version: You have one sleep spell per day. Use it now or later? Dramatic version: You can summon demons, but they demand a high price. Whichever version: You know magic, but there’s a chance it goes horribly wrong whenever you use it.

I’m sure there’s more. An exercise for readers.

Permalink 26 Comments

Classifying good rules

16 October, 2008 at 4:30 pm (game design, rpg theory) ()

In this post I will outline three (or two) different ways in which rules can be good. For the purpose of this post, let rules be good if and only if they produce good play, and let good play be defined by the people playing.

I am also assuming that freeform play, defined as play in which resolution is handled by social negotiation or fiat and where there are few explicit rules, is not utterly broken and can actually work.

Fading to the background

As was assumed above, freeform can be good play. Rules that fade to the background make freeform easier and channel it to specific fictional style. Take, for example, a game that has attributes (strength, speed, …). Creating characters gives players a sense of how capable their characters are when compared to each other, and also possibly to the rest of the world. Note that this also happens to other numbers that represent the character.

It has been my experience that given a set of rules that tend to fade, the resolution system is first used frequenly to resolve anything and everything, but it is used less and less as the game proceeds, because people already know what is going to happen. Your character has three times bashed a door down and charged in, so we already know your character is capable of bashing doors down, and there’s no need to roll anymore (assuming a door that is not stronger than those bashed before).

Rules, even though they fade to the background, also shape the fictional world. Take a random fantasy rpg and add magic rules stolen from D&D or Ars Magica, and you will have vastly different sorts of mages in the setting.

I have heard that BRP (basic roleplay, used in Runequest, Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu) and Unisystem are this kind of games.

Creating fun play

Some rules have fairly discrete mini-games. The traditional example is combat in modern D&D (3rd and 4th editions). It is clear that such mini-games don’t fade into background; rather, they are entertaining in and of themselves (given players who like such mini-games, of course). Another feature of them is that there is no need to ever use them; you can play D&D 3rd and never touch the combat rules. It would be something of a waste in that most of the game would be unused, but that doesn’t really matter, as long as the play is good.

In summary: Good rules can create new kinds of good play, or make an existing activity interesting in a new way.

Extreme case

An extreme case of the above is rules that don’t work properly unless they are embraced. Almost all board games are in this category. Burning Wheel is close, because the character development and artha mechanics require actively using and remembering the rules.

I’d be as bold as to say that many games influenced by rpg theory from the Forge are close to this extreme case. It might even be possibly to characterise them by this classification scheme, though there is bound to be loose ends.

Design implications

From design perspective it is useful to have a baseline; what am I improving? (My default baseline is freeform play.) Minigames and games that simply don’t work unless used properly may benefit from another point of comparison, or may be considered without much context, which is not advisable to any game that relies heavily on people already knowing a particular activity or mode of play.

Continuum, not absolutes

As is generally true, this classification creates a continuum, not two (or three) pair-wise distinct sets.

Permalink 5 Comments

Persistent fantasy – system update

27 August, 2008 at 11:37 am (game design, persistent fantasy) (, , )

These are the clarified and collected rules of my default house system, still somewhat in progress.

Big picture

The design goals of this system are, in no particular order:

  • Sword and sorcerish fantasy adventure.
  • Meaningful one-shot games.
  • The setting and the characters have continuity, even though the players present in any one game may radically change.
  • Playing the game generates the setting, the characters and the rules.
  • Planning ahead is futile and impossible, or at least very hard.
  • Players have power to shape the fiction.
  • Character concepts are protected, in that breaking them is hard.
  • Conflicts should be detailed, not tactical.

Cycle of play

  1. Gather players. See how many participants there are. Take half this number, round down, and consult the list (my list is visible in the persistent fantasy page). Select the topmost characters whose players are present, though a given player can only get one character from the list to play.
  2. Consult a relevant random generator (my generator: http://random-generator.com/index.php?title=Fantasy_oracle_compilation). The players who are thus far without characters generate new ones implied or explicitly mentioned by the random entries. Should some named character not controlled by another player be eligible, playing that one is recommended, but not obligatory.
  3. Generate a situation based on the random elements and characters: What is happening, why are the characters involved, and what do they want?
  4. Play.
  5. Update the list and character records.
  6. If such is the habit, also update setting info.

