Monthly Archives: August 2010

KWORC Part 3: The Anti KWORC

So far this has been primarily for GMs but hopefully useful for players. Now it’s time to turn that on is ear and shoot for something primarily useful to players which may also be of use to GMs.[1] KWORC is all about the problems that characters may encounter as a result of Knowledge, Will, Opportunity, Resources or Capability. The anti-KWORC is all about how to tackle those problems.[2]

The first thing you need to do with any problem is to state it as clearly as possible. I want to do X, but cannot because of Y. If there’s some muddiness to it, then break it down a little further – if one problem is really four different problems, you need to know that because otherwise you’re just going to frustrate yourself with solutions that address only part of the problem. Use KWORC to break things down as needed, and keep your eye open for problems of opportunity. Those are usually the most straightforward to resolve, and if you can break a problem down to nothing but necessary opportunities then problem solving is purely a function of good timing.

Once you’ve got a got a problem identified, the question is how to get past it. That may seem like an odd choice of words – you would expect to solve a problem after all – but that’s the kind of thinking that will get you stuck.

See, while the first option is to overcome the problem directly (that is, to solve it), that’s not the only possibility. You also want to consider how you could circumvent, subvert, neutralize or destroy the problem.

Overcoming a problem is the first thing we tend to think of when faced with one. We look at the problem, look at the tools we have, and apply them. If the problem is a locked vault door, we blow up the lock. It’s kind of easy to write this off as “thinking inside the box”, because you’re implicitly buying into the challenge, but sometimes it really is the right solution, especially if you have the tools and talent to do the job.

To circumvent a problem, you look at the problem, and just go around. If the problem is a vault door, you cut through the wall to get in. By finding another approach, you render the original problem moot. This is, to be frank, some of the flashiest brainwork you can do when you pull it off. Most really cool smart-guy tricks in movies are of this type because when its done right, it cuts through the problem like a hot knife through lukewarm butter. The trick of doing this is spotting disconnects between the problem and the goal. In the case of the vault door, the problem is not really the door, it’s that you can’t access the room.[3] This also takes advantage of a GM blind spot too – if the GM has focused on the specific problem (like the door), she’s usually got nothing in place to prevent you solving a different problem.[4]

To subvert a problem, you turn it into an asset. In the case of the vault door, you get the key or combination, allowing you to use it legitimately. This may simply allow the problem to be overcome, but it may actually turn an obstacle into an asset (as in the case of hacking into a security system – not only can the characters now avoid detection, they can also use it to track the guards). The best way to think about how to subvert a problem is to ask what you would do if you were the legitimate owner of the obstacle, then see what you can do to act as if that were so.

Neutralizing a problem can be similar to subverting a problem at times, but the net result is that the problem is now irrelevant. In the case of the locked vault, you arrange for the owner to take the object you need for you. This is the classic misdirect, and it can be almost as flashy as circumventing the problem when done right. Effectively, you are opting to replace one problem with another, but presumably the new problem is one you are more capable of solving. At its most dramatic, this can involve getting someone else to solve the problem for you, such as when you convince a mark that the widget he’s holding will get him killed so he begs you to take it off his hands.

Finally destroying a problem is often the most straightforward solution, and the one adventures often gravitate towards – why sneak past guards when you can kick their asses? In the case of the vault door, you simply blow up the door. The problem with this approach is usually less about its effectiveness and more about its consequences. Destruction is rarely subtle, and it often attracts a lot of attention. Still, if you’re fast enough (or if attention is exactly what you want) then it can be the right tool for the job.

Now, there is one other option, but it’s of a different type[5] – sometimes you need to change goals. This is tricky because if it’s just a matter of “This is hard, I quit” then it’s going to be a pretty lame game. Rather, it is possible that goals might escalate as a result of opposition. You see this a lot in crime movies, where the criminal is above the law, and our unstoppable hero changes his goals by escalating from “Arrest the Bad Guy” to “Stop the Bad Guy” (Or perhaps more bluntly “Kill the Bad Guy”). This sort of escalation might be powerful and dramatic or it might be a simple excuse to bring in bigger guns. Either way, remember that the change can be a big deal.

Ok, now that you’re armed with the tools for overcoming the problems of the next step will be threading it all together.

1- Off the record, this is effectively my “How to Think Like Nate Ford/Danny Ocean” piece for people who find themselves thrust into leadership and problem solving roles and are feeling a little overwhelmed.

2 – This could also probably be called SECOND if one really likes acronyms (Subvert, Escalate, Circumvent, Overcome, Neutralize or Destroy).

3 – The KWORC lens is useful here because in this case, you realize what looks like a problem of capability (can I pick the lock) is really a problem of opportunity (can I get in the room).

4 – Warning: If your GM is the kind who responds badly to being “outsmarted” then be careful about doing this, if only because she may improvise a deadly response. Also, consider changing GMs.

5 – There is no footnote # 5. I have no idea why I put that there.

KWORC Part 2 – What it actually means

After you’ve found a clear objective for your characters (or, more aptly, helped them find one for themselves), the next question you ask is the root of all adventure: Why haven’t they already done it?

