A lot has been said about the endings to ME3, and hell, they got me thinking too. Let me start by saying that I don’t have a particularly strong objection to the content of the ending I got. My primary objections to how ME3 ended are based in the context of those endings and what they lacked, rather than what they contained. Further, I think there are some valuable lessons to be learned from these endings and Risk: Legacy.

WARNING: ME3 SPOILERS AHEAD

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One thing we haven’t talked much about here is character flags—things about a character that signal what kinds of story elements interest the player. For example, if one of your players has a character with lot of skill in picking locks, then probably you need to throw some locks at that character. This is a major difference between a simulationist take on RPGs and a narrativist one. In simulationist play, the challenges are all laid out in advance, and if you want to excel, you need forethought, scouting, and planning. In a narrativist model, you know what the challenges will be because they’re tailored to your characters, and you should expect that if you’re good at lockpicking, you’ll need to pick a lock.

(Caveat: I’m not a huge fan of GNS, but I find it useful in discussing larger-scale issues such as character flags.)

Obviously, I’m a proponent of looking at character flags to figure out how to structure play. But flags are just the beginning. Russian playright Anton Chekhov has an adage about guns that applies equally to characters in an RPG. That is, the characters created for a game should strongly influence the events of that game.

More specifically, when someone plays a wizard in your game, not only should you let them decipher some runes, or throw in a mystic library to explore, but magic should become a central theme to the plot of the game. Perhaps there are people tampering with the structure of magic, or the old magic is returning, or magic has gone wild and uncontrollable. The point is, the story is about these characters because these are the characters that matter, which we know because these are the characters that were created by the players. They matter because of who they are and what they do.

In Becoming Heroes, we do this mechanically, because each character has an arc and the arc points are specific events that you should expect to see in the game. In Piece of Work, we’re using a system we call Clocks that allows a player a more freeform way to specify what they want to see. But every system has some way for the players to shape the story, if you’re listening for it.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the different kinds of play encoded in classic card games. It’s kinda cool, really: most card games are highly social games, in terms if where the locus of interaction lies. This means that they can do a really good job of informing the more game-y elements of our RPG design.

So, as work on our cyber-noir game Piece of Work, I see it more and more as having Texas Hold ‘Em at it’s core, where there’s common information and there’s hole information, and you need to second-guess the forces arrayed against you and use what you have to win by strength or bluff.

As we work on Austin’s top-secret game about what it’s like to fight for your home against its enemies, both internal and external, I see it as being shaped like Hearts. You take on some pain and risk as you fight, but you could go another route: take on all the pain and shoot the moon. If you fail, you fail bad. But at a certain point, do you have another option?

And as I work on Et in Arcadia Ego, I see it like Blackjack. You push for what you want, but constantly risk going too far. Then the façade of civility falls, and everyone sees the raw human malice and desire and need under it all that they’ve been furiously denying, and they turn their faces from you, making you carry the burden of their shame.

Of course, Arcadia is the only one of these games that actually uses cards. But the structure is there regardless of the implementation.

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I’ve been thinking about immersion lately. I know it’s a dirty word in RPG circles—no one can agree on what it means, for a start. And I’ve not taken part in many of those conversations, so I know there’s a lot of thought on the matter that I’m missing.

Here goes.

I was talking with Alex P. recently, and he observed that a lot of the complaints he sees—and some of the complaints he has—about what I’ll call Forge-style indie RPGs is that they make the machinery by which they produce a story visible and available for direct manipulation, and for a certain demographic, this leaves you wondering what you’re even doing there. No immersion, no surprise. You can see what you’re doing, and so you have to stay a little bit out of the mind of the character who’s caught up in living the story. You can see what you’re doing, so you get there with intention.

I could say that this is a failure of design, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s a matter of calibrating it to taste, and that “taste” is this old point of creative agendas.

So Austin and I have lately begun asking ourselves what it is we want when we sit down to play a game, in the most generic of senses. I think that I, fundamentally, want something that gives me the same feeling of story-glow I get from good TV or good novels. So, my agenda requires some degree of interpretive and especially editorial authority in the game. This, in turn, requires at least one someone to exercise control over the machinery of the story. Obscuring tools doesn’t help people use them, and my agenda needs those tools to be used!

I think that this is another case of managing expectations. You’re never designing all things for all people, so be clear with yourself and your audience about what bits of machinery the game exposes, for who to fiddle with, and we’ll all be better off.

But different people object to seeing different machinery, too! Alex doesn’t like seeing the raw mechanisms of the story. I don’t like seeing the raw mechanisms of the probability. All love to the guys at Evil Hat, but skill + 4dF vs. static difficulty loses some of my interest precisely because I see it as just adding a normal distribution in [-4, 4] to a comparison between two static values. I don’t know why, really—most dice systems are about this transparent.

(I don’t think that this is something you can design for, much. But it’s something to remember when selling people on your game, or reading reviews.)

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