Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Shadow Puppet Theatre

Another gaming exercise to tax your imagination with, designed for 2 players but easily adaptable to more: this is a pure storytelling exercise, there are no resolution mechanics and no dice required.

Each player starts out by describing a world and a hero within that world: the worlds should be strongly recognisable and easily encapsulated in a short statement, e.g. "A comic book superhero world" or "A grim, cyber-noir future world" and so on.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Picking the Locks: Model & Story Interactions

I've been at work on Workplace, my proposed entry for this year's Game Chef contest and I got to thinking about how essentially abstract it is: you play a bunch of characters connected by the place they work and most of the interactions between them are about their shared workplace and their relative status within it. The characters aren't defined by the system though: there are no stats, no skills, no advantages, no equipment; you don't need to know where the other characters are standing or what's nearby, because if any of those things become relevant to a scene, you just narrate them in as convenient, as long as you're honest & plausible.

On the other hand, all those things are relevant in The 'Hood: the fiction depends on knowing what you can do, it relies on a largely intangible model of the game-world that defines what is and isn't possible for your character to achieve. If you want to pick a lock, you have to have a move that justifies you doing that (cover your tracks comes to mind) but you also have to roll with your stat to see what happens; before any of that though, you have to be standing in front of that door...with lock-picks.

It's a significant difference in approaches: in the latter game, there's a lot of negotiating and positioning between the players and between the player and the MC before they can get into a situation where it's even plausible that they could attempt to pick the lock. In the former game, you just say something like "I'm going to pick the lock on the storeroom, I just want to know whether I'm caught doing it or not." Bish-bosh, job done, no messing around, cut right to the chase (literally, if it turns out you do get caught.)

Neither of these approaches is any better than the other, they are just different ways of handling the model of the game and the story it tells: games powered by the Apocalypse World engine, like many traditional RPGs, derive the story from the model. You set things up, then you explore how they interact at a mechanical level, like setting the parameters for a simulation then leaving  it to run by itself. Afterwards, you can look back at what happened and extract the story of those interactions within the model: "Agent A acted on Object B with Cause C which had Effect D; as a result, Agent E was able to use Effect D to facilitate its interaction with Agent F..." and so on, only with more blood and tears if the story is any good.

In a traditional RPG, this telling of the story after the interactions of the model have taken place occurs immediately after each interaction: you're not just rolling dice in a vacuum and stringing the results together at the end, each result feeds back into the story right away. As we follow the emerging narrative, it effects change within the model, allowing for more interactions and so on in an unpredictable process that should inevitably build towards significant, permanent changes within the model (and therefore the story, etc.)

Coming back to Workplace, what it shares with a lot of contemporary story telling games is that the story comes first and the model is largely derived from that, not the other way around. If I'm playing a character in one of those games and I want to pick the lock, I still need to have lock-picks, but I don't derive the existence of those tools in the story from the model: I derive the need for those tools in the model from the story. It simply wouldn't make sense to be blocked from attempting that action on the grounds that my character doesn't have lock-picks: I want to have a scene where I pick that lock, therefore my character must be in a position to do so, therefore we can retroactively insert the required elements into the model.

This isn't a black & white world and the model-first and the story-first styles don't represent absolute approaches to role-playing: they are the points at either end of an axis of play styles, which we can move along within the body of any given game. One example that sticks in my mind comes from an old school Battlestar Galactica game: the players created their ace pilot characters, picked skills, equipped them, climbed into their Vipers for their first patrol... and slammed nose-first into the launch bay doors, because the GM ruled that they had neglected to send the request to the launch deck for the doors to be opened.

It's a hard way of learning this, but clearly the GM was playing with a more model-first mindset than the PCs, who were probably also predominantly of the model-first school, but expected it to be story-first in basic, common sense situations like doing things their trained, skilled ace pilots would know to do automatically. We all come to the game with expectations of how specific we need to be about the actions of the characters, whether we are PCs or GMs: when those expectations don't mesh perfectly, we get frustrations, hopefully not as extreme as the example above, but there nonetheless. At some point, we accept that the model constrains what the characters can do: I can only try to pick the lock, I can't burn through it with my laser eyes because the model doesn't contain those kind of powers. We also want to get on with things though and not be made to got through an infinite regress of modelling before anything is permitted to happen within the story: it's enough to establish that lock-picks are available and that the character can acquire them, we don't need to account for every second taken and every penny spent in doing so.