If the answer is simply “Because they haven’t gotten around to it yet” then odds are good you’re about to go on a very boring ride. Good stories and good games start with some barriers between the beginning and end. This is so easy to illustrate in games – Imagine a a game where you just win, with no challenges to players or characters – that it’s almost uninformative. If a caper could be resolved by simply walking in and walking out with the MacGuffin, then Ocean’s 11 would be the most boring movie ever. [1]

Stories have a few advantages in dealing with these obstacles that games don’t – whatever actions the protagonists take will probably help solve the main problem. I’ve mention this before in the context of B-plots. The A-plot (the main goal) can’t be resolved until the B-plot is resolved because the B plot gives the tools necessary to solve the A plot. This is a useful tool, and KWORC refines it a bit with a bit more structural focus.

When you ask why the heroes have not already achieved their goal (either in a sweeping campaign or a single session) then the answer is that they lack something essential to success, and that something is one of five things: Knowledge, Will, Opportunity, Resources or Capability.[2]

Let’s look at a murder mystery to illustrate how these might come into play. In a classic closed mystery, where the detectives have arrived and all the suspects are in one place, the only thing the characters lack is knowledge. Once they know who did it, achieving the goal (arrest the murderer) is easily accomplished.

Suppose they figure out who did it, but the guilty party is powerful and dangerous. She’s someone who can end the character’s careers, kill their families or otherwise make terrible things happen to them. Alternately, she may offer them a rich reward to look the other way. In either case, characters are capable of achieving their goal, but the question is whether they have the will to do so.

Similarly, suppose that they identify the culprit, got to arrest him, and discover he’s made a break for it. If they can catch him, they can arrest him, but they need to catch him first to have the opportunity to arrest him.[3]

What if the culprit has his own private army, and is fully capable of refusing the request of a few detectives to come along with them quietly? Or if he has friends in city hall that make an arrest impossible or pointless? The players may not have the resources to make the arrest

Lastly, while this rarely happens in detective fiction, it’s pretty common in RPGs for the culprit to put up a fight, and for that fight to be pretty nasty. There may be some question regarding whether the characters have the capability to make the arrest.

Now, there may be only a single such barrier between the characters and their goal, or there might be several, related[4] or unrelated. Whatever the case, the utility of breaking them down like this is that you create a discrete set of obstacles. This is important because each obstacle creates an implicit goal – OVERCOME THE OBSTACLE. And with that in mind, go back and ask the first question, and you can produce another KWORC breakdown. Repeat this as many time as you need, and you have a picture of how an adventure is likely to unfold.

One more dirty trick: This is not just a GM technique. Players looking to find a way to make concrete progress on their goal can perform a similar breakdown of their situation to attempt to determine what concrete next steps they can take.

Right now this is a pretty rough model, but it’s possible to polish each of the steps to really bring it to life. And that starts tomorrow with the anti-KWORC.

1- Curiously, the level of challenge is also often tied to the nuance of the goal. Using Leverage as an example, it’s a show with hyper-capable characters pitting themselves against unsuspecting bad guys. If their goal was simply to _punish_ the bad guys, then episodes might be mildly cathartic, but they’d be ultimately hollow. All it would require would be that something terrible happen to the bad guy. Because their goal is _justice_ they put themselves in much more difficult situations than they have to. This in turn makes their level of capability feel appropriate (because it’s challenges) rather than shooting ants with a howitzer. Does this mean your goal can actually be a basis for obstacles? You betcha.

2 – Thus, KWORC. It’s not a great acronym, but I ended up using it because it was easier than checking my notes every time I needed to remember all 5. I’m sure that someone’s going to suggests a really compelling 6th at some point an it will totally mess it up.

3 – Opportunity often pairs with other obstacles to be anything but a short-term obstacle. If the opportunity I lack is that I’m not in the same room with the guy, that’s only a problem until I find him. For this to be a longer term problem I might not know where he is (knowledge) or have the means to reach him (resources). Despite this, this is an important category because this is what the Dungeon represents at its most basic level. You can beat the end boss and get his loot, you just need to _get_ there.

4 – For example, In the Lord of the Rings, destroying the ring requires opportunity (Getting it to Mount Doom) and Will (the will to get rid of it).

KWORC Part 1 – Clear Goals

Dynamic adventures are a bit different from encounter based ones. This is not to say they don’t include encounters – they do – but the priority is less about a specific set of encounters and more on the encounters that will emerge organically from the events of play.

The primary thing that defines a dynamic adventure is that the characters are usually proactive in pursuit of a larger goal. In an encounter game, players may be proactive in the short term (that is, they may proactive seek to get to the bottom of a dungeon) but in the broader sense their actions are directed by external forces (like employers) or simple motives (profit).

This line can be a little fuzzy. An encounter based game may have character with personal motives providing subplots, but in a dynamic game, the entire direction of play is shaped by what’s important to the players. To illustrate, consider the case of the Lord of the Rings – it would be entirely possible to play it either way. As an encounter based game, the players would have a goal (DROP RING IN VOLCANO) and the GM would seed the map with encounters that the characters would encounter as they go. In a dynamic game, players would have a subtly different goal (DEFEAT SAURON) and they will find a way to accomplish this. Maybe they drop the ring in the volcano, but maybe they do something the council rejected, like take up the ring themselves or sail across the sea with it.

