Sunday, September 30, 2012

Everything Is Paid For, Feel Free to Break It

One of the most liberating pieces of game mastering advice I ever read was contained in an old module for the first edition of the Paranoia game, by West End Games. The final battle between the troubleshooters and the communists was happening in a reactor room, and the module writer put this line in the battle scene:
“Everything is Paid for, So Feel Free to Break It”
The line meant that every NPC, prop, piece of machinery, robot, scaffold, window, vehicle, weapon, computer console, whatever - was breakable and destroyable in the final battle. The referee shouldn’t feel guilty about the players wrecking the place with rocket launchers and cone rifles, and similarly, all the players equipment (and their clones) were similarly wreck-able. There were no magic swords to feel guilty about snapping in half, protect pieces of magic plate mail to avoid scratching, and Gandalf’s magic robes could be ripped to shreds.

The whole skewering of RPG sacred cows and signature player items felt liberating, and   it gave me a sense of freedom that other games lacked. Not that I wanted to be a mean referee, but it reinforced the idea of ‘everything being at risk and on the table’ when a party of players goes into  dungeon or other dangerous area.

Many games have rules for these types of situations, and in my experience, they are rarely applied. Sometimes this is due to complexity, and many times it is because the referee would feel guilty about breaking a player’s favorite toy. In 3.5 and Pathfinder, if a party gets caught in the blast of an enemy’s fireball spell, a lot of items need to make saving throws. Armor and weapons may be destroyed, potion bottles may shatter, wooden staffs and shields may be embers, spell books may be set ablaze, and a whole bunch of other bad stuff will happen. Granted, having to make hundreds of saving throws for items is a huge pain, but the rules are there, and this was their intent for including them (this goes all the way back to AD&D, in fact).

Personally, I do not feel the guilt of applying this rule, because the feeling that the risk of losing your favorite weapon, armor, NPC, or magic item increases the danger and risk involved in a mission, and really, part of what it is to be a hero. Losing Excalibur but still saving the princess is the stuff of which legends are made.

A caveat: If thou shalt take away, thou shalt not be stingy in replacing these things either. It is only fair for the players, and actually creates an economy for replacing broken gear. The gear soldiers take onto the battlefield isn’t invulnerable, rifles break, kevlar vests need replacing, vehicles become unfixable wrecks, and boots wear out. The one consistent theme in this idea is that the hero is more powerful than the gear; and when that gear fails, the moment comes for the hero to improvise, get creative, and overcome. Why deny a hero that moment?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Theme Parks versus World of Warcraft

George and I were having this discussion about Theme Park world designs and what makes them compelling to play in. George doesn’t like Theme Park worlds all too much, his complain is that there is little story in them to make the world compelling and interesting. The fractured nature of the world means the interaction between the world’s pieces is limited, and the ‘mini-worlds’ in the theme park design are static, isolated, and resistant to change.

Let’s back up a moment and explain a ‘theme park’ world design. A theme park design incorporates many different elements into the world, based on classic fantasy tropes, and lets them all live together in one large disparate world. A theme park world typically has a ‘Count Dracula’ area, a ‘World of Egypt’ area, maybe some Arabian Knights, an Arthurian area, a dark ages area, and so on. If there is a genre of fantasy covering it, you can bet a ‘theme park’ world has an area for it.

Good examples of ‘theme park’ world designs are the classic D&D Mystara, Pathfinder’s Golarion, FGU’s classic Space Opera universe, Palladium’s Rifts multiverse, Blizzard’s Azeroth, and many others. They are worlds built out of the ‘best of’ everything, in order to appeal to everyone. Each area is a self-contained universe, linked together by the world they share.

Stop for a moment, I put Blizzard’s Azeroth world (for the World of Warcraft game) into the theme park mold, but does it really belong? Sure, the world has haunted areas, desert areas, arctic areas, and just about every fantasy trope out there, but is it a true ‘theme park’ world? I would say not really, and let me explain.