There will always be games that tend towards one end or another on the axis of model-first to story-first and we'll all have preferences for where we like to be on the spectrum within given situations: I'm strongly story-first, but I'll make model-first objections if the story is being pushed beyond what I find plausible ("And where did you get 12 sticks of dynamite from, exactly?") I know a number of players who are at the opposite end of the spectrum from me, who view a precisely modelled character in a precisely modelled situation as a big, exciting puzzle box with moving parts (that have sharp bits on) for them to overcome, but I'v also seen them object to content on the good-old grounds of "Can anyone tell me why we're doing this?"

The model has to function for the story to be plausible; the story has to be plausible for the model to function. Neither has primacy and both are moving targets to aim for with varying accuracy as we play within the range of styles we like the most.

/end thought.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Workplace: Game Chef 2014 Concept Design

After taking last year out from the annual game design contest, I've thrown my hat back in the ring this year, for now anyway: the designing is the fun part, I'm not sure how I feel about people actually reading what I've written, letting alone judging whether I should win... unless I do win, of course, in which case it was all wonderful.

This year's theme of There Is No Book is intended to encourage thinking away from core rule books and towards other forms of presentation: I've seen audio, video, cards and even a scroll mentioned so far! Fantastic!

The ingredients are absorb, wild, glitter and sickle: I started jotting down some free associations I made with these terms and here's what I wrote:
Absorb: superpower, The Blob, soak up, pay attention (teaching)
Wild: natural, magic, untamed, animal, 'Girls Gone...'
Glitter: fairy dust, disco, drag, sparkle, shine, gold.
Sickle: farm tool, soviet symbol, anaemia.

I then looked back at what I'd written down, looking for the interpretations that most appealed to me and any connections that might suggest a setting for a game:
Absorbing: compelling, interesting; learning, listening.
Wild: nature, the wilderness, untamed.
Glitter: surface value, distraction.

Now for a bit of a black box in the design process: I can't analyse what happened next in my mind, because I'm not even sure myself, but despite doodling a frowny-face next to the word Sickle on the second list, to show that it wasn't firing my imagination, it suddenly catalysed with the other things I'd written down and I found myself thinking of Animal Farm. What may have helped make the connection was my current favourite PC game, Full Bore, which is a pig-based mining-platformer...

I posted about this and my other, more favoured idea on the Game Chef community on G+, but somehow in the process of trying to describe what I had in mind to other people, some aspects of what might be a playable Animal Farm-style game congealed in my subconscious and by later that evening, I was writing down a page of notes about systems and mechanics that would support the theme of the contest and fit around the ingredients I'd settled on, which were primarily wild and sickle by this time.

There was lots of thinking in terms of board games and card games: I wanted to capture everything you needed to play on a number of largish playcards, which themselves would be an active component of the game, not just a reference sheet. As I worked on it, I also realised I needed some kind of token currency to make things flow more easily and to regulate the pace of the game, which also tied in quite nicely with the glitter ingredient again, in a more sub-textual way. The first concept design I've come up with consists of two playcards, more to see what the game would look like and to model any potential difficulties with the 'moving things around on the table' mechanics. The working title is, appropriately, Workplace and I'd appreciate anyone who has time to provide constructive feedback on the layout of the cards and the comprehensibility of the rules.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Pricetag: Getting By in The 'Hood

Money is a privative: if you've got lots of it, you hardly notice it's there, but when it's all gone, nothing else could matter to you more. It's the oil that lubricates the machinery of Western culture, making everything spin around that much more easily, but crushing a lot of us in the process. From the outset of designing this game, there was no doubt that money would be of central interest to the characters: they all want more of it, but just as importantly, they don't want to run out of it. The straightforward way to handle this would have been to work out how much everything cost in the game (including the living expenses for each of the characters) and then award the PCs money for doing certain things, especially any jobs supported by their playbooks. With that information in place, the game's economy would have taken care of itself and there would have been very clear markers for what each character could afford to do next.

I didn't do that for a couple of very good reasons, the first and foremost being that I play storygames to have fun and explore the lives of the characters in a given set of situations, not to simulate real-life to the finest degree; I really have a strong aversion to excessive bean-counting in RPGs, so a realistic money mechanic was as attractive to me as one for tracking how hungry the characters were, how many calories they got from what they ate and when they should take a dump.

The second reason I decided against an income & expenses-style model was that if you give players a score to track, someone will immediately see that as the way to 'win' and will look for ways to game the system to do so. I also wasn't confident in my ability to keep a detailed economy balanced and was aware that, not only could one big payoff upset the apple-cart, but a series of smaller payoffs plus any overlooked or underestimated expenses would have the same result. It looked like a headache to crunch the numbers and my personal rule for game design is that it shouldn't give me a headache, so there was never going to be any chance of a system like this being used in The 'Hood.

