Monday, July 30, 2012

Toy Box Games

Toy Box games celebrate their lack of focus, and their "do anything" spirit. These may be full-blown generic RPGs, or games with a starting focus but allow anything under the sun to happen. If a toy-box game was a vehicle, it would be a truck: big, roomy, and good for carrying lots of things. Like a truck, toy-box style games can be too big, uncomfortable, and not suited to fast and easy play. They are also harder for beginners to understand and grasp than a more focused experience of a playset or action-figure style game.

GURPS, Pathfinder, DnD3, and Hero System are great examples of this RPG type. They are huge games, capable from handling everything from fantasy to space travel in one framework. Even if a game doesn't have rules support for an idea (Pathfinder and space travel), it is easy enough to adapt a system to handle it, or wait for the inevitable rules supplement to support the concept. These games are typically more open, and if you can't find the rules from the publisher, someone, somewhere has the rules for it for sale under an open-license.

What is the essential difference between a playset game and a toy box game? When you look at them, there are a lot of similarities. Could something like DnD4 with a huge amount of material be considered a toy box game, given the amount of content added to the initial playset? It could be, but typically playset games retain their original focus, in DnD4, it is the "path of the hero" and "tactical dungeon combat". These concepts permeate most all of the DnD4 rules supplements, and while this makes for quite a large amount of playsets and game pieces, the strict focus keeps the game as a playset style game.

Toy boxes typically have no focus, they are a huge box you throw different and varied toys into, pull some out, and start having fun. Not everything works together as well as a playset, but with a little creativity and imagination, everything works out fine. Who cares if your GI Joe doesn't look like Barbie so much, and the stuffed Barney is standing in for the T-Rex chasing the two explorers through a jungle of Styrofoam blocks? In Pathfinder, the party is made up of a rogue and a illusionist, doesn't have healing or tanking powers, and since the players love solving mysteries, go around playing Sherlock Holmes in the world of Golarion. In these games, you piece things together, pick the pieces you want for the story you have in mind, and let you imagination do the rest.

Toy box games sit on the foundation of do-it-yourself and creativity, and invite you to mix, add, build, or dream up the pieces you need in order to tell the story in your mind. You will find more of the "rule 0" in these games, because the referee is always making up rules to handle the next thing that happens. Playsets typically have instruction manuals telling you how to play, and action figures are so simple how you play with them is self-apparent.

It is a matter of choice, and the game type has to fit the style of play. Action figure games are good for simple concepts, and play fast. Playsets, like playsets made by toy companies, typically dictate a play style and control the content within, but all the pieces "work together" well. Toyboxes give you a box to put things in, pull random things out of, and say "this is my game."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Playset Style Games

The defining trait of a playset style game is "designed to simulate specific actions in a set environment." Typically, you take a larger class of actions, such as "dungeon exploration" and design a game around the action. Instead of the design focusing around a hero, the design focuses around the action and the people involved. The scope is broader, but still lives within a narrowly defined set of activities. If a playset-style game was a vehicle, it would be a car - good for getting people around, but flexible enough to carry a little cargo, go on a long trip, drive in bad weather, and many other things a motorcycle would be less useful for.

Think of your childhood, and pick your favorite playset. The set may come with figures, vehicles, buildings, weapons, props, and other toys. The focus of the playset is "here is some stuff, now you make up a story." A playset-style RPG is similar, and has the same design goals. You can pick any figure in the box, and use it in any way you can imagine. There is no "built in focus" of an action-figure RPG here, although there is a "built in environment." In an action-figure RPG, there is a set conflict with a set group fo good guys and bad guys. In a playset-style RPG, there is a large potential group of heroes, and a large, undefined set of "bad guy pieces" you can use any way you want.

One of the defining playset-style games is Basic DnD, or even Labyrinth Lord. These games give you a large set of hero types (classes) you can use to create the heroes with, and a large list of bad guy pieces (monsters) you can use to create any conflict you can imagine. Maybe a lich is sending undead at a village, or a tribe of unholy sea monsters is pirating ships in the harbor. You create the conflict out of the pieces supplied.

Equipment and powers in a playset-style game is similarly wider focused. You need many pieces of gear to cover the wide variety of stories, and also rules for vehicles and towns - you never know what you will need in creating your next story. The selection can't be too broad, and can't fall outside of the premise, such as rules for airships in a "dungeon exploration" focused game. Also, there is not too much support for rules covering actions outside the theme, such as horror or romance in our "dungeon exploration" game. Those types of things lie outside the bounds of our playset, and don't really add anything of value to the premise.