Azeroth contains many theme-park elements, but these areas are connected by a diverse group of organizations and factions. The Horde, the Alliance, the Scarlett Crusade, the Cenarion Circle, and many other groups all battle for control of this varied world, and you can find many of these factions battling over these zones time after time. The theme park is there, but it is not the focus of the game. Alliances, loyalty, missions, and plots run by these factions are way more important than the disparate areas of the world. The theme park in World of Warcraft is the backdrop, and not the focus of the setting.

SBRPG fans will notice the word ‘factions’ above, and instantly key in on where I am going with this. Without a consistent group of active factions operating in the world, the world (theme park or not) seems fractured. I am thinking this is what George is alluding to here with his dislike of these world designs. It is less so disliking theme parks, as it is a world without active groups trying to live in it, change it, and shape the future of the world.

With active factions, all of a sudden, every piece of the theme park is put on the table. Count Dracula’s area could be overthrown and destroyed by the ‘Church of the Light’s’ paladins, the desert nomads could sweep in and attack the Dwarf mountain home, and the deep Elven forest could be ravaged by the Orcs of the wastelands. Change becomes an active agent, and the world comes alive.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Multi-Class is Half Full

Let’s dive in and examine D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder a little closer from a design perspective, focusing on character builds - specifically classes and multi-classing. Despite their common origin, they are very different games in the way they handle character design, and it is interesting from a game design perspective to examine. The question we need to answer is: what do you need to do to build a good character?

Let’s stop a moment and examine the core design concept behind D&D 3.5. The game was designed by veteran designers who worked on the Magic: The Gathering game, and that is a huge influence in the character build concept in the game. In Magic, you build your deck out of a variety of collectible cards. Players who do well typically have the best cards and piece them together in a deck full of tricks and power-plays. To do well, you need to understand how the game works, what cards to put in your deck, and what ‘build’ you want your deck to have.

How does this apply to D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder? If you look at character builds like card decks, you see some interesting design concepts in each game.

The Multi-Class is Half Full: In D&D 3.5, multi-classing is the path to success. Players are expected to combine classes, and build their way into ‘prestige classes’ built into the game. Even if you don’t multi-class, you still have a variety of choices to build your character with. Still, the most powerful builds in the game are class combinations. There is an issue with magic-using classes being very powerful compared with martial classes, but in practice, some of the best combos in the game lie in creating a ‘killer build’ out of the classes and powers they give you. Classes tend to be simpler, and you pick and choose as you level up.

The Multi-Class is Half Empty: Pathfinder takes a different tack, and encourages taking a single class all the way to 20th level. Each class is loaded with special abilities gained as you progress levels, and it pays to stick with something. There are prestige classes in the game, but they are more for world-flavor than character building. Due to the game’s 3.5 heritage, there are some good class combinations, but the intent of the design is to create ‘rich classes’ with lots of choice within a single class.

This is an interesting difference, and one to keep in mind when playing either game. Where D&D 3.5 character design tends to be more like do-it-yourself legos, Pathfinder tends to be more like preset action figures. To do well in D&D 3.5, you have to know the rules and how character builds interact with them; in Pathfinder, a lot of that is done for you, and the focus shifts more towards the world and story.

Where does SBRPG sit? In this analogy, we are more like an action-figure construction set. You can build anything you can dream of, but once set, you focus on improving your powers and abilities within that framework. Like Pathfinder, there is less of a focus on builds as you level up, and more on the story and world.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Post RPG Era

One of the concepts that Steve Jobs came up with is the "Post PC era." What he meant was the era of every household needing a huge desktop tower, monitor, desk, or even a laptop setup was over. People could get by with most all their computing needs with just a smartphone, and possibly a tablet. It's a great marketing concept and design theory, and bad if you sell desktop computers. There is always a need for desktop towers, and Steve likened them to trucks. We will never need to get rid of trucks, but not everyone needs one. Apparently, Steve Jobs never went to a Costco parking lot, but that is beside the point.

Stop, pivot, and let's consider the "Post RPG Era." In this era, most gamers don't need huge bookshelves filled with pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Most of their roleplaying needs are fulfilled by easier-to-use online games, such as World of Warcraft or Everquest 2. For the most part, you build your character, fight the monsters, and get the treasures online, with little need for a group and a ton of books. If you need to roleplay, there are roleplaying MMO servers catering to those needs, or online forums where people from around the world can play in forum games.

