Man, I love our promo videos.
Man, I love our promo videos.
Are you making a game? Are you building a website? Do you need some really awful clip art? If you do, I can help you. Here’s a batch of really bad clip art. Well, there’s one piece of good clip art in there, but I didn’t make it. I made only the bad ones.
They’re really specific and they’re really stupid. You could maybe use them as game pieces or character illustrations for the old games I used to draw at conventions on sheets of packing cardboard. Or, if you have a piece of writing that you want to distract from by including a horrendous image, these are right up your alley. Web avatar icons? No problem. Be the envy of your friends, if your friends are knuckleheads.
Ultimately, there’s no need to have a player rolling dice for something that’s not an essential part of the game. You use dice to create a moment of tension, when the outcome of something is in question. When the outcome is mandatory or inconsequential, though, resorting to that die roll adds nothing. At best, it’s a minor thrill to tinker with the game piece. At worst, it’s a frustrating punishment levied by fate.
Instead of using dice to govern skill use, I’ve been working with the idea of characters possessing, effectively, rights to effect the use of certain skills. Here’s how it works.
If a character puts a point into a skill, that’s his way of telling me, “I would like to do something in the game that involves this skill.” That’s cool — that’s communication between player and gamemaster by using the system as feedback. After all, if a player didn’t want to use the skill, he wouldn’t have put his points in it.
Thereafter, I make a point of using that character’s skill in a situation in-game. A character who took a point of, say, sailing — he gets to navigate a craft through a dangerous channel, right a listing ship, or launch a rowboat before the galleon sinks. A character with the Drive skill might outmaneuver a pursuer, overtake a fleeing adversary, or thread the needle as a garage door threatens to lock him out of the warehouse. The Computer-savvy character intercepts a damning digital communication or finds the rival’s location using a property search database.
The skills don’t even have to be literal uses. The sailor character, for example, might recognize a curious knot used to bind a captive and know how to undo it or learn thereby that one of the captors is a fellow seafarer. The driver might perceive the smell of burnt clutch and realize the adversary has escaped. The computer guy knows that the hardware the rival is using to protect his hideout is susceptible to an electrical surge.
The benefit is that the character has the opportunity to feel cool and have a unique interaction with the story. It’s just a detail, something that doesn’t redirect the flow of the story as the vampire suddenly decides to, um, “hack into the police database” or “create a biotoxin” or “make my own dragonsbreath rounds.” The other players don’t have to sit idly by as he spins up a tangential minigame. The story doesn’t lose its direction and the action progresses without undue lingering over details and set dressing.
It’s also a great method by which a gamemaster can inject vital clues into mysteries and intrigues. In all but purely abstract combat games, specialized information needs to flow to the players, and it’s tremendously empowering to have it flow to my character in a way that I’ve described as being his interest or forte.
Also notably, the player effectively has the right to use the skill. He doesn’t rely on dice to tell him whether or not he exhibits the characteristic he paid to have. It’s a non-system system, a way to grant benefit to a player without having to rely on the whim of mechanics or externalities to convey it.
It needs to be used in moderation, of course. Too many of these little defining characteristics become overwhelming, intrude on niche protection, and again steal the spotlight.
This doesn’t fit perfectly into every system as written. It takes a little tweaking to use in the World of Darkness, as a few combat skills and abilities that make Disciplines function are part of the core and the “automatic” skills can’t be evenly extracted. Still, these “guaranteed” skills can instead become Merits or even specialties. D&D as well relies on margin of success for some skills to define effects for abilities that call upon them (like feinting and jumping). With a bit of tinkering, though, this player-empowering system can fit into almost any tabletop ruleset.
I hate when games are realistic.
Rather, I don’t enjoy games that make an attempt at simulating realism in place of the experience the game actually wants to provide. The question for a game isn’t whether or not it adequately presents a feeling of realism. The question is whether an element of a game believably represents the type of gameplay the designer wants to impart.
“Is this what the game’s about?” in short. It doesn’t have to be the crux of the game, but the element has to serve the play.
For example, I have always been frustrated by the inclusion of the Computer skill in the various World of Darkness games. The fact that the rules support a specific sort of challenge involving the use of computers, in my opinion, sends the wrong message. That message is, “This is a setting in which people who use computers are a significant facet of the setting.” All of the sudden you open the floodgates of things like vampire hackers, cyber-werewolves, and the sorts of loosely computerized tangents that occasionally rear their heads on things like CSI. Never mind all of the trappings of gothic literary fiction and the turgid emotional landscape of eternal living death — it’s time for a shadowrun.
(You know what else used to crack me up? Dodge as a skill. Especially when interpreting the skill through the rules for skill improvement. You could spend experience points on Dodge… which meant that you were actively practicing getting out of the way of some stuff. Is there a special place you go to hang out and dodge? A gun range, maybe?)
Anyway, back to the point. I’m not saying that there’s no place for computers in a Vampire story. I’m saying that vampires doing things with computers doesn’t need to happen so frequently or with such a broad range of outcomes that it needs rules to allow vampires to interact with computers. Maybe a story suggests that there’s a computer with critical information on it. If the Storyteller needs the players to have that information, they get it. No dice rolling. No dice pools or modifiers or rolling and putting Willpower into it — if the players need the information and one of them thinks to say, “I look it up on the computer,” then, okay, they get the clue off the computer.
Too often, designers overlook this, especially in skill-based systems , or in modern games that, as a result of the design, assume that if it can be done in the modern world, rules need to exist so that players can do it via the system. In many cases, it’s just not discriminating design. It’s kitchen-sink design, and it ends up making extra work and diluting the experience of play. At best, the system is going to lie, created but unused, in some forgotten drawer of the game. At worst, it’s going to derail play of the optimal game experience with minutiae or a tangent that undermines the game’s true goal.
When you build a system into a game, that means you as the designer want the system to be used. If you want your vampires hacking away at their computers, you make a Computers system for vampire hacking. It’s like Chekhov’s gun: If you write a play and put a gun in it, you’re stating implicitly (and eventually explicitly) that the gun is going to see use. If you don’t want something to happen in a game, don’t build it in there.
The other side of this principle is true as well. If a system exists, it exists because that’s what the designers want you to do. Aion has skill-based crafting that results in occasional failure of the crafting character to produce the item. Logically, then, the designers of Aion want you to fail sometimes, and thus want you to lose items (thereby sending you back into the world to seek more items). EVE Online wants you to lose a ship every now and then, and eventually wants you in open conflict with other players, especially via corporate or alliance warfare. Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online want you to spend a lot of time playing their preconstructed content, and though you can do it with other players, they don’t want to mandate that you have to or even encourage you to do so. It’s easier to solo than it is to play through content as a group, so that’s what they want most of their players to do.
Bear that in mind when you create house rules or write your own games. If it’s not part of the game, don’t include it. Make it “realistic” only if verisimilitude is key to the play of the game.