Some GMs are nodding here, and others are wincing, because this is an invitation to completely break a campaign. In an encounter based game, this is a problem. In a dynamic game, it’s an *expectation*.

Still, it’s not just a matter of waving a wand and saying to your players “Go nuts, dudes!” You can do that, certainly, and that’s very nearly the definition of empowered sandbox play[1], but that’s another topic entirely. For dynamic play to work, the characters need a clear but open ended goal to drive play.[2] That seems like a simple enough thing, and in cases like DEFEAT SAURON it pretty much is, but it can be rough to come up with something that works.

Of the two criteria for a good goal[3], clarity is probably the more straightforward. It needs to have a little specificity to it – notice that DEFEAT SAURON is a specific verb and noun combo, while DEFEAT EVIL would be pretty vague unless there’s actually a guy named EVIL in the campaign.[4] In a pinch, the VERB NOUN model works pretty well, though. I mean, you can make it longer with fancier language, like EXACT REVENGE ON SIX FINGERED MAN WHO KILLED MY FATHER, but practically that’s PUNISH 6-FINGERED MAN. Specific, actionable verb, and a specific target. Perfect.

Notice the frequency of the use of the word “specific” there? That’s the trick of it. A goal is clear when it is specific, both in its outcome and in its call to action.

The second criteria, that it be an open ended goal, takes a little bit more thought. The goal should not be immediately achievable[5] and it should not have an obvious course of action. “Rescue the Princess from the cultists” is a good goal for an adventure (because, hey, find the cultists, attack the cultists, rescue the princess, done!) but it’s not going to invite much variety of play or drive a campaign.

In contrast, if the players had a goal of DEFEAT THE CULT, and the cult captures a princess, then the short term goal grows naturally from the big goal. One of the signs that you have a good goal is that it’s easy to imagine secondary goals that spin off it for the sake of a session or even a few scenes.

Once you have a goal, play has a direction. Players with a clear, open-eneded goal are usually readily to launch out of the gate, so you need to be ready for them, and that’s what the next part of this will address.[6]

1 – Sandbox Play is a term for a playstyle where you can go anywhere and do anything you can get away with. The idea is that there’s no game per se, just something to explore, akin to the difference between a toy or a game. In some sandbox games the players are observers, changing the world very little. In others, the world is utterly transformed by their play. This style is fantastic for exploration games, but it can be a little unfocused (for better or for worse).

2 – Maybe more than one. How many goals a game can tolerate depends a lot on the specifics of the group.

3 – There’s also a third secret criterea – that it be a goal which engages the players. It is often quite reasonable to start a game without a goal and to instead find it in play. A goal found in play, especially if it involved someone really angering the players, can get you more excitement and engagement than the most planning.

4 – If there is, that may suggest you’re actually playing a Japanese video game.

5 – Unless you are specifically limiting the scope of the game. In that case a goal which can be resolved in one session is totally in bounds.

6 – I still haven’t defined KWORC yet, have I? Man, I’m a stinker.

Ipad Retraction

Posting out of sequence just to get this out there. I’ve previously suggested using myTexts for writing on your ipad, citing its excellent interface and features. Those benefits remain, but today I discovered an unfortunate downside – it also randomly deletes files. I encountered this bug twice today, and upon discussion, discovered that many people I know have encountered it as well.

If you have myTexts, consider just uninstalling it. For me, I’ve switched over to My Writing Nook, and am so far content. But I’m backing up more frequently too.

Adventure Foundations – Encounters

Adventure design is a tricky thing. Certain things can make it easier, most notably the buy-in from your players. Few things forgive a bad adventure design like players willing to go “Ok, the adventure is clearly over there. C’mon guys, let’s head on over.” And they’ll do it, because your players are great and you’re lucky to have them, but that might make you feel a little guilty about giving such great players such a half-assed setup.

So, sooner or later, you want to give them more head. Not that you were railroading them before, but rather you were giving them pretty linear adventures where their primary role was to react to bad things and eventually go in the dungeon. Clearly, they want something with a few more moving parts, and just making dungeons more complicated doesn’t seem to be doing it, so what do you do?

This is the point where you might be looking to turn a corner from encounter-driven adventures to dynamic adventures, but don’t turn it just yet. Let’s make sure we choose the right tool for the job.

Encounter adventures are familiar to most of us, as they represent the bulk of dungeon games (however the dungeon is dressed up). The GM has prepared a number of scenes[1] which will be encountered then resolved through play. There are numerous ways these encounters might be sequenced from a strict dungeon map to a wild and loose random table to a sophisticated set of if-then statements, but the formula is pretty much the same.

While this approach is most familiar to us in dungeons, you can find it in every game system out there, with shadowruns and vampire parties constructed in this same fashion, as a sequence of encounters. Part of this is familiarity, but part of it that this model really _works_[2]. Scenes allow for focused events that are (hopefully) cool and specific. Their real strength (and weakness) is that they draw bright lines around the event and allow it to effectively be resolved in a vacuum. You’re fight in a dungeon will usually have little bearing on your fight in the next room of a dungeon, and your trading of barbs with the duke will have little bearing on your tea with the chancellor.[3]

While this means that you can really drill down and focus on the scene in question, it also can really end up suspending disbelief if things get too clearly delineated. This is only so much of a problem with dungeons – we’re trained to overlook how horribly fake those feel – but it’s part of the double edged sword of trying to apply the dungeon model to things that don’t have hard walls, like social situations.

