Monday, April 30, 2012

Bad Action Movies, Bad RPGs?

I was reading Ian Buckwalter's review of the movie "Safe" over on the Atlantic, and he makes some convincing arguments on what ails the modern Hollywood action movie. In short, he cites the following things as being wrong with action movies nowadays:
  • Incoherent Combat
  • Convoluted Story
  • Forgettable Characters
The question came to my mind: are today's role playing games suffering from the same ills?

It's funny "incoherent combat" comes up as something action movie fans dislike, and I can say I have the same dislikes in RPGs. I've had tabletop combats die under a weight of rules-referencing, power-list-mulling, and 'no my feat would haves' in my lifetime to last eons. Combat in RPGs should be simple and straightforward, it shouldn't take a combat rules encyclopedia to figure out, and there shouldn't be so many options players fall into choice paralysis. It's easy to cop out and say 'system mastery' is the answer here, but in my feeling, saying combats would go faster if you knew the rules is kinda like a comedian explaining a joke - a joke isn't a joke if you have to explain it. New players should be able to grasp defeating an enemy on the board from turn #1, this isn't chess, it's entertainment. In SBRPG with respect to combat, we have our hits and misses, but we try to simplify things with clear success chances and generic classes. We do more good than bad in retrospect.

A "convoluted story" is one area we tried to address in SBRPG with the faction system. There's your factions, and the bad guys. You are both in the sandbox, and fight. A lot of RPGs present vague conflicts, and lets you figure them out. This goes back a long time, not just today's games. A lot of games are content with presenting a bunch of cyber corporations, vampire clans, ideological movements, opposing armies, or other factions, and letting players figure out what to do with them. With SBRPG, we try to present an overall theme to the faction play, like "cops and robbers" or "wild west marshals", and then let the players develop the factions from there. How clear the story becomes is directly related to focus, and we try to focus your design early in the game-design process so this does not become an issue. Many games fail here, some succeed, but it is a problem that has plagued our role playing career.

"Forgettable Characters" covers a lot of ground, but in the article, it seems the reviewer has trouble with characters without clear motivations, too many plot twists, and characters built along a theme (wrestlers) that aren't allowed to shine (fight in hand to hand). Some games are good at this, while others aren't. Some games start out good, and then end up being very bad at it with a shelf-cracking pile of expansion books. SBRPG does a good job at letting characters shine at what they are good at - you design your class, and maximize your ability around your choices. Levels mean more resources to build your character into a system-abusing monster in their given field, and that was by design. If you pumped your AGIL, you were a Jackie-Chan style fighter that could out-act the field. That's probably a fun point, and also a balance issue haha, but we'll see how that works out in version 2.0.

If you check the article linked to that one in the New York Times Magazine, you can see a lot of fun comments, like action movies are alive and well, action movies are low-IQ entertainment, and a whole bunch of other crazy and on-topic talk. Cut past the flames, and there is a core principle here that deserves thought - action movies are entertainment, simplistic yes, but still meant to be enjoyed. Roleplaying games are no different, they are entertainment too. Think about all the games you have played, and try to ask yourself, "What parts take away from the core essence of the game - the fun?" Once you can boil down what makes a game fun, you can look at the game in a whole new light, and start simplifying the experience down to the most memorable and enjoyable parts.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Quotes #9 - Class Design, part 2

"A character class is a character’s job, life-style, or profession. Anyone can have this job, and there is usually different variations of it. A good example of a class are the various types of Police Officers: highway patrol officers, K-9 officers, SWAT team members, or homicide detectives. A character can only have one class, and the character’s level reflects experience and achievement.

This chapter will take you step-by-step through the class design process. We will take you through the steps of coming up with a concept for your class, linking it to the game world, and coming up with the skills and statistics best describing the profession. With that said, let’s look at some of the non-design issues that come up when thinking about character classes.

Stick to Your Theme!

