Sunday, May 27, 2012

Designs that Seem Inevitable

Apple's Johnathan Ive was recently knighted in the UK for his contributions to design. One of his quotes goes as follows:
"We try to develop products that seem somehow inevitable. That leave you with the sense that that’s the only possible solution that makes sense,” he said. “Our products are tools and we don’t want design to get in the way. We’re trying to bring simplicity and clarity, we’re trying to order the products."
It is interesting to think about this in terms of game design, and some of the choices we made in SBRPG. Key in on "inevitable" and "the only possible solution that makes sense" here for a moment.

In SBRPG, your class contains a number of class skills, which define what your class can do. These are fixed at a level equal to your character's level. A level 8 rogue does all the 'rogue stuff' at level 8. In other games, rogue skills are bought with skill points, handled on a chart with percentages, or abstracted away as a single 'trained' modifier. You don't really know how good a rogue is in other games by looking at the rogue's level. This extends to all classes, a level 5 soldier operates at a +5 for all soldier stuff, a level 11 ninja gets a +11 at melee and stealth, and so on. The "skill equal to level" solution is the only possible solution that makes sense in this context, and it is a strong rule.

Class, race, and power design fall into the "inevitable" category, especially in a game where the group does collaborative world creation. We can't provide a set of cookie-cutter classes to handle every situation, because it simply doesn't make sense. In a "wizardry school" game, what use is a fighter? Would including fighters all of a sudden bring in a bunch of stuff we don't want, isolate the fighter character to a side-role, or change the direction you want to take the story? The solution, don't design a fighter class, and design several types of wizards to populate our wizarding academy. The solution requires more work (designing classes), but it is "inevitable" just by our "play anything" requirement.

When rules "get in the way", it causes trouble. We have a couple of these in SBRPG, and hopefully we can edit them out in a version 2.0. A good example is power design, and requiring you to design powers for generic power-using classes. Ideally, a level X power should imply a level X effect, and you go from there. Power design will still exist in SBRPG 2.0, but we will need a "generic power" system so you can throw together a level 7 Orc shaman and assume a rack of standard powers quickly.

Simplicity, clarity, and the only solution that makes sense. We try to work these into the rules, and yes, it does take time and require a lot of thought and piecing things together. You have to be proud of the things you throw out and say "no" to, and not be afraid of dropping support for standards that were fine in their time, but the world has moved on and is looking for new solutions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Don't Punish Me for Having Fun

George and I had another game design discussion this morning, this one about Warlock: Master of the Arcane. This is a fun strategy game, much like Civilization or the classic Master of Magic game. Granted, this is a computer game, and not a pen-and-paper RPG, but stick with me.

The game play very nicely, with a deep combat, exploration, and building game - with a fun magic and resource game heaped on top. As always, you and the other wizard-civilizations can go to war with each other, and send armies until a victor arises. Unlike Civilization or Master of Magic (or any of the games in the Civ genealogy), Warlock does not punish you for going to war. There is no 'global unhappiness', other civilizations don't pile on the warmonger, and your cities don't slide into unrest once hostilities break out.

I was actually so used to being punished for doing what comes natural in fantasy worlds, that is conquering and building an empire, I was initially hesitant about starting hostilities with anyone else. I was gun-shy, and played an averse game for the first part of my play-through, being careful not to anger anyone, and giving tribute to the other civilizations when threatened. Here Warlock comes along, and tells me, "No, go ahead, the war between sides is expected, your people expect it, and it's all good. It's part of the world. Go ahead and have fun."

Surprise. Shock. Wow. A game that isn't shy or punishes you for having fun. This is a common theme in so many games, where they restrict the natural fun of a game system with rules that limit or impose hefty penalties. The game tells you 'you can do X' and then on the other hand makes it so difficult the promise of the game's premise is lost in a morass penalties and balances restricting the fun.

In pen-and-paper RPGs, you see 'fun punishment' implemented in many ways. The old d6 Star Wars RPG had a 'dark side point' system where if you accumulated enough dark side points, you lost control of your character and became a bad-guy NPC. Wasn't the promise of the game's Jedis the internal fight between light and dark? Why should my character "die" and become a GM-NPC when he or she goes dark-side? Why can't I fight and redeem myself eventually, like Darth Vader?

Don't get me wrong, d6 Star Wars was a great game, and you can see fun punishment type rules in many modern RPGs, computer and traditional. Where these games go wrong is promising an experience (either implied through the genre or explicitly on the game box), and then taking it away via the rules. Good design delivers on 'the promise', and enhances the experience - it lets you live the dream, play the movie, and be the hero.

Anytime you are worrying about 'oh my character will be punished if he or she acts a certain way' - you lose something. Way back in D&D, there was a rule about losing xps or levels if you broke your alignment, which is another good example. If players want their characters to act evil or be good to the point of their own detriment, let them, and reward good play with xp. Let the players have fun, and write the rules to support that.