One of the classic problems with trying to run a city campaign is the question of _how_ to do it without just treating is as a crowded space filled with small aboveground dungeons. The historical instinct has been to gravitate towards turning manors and sewers into interesting dungeons and treating the rest of the city like an oversized version of the town outside the dungeon[4].

For a GM trying to let go of the dungeon and loosen up play, there are a few tricks to easing the transition, but the most important one is to loosen your grip on the encounter model. That is not to say you need to stop using encounters entirely, but rather that you should focus on the encounters that will really rock, and put less work into building “tunnels” between them. Allowing players to meander a bit makes their arrival that much more satisfying.

It will also, somewhat paradoxically, make everything feel a lot more realistic. If you can find a module that uses someone’s manor house as a dungeon, this will illustrate it very well, but if not, just consider it. People do not live in houses the way we imagine monsters living in dungeons. We do not sit in rooms and wait for things to happen – we move around, do things, read books, eat meals and so on. If someone were to break into our home or office, the response would be much more dynamic than it is in a dungeon.

With that in mind, when we describe a home or office in terms of a dungeon, we get something stilted that feels entirely off. If, in contrast, you just have a particular scene in mind for the whole house (rather than on a room-by-room basis) then you can usually play that in a way that seems reasonable. A fight breaks out in the ballroom and things will happen as a result of it, but if you do it as one scene, there’s no need to them move on and clean out the kitchen.

Now, here’s the dirty trick – you can take this thinking back to the dungeon to bring it to life.[5] No to say you need to do this with every dungeon and every encounter, but taking a part of the dungeon and thinking “Ok, here’s how things work here, whose involved, and how things will play out” you can make a bigger, more freewheeling encounter which will probably be more interesting and more fun than usual. For a good example of what such an encounter might look like, listen to Mike Mearls talk about his lunchtime games sometime. As he describes them, they are basically giant, multi-element encounters, and there’s a lot of juice in that model.

Now, all that said, you may eventually find yourself wanting to move onto another approach, possibly one where the PCs are more proactive than reactive. And when that happens, it’s time for tomorrow’s topic; KWORC.

1 – Though he may not think of them as scenes, that’s what they really are.

2 – And is, even more than many indie games, a story technique. By breaking the adventure into discrete scenes, you make it flow better and make each scene better and more memorable. That is to say, if you’ve run a dungeon, and you don’t details the hallways as much as the rooms, then you may be a story gamer. If the boss fight was in one of the last rooms, then you’re definitely a story gamer.

3 – There are exceptions to this, but even they are fairly telling. Sometimes results from one encounter will have spillover results (like a guard triggering the alarm resulting in subsequent encounters not being surprised). It might even bring in monsters from the next encounter. But it is a rare adventure where the alarm seriously disrupts the structure of the dungeon.

4 – And intrigue, of course, which means “Going into dungeons for important people”.

5 – Especially if you start wit a dungeon by someone like Owen KC Stephens, who does a great job of writing dungeons which are basically extensions of the villain.

* – This isn’t a footnote on anything, but if you really want to learn how to run a good dungeon, read and play Dogs in the Vineyard. I know you may have heard all sorts of wild stuff about it, but it’s worth getting to know if only to see how it structures adventures. Its towns are, for all intents and purposes, dungeons. They’re constrained spaces with a problem to be solved. The big difference is that instead of being a dungeons of rooms, its a dungeon of people. That makes things both simpler and more complicated, and to a DM, it turns certain ideas on their ear while maintaining a very familiar framework. If you can absorb DitV, you will have a new and very powerful tool in your design toolbox

Fruitful Play

Malcolm Gladwell turned a lot of heads (as is his wont) in The Tipping Poing with the assertion/discovery that the main reason people become world class talents is not a result of inborn talent or expensive tools but rather on time spent. As a ballpark figure, it takes ten thousand hours of practice to really master something, and that level of investment takes a lot of work. Still, it’s a kind of liberating statistic, since it suggests that the only thing separating you from Tiger Woods is time spent. Sadly, nothing is ever quite that simple.

One point that gets glossed over a lot is that they need to be 10,000 fruitful hours. That is to say, you need to spend those hours learning and improving. Receiving training from someone else, doing useful drills or exercises or even just paying attention to what you’re doing in order to improve it are all fruitful ways to spend your time, and that’s a lot of work. That’s where things like talent, passion and resources start mattering – the guy who loves what he’s doing, has a knack for it that makes him feel good about doing it, and has access to tools, teachers and time is going to rack up his 10k much faster than the one who is grudgingly grinding out the time. This is why simple mania doesn’t result in talent.

For a GM or Game Designer, this raises an interesting set of questions like “How many hours have I logged?” or “When am I logging hours?” and it might be fun to dwell on them, but are really just proxies fro the more important questions of “how good am I, and how can I get better?”

Now, there are a lot of answers to this, but I thought I’d share a four of mine, specifically, what I try to do to make every session I play or run fruitful. It’s never been an attempt to accrue hours, it’s just been a useful approach. That Gladwell gives it a patina of legitimacy is just a bonus.