Granted, it's a thin analogy, but there is a truth here. Hardcore gamers need their tower computers with SLI video card setups, and hard core RPG fans need their pen-and-paper games with multiclass character builds. For the most part, the market has moved on, and people who never would roleplay with traditional games, are now roleplaying online with millions of others around the world. Many of them only see a tenuous connection to the old pen-and-paper games, and some see none at all.

What is the future then? If we look at Apple's success and interpolate, the pen-and-paper world needs a "Tablet RPG" with a sister "Smartphone RPG". Now I m not talking about an RPG programmed for a smartphone or a tablet, but pen-and-paper game light enough that everyone can understand and operate it without too much hassle. Now there are thousands of pen-and-paper games like that, but none that have hit that magic level of design and utility that most Apple products reach. I am not a mindless Apple fan, but I am a super fan of their engineering and design.

What would a Post RPG Era game look like? Play like? How would it do most of what we need from PnP RPGs, yet be simple enough for anyone to grasp and understand? Like the iPad, why would I need one? It is a challenge to think about, and to elevate the art of RPGs to the next level. As with smartphones, there were thousands of different styles before the iPhone came out, and now you only see one style. This isn't an argument against heterogeneity, this is a search for that next big thing.

More on these thoughts later....

Saturday, September 22, 2012

D&D 3.5 Reprints, Pathfinder, and Linux

We got our D&D 3.5 reprints in the mail the other day, and I can say, Wizards did a really great thing by reprinting them. Thank you guys. It also got me thinking about the OGL and the entire D&D 3.5 ecosystem, which is now pretty much well the Pathfinder market these days. Pathfinder is an incredible game, wonderfully put together and supported, with some of the best talent creating for the system.

The OGL, which D&D 3.5 is based on, is irreversibly open and out there for anyone to use, thus we have Pathfinder. Looking back at D&D 3.5, I can say it is a simpler system than Pathfinder, with less special rules, and a more meat & potatoes feel to the system. Several blogs have compared Pathfinder to a heavily house-ruled version of 3.5, which could be taken both as a positive and a negative. It's a positive since a lot of the clunky parts of 3.5 have been streamlined, but a negative it that the system is more complex (that may be a positive to some).

Why play 3.5? For one, it is simple, and the set of rules is contained in three iconic books - if that is all you want. One could conceivably run a new 3.5 game, and state all that exists in the world is contained in the reprinted books, and be fine for years of gaming. For some, this may be the chance for this sort of freedom, a break with the past using familiar rules from it.

The market is now positioned a lot like Linux. I can remember the days when special vendor-flavored Linux versions were all the rage, such as Red Hat, Mandrake, Suse, and any number of others from Linux's past. Today, we have new vendors and distributions, such as Ubuntu, Mint, Magela, Fedora, and many others (many of which have links to the past).

D&D 3.5 is Linux, the base of which all D&D is built. Pathfinder is one group's distribution of 3.5, and may it have a long and wonderful future. However, the fascinating thing to think about is, will there be another distribution of 3.5 in the future, what will it look like, who will it be targeted towards, will it become popular? There are many versions of 3.5 already out there, and I am sure many more in the works after the reprints.

Could it be Wizards itself that someday returns to the OGL? Anything can happen in Linux-land. If they did, they would have instant credibility and power in this space. Rationally, Wizards has nothing to fear from the OGL, and they have the brand-name associated with it, D&D. It would be exciting to see them come back, and it would shake things up here in pen-and-paper land, and show a new commitment to supporting the roleplaying ecosystem of "open gaming." Maybe someday, and it would certainly be an incredible event.

Time will tell what will happen, but the OGL will always be around to seed the ground anew for the next generation of gamers. This is the magic of open-source, a faith in the users that pays back to those who put the work in, for all time to come.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Class Design: Superspy Game II

Let's continue our superspy game OGL-based class design. Remember last time, we were stuck with the problem of what to do with our Technician and Investigator classes. Our Assassin (combat aligned) and Con Man (role playing aligned) classes were fine. Here are the problems with each:

Investigator: This class feels like it would be boring to play for many players, being the guy who looks for clues, cracks codes, and searches through documents. In a more action-oriented game, who would want to play a class relegated to paperwork?