Monday, May 14, 2012

My Game, My Way

George and I had a great talk over Monday morning coffee about MMORPGs and roleplaying. We were talking about all the different MMORPGs and their online roleplaying communities. This isn't the "RPG" part of MMORPG, this is people actually roleplaying (sort of like pen and paper) inside the game and trying to get a greater experience out of the game than just the level and gear grind.

Skip this paragraph if you know what roleplaying in an MMO is like, or have done it before. Ignore for a moment that your MMO character has imperfect gear, a low level, or lousy stats. In this world, you are a new person, maybe a knight that works for the king, or a member of an evil organization in the fantasy world. Never mind that in the game, you can't actually do anything with these groups, or your character is probably kill-on-sight to the very faction you want to be a part of - this is make-believe. In the game, maybe you have an add-on or tool where you can record this, and hopefully people read it. In the best possible world, this group ha been setup by someone else, and a bunch of like-minded poeple can come together to take part in events and actually live out the fantasy of being a part of the world inside the MMO - more than just quests, gear, and stats.

So basically, groups of players are trying to make a game that doesn't support what they would dream to do in it work they way they want it to. You can guess there is a fair bit of friction and suspension of belief here, and that most to these efforts fall apart. In World of Warcraft, there are groups of players pretending to be parts of the Stormwind Guard, even though no NPC in the game recognizes them as such, they can't throw anyone in the brig, and they have no powers other than "I say I'm a guard and if you agree you have to obey." Similar groups exist for the evil group The Scarlett Crusade, and many others we have seen over the years. Even though a player aligns himself with the Scarlett Crusade, any Scarlett Crusade monster is killl-on-sight to the player, and the player could never meet and interact with the Scarlett Crusade NPCs in the game.

Players are good at making systems that don't support their ideas - support their ideas. It's a natural reaction, and pushes the boundaries of the game and what it means to play in it. Ideally, the game would evolve to support faction-play, but in most every case, it doesn't.

Which brings us to pen-and-paper games. PnP games are infinitely more adaptable than MMOs, but we still see people trying to play games with them the original game does not support too well. DnD4 is great at simulating an MMO-style dungeon romp, but it does not do realistic gritty fantasy, sci-fi worlds, or survival games all too terribly well. It is somewhat similar to the MMORPG roleplaying problem, where players become dissatisfied with the experience after some time. It is a unique intersection of these two problems:

"Game X is where the players are at."
"Game X doesn't support how I want to play."

It leads to interesting problems attracting players. Take the current times as an example, and a cross-section of our local hobby shops. The big player, DnD4 is on the wane, Pathfinder is taking up a lot of attention, and a hundred other games fight for players. You can probably find a niche game to fit what you want, but finding players is a problem. The 3.0 edition d20 OGL attempted to solve this problem, with a thousand games that played similarly, but each had their own rules to simulate theme and genre. There was probably a d20 game to fill your urge, and enough d20 players that would be interest in filling your table.

I am leaving out SBRPG obviously, but it is just another niche game that has trouble attracting players, so it doesn't play well in this discussion. SBRPG has its own solutions for the above problems, but it is an all-or-nothing proposition, you play and know players of SBRPG or you don't. Hopefully as SBRPG goes free-to-play, finding players will be less of a problem, so that's what we can do from our side.

Still, the above problem is a huge one for today's pen-and-paper games, if a movie comes out like Twilight, GI Joe, or The Avengers, and people are interested in playing along, what game do you direct them to? Not SBRPG because we forbid copyrighted IP (lol), but still, if people want to pick up and play something like what inspires them, where do they go?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Multiclass Trap

I was reading WoTC's Bruce's article, Wizard With a License to Kill, and my whole feeling of how multi-classing fails to give me a satisfying feel came crashing down on me. In the article, Bruce describes how he feels a "spy mage who is good with a dagger and stealth" works within DnD Next's mechanics. Here's how it goes, roughly, in my own interpretation and words:
You pick an overall background for your class, which I am assuming is like backgrounds in DnD4, a package of skills, possibly some abilities, and most likely nothing that improves as you level. That's all well and good, and pretty cool for a D&D character. Allrighty, let's get to the multi-class part.

Let's assume a superspy level character, and hit a full 20 levels. We want to be more mage than rogue, so let's do 15 levels of mage, and 5 of rogue. Ok, cool, we can cast like a level 15 mage, and fight like a 5th level rogue plus about 15 levels of weak combat modifiers of mage.
Let's put this character into a group of other 20th level characters, and toss them into a 20th level dungeon. Well, first thing, this character doesn't fight as well as the 20th level rogue, and can't cast spells as well as a 20th level mage. Trade offs, right? Well, yeah, but most players expect their multi-class creation to fight as well as a similarly leveled rogue and mage, and be able to keep up and contribute. Especially since monsters are balanced against pure-build characters equal to their level.

How we feel, and how SBRPG does it differently, is if your job relies on using a dagger, casting a spell, or using a skill - you perform that ability with a modifier equal to your class level. It's part of your job, thus a Class Skill, and it is locked to your level (plus modifiers for ability scores). A 7th level thief swings a dagger and picks a lock at a +7, just like a 7th level warrior swings his sword at a +7. There are no skill point systems or combat modifier progression charts, it's simple. Your level plus ability mods is your DRM if what ever you are doing is covered by your class.