Check Your Tracks
There will come a time in almost any game when things go a little bit off the rails. Maybe it’s just that you need to make an on the fly ruling but maybe you need to adjudicate something big and important that has no rules support. One that comes up a lot for me is making a decision to make an on-the-fly ruling rather than interrupt the flow of play with a rules lookup.

Be aware of the times you do this, and at the end of a game, look back and consider where your footprints wandered off the path. Then try to figure out why it happened and how well what you did worked. The situations you encountered will probably come up again, and giving this some thought will keep it from being an ad hoc solution every time.

This, by the way, is of particular interest when playtesting. When you’re playtesting someone else’s material, you really want to strive to stay on the path even more than usual because it’s useful to the designer to know where you were inclined to (or forced to) deviate. You need to be even more aware of where your tracks would have gone so you can provide useful feedback. On the other hand, if you’re playtesting your own material, you have a little bit more leeway. If a rule hits the table and you handle it somehow other than written, you really want to examine what you did because there’s a good chance that that is what you really want in your game.

Question Success
When a game breaks down it’s easy to spend some time studying it, trying to figure out what went wrong and what could have been differently. But when you finish a great session where everythign went well and everyone had a good time, there’s very little incentive to analyze. You need to overcome that instinct because there is as much (maybe more) to be learned in games that worked than those that didn’t. Failure is easy to identify, but identifying causes for success is much harder, but much more fruitful.

So, don’t necessarily dwell on it, but think about what worked really well, and ask yourself if you could do it again. Not every success will be something you can replicate, but over time you’ll take lessons from what you find.

Value Feedback, Suspect Analysis
Nothing is more useful than talking to your players after the game . This is not just a good design thing, it’s a good human being thing (that also happens to be a good design thing). You want them to tell you what excited and frustrated them, and you want to take that very seriously. This frustration and excitement is real – you cannot decide that one of you rplayers is wrong to have enjoyed part of the game or to have been bored during a part you thought was cool. That’s how they felt, and you need to be ready to try to repeat or prevent that as appropriate.

The thing you should be skeptical of is the why. If your player was bored, take that at face value, but be a little more wary of any explanation of why they were bored or excited. As humans, we love to explain things, even if we’re not very good at it. We’ll create a narrative that makes things make sense to us out of whatever parts are lying around, and the truth of the matter may or may not have anything to do with it. This is not an attempt as deceit, rather a reaction to the fact that in complicated, subjective situation, the truth can be fuzzy, so we gravitate towards something that “makes sense”.[1]

This is not to say you should ignore their explanation entirely, especially if you know the player has good insight into what makes a game work, but it is ultimately your interpretation that’s going to matter, and you need to trust that.

Do The Work
This one’s simple – if you as your players to do something (like create a character) make sure you have done it already. The last thing you want is for your players to hit an inobvious roadblock (like unclear rules in chargen) that you just glossed over because they ‘don’t apply to the GM’.

1 – This is a hard lesson to learn, but an important one. Not for game design, but for interacting with people. If Dave says the fight was boring because the enemy had too many hit points you need to be able to balance your response so that you respect Dave’s boredom even though he’s totally wrong about why the fight was boring. The instinct is often to respond to these two things as if they were the same and treat Dave like the fact that he’s wrong about the hit points means he’s also wrong about the boredom, and yielding to that instinct makes you kind of a jerk (or a news commentator). It’s also impractical, since you are training Dave to not give you any useful feedback. So, remember, respect the genuine underlying emotion, even if you discount the analysis it engenders.

On the Mark

Third session of my Cold War game, and conclusion of the first plot arc, and I think things fell into place. Not going to do a full on recap, but I want to hit on a few points that I think are generally useful.

  • Found a solution to the Fate Point problem. First off, by generally raising the stakes and making thins harder, there were more rolls that were harder to make, so they saw more use. I also budgeted them based on which of the character’s aspects I’d used to plan the adventure, in this case 2,2, and 3. I’m pretty happy with this because it also serves as an informal spotlight mechanism, and as a GM it makes me check that I’ve included everyone. If one player is starting with zero fate points, that’s probably a bad sign.
  • Morgan got to demonstrate the power of a concession. His super-soldier was fighting a guy in an exo-suit who was slowly kicking his ass, and it was looking bad, he offered the concession that he lose, but that he dragged it out. I went with that, and his opponent eventually resorted to gassing the room because Bull just wouldn’t go down. I think the net result was a loss that was also satisfying to Morgan. Bull did get a rematch later, which went somewhat better by opening the fight by hitting his opponent with a jeep.
  • It is good to plan, but sometimes unnecessary. The bad guys had an elaborate double cross planned, and had many contingencies in place to try to get Anne alone (she’s the one who got 3 fate points because many bad things went here way this time) but sometimes your players will just do all the work for your.
  • I did have one badass NPC ally, which I always feel uncomfortable about, but I think I kept his contribution to a minimum, and I think people were ok with it because a) he’s an important part of Anna’s backstory and b) through a sequence of bad luck, Anna was the only person who didn’t actually get to see him, which annoyed the player (in a good way).
  • One big trick I’m finding with espionage is that I need to quash my instinct to answer questions. I normally like to make sure things are tidily wrapped up, if only to show that I didn’t cheat, but not for this. Every improbable coincidence or strange-seeming turn of events is fodder for play, and the answers need to be _earned_.
  • Similar, I’m happy that the cast of supporting character has grown. That this session ended with a still-breathing enemy inspiring profound hatred is a good sign.
  • I got anchors from people right before the game, so I haven’t even looked at them yet, but I look forward to folding them into the next session.
  • I added a little bit more mechanic to the fight scening, enough that I feel it covered Bull’s fight, but Grey ended up in a gunfight with some guards which ended up, mechanically, kind of flat. Next thing to fix, I think.