Technician: At least the Investigator gets to do their paperwork during play, but the technician gets to setup gear, crack computer codes, defeat security systems, and fix vehicles. Most of these activities are one time affairs, or even worse, done off-stage, "Okay, while Mike sets up the listening gear, we get to go to the party and talk with the ambassador...." Picking this class means you get to work on the gear, while the other players get to do the fun stuff.

Again, some players may love these activities, and if you write rules well for these, they may be perfectly fine classes. But, we are working in a more simple action-oriented game like Basic D&D - but with spies. We need to focus the classes on action and adventure, and make every choice a fun one. Let's pivot the class designs as follows:

I will propose merging the two classes into a Specialist class, a master of using spy gear to obtain information. Since many missions rely on gathering info, or keeping that info from dropping into the wrong hands, the specialist becomes a key person who gets to use the cool listening devices, pick locks, breaks the codes, and notices the hidden laser alarm system. The focus goes from passive (search and fix) to active (use gear to do cool stuff), and cleans up the number of classes to three.

This is only one way to design classes for a game world, and your ideas could go along a totally different take on things. It is important to think of the "fun" for each class, and even bring in things like combat modifiers. There is a port of the DnD 3.5 rules system that attempts to do a modern rules set, and it sticks to the source material too closely. Paramedics in this system are based off of clerics, and are the second best fighters in the game. It's an odd choice, and it shows a little too much reliance on the original design, rather than starting fresh and coming up with things that work and are fun.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Class Design: Superspy Game I

Class design is one area we are very familiar with, having written it into SBRPG. I am reading a lot of OGR old-school type games based off the OGL, and many of them use the old 3d6 method and strict character class templates, even for modern games such as sci-fi and superspies. It is an interesting choice, and I would like to focus on class design, specifically OGL d20 style class design in these games.

Let's take a spy game, and rig this along d20 style OGL concepts. We could say we need an assassin, investigator, and possibly a thief class in our spy game. If we split the thief into a con artist and technician class, we would have a cool "team of agents" design, which is good for group-based play. So our classes are:
  • Assassin
  • Investigator
  • Con Artist
  • Technician
Interesting. Let's block out the assassin design first. Obviously, this class deals in combat the most, so lets give the class the best attack modifiers. We have an instant problem now, the assassin is the most attractive character in the game to combat-oriented players. In some groups, combat determines success, so this class will naturally be the best at the exciting and adventurous aspects of the game. I say let's do this, in our game, let's flatten the combat modifiers, and make every class the same at fighting. Let's assume this is dangerous work, and let every agent get training in fighting. So attack modifiers will be the same for every class.

Now what do we do with the assassin? Let's give this class specialized methods of attack, experience with poisons and traps, and a cool stealth ability. Take the generic "he's a fighter" thought out of the class, and design the class to play how we would like it to play. Fill up the class' toolbox with cool and interesting choices to give the players options and cool things to do.

With the Con Artist, not much is needed beyond blocking the powers out and doing a good job. This class is extremely fun, highly-role playing, and something everyone will want to play. If they are equally good at combat as they are sneaking around, doing the swindle, and pilfering goods, you won't have much trouble with them at all.

We have two boring choices, Investigator and Technician. There was a fun design discussion around the original Star Wars d20 game, where players did not like playing the techie or pilot classes in that game. The pilot could not contribute on foot, and the techie's job was to fix the starship in the background while everyone else explored the planet. I can see complaints about the Investigator being 'he just looks for clues' and the Technician as 'he just sets up the spy gear.'

So maybe these two classes need to pivot, and we should shift them to something more engaging. Or maybe they are fine, depending on your players. This is one of the tough parts about designing classes for a wide group of players, you have to start making assumptions and generalizing those to a more popular audience. With our d20 example, we need to go down this route. In SBRPG, you design the classes at play time, so if all you need is Investigators and Techies in your game, that's all you design, and your players are happy.