Often, there is no defined conflict in a playset game, you need to create that with the pieces supplied. These games are typically more difficult for new players to understand, since there is no 'built in' clear direction of play. Of course, you could create a beginner game with a 'go clear the dungeon and save the town' adventure, and mimic an action-figure game, but the larger questions remain. Who am I? What are these monsters doing here? What is the world like? Why do we fight them? In an action-figure game, these are built into the rules. With a playset, you decide.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Action Figure Games

The defining trait of an action-figure style game is "the content is focused around a specific hero type." Certain genres are well-suited for action-figure games, since the game will be stronger if you define the world around the hero. Remember, no game-type is wrong, they are just focuses to a design.

Think of an action-figure game as a motorcycle - a machine designed to serve a single person exceptionally well. Good motorcycle designs understand this concept, and good action-figure games do as well. Every piece of the game, from skills, classes, gear, missions, and monsters - must serve the main premise of "the hero type" we are simulating.

Let's take a couple pop-culture properties that would be well-suited for action-figure games:
  • Tomb Raider
  • GI JOE
  • Batman
  • Conan
  • Spiderman
What these properties have in common is a strong focus on "the hero," "the hero's toys," and "the hero's villains." A good RPG focuses like a laser on these aspects, and reduces the importance of thing unrelated to the plot. In a superhero game, it should be all about the superhero, the powers, the gadgets, and the villains. If space-travel isn't needed in the "Spiderman RPG" - it is not needed in the rules, along with the rules for spaceships, airliners, tanks, and other items that don't appear in the comic book too regularly.

Even the equipment and weapon types in such a game can be simplified down, Spiderman doesn't care that the thug has a "9mm Smith and Wesson model 459" out of a gun list of thousands - he cares that the thug has a "automatic pistol", and leave it at there. The gun list for this game is generic - because it doesn't really matter in the whole "Spiderman" scheme of things. Things that are important, like web shooters, utility belts, and other gadgets would be covered in more detail. This is a common trait in action-figure games, a simplification of less-important items, and a tight focus on the important "pieces in the box."

One could take an action-figure game, and say the topic would be better as a playset. After all, wouldn't the GI JOE game be more fun if you could play Cobra, GI JOE...AND...the army, civilians, scientists, and others in the universe? In this case, yes, this would be a playset style game, or even a toy box if taken far enough. Would it be more fun? Possibly. Would it be less focused? Definitely. Would the game be more fun if it were more focused on the core battle between just the Cobra and GI JOE sides? Maybe, it would be easier to understand and play with a tight focus, and be more accessible to the audience who loves GI JOE.

Action-figure style games have a tight focus, and they use this tight focus to enhance the experience, and make them more accessible to their audiences. The focus is a design tool, and used smartly, makes the game clear, simple, more enjoyable.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Games, Content, and Focus

George and I had this conversation over donuts and coffee the other day, and it was very interesting. I laid out a theory of three different ways to categorize games: full toybox, playset, and action figure. This method of categorization tries to describe how much 'stuff' comes with a game, and how that stuff changes a game's focus. Let's lay out the game types below:
Action Figure: These types of games do one thing, and one thing well. They are games written for specific situations, with a small set of toys to play with - often built around the game's premise. Monsters, equipment, environments, and the rules to handle all of this stuff is centered around a narrow set of things to do, and typically a subset of things in the normal world. An action figure game's powers, classes, and content is tightly focused around a single hero type. Good examples of games like this are the original 007 RPG, the Conan RPG, the Top Secret RPG, Marvel Super Heroes, or even the old Indiana Jones RPG.

Playset: These games have a broader focus, but still limit play to a group or collection of groups in the world. The amount of stuff these games support is greater than an 'action figure' RPG, but is still limited along a theme or play style. You have enough to play members of several factions, and in doing so, this brings in a lot of gear, vehicles, and fringe monsters to fill out the game. You still play along a tight focus, say dungeon exploring or fighting crime, but the feel is broader and the allowed area of action is larger. A playset contains a tight set of classes, monsters, and powers all to be used in a set environment. Good examples of RPGs like this are Labyrinth Lord, Star Frontiers, DnD4, Vampire, Traveller, Gangbusters, Star Wars RPG, or even the superhero game Champions.