DonoCon 2010

To take the edge off Gencon jealously, we had another Donocon this year, with a bunch of people over at the house hanging out and playing games. There ended up being some unexpected logistical challenges and my wife deserves a huge amount of credit for making this all possible, but it worked and it was pretty fun.

Games that saw play: Attack of the Killer Bunnies, Forbidden Island, Thunderstone, Dixit and Fiasco. Forbidden Island and Thunderstone are standing favorites, so no real commentary on those, but the others were all interesting in their own way.

Attack of the Killer Bunnies was, to be frank, a stark reminder of why I no longer play a certain sort of game. By a certain sort of game I mean any game where you play for several hours while sitting on your hands for most of the game as the turn goes around the table, and only maybe being able to do anything on your turn. It’s got clever cards and a clever mechanic, but clever only goes so far (especially with an outright malicious victory condition). For context, the games of Forbidden Island and Thunderstone were both set up and played while the Killer Bunnies game was still going.

Dixit, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. Fred brought it, and the sole context I had for it was “That game I’d never heard of that won the Spiel des Jahres” but the box itself made a good case for the game. It’s loaded with picture cards which are beautiful in the way that good childrens art can be – lots of strong broad strokes and themes, but also lots of interesting details. Gameplay is simple, and very reminiscent of apple to apples. You look at the cards in you hand, pick one, and say a sentence it makes you think of like “Worst job ever.” or “At last, we can begin!” Everyone else picks a card from their hand that matches that as best they can, and the cards are spread out for all to see. Players try to guess which is the right one, and points are handed on who guesses what.

One clever twist on the mechanic is that the storyteller (the person with the sentence) gets points if his card is guessed, but only so long as only SOME people guess it. If everyone or no one gets it, then everyone else scores except for him. So you want to be clear, but not _too_ clear. Also, the quality of the cards is a subtle, but powerful design element. The broad thematic strokes of the art make more cards more applicable toe sentences than you would expect. Many card also have some amount of action in them which might be interpreted in more than one way (such as one image of someone either about to be eaten or about to be rescued, depending which way you think things are going) which adds another layer of interpretation to things.

I definitely want to grab a copy of this game at some point. Setting aside that the cards are so beautiful as to demand other uses, I think this is the game that straddles the line between folk who like the creative, fantastic games and those who want to play the social balderdash/pictionary sort of game. That’s a powerful straddle.

We did setup and a little play for Fiasco and while very enjoyable, it petered out. I think it went well enough that there’d be interest in trying it again, but I think it suffered from two things. First, we started it late in things, where it got interrupted by food and children getting put to bed, so the inertia got lost. Second, I think the Arctic playset was probably not the best first choice, if only because so much effort had to go into figuring out what the hell we were talking about setting-wise. Lack of context hurt. I think we also didn’t quite end up with enough teeth in our setup, since the macguffin (antarctic Nazi Gold) ended up going up in play rather than directly from the cards on the table. I figure that’s my fault for not guiding things helpfully enough, but so it goes. Net result was if nothing else, very educational, and I think the game got some new fans.[1]

Much discussion of Smallville and agreement we need to try chargen sometime, but also that we didn’t have the juice to do so just then. Ths came up because Smallville is looking to be a go-to game for almost any game that has the bones of a soap opera, with the extra bnus of being able to handle weird elements. As an example, we discussed how well it could hand In Nomine: The way relationships are set up does a very good job of providing for intimate yet antagonistic relationships (so you could have angels and devils in the same game) and some nice ways to insure that the only way an NPC ends up mattering is if he matters to multiple players.[2]

Beyond that there was pizza and socializing and I hope everyone had as good a time as I did.

And now, I prep for tonight’s Cold War game. Discussion with the players has, I think, clarified for me what I need to do. I have been letting them bask in being the best in the world at what they do, and that’s been useful for establishing foundations. But now comes the time to turn up the heat, and demonstrate that when they’re playing at this level, being the best in the world is just table stakes. Which is to say, it’s on.

1 – and as a reminder to myself, I need to put the other playsets on my ipad.

2 – Mechanically, this is kind of clever. Chargen involves drawing relationship maps between the players, with squares for players, diamonds for locations and circles for other characters. If you add a character to the map, you add a circle, denoting them as an extra. It is only when another character draws a connection to that extra that the circle gets a double-line border and now denotes a “feature”, which is to say a full on NPC, and switches from being a resource to being someone players have relationships with. This is, using the In Nomine example, an absolutely brilliant way to handle archangels.

Not Gencon Friday

Not at Gencon, and definitely feeling it today. That calls for Bullet Points.