The Theme of your Game World (remember, Genre = Setting + Theme + Mood) controls what classes are in it. Controlling what classes are in a game world directly controls the Theme. No class that “violates” the Theme should play an important role in the game world. Just because a class exists in a game world, doesn’t automatically mean players can create PCs using it, or referees can create situations linked to it. While a “submarine captain” character class exists in a modern-day game world, it serves no purpose if your theme is “Urban Street Gang Battles.”
Example: Let’s say your gaming group is playing a “cops and robbers” themed game. Good character classes would fit within this theme: police detectives, bank robbers, beat patrol officers, safecrackers, and so on. A plot comes up where a criminal gang steals military weapons for use in a heist, and several soldier classes are generated for military NPCs.

This event shouldn’t “open the door” for military-style situations or character classes to be introduced into the game. A player shouldn’t design a military character to hunt down the weapons, and pull a whole host of military-related plots and factions into the game. The game world’s theme is “cops and robbers;” and while playing special forces commandos versus criminals might be fun for a while, it destroys the original Theme."
More fun from the Class Design chapter, this time explaining how classes fit into the game's theme better, and some of our game world definitions come up (more on that later). Classes you made for the game had to stick to the game world's theme - even classes designed later during play. This section also introduced the idea of being careful about letting stuff slip into your game that violated your game world's theme, dropping the hint that players and referees needed to focus and create characters and situations that supported the theme, and not to go off track too much.

This is a unique problem with a lot of generic RPG systems, they cover so much, it is too easy to have the game wander off into areas totally off the wall and out there. We let people have total freedom in designing what they wanted to play, but once decided, it was better for everyone that play (both from players and the referee) stuck to the original idea everyone came up with when the game world was first created.

SBRPG was created out of our 30 years of roleplaying experiences, and a lot of the knowledge we gained is shared subtly in these concepts. We have saw too many campaigns slip off track with stuff that doesn't belong, and eventually the campaign died due to it losing what made it feel special. Continually reinforcing your game's theme, limiting what happens to stuff that is supportive of the story, and even mechanical stuff like limiting classes may seem petty, limiting, or even simple - but not to new players.

Who will tell the next generation of roleplayers, "This is how you create a world, keep your story on track, and run a game?" SBRPG's concepts are tightly linked to these ideas and lessons, and while it seems like a simple 'story telling game' - it is actually a lot more. A lot of games print rules just because something needs to be handled mechanically; we wrote rules to make sure you avoid the mistakes we made, to understand what works and what may not, and how to craft something that is genuinely fun and will last the test of time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Meaningful Levels and Freedom

George and I had another one of out game design discussions around leveling again, and we talked about what it means to level - and have meaningful levels. We talked about systems that parse out powers every couple levels, and have 'dead' levels stuck in them, where you are just increasing in skill and damage soaking ability. I am not a fan of new powers every X levels, to me, you need something more to keep players interested. Leveling up a chart is cool for some games, but there needs to be that something more, that ability to customize and choose your own path.

SBRPG was admittedly, a game that put you on a strict track. You designed your idea class to start, and you were off and running. You did not multiclass - since you could design the class you wanted at the start, why should you need to buffet your character up the level chart? In one way, you were designing your perfect "TV Action Star" right from level one, and then increasing the star's power up to insane levels. We mostly banned multiclassing, since it did not fit in our game, and the game was better for it.

SBRPG also gave you ever-increasing points as you level to spend on whatever you wanted. Want a freely-improvable skill? Go ahead, buy levels of it. Want a new power? It's gonna cost you, but it's there. Want to raise ability scores? There you go, cost is equal to the next level. You are going to get even more points next level, so go to town and don't worry about conserving them.

We did not care too much about balance, since the game balanced itself - NPCs of the level were designed with the same rules. At high levels, super-ninja agility 40 characters were blasting out 10 or more attacks a turn with guns, melee weapons, rocket launchers, or any other implements of destruction. Offensive ability was high, but weapons were deadly, and defenses could get tricky given a good build.