We will get to our Investigator and Technican class in a later post, and find out what would make them fun in our sample design in a later post. In the meantime, how would you pivot these two classes to make them fun?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Next Best Theorem

I have a theory about most every Sci-Fi universe, let's call it "The Next Best Theorem":
"In any Sci-Fi universe, the level of technology will increase to a point where the universe is ruined."
 Oh yeah, I am being sarcastic here, but I have seen this too many times to count. Star Trek is one, where the pseudo-science throughout the series increased to a level of absurdity, with ships being held together by force fields. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with that, but the 'next best thing' keeps going on and on, and pretty soon, the original reasons you liked the concept in the first place become lost in the shuffle of technobabble and high-space concepts.

Star Wars, at least in the expanded universe, suffered from the same. In some ways, the prequels were a tech-up to the universe, even though they happened earlier in history. The original movies felt like World War II in space; and the prequels ventured into super-science, mass cloning, do-it-all nanites, CG action robots, and so many other super-science concepts never seen in the first three movies.

In Sci-Fi roleplaying games, campaigns often fall victim to the same thing. Players can be engineers or scientists, and they can do what else...invent! The mad scientist takes over, and the ship captain of course needs shields that can deflect a little more than something off-the-shelf, and the next super wonder artifact is sitting on the next planet waiting to be discovered. Oh, imagine the power it would give us! The referee responds by up-teching the bad guys, making even more unimaginable threats, and escalating to match the player's power level. After all, the player's ship is the best in the galaxy right?

After a while, the original bad guys look tame, the old ships feel clunky, and the new even-badder-than-baddies show up to reign supreme. Why you loved the original concept is lost in a wash of new stuff, and to catch attention, it has to be more slick, more over the top, and even cooler than before. Outrageous and new trump made the Sci-Fi concept fun in the first place. Witness Prometheous, the (supposed) prequel to Alien. The original Alien had monochrome CRTs and primitive spacesuit technology, the prequel had floating holograms and skin-tight suits. The clunky charm of the original Alien movie was lost in wowza-tech.

It is a vicious circle, and a phenomena matched in fantasy games by an ever-increasing magic and power level. In Sci-Fi, it is especially difficult, because part of the premise of the game is science and technology. We live in a world where technology changes every month, and the next best thing has already made what you have obsolete. Sci-Fi roleplaying too tragically mirrors this, and many rules systems don't handle this rapid level of power escalation and technological advancement.

Some games, such as Traveller, are pretty much cemented into a particular technology level, even at the maximum level the game supports. But still, the urge to find a starship with Jump-7 exists, and the super-science race begins again. In a way, technological escalation is a part of the genre; and then again, many Sci-Fi rules systems don't support this concept.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Roleplaying Roulette

Watching people inside MMOs on "role playing servers" is interesting, and sort of a social and psychological exercise. People join these servers to do something more than play the game. Let's discard the often-cited reasons of "the players are more friendly" and "I want to torment role-players." Players on these servers want to become involved with stories, factions inside the game world, and interests of other player groups. Some players want to join a military order, others a royal family, others a Gothic werewolf cult, and the list of interests goes on and on. It is fascinating to watch, and see what people come up with.

All this is player-driven, and usually the game does little to support it beyond letting you dress up your character, and occasionally let you pick a title. When it comes to supporting roleplaying, most MMO companies put that at the bottom of the priority list for game improvements; and at patch time, you often feel like Charlie Brown on Halloween, "I got a rock." So most of the activity happens in spite of the company running the game, which is interesting, and shows you the power of the idea of immersing yourself in the world and other player's creations. Imagine if companies supported more player-driven stories and involvement in the world beyond flipping towers and capturing flags in PvP.

The most intimate encounters on these servers are in taverns and bars, where players congregate for no other reason than to find others, listen to roleplaying conversations, and possibly become involved with the story. Mind you, there are no 'RP wanted' ads or message boards in these games, you have to wander upon a story in progress and try to involve yourself, for better or for worse. Many times, you don't even know where the story you are joining is going, it could be fun, a complete disaster, or something you excuse your character from because you don't like where it's going. Better luck next time, and you log on another night looking for another story to join.