Starcraft 2 has been proceeding apace, but I think it’s safe to say that I liked Blizzard more than I like Activision-Blizzard. Certain secondary things like the quality of writing and of music production have been pretty clearly deprioritized. I’d be more worked up about things like policies if I cared more, but I don’t. I’ll finish the campaign eventually, maybe get some multiplay in (but maybe not) and then forget about it until the next game is released. I mean, the gameplay’s good. What the campaign lacks in writing it makes up in excellent level design. But I contrast this with my experience with the original and it’s a little disappointing. Maybe it will grow on me, though.

Mostly, this makes me worry about Diablo III. I may hold off on pre-ordering that one if I can expect this kind of experience (that is to say, good, but not measurably better than others, as I had come to expect from Blizzard). That said, it also resolves my internal conflict between Blizzard and Bioware for champion of my personal universe: Bioware takes the throne.

I’ve been enjoying the webcomic Supernormal Step enough to add it to my regular reading rotation. The art is colorful and fun, the story moves at a decent clip (with some periods of dragging to explain), and the characters are enjoyable (A lot of that is, I think, that the artist sometimes really *nails* expressions). I could totally see doing a game in this style, with lots of fast and loose “zappy” magic.

Couple new good finds on the ipad.

  • iAnnotate PDF is, as the name suggests a pdf annotation app. Admittedly, this is a kind of a specialized need, but if it’s a need you have, it’s pretty cool.
  • Flipboard is a twitter/facebook reading app that I really think everyone should try. Basically, it takes feeds and, if they have links or pictures, grabs the content the point to and posts that, along with the feed, to turn your whol feedreading experience into something akin to reading a magazine. It’s free, and it’s something you really need to see to believe.
  • I got approved for Hulu Plus, so I can watch hulu on the ipad now. So far, cooler in theory than practice, as there seem to have been network issues, but I’m hopeful. I am mostly sad that their anime seem to mostly be subtitled, which is not my bag.
  • For pure visual fun toys, Gravilux and uzu are both cool, and maybe a buck each.
  • Small World has released its AI expansion, so you can now play against the computer, and get whupped. This is pretty cool, but I admit there are other Days of Wonder games I would FAR rather play on the iPad.
  • Tried Droptext for a while. Love the theory (text editor that works directly on files in your dropbox) but got quickly frustrated in practice. Because it needs to sync up every time you start it, it is not fast to get in and out of, which is a pain. Returned to myTexts as my primary writing app.
  • Couple of really excellent games. I’ve bought into the Angry Birds movement, and while I don’t think it’s grabbed me as much as others, it’s still pretty fun. More obscure, but totally worth getting is Honey, That’s Mine! which is just a reskinning of Hey, That’s My Fish (an awesome game) that supports solo or multiplay.
  • By the way, may I say how annoyed I am that none of the ipad apps do .rtf? Pages doesn’t. The various Office apps can display it, but not edit it. Maddening.
  • I’m still using Twitterific as my primary twitter client, but I have to admit that Osfoora HD is good enough that I could see using it instead. Tweetdeck continues to promise the world, but disappoint on delivery.
  • Dicebook looks very promising. PDF reader plus dice roller is creeping up on a super GMing App.
  • Clock Apps all suck. Why couldn’t apple include one so I could set a freaking alarm? Can you maybe throw it in with ios4 along with my long awaited folders?

Game went ok on Monday. Some issues with Fate Point economy, as discussed yesterday, but more broadly, it’s proving an interesting challenge to run a game with a true espionage focus,(rather than merely action with espionage elements). A lot of my instincts and well-worn tools are poorly suited to the specific needs of the genre, but expressing what new tools I need is still a little fuzzy. No doubt I’ll talk about it more when I have something more concrete to go on.

That’s about it. Hopefully a burst of gaming this weekend will blow away my no-gencon blahs, but for now, I’m pretty well tapped. Have a good weekend, all.

Big Aspect – Little Aspect

(Or, How SOTC Lost Its Checkboxes)

So, let me tell you about my character.

I played Finndo, son of Oberon, in Born to Be Kings, the first FATE game ever, run by the inestimable Fred Hicks. Probably one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite games ever. As an early game, there were all manner of interesting things and oddities in the mechanics, some of which sorted themselves out in time and others which we just muddled through.[1]

One particular thing that Fred did was dictate some element in each of our backgrounds. Nothing so big that it overwrote the choices we would make, but rather some particular touchpoint. For Finndo, it was that he had a strong sense of duty. I took that and ran with it – Finndo was the eldest (acknowledged) son, and had walked way form duty in his youth, lost everything, and had returned. Externally he was a powerful, charismatic figure, but internally he was a hollow shell with nothing but his duty pushing him forward. This was a big epic game, and as a result, this was a big epic DUTY.

Now, in the initial draft of the game, chargen had phases, but in each phase the player chose between getting an aspect or getting a few points to spend on skills. In retrospect this was a terrible arrangement, but at the time we don’t know any better. But part of that arrangement included the implicit understanding that when a player opted to forgo skills to take an aspects, that aspect was a big deal. An aspect tied to a power meant you could do serious magic. An aspect without magic was similarly powerful, but expressed differently.