Toy Box:These games typically have no focus, and try to include everything and the kitchen sink. There is an implied focus of play, but the games go out of their way to support any campaign type or play style under one roof. You can identify a game of this type not only by the volume of material it covers, but the wide and varied focus of that material. A dungeoneering 'playset' game may stat out monsters typically fought by characters; but a 'toy box' game goes to the length of statting out monsters character may never fight, like draft horses, camels, and otters. A toy box celebrates its lack of focus. Good examples are the Pathfinder RPG, DnD3, GURPS, Hero System, and even SBRPG.
Yes, I broke apart DnD4 and Pathfinder here, probably a hot topic for some. I feel this is a fair difference between the two games. DnD4 focuses like a laser on the 1 to 30 run, and adventures. Every class, power, item, and monster is statted out for play in that range, and even the world design presented in the game is engineered to provide a great adventuring experience. While DnD4's worlds may be large, the material in those worlds is tightly focused around the entire 'playset' mentality. Note that one play style is not better than another - this is tearing down a game's content and focus.

Let's take Pathfinder, which can be totally played like DnD4's playset style of play. The difference is Pathfinder can be played many different ways, and the rules say so. You can play a politics game, horror game, romance game, kingdom building game, pirate game, or any other idea that the toybox full of content supports. To be fair, there is nothing stopping you from playing these with DnD4, but DnD4 has a built-in focus, tightly on the dungeon and tactics. Horror in DnD4 is hard, and romance makes no sense on a map. In Pathfinder, it is easier to pick out a couple horror or romance based monsters from the toy box, and get playing. Tactics doesn't matter, maps don't matter, and the 1-30 run fades away. The game celebrates a lack of focus, and supports whatever you want to do with the system.

Again, there is nothing wrong with playset style games, and for a lot of things, a playset style game makes more sense than a whole unfocused toy box. There are even times when you want to laser-focus what's in the game to an 'action figure' style game, and only support what is important. I play, and prefer all three types of games - none are better than the other.

Where you run into trouble, is where you use a focus that doesn't really fit what you are trying to do. Let's say you use an action figure game to play in a toy box style setting - pretty soon ,the limited focus of the original rules doesn't handle everything you want to do (hello, missing starship rules). It happens again with a toy box game used to play in an 'action figure' type setting - there is so much extra stuff creeping in the tight focus you want is gone (superheroes in a Tomb Raider game).

The game must fit what you want to do with it, and what you are doing with it must fit the game.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Open-Ended Condition Lists

We did a little more design on Project Delta, George's tabletop BYOB minis game. We simplified the condition list, and it made me think of the huge condition list in DnD3 and 4. In both games, the condition lists are huge, exhaustive, and have tons of special rules. These are incredibly simulationist rules, with one-offs and special cases. Delta had a similar long list, and remembering and applying all the conditions on the board was a huge chore, with frequent references to the rules during play.

DnD4 adds special conditions to powers, like a power that gives a -2 to hit to a figure until the next turn/removal roll/etc. This complicates play exponentially, with applied conditions and power-based conditions all applied and timing out on different times. When we played DnD4 with our public group, condition tracking drug the game to a crawl, and it was easier to combine and simplify all the modifiers to keep play moving.

In Delta, we chose to simplify the condition list down, and the game played better. Stun, daze, and disorient are really the same stun-type condition, so you only need one to cover them all. SBRPG has a huge hazard list, with conditions mixed in there, but there is a lot of reuse among the hazards. SBRPG followed an object-oriented design, where you started with a small set of conditions-as-hazards, and those built on each other. It could have been cleaned up, and most likely will be in version 2.0.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

DDO: The 2H Weapon Simulator?

George and I were playing Turbine's DnD Online the other day, and he rolled up a 2H fighter, and me a noble paladin with a shield and longsword. DDO is pretty good about sticking to the DnD3 ruleset, so it was cool to see the rules being used in a real-time, practical form.

George's 2H fighter started owning any adventure we went in, doing 40 point crits with his mighty 2H axe (20/x3). My crits were only about 17 or so with my longsword (19-20/x2), so I felt slightly confused by the matter. He min-maxed, and bought as many crit enhancements as he could, while I stuck to a more standard RP-build. After a while, I switched weapons to a 2H axe as well, and started dishing out my own 40-point crits regularly. I walked away with the feeling that in order to do well in the game, I needed to switch to a 2-hander, and wail away.

The trouble with an MMO is it is too often about the numbers game. DnD3 enshrined this, and many MMOs worry about DPS, mitigation, and a whole host of other numeric statistics. Numbers games are fun, but a big part of the draw of tabletop gaming is imagination and creativity. Old-school games get this, and in many of those, combat is not the smartest option, and it is even discouraged. No XP for monsters, XP only for gold; so if you get that 500gp ruby sitting on the wall behind the ogre, you get 500xp - no matter how you do it.