We did not punish character designers, it was up to the group to call a cheese-ball build for what it was, and hey, people liked the freedom to go wild. You bought the book - it's your right. It was old-school in that mentality where the designers knew they were giving players a toolbox full of power tools, sharp instruments, and chemicals - but great things are created when you cut people free. You can't build a beautiful piece of furniture without dangerous tools, and we let trusted people and let them create.

It was a game written to be a computer programming language, like C++ - you could do something totally lame with it, something destructive, or something incredibly awesome. You can see some object-oriented principles in the design to this day, and the theory of 'simple to play, but build whatever your imagination can dream' is a powerful design theory that holds true, even today.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Quotes #8 - Class Design, part 1

"You might be asking yourself - what Character Class do I want to play? This is one of the most important decisions a player makes, and one of the most personal. A character’s class is the role the character will play in the game, so choose a class you will enjoy playing. Anything is possible, and anything you can imagine can be fun to play.

When thinking about your design, remember strong classes are linked to Factions and conflicts in the Game World - and should sup- port the Theme. Character Classes are not just generic states of action, like “fighter,” “commando,” “spy,” or “spacer.”

No Character Class exists in a “vacuum,” as the job has to exist in the Game World for a specific reason. For example, a world full of savage medieval arenas and vicious gladiatorial combat should have Pit Fighters, Gladiators and Beast Trainers."
This came from the class design chapter, and it was a really cool system. In SBRPG, players designed their classes. One of the ground rules was "no one of a kind classes." If you designed it, it was in the world, and many of them existed. In fact, the classes the players designed became the focus of the world.
If your world was full of cyborg gangsters and alien SWAT teams, that's what you designed, and that's what you played. The focus of the game world became "cyborg gangsters versus alien SWAT teams", and you ran with it. Hey, you could always create another game later if this one didn't work out, no loss, the rules encouraged experimentation and free thinking.

Another thing you will notice in the quote is that we forced players to narrow down their designs. It wasn't good enough to design a "superspy" for an espionage game set in the 1960's. You needed to think, and design a "infiltration specialist", "disguise expert", or even a "surveillance master" for your game. Then again, if the players designed those three classes - those roles became the focus of the game world. The referee shifted the focus of the action towards infiltration, disguise, and snooping on others. Other superspy-related activities such as military assaults, microdot transcription, and other unrelated themes were demphasized, so the players could enjoy the creations they worked so hard on. It's not to say these types of activities were banned, the focus of the game remained on the set of classes the players came up with.
More on Class Design soon, as it was the heart of the SBRPG game.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Quotes #7 - Race Design

"In SBRPG, race is a combination between a person’s physical makeup (Human, Elf, or Alien Monkey Man), and their cultural background (Midwesterner, Emerald Forest, or Venusian). Thus, a “Emerald Forest Elf” would be a good example of a race.

Physical Makeup
Some races will share a common “physical makeup,” such as a race of Dwarves. One could say Dwarves are short, stocky, and can see well in the dark. If this is how all Dwarves are in your Game World, they will share these physical traits across every Dwarven race design you make.

Even among normal Humans, physical makeup can vary. Let’s make some assumptions. Let’s say hard working farm families breed strong, healthy children; while suburban cul-de-sac dwellers have access to better education, and greater opportunities for socialization. Using these assumptions as a guide, you could give characters coming from a farm family background bonuses to STR and END; while the suburbanites could receive bonuses to KNOW and CHR.

Cultural Background
The second part of a race is a cultural background. Just because all Dwarves share physical traits, doesn’t mean they are all the same. For example, the Humans of Earth are all similar in physical makeup; but they have many different ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. Simi- larly, Dwarves who grew up in desert mining towns would have a different set of background skills than Dwarves who grew up in hillside towns where they farmed potatoes. Even the children of the potato farmers would know something about growing seasons, planting, and caring for the land - just by picking it up from their parents. Where someone grew up is just as important as what they look like."
This is a section from SBRPG's Race Design chapter. Unlike most games, every player designs their own race before play. It wasn't a complicated process, and it served as a part of the world creation process - the races players designed were the ones in the world. If new races were added later, it was subject to group discussion and approval. If the players designed a world with just wolfmen and elves - that was it.