Anatomy of characters

  • Starting player characters have three traits. At most one trait may have the value of six. All have integer values between 1 and 6. Values 1 and 2 indicate a minor trait, 3 and 4 a significant one, 5 a major one and 6 something potentially legendary.
  • Starting non-player characters have an arbitrary number of arbitrary traits. All must have positive integers as values.
  • All player characters must have a name.

Anatomy of traits

All traits work as defined below in the section that relates to resolution. Some have additional qualities. Examples follow. (Ksym, corruption is built for you, if you are interested.)

  • Aspirant to the throne: Increase this trait by one whenever the character does something that will prove useful in evidently grabbing the throne. Inciting a rebellion in the streets, blackmailing noblemen, gaining favour of the church, being of noble birth, deterring an invasion in the borders. It can be reduced by one as a consequence of failing at the listed tasks. Aspirant can be rolled when the character is trying to take over the throne, or at half value when negotiating with the nobles. After winning the game of thrones the trait is replaced by Queen/King of the realm or similar trait at the same value. Any trait that signifies a goal can be handled in similar way.
  • Corruption: Corruption is any source of power that takes over the character when used. A demon whispering advice, a blade with something evil bound to it, the power to make the dead walk. Using the corrupted trait means that its value increases by 1. (This does not apply to others using the trait, only the character who has it, though some corruption may spread to other characters who use it against the person wielding it.) When the value of the corrupted trait is greater than that of any other trait, it transforms the character into something else. Demonic whispers trait may turn into champion of chaos. Necromancy turns into lich.
  • Creeping doom: Any effect that slowly consumes the character. A disease, say. Increases by 1 every session. Trait may evidently transform into something else or just totally cripple the character. Curing it may be useful.
  • Lycanthropy: Any trait that can be drawn strength from, but without the condition becoming more severe. Use the trait and certain effects will come to be; your character is wounded in battle, you use the werewolf trait, win the combat, and later the character wakes up naked in a graveyard next to half a corpse of human, for example.

Names and the list

Some characters are named (including all player characters). Anyone can name a character in play. Some named characters are on the list.

While a character is on the list that particular character can’t be permanently removed from play. Should one be killed, it will later become apparent that this did not actually happen or that the character has returned to life or is now a demon who just happened to be summoned back to this world. Also: Undead.

Any character on the list is owned by some player (or GM). Unless a player explicitly says otherwise, other players are not to play that character. Any player can renounce a character; this means that any entries where that player and that character are linked are removed from the list. It is recommended for one to not renounce characters.

Named characters who are not on the list can be played by anyone, regardless of who previously played them. They can be killed permanently in game (though doing this without the character entering the list is hard) so that they actually will not come back.

Named characters not on the list should be possible result of the random generator. Named characters on the list may not be.

Unnamed characters have some traits and function as other characters do, but they do not enter the list. An unnamed character can be named at any time in play by any participant. This may be done as a reaction to the character failing a roll, so that the character immediately enters the list.

A brief respite

Some player may want to retire a character for a while, but still retain control of that character. The fiction must offer a suitable opportunity for doing this; for example, a character building a cabin in some forlorn woods and staying there. Or entering a large city incognito.

This can only be done if the character has at least one entry on the list. Remove all entries featuring the character from the list. After the session add the character once to the bottom of the list.

If a character is controlled by several players, all of them must agree to the respite. The process works as above, except that the character gets one entry per player to the bottom. The order of the entries is determined by their previous order; the player who previously was closest to the top with that character gets the first entry, and so on. Players can agree to different order.

I will not abandon you

Some characters may stick together, no matter what. A D&Dish adventuring party, a married couple, brothers in arms, a group of soldiers. Pets, cohorts, and such also qualify. The mechanical term for this will be “group”. Grouped characters must have traits linking them to the group, mentioning other members by name. Not all characters need to be thus linked, but any two characters must be linked through other chars. (A linked to B linked to C linked to A, for example.)

