Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Gaming Theory’ Category

Some brilliant game designs have arrived that encourage invention at the table, which allows play with little or no prior preparation and gives players more creative input into the emergent story.

I realized today that I really miss certain elements of the old way of role-playing, of playing in worlds that were prepared by the GM or a publisher: exploration and discovery.

When you know that the whole world exists outside of your game, that it was created a priori before you decided to play in it, then you are exploring something greater than yourself and your group of friends. The feeling is akin to that of reading The Lord of The Rings for the first time; except not just experiencing it linearly, but stepping into it and turning over the rocks yourself.

Emergent play has its revelatory merits too; you explore your own creative ideas, you experience and are perhaps surprised by your friends’ contributions. Players certainly have more creative input into the action. This kind of play can be extremely rewarding, and I won’t say that one kind is better than the other.

But in extemporaneous play, I never get that sense of awe that comes with stomping around in a world that feels real and permanent and old and full of secrets.

And I miss that.

——————

How could I design some mechanics to evoke that feeling of exploring a rich world, in a story-now game?  This question just launched me into a serious brainstorming session.  But I’m going to work on these thoughts a bit before sharing them.  What ideas do you have?

-J

Read Full Post »

I don’t get enough gaming.

I listen to gaming podcasts during my commute.  Sometimes I’m really inspired by what I hear, or I pick up some great advice that I want to apply to my gaming.  But then I forget most of it.  What I really need to do is take notes, or blog afterwards about what inspired me.  But who has time for that?  When I’m listening, I’m driving.  When I stop listening, I’m at work, or I’m arriving home and it’s family time.

Narrative Control, the podcast, is my latest discovery (I’ll post a list of good RPGing podcasts one of these days).  In their episode about mysteries, they started out talking about how to give effective clues that engage players, and ended up coming to a really interesting conclusion: that setting establishment and clue revelation can look very much the same from the players’ point of view.  For example, in your first session, an advisor is seen arguing with the prince.  Is this setting establishment, i.e. this advisor is argumentative or the prince encourages open dialogue or the court is wrestling with a thorny problem; or is this a clue, i.e. this advisor is so desperate about something that he dares to argue with his prince in public?  If this is supposed to be a clue, but the social rules of the setting haven’t already been firmly established, then the players aren’t going to get it.

Another good point was that every clue revelation should also be, or be coincident with, a call to action.  The players’ reaction to a clue should never be allowed to be “oh well that’s interesting I guess.”  Either the clue directly drives them into action, or at least some kind of action should be coincident with them finding the clue.  Players want to DO stuff, and unraveling a mystery is rarely top of their list.  There’s a fine line between puzzlement and frustration.  Give the players opportunities to take action and be awesome, to keep it fun and to cement the clues in their minds.

I’m thinking back to the game that we most recently wrapped.  I wasn’t GMing this one.  It happened a few times that the GM revealed some fact and we all went “huh,” and then he had to follow up by saying something like: “just like the one you saw in the cave, remember?” or “that’s the name that the Earl’s daughter heard in her dream, remember?”  Clearly this was meant to be a big “ah-hah” moment for us, but we needed it to be spelled out.  I’m not criticizing the GM; I think he did it better than I did in my Elric campaign.  I remember having to do the same thing a lot, explaining the implications of new facts or reminding the players who key NPCs were and which noble house they belonged to.  I think I had just made my intrigues too sprawling and complex, and my clues too subtle, forgetting that I was fully immersed in this setting every night, whereas the players encountered it one night every two weeks.  Anyway, I think both of us could learn a few things from this podcast.

So, rules for running a mystery or intrigue effectively:

  • Strongly establish the setting first
  • Use the reactions of NPCs to show social rules, or show that a social rule has been broken
  • Keep intrigues relatively simple.  You can ramp up the complexity in subsequent scenarios in the same setting
  • Don’t be subtle with clues
  • Make every clue a call to action, or coincident with a reason to act
  • Make things personal for the PCs: have developments directly affect them or their loved ones or assets

There were a lot of other good points in the podcast that I’m already forgetting.  I need to listen to it again and make notes.

Tangent: Zero-Prep GMing

My group has been talking about moving to zero-prep GMing as a way to continue gaming when we’re all too busy to prep a game.  And I realized something this morning.  Zero-prep GMing doesn’t just entail a change of approach for the GM.  Zero prep entails a different style of play for the players, too.  The responsibility for creating and running the world can be more shared by everybody.  In an early episode of Narrative Control, they mention a technique from John Wick’s book Play Dirty, in which NPCs are farmed out to the players.  When you interact with the innkeeper, somebody besides the GM plays him.  When you’re called in to talk to your station chief, one of the other players takes up the role.  This gives the players greater agency to establish things in the setting, which ultimately makes the game better for everybody.  This could be expanded to other elements besides NPCs.

This is a train of thought that I want to explore some more.  Zero-prep GMing kind-of scares me.  But if we can figure out zero-prep playing, then we could end up supercharging our whole play experience.

