Monday, July 21, 2014

Bumps, Dips and Restarts

Regularly-scheduled campaigns are difficult to maintain. Couples spit; people drop out. Life gets complicated; there are children, jobs, sickness and seasonal activities (summer with kids, holidays,etc). Sometimes games just burn out, which I've somehow managed to do with two campaigns at the same time.

Online games are easier to maintain: someone else is keeping the server's running and patching the client software and usually writing all the 'story' which you and your friends use as a backdrop for your own stories. You (generally) don't have to travel anywhere, just be at your computer or console on time.

Question is: how does one reboot, recover and restart? The quest continues.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Deconstructing design systems

I have a secret confession: I love crunchy design systems. I mean games that have design systems within them for designing and creating things to use in the game. Starships, giant robots, equipment and computers/programs, etc. Mostly this applies to sci-fi games, but also for a bare handful of fantasy settings. They're a game in and of themselves.

I enjoy the intellectual pursuit for systemic elegance and purity. There's a kind of glory in learning and using a design system to achieve what your design goals, which is why games like Mekton Zeta are still on my shelf even though I'll likely never actually play it. Actually playing these kind of games can become a pain, however. (See my previous post on Deconstructing conflict systems for why)

I've already mentioned Mekton Zeta Plus' Technical System. Other examples include GURPS' Vehicles, DGW/FFE's Fire Fusion and Steel, which vary in level of detail from 'lots' to 'absurd.'

I look at the laundry list of things to finish developing and implementing in my TURK Eclipse Phase game and despair over the workload as well as what impact it may have when playing it. Details of weapons, armor, tools, drugs, nano, medicine, mesh and hacking, etc... Eclipse Phase is a setting that cries out for details, crunch and variety: social, morphological and infological freedom being core tenants of the setting. It begs for a way to design things on the fly and implement them in the game. Not just gear but also NPCs and organizations and so on.

The trick then is: How to make playable yet customizable design systems? How do you prevent runaway detail escalation, or loopholes that munchkins can abuse?

I'm toying with the idea of a 'fractal' of game details. Most 'things' get a single stat, representing their overall quality/usefulness/effectiveness; if need be, that rating can be broken down into sub-stats for specific examples. The latest edition of ShadowRun seems to have latched onto this. We shall see where and how it goes.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Deconstructing conflict systems

Conflict is an essential part of any story, let alone role playing, tabletop or board games. Conflict drives change. Stories are about change. Ergo stories are about conflict.

Personally I've experienced a bell-curve of expectations from conflict systems, from simple to complex to simple again. It's been an evolutionary path that mirrors the kind of stories I've liked and like to create: starting with simplistic goals ("wack the bad guy, loot the treasure chest.") have changed to complex explorations on _how_ goals are met, and finally an epiphany that _how_ isn't as important and _why_ and _whats the outcome_ of perusing goals and change.

In my youth, I sought out detailed, complicated and 'crunchy' game systems because I sought understanding how the things worked, even in make believe worlds. The kind of games where a six-second combat round could take half an hour of real time doing math and looking up rules and charts. But in my experience it's only fun when it's warranted. As a GM it's a nightmare to track tons of details and characters and plot.

In other words, I'm becoming and old phart and don't want to consult a ton of charts and use my slide-rule in pursuit of a good story anymore.

To give a board-game example, take Ad Astra Game's Attack Vector Tactical; a richly detailed simulation of hard-science spacecraft combat. It's got charts, math and a strict order-of-operations to playing the game. Players spend their time both planning strategy but also calculating and plotting and measuring all the details of the ships on their side. While I appreciate the detail the developers have crafted into the system, AV:T is exactly the kind of game that's best played on a computer. Let a machine handle all the math and show me the options, limits and choices available to me.

Personally, I'd rather focus on the tactics and strategy and not get overwhelmed by the math. This was no more apparent to me when I heard that AV:T had been licensed as the board game engine for an Honor Harrington game of starship combat. The novels focus on the leadership and tactics of the ship captains, not so much the navigators' working sliderules and working graphing calculators.

Then there's the other end of the spectrum; games like Full Thrust and Battlefleet Gothic, which are almost too simple in their rulesets, but let players concentrate more on tactics and fleet composition than number crunching.

To delve deeper into the separation of player-vs.-character abilities: If my character is a brilliant engineer/programmer/scientist, then I the player shouldn't be limited by my relative lack of ability. The player states their intention, rolls the dice, and the GM and player cooperate to narrate the outcome. Mechanics should determine degree of success or failure, but leave the rest to narration.

Players should focus on choices. Mechanics should support choice.