We also took a different tack on what a race 'was.' A race is the combination of physical makeup and background. You see this in some RPGs as the 'alt races' such as dark elves, rock dwarves, sun elves, or any other combination of environment plus physique. Unlike other games, we didn't allow 'vanilla' races, such as someone designing 'just an elf.' You had to pick a culture and background, and viola, that culture and background was added to the game world.

It was a perfect mesh of create and design as you go type of play that led to some very interesting creations. The entire game followed this theory, you make the design systems easy enough to be used by new players, but deep enough to satisfy experts. Everything in the world is designed during the first session of play with the group working together. Then, what is created is what is now in play in the game. It is a 'zen' of play, and I have saw nothing like it since.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Level Trap

Over chocolate-rum-bunnies and coffee last night (don't ask, a spring-time Easter candy-making experiment went deliciously wrong), George and I were discussing levels. I then went on a rant against leveling in that point, it just seemed levels were overused everywhere in every game, as an easy way to describe character power, and too often, a tool used in an exclusionary way.

Levels are everywhere. Most every MMORPG has them, and not only that, your gear itself has levels. So not only do you have to keep up with the Jones', you have to make sure your gear keeps up to the Jones' gear. And if you have ever tried to raid with under-leveled gear, and people told you, "Dude, your gear is too low level" - you know. This is true in 4th Edition D&D as well, your character has levels, and the game expects your character to have similarly leveled gear. We ran many games where an under-geared character just suffered through encounters, and it hurt. Motivation? Maybe. But when you start to see the math through the veil, it becomes trite (just like an MMO).

Facebook games have levels, some just exist as an endless progression of levels ad-nausea, with my level 700 gangster being owned by gangs of level 1100+ thugs. I don't know what the difference between a level 400 gangster and a level 700 one would be, level alone a level 2000 one. Games also suffer from level creep, with higher level limits meaning 'more fun' up there, with legendary and epic level rules a requirement, and rules for becoming a god the de-jour of RPGs. Who says gods are high-level characters? If you look at traditional mythology, some gods were created by accident or happenstance, and others by blood relation alone.

The original AD&D had a section as I recall where they tried to clear up all the things they used level with, character levels, dungeon levels, spell levels, and so on. It makes me miss the day where maybe characters and spells had levels, and oh yeah maybe dungeons had something similar, and that was it. We didn't need to have gear levels, or gear progression, my 20th level fighter could use a +2 longsword and chain-mail, and be just fine. Not every high level character was lucky enough to have them; and more importantly, they failed saving throws and were fragile at times. Nobody assumed you needed magic items with pluses equal to your level divided by five in all gear slots, you didn't fall behind in DPS or ability, and your saving throws were good enough.

Of course, times change, and of course my character needs a +4 ring of protection, and a cloak of protection, and gauntlets of strength; and wouldn't it be cool if we could have better ones only higher-level characters could use? Let's give that gear a level requirement, or a 'suggested' level for use, and design our encounters around having level-appropriate gear. And we don't want to upset players, so don't take away prized gear, and some games even allow players to pick the next magic items they will find.

Honestly, I'm not sure there is an answer here. It just seems using a numerical level to rate everything has become the easy way to describe something. SBRPG itself is guilty as well, with levels for hazards, characters, difficulties, and faction attributes. We never had gear levels, preferring to  just design magic items straight powers, and you live with it. If those x-ray glasses let you see through 500 hits of wall, so be it. If the sword you found gave you an extra 2d6 ice damage, fine. Nothing guaranteed you finding anything else like one; and it was never said the referee needs to create ice swords that go from 2d6 all the way up to 10d6, in 2 dice increments.

Levels themselves are fine. Overusing them is lazy design. It is something to be aware of, and also something to ask "is there a better way?" If you are twisting your design to fit into a level system, something may be wrong. If you need to rate everything from items to conversations in levels, and you can't think of a more natural way to express your game mechanics, something may be amiss. Stop, think, and reflect a there a better way to rate this than a number?