One idea I seriously toyed with for a while was not to have any mechanical representation of wealth or money in the game, but to handle it all narratively: purchases and expenses could be handwaved ("Well, sure, you've had no problem with your business this week, so you can afford to buy a round of drinks") and any big payoffs would just reposition the character in the narrative, giving them more leverage in situations involving money but also making them a bigger, juicier fish to be caught and gutted.

After an involved and detailed exchange on this subject with DWeird on the Barf Forth Apocalyptica forums, during which I considered using dough as a stat you rolled against to get things done like buying stuff, I gravitated back towards a more abstract representation of how much money you had but with the addition of the concepts of getting by and being short. Now it's time to put my hands up and confess how my love of wordplay and my inability to come up with lists of 'Looks' for all the playbooks contributed to this decision: when it became apparent that the characters should be concerned with protecting their livelihoods, I thought of the idea of each playbook having a unique revenue stream that could be threatened by outside events. There were a few instances of this which were immediately obvious and which had already crept into some of the playbooks, such as mention in the Feelgood's moves of interrupting their supply of drugs, so I latched onto the idea and looked for a way to formalise it in the rules. Each playbook would need a separate entry for this, just as each one has a separate entry for sex moves in Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts, so I looked at the design I had roughed out, trying to spot a place to put in a statement about how the character earned their living... and there was the word 'Looks' staring up at me from a space that was nearly blank as I was struggling to fill it. Something in the back of my mind popped up with the word 'Loot' as an appropriate substitution and the principle of protecting your livelihood became part of the hack forevermore; I still find it a challenge writing an appropriate Loot entry for each new playbook (I'm doing that a lot at the moment...) but it's much less work for me than coming up with lists of Looks for each one!

Finalising the rules for dough was a much harder, longer road, with lots of false starts and dead ends along the way, as there were two driving factors to contend with: the need to mark the character's level of wealth within the game versus my own preference for keeping things at a story level rather than a mechanistic one. A recent campaign I'd run for a few friends was strongly influencing my thinking: we'd played the worlds first Dead of Night campaign and, despite having absolutely no way of tracking wealth or status in the game, one of the characters had risen from a petty criminal to Pope of a new religion within the space of 8 weeks of play, all as a result of the narrative path we'd followed, taking the consequences of each scene and building on them episode by episode. I really enjoyed that and wanted to provide the same space for stories to take place within my hack; I didn't want the rules to restrict the stories we could tell about the characters and felt that no-one should reach a point where they couldn't take the next logical step in their character's development because the rules counter-indicated it.

In the end, it took about two weeks of private thought and public discussion on the subject before I settled on the almost-abstract treatment of dough as it is now: I was much happier to use it as an indicator of your general level of wealth than as an exact count of your money. There's no hard and fast correlation between money and dough because there shouldn't be, they're two different things: dough is about more than the currency in your pocket, its also about your credit cards, your pre-paid mobile contracts, your insurance & investments, your on-going payments on your house and your car... in short, it's about everything that has monetary value in your character's life, not just the money itself. This made it easier to describe how being short affected you: previously, it was hard to reconcile this with having a lot of dough and there was the option to take -1 dough instead of having your livelihood threatened, but the two sides of the economic model still didn't quite line up and there were gaps between them which were creating edge cases that needed more and more spot rulings to patch up.

With the current model, its easier to see how a character with a lot of dough can still be short: sure, you've got all the trappings of wealth, but if you've just paid your bills in anticipation of a big score that actually falls through, then you can have all the perks of a well-off person but still not be able to afford a ride on the bus or do your weekly shop. Dough is about the big money in your life, but protecting your livelihood keeps change in your pockets.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Safety in Numbers

I've been using a lean and simplified hack of Andrew Kenrick's Dead of Night as a vehicle for ensemble cast survival horror games for a couple of years now, but here's an idea that's even leaner and simpler. In order to play, you'll need some coins, pencils and paper: you'll want at least A5 paper for the locations of the game, but nothing bigger than a post-it note for the characters.

Start with a quick discussion about the plot & setting of the game, but keep it simple: use a trope (zombie apocalypse, mega-quake, alien invasion) that everyone is familiar with and a location that is either generic (shopping mall, ski resort, subway network) or, if specific, one that everybody knows and recognises (your home town, Disneyland, the Vatican.) If one player wants to be the GM, they can sketch out a plot beforehand and reveal what's going on through play, but they shouldn't be married to their ideas.