Grouped characters will only enter play if all the relevant players are present. If even one of the characters would enter play due to being on the list, then all will. The top-most name of every grouped character is removed from the list.

The actual procedure when using the list is to select characters as normal so long as a group is not encountered. When one is, check to see if all the players are present and if none of them are yet playing another character. If both of these conditions are true, then the relevant players are assigned the characters in the group. Names are removed from the list as above. The players hence selected count towards the total number of player assigned characters before play, and may exceed that number.

(Note to ksym and others playing: This replaces bound characters as a concept.)

Actually playing

By this point, every player has a character and the fundamental situation has been created. Characters are motivated or just plain involved.

Play happens in freeform manner; players tell what their characters do, participants tell what happens around them (should a game master exist, this is likely to be done by them). If a given player is otherwise uninvolved, playing and possibly naming an NPC is a good idea, if that particular player is up to the task.

Adjusting traits

Characters can gain and lose traits in play. This can be in the way of flashback (“When Moh was young he had to fish for his own food, so he has the trait fisher 3. Okay?”) or in-game events (“Since you killed those outlaws the word has been spreading. Take vigilante 2 as a trait.”), or mix thereof (The game starts at desert and my character has been wandering around for a while. I’ll take desert survival 1.)

The above applies to adjusting the values of traits, too. Extensively practice a skill, get better at it. Be in location where a particular skill is never used and it might go down (if someone bothers).

Resolution system

(I use six-sided dice. Other dice can be used, as long as there are enough dice to go around. Everyone must use dice with the same number of sides.)

Should a situation where both (1) the outcome is uncertain and (2) player character is in risk emerge in play, dice come to play. One can use the dice in other situations, too, but inconsequental rolls should be avoided. They break things.

For every involved character some player tells what the character does and names a useful trait of that character or a trait that other character has that can be exploited in this situation, and further that same player explains what the character does, including how the trait is used. For example: “I know this land and the best route through it (trait Born in the desert 4).” or “I meditate and consult the spirits, asking them to reveal the lay of the land (trait Shaman 3).” A clearly relevant trait gives its value in dice. A partially relevant trait gives half the value, rounded down.

Any number of traits can be introduced to a given conflict, but every time one must describe how the trait comes to play. Turns should be taken such that every player, in some order, adds more details to the conflict. This is the way through which play creates fiction.

A player can opt to remove a name from the list to get more dice. The name must be of the character in conflict and it must be linked to the player currently playing that character. Removing the top-most name on the list gives 3 dice, while the name on the very bottom gives 1 die. Every other name gives 2 dice. (Unless otherwise mentioned by the relevant player, the lowest name that gives 2 dice is removed.) This can only be done once per character per conflict. Description should be related to good luck or other unrelated factor.

If some characters have no dice, those character get a single die and the pools of everyone else are doubled.

The dice are rolled.

Interpreting dice

Some characters oppose each other, some do not. They are respectively called opponents and allies. (In this case, someone really is on your side or the other side; mechanically, there is no way of being neutral.) The relations need not be transitive, but they are symmetric. That is: Any two characters are either allies or opponents, but two characters allied to same char can still be enemies. A likes B, B likes C, A hates C (this is only relevant if there is someone for B to oppose, too).

The dice are rolled. If any opponents have dice showing the same number, every character in the conflict removes one such die from table. Continue as long as any opponents have dice showing same numbers. After this process is done, there will be one character or several allied characters who have the highest die still on table. This character, or these characters, are winners. They have a number of successes equal to the amount of dice they have that are higher than all the dice of their opponents. All characters that are not winners get their name on the list. (Order arbitrary, but generally the characters who fare the worst should be entered first in order to remain true to the game’s principles.)

In case of tie (no dice remain on the table),  there are no winners. The conflict must be started from beginning, but the situation has somewhat changed. Nobody gets to the list.

The participants playing the winning character, or winning characters, now have the power to describe what happens in the fiction. The participants playing the losing character(s) have veto power, but using it means they take harm equal to the number of successes of the one who described the events. In case of harm the situation stays unresolved (but it has changed regardless due to the way participants described their characters acting). Dice can be used again or the situation may dissolve.