This sort of "exploit to win" design theory is discouraged in tabletop games, where balance is paramount, character builds need to be viable, and exploits are bugs that need to be worked out of the game. DnD4 had regular and voluminous "patches" to the rules for balance and exploits, which in the first version of the game would be unthinkable except for clarifying something written unclearly. DnD3 still has the exploits built into the game, as those are considered to be "good builds" and the secrets of doing well.

And that brings us back to the two-hander DDO builds. In a more-balanced game like an MMO, this would be an exploit, since this is the primary way you do damage, and it would "take away" from the viability of other weapon types - after all, something has to be done for longsword and shield wielding fighters, right? In a "favored build" type game, this is one of the secrets to discover, and you do well by playing along. In old-school games, who cares really? Combat is the last option, and it is all about figuring out how to get that treasure with as little risk and resource usage to the party as possible.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Target Numbers versus Challenge Levels

While looking out at the clouds today, this thought came up:

"Dice + Modifier >= Target Number"
"Dice + Modifier - Difficulty >= Fixed Number"

SBRPG chooses the latter method for two reasons. One, difficulty is directly rated on level, which is equivalent to character level. A level 5 thief picking a level 5 lock has a base 50% chance of success (without ability modifiers). Ability scores bend the curve, allowing you to do better with better scores. The second reason is successes depend on the amount the roll beats the fixed target number. It is easier to do some math during the roll to keep the number range down, so calculation of the degree of success is easier.

The first method sets a target number, such as 25, and lets players add up modifiers and their roll to reach it. It is a simpler system, in that it does not require the subtraction step, but it is a bit more obscure in that the target number does not mean much. Of course, TN = Level + 10 in SBRPG-terms, but the mechanic seems more prone to made-up target numbers than real level-based difficulties. The system is also prone to blow-out at the high end, since there is less of an urge to cap the target number. Finally, calculating successes requires more math, for example:

The dice roll is 12
The modifier is 7
The problem level is 5
The fixed number is 11+

12 + 7 >= 16, true; a total of 19 - 15 = 4 successes
12 + 7 - 5 >= 11, true; a total of 14 - 10 = 4 successes

In the 11+ fixed number, you take 10 off the difference to determine successes. The second method of "knocking 10 off the roll" to determine the level of success is easier math than (roll minus 10+PL). Why is the success number so important?

Success measures the level of the job performed. In the above example, let's assume this was the level 5 thief picking the lock. The job was done at a level 4 of a result, at or near the thief's level of 5. We can assume this was an average job result for a level 5 thief. Let's say the thief only rolled one success, that would be more like how a level 1 thief would have picked that lock - it would have been a messy job, taken a while longer, made a lot of noise, and so on. If the thief rolled high, say an 18, and got 10 successes, that would tell you the thief did that job as efficient, fast, and quiet as a level 10 thief's average lockpicking attempt- smooth, quick, and quiet.

SBRPG has a whole "skill level versus problem level" mechanic, and using successes as "result level" gives the dice rolling system a nice tight, immediate, and X vs Y = Z feel.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


You can have simplicity, while still maintaining depth, or even increasing depth. These two concepts in the design of a RPG are not at odds. We were up at a friend's house the other day, talking about why they didn't play certain MMOs anymore. MMO is close enough to a pen-and-paper game, so we thought it might be interesting to ask. The one thing (besides play housing haha) they kept coming back to was a lack of depth. Interesting thing to think about when you are going through a major simplification revision, hmm?

Was the simplification of SBRPG hurting depth and re-playability? Well, no major systems are being pulled out, besides maybe the plethora of power lists people don't use anyways, and the rest of the rules were being cleaned up for ease-of-use. I wanted to add depth in itemization, such as special and magic items, an area of the game that received little attention last time. There needs to be a "standard simple way" many things, including magic items, are handled with; and this should be extended to an "item design system" to increase depth. You need to put work into areas people will be creative in, and reduce complexity in areas people are not creative in, or rely on judgment to handle (like long-term interactions).

Focusing complexity on "creative tools" is like rearranging the palette of tools in Photoshop or other creative applications in order to make them more friendly to artists. There are tools that need to exists, some that need to be enhanced, and many more that need to be made easier to use. The goal is making the game more expressive and easier to create anything you can dream of, not a removal of options and depth. Some revisions confuse the two, and remove depth in order to achieve simplification. What I hope for is the opposite, remove complexity and clutter so much more depth can be utilized by players and world creators.