A lot of roleplayers are shy and don't put themselves out there; many stick within a clique or established group of players, and some may even organize on an external forum. The lose roleplayers are really interesting to watch. They may gather in a tavern, introduce themselves, coyly start throwing lures in the situation to look for interaction, and hope for the best. If nobody likes what they see, it's game over, and time to try somewhere else, or go back to questing. A lot of interactions break up because nobody knows what anybody else wants of likes, so it's kind of like roleplaying roulette.

Can it get any better? Well for many people, the system works when they find a group (and have the time) to get involved. For many, it is hard to even find a story to jump into, and the time it takes to find something happening and get in with a cool group takes too much effort. In a way, non roleplaying social activities such as Facebook and Twitter have solved some of these problems with interest groups where people with like ideas can get together and socialize. Most MMOs have guilds, but they are primitive, limiting organizations - many are just a chat channel and character list. If interest groups could be added to a MMO, along with a pseudo-social in-character experience, that would be cool, and make the whole immersive thing more, immersive.

Friday, September 14, 2012

World Mood Thoughts

World Mood is one of those cool inventions inside SBRPG. A lot of games are written with one World Mood in mind, by default, this is how the world works. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, as once you define a mood, you can write rules and content to support that mood. For example, a horror RPG might have all sorts of squicky wounding rules, horrendous monsters, and possibly even insanity rules to liven things up. The dark nature of the 'horror' mood is reinforced through the rules and content supplied with the game.

Now, divorce mood from the game, and try to write a game around that. What we did with SBRPG's World Mood system was exactly that, and the base game was deliberately written to be mood-neutral. As a result, we don't have a lot of color-call rules and items supporting a particular feel or violence level, the rules are what they are - supporting combat, statistics, task resolution, etc. The game itself is a neutral base upon which everything else is built.

All right, we setup six specific World Mood levels, and created framework rules around that. One of the core concepts was 'the worst thing that could happen' - and this worked very well. In some lighter World Moods, the bad guys could not knowingly target an innocent; and in others, it was not easy for a PC or NPC to die. We wanted to simulate cartoon-action realities such has GI JOE, or any number of other Saturday morning action cartoons with some of these moods, just for fun. In SBRPG, it was totally okay for you to shoot up a squadron of enemy fighter jets, and have every enemy pilot parachute to safety, just like in the cartoons.

It wasn't easy, and we needed specific rules for what could happen in a fight, what happens when someone gets wounded, and even story stuff like what the worst thing a villain could do to someone? We put an upper limit on the violence too, at a sort of gothic-cool "dark" level. Dark isn't necessarily a super-slasher film level of violence, we purposely tweaked it to be more psychological and foreboding - something like, "The whole world is against me, an insidious dark force opposes my every move."

In a dark World Mood, even the reactions of strangers is tweaked by the overboding sense of dread and fear. People in small towns in a dark mooded game would never trust outsiders, even the guy at the gas station over on highway 61. In a lighter mooded game, the referee adjusts NPC reactions upwards, to inviting the new-in-town PCs over for dinner with the family. Random events, encounters, acts of god, NPCs, situations, story arcs - everything is colored by World Mood. Played right, it is incredibly immersive and fun.

World Mood in the obvious sense also is a contract between the players and referee. A lot of games let the referee run anything, and some types of players aren't comfortable with that. The whole act of role-playing implies a trust and understanding between the players and referee, and some players are not comfortable at all with character death, horror, or deep psychological stuff. In this case, World Mood is a promise among everybody, "this is what we are playing, and we won't stray into uncomfortable areas." It seems like a silly thing, but for many players, setting a World Mood they are comfortable with is reassuring, and allows them to relax and play.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Exception Based Gaming

There is a trend in game design of exception-based designs. These are typically rules systems such as DnD3 and 4, Magic: The Gathering, and others. Exception-based designs create a huge list of rules covering the things you can and can't do; and then create a second set of rules which are 'exceptions' to the first set. Here's a good example:
Player, "I move past the monster and rush the kobold."
GM, "You trigger an attack of opportunity." (first rule set)
Player, "I have a feat that makes me immune in this case." (second rules set - the exception)
Another example:
 "Scissors beats rock."
If we go back before DnD3, we can probably find a couple examples of exceptions in rules, but most games focused on a smaller set of rules laying out what you can do, and left the exceptions up to the referee to work out. Take TSR's classic Star Frontiers or other boxed games, most of the rules in those games laid out basically what you can do, and there were hardly any exceptions to the rule - especially in the area of character design. You had our ability scores, your skill levels, and a set of rules telling you how to make rolls, shoot lasers, and use equipment. There were hardly any rules or feats built into character design laying out "this is a list of rules you can break" in any sense.