The net result was the Finndo’s duty was a bedrock truth. Empires would fall before his sense of duty faltered. The only way that duty could ever be broken would be the day that I, as a player, decided he had refilled his shell, found some sort of life again, and walked away from it all.

All of which is to say that while it may have been “just an aspect”, it’s impact was huge.

I consider Finndo’s duty to be an important example, because it highlights the idea that an aspect is something IMPORTANT about a character, not merely something that is true. By the time Kings wrapped up and Fred rolled into his Miskatonic Buffy game, we had started seeing the utility of aspects as an all-purpose multi-tool.

Fast forward to a bit later when we’re coming up for the initial rules for what became Spirit of the Century[2]. This was originally just going to be a local game designed to support a rotating cast of players and to give us a chance to test ideas for the Dresden game we were working on. A lot of things came up as we were discussing things, but two in particular merit mention here: aspects and fate points.

So, an important thing to remember is that up until that point, aspects had checkboxes next to them. Those checkboxes cleared out at the end of a session, and when you wanted to use an aspect, you checked it off. You could take the same aspect multiple times to get multiple boxes next to it, indicating it was something particularly important to you. Once a box was checked off, that was it.

It was with this in mind that we originally decided to go with 10 aspects. That allowed us to do 5 phase chargen and have the numbers work out evenly. If someone really wanted to go for 10 single box aspects, they could do so, but they also could focus on a few, important aspects with more boxes too. Since the expectation was that the latter would be the norm, there was no real concern about too many aspects or aspect dilution. Players would, we presumed, gravitate towards their taste and comfort level.

That was all well and good, until an unrelated conversation came up regarding what fate points could do. Remember, they had nothing to do with Aspects at the time (except for earnign them through compels) and Fred and I both had experience with Fudge Points (Fate Points’ honorable ancestor) that were few an very potent. We also were pondering non-mechanical things like coincidences, declarations and the like. It’s also worth noting that at the time, players started with _no_ Fate points except those they had earned, which were so rare[3] and important thatthey were actually preserved from session to session[4].

And that’s when a little idea popped up which had far ranging consequences. “What if,” we asked, “spending a fate point could uncheck an aspect box?”

Oh, man, did it unspool form there. It was, after all, an entirely reasonable proposal, and it pushed bonuses onto aspects more than just fate points. There were some implications we had to handle, like bringing aspect bonuses and FP bonuses into line with each other to reflect priorities, and in doing so we had nother idea. But that suggested that the pattern would go liek this: player would leave aspects checked until the very last second when they needed an aspect, and would only then pay to uncheck it. Given that, we considered just starting with every box checked and letting players start with some number of Fate points, but that seemed awkward and artificial. The obvious answer was to forgo the boxes entirely. Sure, it meant that everyone would have 10 aspects, but that would hardly be a problem, right?[5]

We ended up going with the players starting with a number of fate points equal to the number of checkboxes they’d lost (10) because, hey, it’s pulp. But the thinking was that number could be adjusted up or down to capture different kinds of tone, with more points getting closer to superheroic and fewer points getting closer to noir.[6]

The thing is, it worked. It worked REALLY well. We had lost the BIG, DEFINING aspects, but in return we’d gotten a tool that could apply elements of descriptive language to virtually any element of games. Where the Fudge/Fate ladder was a universal tool for qualifying things, this was a universal tool for things that didn’t need qualification. Hell, with aspects as a descriptive language, it was not hard to start envisioning games that were nothing but aspects, though that’s probably its own topic for some point down the line.

But the problem is…well, I miss Finndo’s DUTY. Attribute it to how positive the play experience was, or nostalgia or what have you, but some part of me still wants to see a few, potent aspects rather than many descriptive ones. The good news is that’s hardly an impossible goal – just as fate was tuned in its current direction, it can be tuned in other ways. God knows, the double-edged nature of aspects are showing up in so many different games in so many different ways that it’s not like it’s hard to come up with one more implementation.

So this is on my mind. My current game is having some serious fate point economy issues because, frankly, I only call for a handful of die rolls per session, and the characters are capable enough that the bonus provided is not that big a deal. I’ve been giving them fewer and fewer fate points at the start of each session, to try to find a sweet spot, but frankly, it’s just not quite working, in large part because this is probably the lightest version of Fate I’ve ever run, so light it that could probably be diceless. The answer calls for some pretty serious thinking about the economy of fate points, which are well tuned to scarcity, but not so much for abundance.

1 – Issues with magic are one of the big reasons that FATE supports so many magic systems.

2 – Sad fact – This is why I have no iconic character in SOTC. The various centurions largely came from local games, but as I was running them, I had no PC.

3 – At the time, just as using an aspect was a big deal, compels were also big. You didn’t get a fate point for playing your aspect or being inconvenicend by it. You got one when your aspect knocked you down, kicked you in the face, and went through your pockets while you wept in the gutter.

4 – This last was actually one of the issues we were facing – how does that work in a game that’s a series of one-shots?

5 – ah, sweet sweet unintended consequences.

6 – We never really explored this tonally (though, mechanically, it’s very important to the Dresden Files RPG) , but this is where I give a shout out to Brad Murray, who ended up drilling into it very interestingly in this post over at his blog. That post is what pretty much lead to this one.