Friday, July 6, 2012


Work on the SRD continues, and I am almost done the definitions section. It seems odd having such a large section of terms and definitions, and I almost want to cut them down to the basics. SBRPG is a unique game though, and it is tough to cut out definitions without removing some of the meaning of the game.

Part of the issue is that we use a lot of terms for specific purposes, like story thread, and these have specific uses in the game. Even something as obvious as gaming group needs a definition, since the "group of players that creates the world" is a real, formal collection of people with a real responsibility, and this needs a term we can refer to in the rules. Otherwise, this could mean anybody who walks by the table can be involved in world creation, which is not so, so we define this group strictly, and use this term in the rules.

I want to focus the definitions better, and make them focused and clean. They should be obvious, unique, and reduce the RPG jargon many games use, like THAC0, Physical Defense, Mental Defense, and so on. We have a couple jargon items which may go, and some I am tempted to keep but will probably go. Explaining FISP, Base Defense, and other terms takes time and energy, and makes a lot of people say, "This is too much for me."

You want to reach a point where the game is easy to pick up, but with a lot of depth and customization. Creating something like that for a "tell any story and create any world" type game is a challenge, but with the original rule set, we are already half way there.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tone and the SRD

It's a tough thing re-editing a game, coming back and revisiting your work. The original SBRPG had a conversational, easygoing tone not terribly appropriate for a SRD. I am finding myself editing out a lot of the more conversational parts of the document, and taking out mechanical constructs such as chapter references.

It is a tough task, since I like the conversational parts. They sorely need to be updated though, because the conversation has changed over the years. When SBRPG was written, it solved the problem of generic RPGs by attacking the generic premise itself. The battle was not about what system was better to simulate everything, it was what system did we need to solve our storytelling problem - factions, story threads, and designed powers and classes.

The problem now is the storytelling problem, crossed with a new requirement - lightweight, portable, and thin. SBRPG 1.0 was a full-featured, 12 pound monster of a laptop, with ports for everything, two hard disks, etc. What we want now is something more like an iPad or even a MacBook Air, something that does 90% of the old 12-pound monster, but is lightweight and fun to play with.

Why? The future is not in 12-book volumes of role-playing rules intimidating for new players. The original Paranoia got it right when they said with less time and more competition for players' time available (and this was in 1984), the future was in smaller, more focused bookcase games that provide a complete experience in one night's play. It runs counter to the DnD3 thru 5 and Pathfinder mantra of encyclopedias of rules and add-ons being the ideal. They are great games, and wonderful creations, but they do a specific thing, and not what we are trying to do.

Simplification. With SBRPG, it means losing a couple systems, and simplifying a lot. Engineers say simplifying and lessening is a harder task than adding more, and it is true. It is always easy to add another rule, another section, and another chapter of rules to cover something else you forgot. What is more difficult, is coming up with a universal rule that handles many cases and situations with a simple, unified system.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Direction, Addition, and Dice Rolls

I have been working on the SRD, and here is what I want, and some feeling on the current dicing system.

Dice rolls should be simplified to the point of super-easy, where if I have an AA of 20, and want to make five attacks during the turn, all those dice should be rolled in one throw. Set a CL for the combined attack difficulty. grab five dice, toss them, and determine the attack result.

This probably means doing away with the subsequent attack penalty, and also the switching targets penalty. At the time, those rules were really nice simulation tools, but SBPRG at its core is a cool, over-the-top fun game, and the task and combat rules should reflect this feeling.

Challenge levels will also need to be adjusted for the new dicing, along with the base target number. When switching to a flat dicing model, the CL of tasks needs to go up - in the old game, a CL of 5 was a huge difficulty, where on a flat scale, this would feel like a normal difficulty level.

Why switch dicing? After all, 3d6 is on the old cover, and this was a staple of the v1.0 rule set. Rolling 3d6 for multiple attacks (or even the math of the old one-roll multi-attack rules) is a bit heavy for the lightweight action-oriented system I would like to beta. Remember, this is a v2.0 beta, and it can always switch back if things aren't working out.

The feeling of picking up three dice for your turn's hand-to-hand attacks, and two other dice for your turn's ranged attacks, and rolling them all at once to see what happens is a cool feeling, and a lot more lightweight and simple. For NPCs and other combatants, this will simplify the amount of dice rolled, and speed up play greatly.

Just something I will be thinking about and writing up in the SRD, and more details will follow.