Harm

Characters can only take harm when losing conflicts. Harm stacks. Player can’t invoke any traits with value equal to or less than the amount of harm that player’s relevant character has. For example: Character with 4 harm can only make use of traits with value 5+. This includes exploitable traits of other characters.

Any character with harm equal to or greater than that character’s highest trait is removed from play for this session. Maybe the character is unconscious, dead, lost, or just got bored and walked away, whatever is appropriate to the fiction. Characters can’t recover from harm in play. All harm is removed from all characters between sessions.

In play

In actual play conflicts usually have less than five participants. Mobs of people or swarms of creatures are better represented as single entities. (Peasant mob traits, an example: Torches and pitchforks 5, mob mentality 4, burn the witch 4. Peasant traits, an example: Peasant 3.)

The way dice work is actually pretty easy to show, but hard to explain. What is notable is that there are no tactical decisions to be made, except perhaps in fiction. What is also notable is that the dice practically never produce a tie; it would require that all the dice were removed from the table, which is extremely unlikely, but possible in few cases.

Also, in conflicts it is useful to check who is winning right now to provide inspiration for the narrative. I am not inclined to explain the process here, however, but suffice to say it does not make a difference on the level of crunch.

Players usually accept the offered narration. If it is unacceptable, negotiation is possible instead of taking harm. It is recommended to suggest what might happen to other participants. Don’t try writing a novel, just keep the game moving in some simple way. Embrace the obvious, because what is obvious to you might not be so to others.

It is possible to grant traits as a result of conflicts. It is usually a good way to harm other characters, for example. General guideline: The value of an added trait should be roughly equal to the amount of successes one got. Charming someone with 2 successes might give the target trait “Trusts [whoever happened to be the charmer] 2”.

Running and playing the game

This game does not actually need a gamemaster, though one is very useful for adding adversity in game. If all characters are on each others throats anyway, GM will play a smaller role. Co-GMing and such activities should be fairly easy.

The fine art of negotiation

When you win a conflict, you can suggest how the events unfold. Few key principles: Make it interesting to everyone. Don’t reach into the future, unless some character has oracular powers, and even then, giving traits is a better idea. Do give traits liberally. Try to give ambivalent traits that are not clearly good or clearly bad, as they are more fun to everyone. Give obscure and fuzzy traits.

Should some other player have an idea of what might happen, do listen to them. The idea might be good. Negotiation is preferable to dictation. But don’t reach into future.

In other words: Consequences should guide and influence future play, not dictate it. Traits are an excellent way of guiding and influencing, but not dictating.

Pacing

One of the actual reasons for having a GM is pacing. At the start of a session, it is necessary to open new story threads and expand on any potential for interest. At the mid-point, one should start focusing on the key story threads. At the end of play, only the key story thread should be there, others forgotten, for now.

The scope of traits

People should have a rough vision of what the traits in play mean. In game it is negotiated further. General guidelines: Only give full trait value in dice if the trait completely fits with the use. Almost always give half the trait in dice, as long as it can be justified. Stingy with full dice, generous with half dice.

Further development

The following are ideas or variant rules. They might be tested at some point and accepted as official at some point.

Death

A way for characters to die in play would be nice. Something definitely under player control, though. My tentative rule suggestion goes thusly: A character whose name is on the list is in conflict. Already has the player removed the character from the list to get bonus dice. Should the player want to do this again, the player must remove all occasions of that particular character from the list (permission of all players whose name is listed with that character is required). One die per name removed and the character may die as a consequence of this conflict.

Alternatively: 2 dice per name removed and the character must die as a consequence of this conflict.

Negotiation tweaking

One of the following…

  • Upon ending a conflict, the loser must suggest what happens and the winner can accept or deal harm.
  • As above, but freefrom brainstormy negotiation.
  • At any point in a conflict any player, or some specific (losing, winning, …) player can make suggestion. Anyone can answer by rolling more dice and describing more, or the suggestion may be accepted.

Things that don’t work as they should

Messy conflicts with several sides, especially if someone is throwing fireballs or other area-of-effect things. Generally, harm and messy conflicts.

Permalink 1 Comment