-J

Read Full Post »

It’s funny how, once you become aware of an idea, you notice it everywhere.  Some people call it “The Secret,” but there’s nothing supernatural about it, it’s just statistics and psychology.  Anyway, now that I’m thinking about pulp adventure gaming, it keeps coming up.  The latest 2 episodes of 2 GMs 1 Mic’s podcast (2013 Ep.17 and 2013 Ep.18) have been partly about pulp adventure gaming using Savage Worlds.  And they got me thinking…

The big thing that I have to figure out before I run a pulp campaign is: What makes a pulp plot, and how can I achieve that at the table?  There is some information in Spirit Of The Century, some in the above-mentioned podcasts, and really I have only just begun my research.  Pulp plots are a lot of things, including fast-paced.  So I was just thinking: could we do one complete adventure (“episode”) per session?  With a hard deadline, I/the GM would be driving towards a climax when there’s about 30 minutes left in the session.  Scene-setting and “editing” would be necessarily quick and snappy.  But I think maybe one 3-hour session is not enough time for a decent adventure, if there is to be any tactical content at all.

Well then, how could we do it in say three sessions?  We would still need a meaningful deadline for each session.  The three-act structure fits nicely into that schedule.  Something like:

  • Session 1:  The PCs face an unexpected danger, escape, then investigate and discover the real cause (ie. Villain!).
  • Session 2:  Pursuit.  Things get worse, leading to Certain Doom (Cliffhanger!).
  • Session 3:  PCs escape the Certain Doom, there is a Plot Twist, leading to the Final Showdown (Climax!)

So, every session, you’re driving towards either a big revelation, a cliffhanger ending or a climactic showdown.  That sounds doable!  Now, would it achieve the desired effect, or just make us all feel harried?

Read Full Post »

All four of us in my gaming group are serious, serious gamers, we like the same types of games, and we get along great.  But despite all that, each of us brings very different games to the table.  We all take turns choosing the game and GMing.  Mike is very plugged in to the online indie gaming scene, and brings us the new hotness.  Ryan is on a lifelong quest to discover or build the perfect story-gaming system.  Peter’s tastes run to the crunchy, and he loves superhero games.  And me, well…

When I look at the history of the games that I have nominated and run, there are both expected and unexpected trends:

I’m attracted to settings more than systems.  I know that system is vitally important to the gaming experience, but when I read a new game and go “hell yeah I want to play that,” it’s usually because the fictional content (or “fluff”) has grabbed me.  I find this especially when reading the GUMSHOE games: Trail of Cthulhu, Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents, et al.  I don’t even particularly like the GUMSHOE system, but these games have evocative, detailed settings that are ripe for drama and adventure.  Setting-rich games are kind-of a problem with my group, though, which tends to prefer games with a low barrier to entry (i.e. not having a lot of setting material to memorize before the game can begin).  When I run a game, I tend to spend a lot of time developing setting and backstory content, and then trying to figure out how I’ll introduce it all during play (without boring exposition scenes).

But system IS important.  I like systems that aren’t too crunchy; I don’t want to have to keep flipping through the rulebook during the game.  A system should have explicit mechanics for driving the story forward and in unexpected directions.  I want to be surprised, even as the GM.  We end up mixing and matching systems and settings quite a bit.  For example, I ran a game in the Elric! (a.k.a Stormbringer) setting using the Sorcerer and Sword system (with great success).  But paradoxically, reading setting-free system rulebooks (e.g. Fate Core) leaves me cold.  I need some sets and costumes with my rules, even if I’ll never use them.

Sorcery, ghosts and demons.  These are favourite genres of mine that I keep coming back to.  I feel like there’s something about forbidden knowledge and Things That Should Not Be Named that I haven’t successfully invoked at the gaming table yet; but I can’t say exactly what that is.  I’ll keep exploring these genres until I do.

I just finished my turn in the GM’s chair, so my next opportunity to pick the game is probably a year away.  Still, I’m always reading new RPGs and supplements, and of course I want to play just about all of them.  Maybe looking back at my previous selections will help me to narrow down on what I’m really looking for.  Or maybe I’ll decide to try something completely different.

Read Full Post »

 

I’m in the middle of reading Fate Core System, the game system (stripped of setting) that was behind Dresden Files and other of Evil Hat Productions’ role-playing games.

Aspects Are Not Bonuses — Okay, Now I Get It

When we played Dresden Files last year, I didn’t like the Aspects part of the system.  I felt that we were all interpreting our Aspects too loosely, re-shaping their meanings to give us bonuses in every situation.

But now I realize that the Aspect is not the bonus: the Fate Point is the bonus.  Fate Points are the hard currency of bonuses and penalties.  To get a bonus, you have to spend a Fate Point; and to earn more Fate Points, you have to take penalties.  The Aspects are the narrative keys that bring these Fate-Point transactions into the fiction.  For example, you might spend a Fate Point to get a +2 bonus in combat; but what does that bonus represent?  Military training, huge muscles, a two-by-four?  It is your Aspect “Karate Blackbelt” that tells us exactly how you kick ass in this fight.  Therefore, loosely interpreting your Aspects doesn’t unbalance the game.  Whether or not it serves the fiction is another issue, but one more easily controlled I think, at least with my group it is.  We all want to tell a good story, foremost.