The whole disconnect in d20-style systems with "skills needed to perform your job" and your level has always been strange, and gets worse when you put a disassociated skill-point system on top of it like in 3.5 and Pathfinder. If I am a 7th level thief, shouldn't my level describe my ability at being a thief? Otherwise, what does level describe? Why do I need to spend separate skill points to buy my "essential thief skills" of lockpicking and stealth?

We love all the games mentioned above, don't get us wrong; but we always felt that some of the systems in them do not play very well, such as combat modifier charts, multi-classing, or large skill point systems. They do not feel natural, and seem like design cruft held onto throughout revisions and editions. We designed SBRPG from scratch way back before DnD 3.0 with a simple truth:

3d6 + (Level + Ability Mods) - Challenge Level
Meet or beat a 12

Everything else comes from that.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Quotes #10 - Game World & Genre

Game World
A “realm of reality” an SBRPG game takes place in. A Game World is usually one planet, but can be as expansive as a galaxy in Sci-Fi settings. Think of a Game World as the “World of Reality,” like an alternate dimension where the physical laws (Genre) are consistent.
Example: Earth during World War II - a near modern-day Game World. Another example of a Game World is a fantasy medieval world named “Myaha” full of knights, dragons, and sorcerers. A Sci-Fi example of a Game World is the “Orion Sector,” a 100x100 LY area of space.
A Game World has a Genre, which is a combination of World Mood, Setting, and Theme. This Genre can’t change once the Gaming Group sets it for a Game World. Genre is discussed more in the “Game Worlds” chapter, along with it’s sub-parts: Setting, Theme, and Mood.
Example: A good example of a Genre is exactly like how someone would describe a novel to you, “It’s an edgy, Sci-Fi crime drama.” “Sci- Fi” would be the Setting, “edgy” would be the Mood, and “crime drama” would be the Theme. All three of these together is the Genre.
Today's quote is from SBRPG 101, our 'getting started' chapter. We define the first two parts of the puzzle, game world and genre. For a game where you start from nothing and create your own world, laying out these definitions is critical to the creation process. Without laying these out and having the group agree to them, not much can happen.

We lay out the concept of a game world first, which defines where the action takes place. The game world is where all of your game's sandboxes will reside, and defines when in time your game is happening. We even lay out defined borders for games set in space, even though you can travel to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, it's important to define how big the area of space you will focus on will be. A game taking place in a dozen systems in a 10 LY area will be a lot different than one that takes place billions of stars in a 1,000,000 LY area. Defining the time period and scope set you up for the next big part, genre.

As we love to say, genre = setting + theme + mood. Setting your game's genre is one of the most important things you can do. It defines the level of technology, what is going on, and the tone of the game. This is one of the points we hammer in thorough the book, and always come back to. Genre defines everything - the characters you create, the factions that do battle, and even down to what happens when your character gets hurt. We will rip apart the pieces of genre in future posts, but there is a game design thing going on here that's important to think about.

Genre is the agreement your group reaches when play is started. It's like saying, "Everything in the game we will be playing will be set in a superheroic World War II, cover espionage in Europe, and follow a realistic set of rules." Everything that comes afterward, class creation, factions, what powers characters design, how guns work in combat, what situations happen in the game, everything - is controlled by the genre agreed to. This prevents things from slipping in that are out-of-genre, and keeps the game on track.

Roleplaying is very creative, and it is easy for a game to slip and get off track, we have been there many times before. There comes a point where more and more stuff gets added to your game, and at the end of the session, you sit there with an uneasy feeling of, 'this is not why we started playing this.' There also is the risk of stuff slipping into the game that flat-out breaks the mood, like realistic death or mental anguish in something that is supposed to be a simulation of a lighthearted kid's TV show or cartoon. Genre protects the game from things like this happening, it's a yardstick both players and the referee can hold up to actions, plots, and situations and say, "Does this really belong in this game?"

Genre can also free your creativity up and set expectations, if your group agrees, 'we are playing a game that simulates a horror movie,' then all bets are off. Anything that can happen in a horror movie is fair game, even all the stupid horror-movie cliches. It prevents feelings from being hurt, and also lays out to the group clearly, 'this is the agreed upon stuff that can happen in the game.'

Genre and game world seem really simple, and possibly even simplistic, but there is something bigger to them. We have played roleplaying games with a lot of people who don't understand what a roleplaying game is even about - why play them? A big fear people have is, "Oh, I am going to create this wonderful character and the referee is going to do something really nasty to them." To a completely new player, sometimes that fear alone is enough to scare them away from even playing.

Genre says, "What we all agreed upon when we created our world is what can happen in it." It sets the rules, expectations, and defines 'the worst thing that can happen' ahead of time. It is a tool for avoiding hurt feeling and arguments later, and also gives the group a framework for all the creativity that follows. Genre is the heart of SBRPG.