This isn't to say exceptions are bad. With this type of design, you can create a base set of rules defining how things in the world work, and leave it at that. The special exceptions are up to the players to keep track of, and the GM to remember to apply correctly. There in lies the problem with the design, if your design leans too heavily on the exceptions, you get too much of a good thing. If your game contains a list of 2000+ feats, most of which are exceptions or special cases, you quickly get tangled up in two lists of rules and lists of exceptions that sometimes apply themselves in chains of "whoops, my X feat allowed me to have an Y bonus in Z circumstance, but this other feat does that...."

Complexity is the enemy of good design. A lot of role playing games super-size themselves with expansion books, add-ons, and new material to the point of their own extinction. An exception-based game is especially vulnerable to this problem, as the list of exceptions grows, and the list of base rules grows for the new things handled, the morass of interactions grows and quickly becomes unmanageable.

Complexity needs to be managed over a product's life-cycle, and some rules designs are more prone to "load" breakage than others. Exception-based designs are not inferior, they do many things well, but you need to recognize the limitations of a rules design as well as their advantages when you use one to craft your game. Ask yourself, how many things are my players required to remember? Do these new exceptions complicate the game? Is there a way to combine things to make them simpler? Am I asking too much of the referee and players? Could this be handled in a better way?

Stop, think, and ask yourself - does this design make things better? Does more equal better? Can my design handle additional complexity?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Gaming as a Human Need

I had this thought the other day, humans need to game like they need to eat. It's pretty radical at the first sound of it, millions of people do NOT play games, and are just fine for it. Or are they? Or is it they game in different ways, and don't realize they are filling the need.

By gaming, I mean participating in a mental activity where there is a set of rules, potential actions, and results. By this definition, driving to work could be considered gaming, so let's add another qualification. The good and bad results of the game must be relatively painless and repeatable to the participant. This eliminates real-world dangerous stuff like skydiving and driving pretty well - but what about gambling? Thus, gambling away your life savings is not a game (it is stupid), but playing cards for nothing or pennies is a game, since you can afford to keep playing and keep losing. Of course, Facebook games, video games, card games, board games, RPGs, and the games we talk about here on the blog are out main interest, and covered by the definition.

Now what's this about you need to game like you need to eat? Sociologically speaking, we have been gaming all our lives, testing out little theories as we grow up through play or bouncing off behaviors off our parents. Gaming is simulation, and you could consider your parents telling you to keep your chin up, shake hands, and dress neatly to be all little games we played as kids, with our parents acting as the referee and giving us feedback if what we did was winning or losing behavior. We may not be playing game-games everyday (or at all), but we are gaming as we learn, interact with others, and explore new things. Even as we watch movies and read books, the escape and daydreaming of 'what if' we were in the same situation could be thought of as gaming.

Now what about the games we play nowadays? Let's consider DnD, World of Warcraft, Angry Birds, Monopoly, and a huge number of other enjoyments we bring into our lives. Do we have a need to play them? Well, we certainly won't starve if we don't play them, but an argument can be made that there is something wired into the human psyche that makes the structure of "new world + rules + success and failure" very familiar to us. It's almost as if as humans, we are hard-wired to play games, explore the rules behind them, and discover the paths to success. These activities are natural to us, and don't need to be taught to us.

Games serve as a way for us to safely explore what if? Just like Cowboys and Indians when we were young, we were imitating the 'rules' the television shows laid out for us, and trying to save the day and 'win' at the game. With more modern games, we explore the worlds and scenarios laid out by the game designers, using the tools the designers placed (and even hide) in the world. What if I could be a powerful Orc Shaman in this world? What if I could be a real estate tycoon? How does this little world of Angry Birds work? We enter, we explore, and we search for the golden key.

I believe gaming is hard-wired into who we are as humans, and the elaborate games of today naturally appeal to the gamer within us.