I Tackle Him. No Wait, I Missed. Except, I Didn’t Miss

I don’t like the order of operations that Fate proposes for resolving actions, which is as follows:

  1. Declare the action
  2. Roll the dice, determine success or failure
  3. If failure is indicated, invoke an aspect and apply bonus
  4. Success.

So in the fiction, an attack would sound like this:

  1. I tackle The Mandarin to the ground!
  2. (Rolls dice) Oh, but I rolled badly; I guess I missed him.
  3. Except, I am a Disciple Of The Ivory Shroud (invokes Aspect, spends Fate Point), so…
  4. I do the Dance Of The Crane to sweep his legs out from under him, and then I tackle him!

This kind of instant ret-conning (creating narrative continuity retroactively) interrupts the cinematic action that we’re all seeing in our minds’ eyes.  And you’d be doing it on every other action in a scene.  I don’t like it.  But, changing the order of operations would change the game’s economics: i.e., having to decide whether to spend a Fate Point before you roll is more risky than being able to spend to modify a roll after the fact.  It would be far better to either declare all the actions irrevocably, apply all the mechanics, and then describe the outcome; or, to apply all the mechanics up front, and then proceed with narration, knowing who has the upper hand.

Maybe one could bend the Fate mechanics to avoid the instant ret-con, maybe not.  The Fate Core System book recommends declaring actions with an ellipsis.  For example:

  1. I try to tackle The Mandarin to the ground…
  2. (Rolls dice) …but he dodges at the last second…
  3. (spends a Fate Point) …but through my learnings as a Disciple Of The Ivory Shroud, I anticipate his clumsy evasion…
  4. …and sweep his legs out from under him using my Dance Of The Crane move, and then tackle him!

This order of operations satisfies the Narrativist in me: there’s no ret-conning.  But there are other problems with it.  Every action has to be explicitly declared as an attempt, and the dice determine whether the desired action happens or not; instead of the more preferable declaring of an action, and the dice determine the consequences.  And it just sounds clumsy, with a lot of pauses and “buts.”

Free Invocations: More Stuff To Track

Normally, you pay a Fate Point when you invoke an Aspect for a bonus.  But, certain game outcomes (such as “creating an advantage” or giving an opponent a “consequence”) will give you a “free invocation” or two, meaning that you can invoke a certain Aspect later (once or twice) for free.  So now we have to track these free invocations that are like invisible Fate Points, but that are tied to specific Aspects and usually a specific situation, and can be used later by a one or some of the characters in the scene.  Unlike normal Fate Points, which are tracked using beads or poker chips or whatever, there is no suggested means of tracking free invocations.  I can see myself (as a player or GM) either having to quickly scribble down all the details of new free invocations, or just forgetting that they’re “out there.”

Read Full Post »

Even when I’m not the designated GM (and so have no prep to do between game nights), I still spend a lot of my free time on gaming stuff: sometimes writing down and working out ideas, but mostly just reading: reading gaming blogs and forums, reading gaming news and articles, and reading games.

Right now I’m reading Fate Core, which is simply the FATE rules abstracted from any setting and published as a stand-alone system.  Next I plan to read Savage Worlds (finally).

Probably my favourite movies of all time are the Indiana Jones films.  How could I best create such high-flying adventures at the table, and what system would I use?  That’s the question that’s always at the back of my mind as I’m reading new game systems.  I know it will take more than just the right system; probably the prep, the players’ approach to the game, and the GMing techniques, will be just as important as system.  I read games as much for the GMing advice as anything else.

Other questions on my mind as I read games:

  • Who authors the story: the players, the GM, or does everybody play to find out what happens?
  • How does this game make failure interesting?
  • How does this game help us to create surprising and intricate scenes, people, and plot twists?
    • Somewhere between “memorize this encyclopedia about this fictional world” and “make up the setting yourself!” is the sweet spot in which the game provides plenty of provocative setting elements, and inspires the players to mould their own game-world out of it.  Does this game lunge for the sweet spot?  Does it strike a bullseye?

 

Random tangent:

  • It would be instructive to play Microscope a few times in a row, and generate a bunch of very different game worlds.

Read Full Post »

Ah, serendipity! Shortly after posting this, I learned of a game that does something like what I was just proposing. Dirty Secrets by Seth Ben-Ezra is a noir detective fiction game in which the players simultaneously construct a mystery and work to solve it. I haven’t read the game yet, but here’s what I’ve been able to gather from reading AP’s:

In a game of Dirty Secrets, there is one PC (the investigator), and all the other players perform different aspects of the traditional GM’s role: adjudicate rules, create adversity, play an NPC, etc.. Not only that, but the roles rotate throughout the game, including the role of PC. As play progresses, GM-aspect players are laying down clues and creating plot twists for others to integrate. The game is finished when one player (it may have to be the one playing the PC) proposes a solution to the mystery, and either proves it with the available evidence, or can force a confession. Before that final scene, nobody knows “who dunnit.”

I still want to work on that game idea that I started to sketch out in the previous post; but I can’t wait to read Dirty Secrets.

-J

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »