Justin Achilli

Month: February, 2011

An Interesting Alignment System

I’ve been playing a little bit of King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame, both because I’ve been wanting to scratch a Pendragon itch and because it was dirt-cheap on Steam the other week. To my surprise, it has an “alignment system” the implementation of which I’ve found myself really enjoying. In many games — the Fable series is a prime offender here, but most games that purport to offer moral choice yield similar results — the developer provides an illusion of moral choice, but the result creates either psychotic sociopaths, murdering their way into the endgame animations, or annoying white knights whose primary defining characteristic is that they aren’t the gore-dripping murderers. Along the way, you get flavor powers that either shoot demons out of your face or surround you with choruses of angels that heal you or add defense.

The interesting part about the King Arthur wargame is that it embraces the egalitarianism of the play experience. You’re King Arthur, goddammit, and you’re going to rule Britain and establish a Round Table, and that’s just how it’s going to be. The game gives you a variety of methods by which to do this, but it doesn’t pretend that good and evil are the metric by which they’re judged.

Instead, the alignment system and the story advancements are done along the axis of Rightful rulership and Tyranny, and with the principles of the Old Faith or Christianity. It’s elegant, simple and cool — it acknowledges that you’re following a scripted story course, but it allows you to make choices that affect how you get there.

Good old corpse-robbing King Arthur. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

This is where I quibble with Fable and other morality games (and don’t get me wrong; I like Fable, I’m just not thrilled with its morality features). Whether I’m psychotically evil or kitty-pettingly good, I’m achieving the same objective. That doesn’t make sense in the good-evil spectrum. If I’m good, sure, I’ll save the world, but if I’m evil, I probably just want to become a selfish tyrant. Fight the big dragon at the end? Nah, we can probably work something out. I’d rather whip these peasants and steal these pies instead. But I can’t conclude the game that way, so even as the evil maniac, I have to save the world. What a drag.

That’s what’s interesting about the approach of this King Arthur game. Both developer and player agree as to the ultimate result of the game’s conclusion. Arthur becomes the High King. It’s the details of how gets there that make for the interesting choices in play. The results are similar flavor powers, but the options presented in the quest chronology open and close bits of the content based on the player’s choices. I can side with Balin or Balan; I can cultivate an army of howling unseelie or I can swear Christian crusaders to my crown. Either way, I’m going to finish the story with the same results, but there’s not going to be any incongruity at the end with how I’ve chosen to play the game. The sinner doesn’t inexplicably become the saint because that’s how the story has to end. The interesting choice isn’t posed between good and evil. The alignment axes are posed within the context of the game’s story, not a morality tale where the result is incongruous with the morality actually practiced.

This is very similar to the Passions system in Pendragon, which I’ve gone on record as saying is my all-time favorite “alignment” system in a tabletop RPG. It’s not a perfect translation, but I don’t think it’s meant to be, since the medium is different. But the result is just as cool, in which I have a character who cleaves to his personality, and reaps its rewards and consequences.

Pagan Lands, Session Two

This is very much how I imagine Kalasthes' lost Thirteenth Legion looking.

Only the cleric Magnus Agrippa made it back to Fort Lorica after the last foray into the Pagan Lands, which is to say, only his player (Rich) was able to return with him alive. Eddy had previously played the fighter Belc, who met an untimely end with his guts spilled on the floor of a Keltic longhouse, so this time he undertook another survivor of the 13th Legion: the monk Petellius. Ethan joined us this time, with a Keltic fighter named Beliax — another victim of random chargen, yoked with a Wisdom of three. Three. Even “Drink that? Okay” Decimus had a Wisdom of four. But Decimus wasn’t there this time, and neither was Salvador (since Ned and Oscar were out), so we ruled that everyone simply hadn’t met back up after the debacle in the Keltic village and only Magnus Agrippa had returned to the fort for this session.

From the get-go, I knew this was going to be a good session, and it definitely paid off in one of my favorite currencies, which are emergent details. They come as a result of the broad-strokes setting design I’m exercising with the Pagan Lands, because I love to see the mutual exploration and creation of setting detail between the GM and players. This time around, the details emerged that:

  • The Empire seems to have a society that leans toward the monastic, or at least the military does. Petellius was the second monk PC to survive the shattering of the Thirteenth Legion, so we sort of surmised that some estimable amount of the imperial legions belonged to these regimented orders. It makes sense, since the rough sketch of the empire is one of inviolate Law, and disciplined ranks of soldiers fit that concept perfectly.
  • Low stats don’t always represent hopeless or cartoonish ineptitude. Beliax, with his Wisdom of three, wasn’t a bumbling doofus. Ethan portrayed him as a Kelt who had suffered a formidable head wound, and who as a result forgot his Keltic allegiance, finding himself press-ganged into the Imperial irregulars. With his very low Wisdom, he found it to be the best course to simply follow orders, and he fell into the ranks effortlessly.
  • Well, sort of effortlessly. Magnus Agrippa is notably intolerant of the barbarians of the Pagan Lands, and his first order of business was to force Beliax to his knees and swear him into the Thirteenth. He then took his razor to the Kelt’s beard and untamed hair, remaking him in the (roughly cut) image of an Imperial.
  • As play progressed, we also filled in a few more details about the faith of the Empire, with especial attention to the military. When asked for details about what god or power he was invoking when he cast the clerical standby, Cure Light Wounds, Rich decided that Magnus Agrippa was actually practicing a sort of ancestor-worship. This ultimately refined into the concept that the clerics of the Thirteenth actually called upon the blessings of an ancient general-saint who served as the patron of their legion. And from there it was a logical conclusion that each of the legions had is own sainted patron-general. How does this fit in with whatever whatever other religion and gods may exist for the Empire? At this point, who knows — but it’s an absolutely wonderful emergent detail.

As the session began, the characters staged from Fort Lorica with the intent to follow the line of the mountains and avoid the badlands to the immediate east. Taking unreliable mountain paths and trails to the northeast, they made slow progress (expanding the party’s hexmap by only two hexes of geography). What they found, however, was significant.

Shaped like people, but you don't really relate to them; that's why I like giants.

As the group pressed into the mountain range, the trail took a switchback that an unknown party had marked with a hastily erected warning sign. Cobbled together from wood and carved with coarse letters in an unknown language, the sign also bore an unmistakable omen, in that a partial human corpse lay draped across it, gray and foul, but preserved by the cold of the clime. The Thirteenth pressed cautiously onward and up the trail, noting the carrion birds that circled overhead. Further in front of them yawned a fissure in the mountain wall, and a charnel odor emanated from it. The path before the opening was strewn with gore of various states of freshness.

The grim interlude came to an abrupt end, however, with a guttural roar and a thunderous explosion of stone. An enormous, savage, titan of a humanoid from across the spanning chasm had hurled a boulder at them. As they looked on and considered their next action, a similar unshaven mammoth of a humanoid poked its head out from the crack in the mountain wall. The Thirteenth had stumbled into the territory of a pair of feuding giants.

They ran.

As they made it back around the hairpin, Petellius pressed himself against the rock wall as Magnus Agrippa and Beliax scrambled for higher vantage, looking for a boulder to tumble down upon the closing giant.

The creature lumbered around the corner, wielding a meaty bone like a club, and pulped Petellius, who surprised him by being there, but was unable to strike a telling blow. Magnus Agrippa and Beliax heaved desperately against a boulder, but were unable to topple it upon their foe. The giant climbed the slope, having some difficulty finding broad enough purchase with which to heave up its bulk.

The legionaries gave it one last, frantic shove—

—and the boulder gave, tumbling down the mountain and leveling the enraged giant. It was an only momentary victory, however, as the giant seemed to be gaining its senses while Magnus Agrippa pelted it with sling stones and Beliax tried to cleave its fingers from its climbing hand and send it roaring into the chasm. No such luck.

But then that halcyon joy of gaming, the critical success, was visited upon the table. Normally, the Frog God compilation of Swords & Wizardry recommends only a +1 bonus to damage on a critical success, but remember, “rulings, not rules,” and, what the hell, the party was way outclassed by a superior opponent, so this was a moment when the excitement of the moment outweighed unerring fidelity to the rules.

Beliax, in the throes of the Keltic warp-spasm, hefted his axe and hurled it at the giant, who was pulling himself up the ledge to his full height. The axe took him in the breastbone, whereupon he teetered backward, and then hurtled forward, crushed beneath the brutal boulder heaved from across the open air by the rival giant. Beliax and Magnus Agrippa gaped for a moment, and then rushed to attend the broken form of Petellius.

From a game perspective, this challenge certainly outclassed the characters in terms of combat, but the exploration was going so well that I didn’t just want to see the characters slaughtered and have a new wave of Imperials sally forth from Lorica, so I adapted the encounter to one more of a traditional “problem solving” scenario. The players thought cleverly, taking the high ground and using the environment, so while they didn’t “kill the monster” in literal combat terms, they did overcome the challenge, and thus gained the experience reward that would have come from the fight itself.

(As an aside, it’s a damned shame that the word “giant” as an adjective is the same noun used to describe these sorts of things. It makes it very hard to lend a sense of strangeness and inscrutability to what is obviously a very Other creature when the words used to describe them happen to be the exact name of the commonly accepted creature type. I sufficed by placing emphasis on their great stature and unkempt physical selves, but the point remains that a giant is a giant.)

Big money, no whammies.

With wounds patched and sorrows averted, the party laid low until the rival giant grew bored and moved on, then they investigated the first giant’s charnel lair. Inexplicably, the giant’s trove was not the expected heap of mildewed furs and gnawed bones, but rather a vast quantity of non-Imperial coins. These were curious things, with holes stamped in the middle, and many of the greater “stacks” of them had been threaded by coarse rope. (This is another emergent element I greatly enjoy. This was just a simple, random treasure allotment, with none of the increments subbed out for magic items, but it made for an interesting story detail. I knew that occasional hoards of coins like these would be found in the Pagan Lands, but why here, in the lair of this particular giant?)

Further exploration of the giant’s cave revealed a small tunnel in the back through which a human could carefully wriggle, but certainly not a giant. The Thirteenth entered. Beyond this dip, they found a honeycomb of twisting caverns, and the skeletal corpse of a three-fingered… something. It was definitely demihuman in build and stature, and it held a rotted purse of several coins of a different type. Additional exploration of the small cave chambers revealed a host of ratlike beasts, a chamber of centipedish vermin that had driven the rats from another cavern section, and finally, a breach into a section of worked stone passages. The party’s first dungeon!

Beyond the twisty cavern passages lies... worked stone? Okay, what's going on here?

During the rest of the session, the legionnaires explored some of the first level of this dungeon, which was populated by a gray-skinned, very hostile demihuman race whose communication sounded more like a clicking or chittering than a civilized tongue. Two of their kind were comparative hulking brutes of their kind, as big and bulky as Beliax, while the rest were perhaps four feet tall and of a more furtive (if equally foul) demeanor. By the time the session concluded, the party had discovered a chest of an origin more sophisticated than these wretched creatures,  which contained more coins of the type possessed by the skeletal remains — not Imperial, but neither the outlandish hole-punched coins in the giant’s lair. To clase the session, the legionnaires headed back to Fort Lorica with one of the brutes in thrall, and with an eye on investigating the rest of the dungeon upon their next expedition.

All in all, a very successful game, and everyone left the table entertained. Magnus Agrippa gained a level, Beliax gained a level, and Petellius is markedly closer to reaching level two, and hopefully gaining more hit points than his current, very delicate four. The winter weather was again primarily dressing here, though it did account for some of the party’s slow progress through the mountains. My objectives for the next few sessions are to bring the weather into a more prominent role, and to encourage the players via the encounters presented to bankroll a few hirelings.

The Pagan Lands campaign uses the Swords and Wizardry compilation ruleset published by Frog God Games. Eddy also speaks a bit about the Pagan Lands from the player perspective and gameplay considerations over at his blog.

The Declaration of Game Designer Independence

Lifted from a Danc post, here, which you should go read.

In bullet-point form:

1. Without game design, there is nothing

You can get rid of visuals, music, business or technology and we will still make great games.

2. Designers must drive the vision of the game

We are prime movers, not replaceable cogs.

3. We dedicate ourselves to the lifelong mastery of design

Dilettantes need not apply.

4. We strive to be renaissance designers

We fluently speak the languages of game development and business:

  • We speak the language of creative. All art and music ultimately serves the game play.
  • We speak the language of production. Game design determines the scope and need for the content that production shepherds.
  • We speak the language of engineering. Technology is one tool that enable the experiences designers choose.
  • We speak the language of business. Modern monetization, retention and distribution are directly driven by game systems.

5. We will not be silenced

We tirelessly promote our vision both internally and to the public.

6. We fearlessly embrace new markets and trends

We then reinvent them to be better.

7. We demand the freedom to fail

Design advances through experimentation.

8. We have a choice:

Create with our own voices or sell our talents into servitude.

Also worth noting is some of Danc’s further consideration, in particular:

Not everything here is easy.  To live up to this declaration, you likely need to be a better designer than you are right now.

“You likely need to be a better designer than you are right now” is probably a statement that’s simply true of every designer.

Roll One and Die

This guy will either explode you into your component molecules, or he will hide behind the barbarian.

Warhammer Quest used to have an interesting mechanic surrounding its “wandering monster” encounter system. Every turn, the player with the wizard character rolled a die to determine his available Power (the magic resource) for the turn. On a roll of 2-6, the wizard has that much “mana” for the turn. On a 1, however, the wizard has no mana — and a random encounter occurs.

This is pretty consistent with the Warhammer world. That is, when something kind of bad happens, something god-grindingly awful usually piles on top of it. As a pacing mechanic, though, it’s neat game design. It makes for spikes of “SWEET MOTHER OF CRAP WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE,” which is the sort of thrill that makes a game that has randomness as such a central element exciting. It’s way more engaging than rolling poorly in Settlers of Catan — 2 or 12, nothing happens, because nobody bothers building on those number distros unless they have to.

"And then I was, like, 'Wait, my Humanity is FOUR? But this is only the second session of the chronicle!'"

I used to employ on one of these “trouble spots” during convention and demo games of Vampire I’d run at shows. (I always create pre-gens for convention games, since for a demo people won’t have their own, and because the scenario construction for Vampire relies a lot on the types of characters undertaking it. I didn’t want to take the chance of having a political mystery scenario written and have to shoehorn trenchcoat katana mirroshades Kindred Braveheart into it.) I’d dole out characters by whatever method — one of my favorite methods is “give me three adjectives that describe the character you’d like to play” — and then I’d have each player roll a 10-sider for his starting blood pool. And then, to illustrate the potential of the system, I’d have each player spend a blood point at the beginning of the session to reflect the mystic consumption of vitae.

The results were what you’re dreading: Someone inevitably rolled a 1 on that blood poll roll, and upon spending that first blood for the night, awoke into a ravening frenzy. This was a convenient, exciting, in medias res method for illustrating the blood mechanics, the Beast, and frenzy (and probably Humanity and the Masquerade…) all at once. The game got started with a holy-smokes action sequence, but still got to hit the thematic high points of Vampire.

The system I lovingly know as “roll one and die” makes for a fun and thrilling tipping point, but it’s not universally employable. The drawbacks to using it as a common design principle are few, but can be significant.

  • It can’t prevent a character from participating meaningfully. If all the player does once he’s rolled his one is sit there and wait for his next turn, that’s not an engaging design. The Warhammer Quest rule, for instance, lets the wizard character continue to play his turn, whether by using magic items, attacking with a physical weapon, etc. The Vampire example places the character front and center in a dramatic scenario, and gives him a handful of situational escape or conclusion possibilities. Both of their outcomes engender clever thinking and force accountability.
  • To that end, it doesn’t port well to a solo environment. If the only player who has any input suffers the double-whammy of something bad appearing, and the resource to be used against it is absent, well, that’s trouble. (Of course, Warhammer’s propensity for piled-on catastrophe often turned up triple-whammies, in which the players, already beset by monstrous hordes, are ambushed by an EXTRA BONUS monster horde, oh, and the wizard still has no mana to sling into the fray. Good God, loving this game was masochism.)
  • Players are a cowardly, superstitious lot, and the guy who rolls a one — even though he’s the only guy who ever has to roll that die, so it’s bound to happen eventually (one time in every six, actually) — becomes a veritable Jonah when the inevitable finally happens. This isn’t a problem in most cases, but with particularly salty groups, it’s no fun to be That Guy.
  • If “roll one and die” occurs too frequently, it ceases to be exciting and instead becomes tedious. The Vampire example (even in a non-sadistic convention environment) lets a vampire watch as his precious resource (blood) dwindles, but allows him to choose when her replenishes it. Warhammer Quest balances roll one and die with the presence of the other characters, and the options of items and melee.
  • It’s dangerous to rely on this as a balance mechanism. WQ flirted with this, because the wizard is a powerful character class, but in general, a system that depends on randomness to enforce balance is going to face trouble in the long run. Most cases with play out according to the balance, but statistically, what about those poor slobs at the low end and the lucky stiffs at the low and high ends of the probability distributions? “Wizards suck! All they do is cause problems,” and “Wizards rule! Nothing bad ever happens to them and they always have more than enough Power to face the enemy.” You have to be a hardcore fan of randomness to enjoy the highs and lows of this feature type as a character trait.

What do you think? What games, whether tabletop RPGs, boardgames, or video games, use a system like Roll One And Die to good or bad effect?

Vixen Voyeur

Here’s another mixset of music that puts me in a Vampire mood (click, yo). This time, I’m seeing a Ventrue observing his prey from a rooftop opposite her high-rise flat, where she’s preparing for a night out. He follows her for her perambulations, and it begins a bit tweaky, turns moody quickly, goes a bit poppy, then takes an aggressive turn and finally culminates in the Kiss. Lots of great lyrics in here, too, from Little Boots’ move while you’re watching me/ dance with the enemy to Neon Trees’ I won’t be denied by you/ the animal inside of you and We play pretend/ you’re such a cannibal. Anders Manga’s most poignant here is Delusions of the damned…/ the airing of enduring flesh/ the voyeurs, the parodists. Very Kindred.

The track listing:

  • Vitamin String Quartet, “Animal”
  • Simian Mobile Disco, “The Count”
  • Black Devil Disco Club, “Constantly No Respect”
  • Little Boots, “Remedy” (Avicii Club Mix)
  • Cobra Starship, “Hot Mess” (Nervo Remix Extended)
  • Sia, “Clap Your Hands”
  • Shiny Toy Guns, “Major Tom” (Adam K and Soha Club Mix)
  • Dangerous Muse, “I Want It All” (Dismantled Remix)
  • Combichrist, “Scarred” (Club Mix)
  • Anders Manga, “At Dawn They Sleep”
  • Neon Trees, “Animal” (Smash Mode Radio Edit)

Diagramming Systems Design

When I was younger, I used to like to draw. I’m not very good at it now, being little more than having a minor and unharvested bit of natural talent, and I rarely draw anymore except when doodling for my daughter, but I really used to get a kick out of it. I used to collect drawing books, all of which had advice for the artist like, “Hold your drawing up to a mirror and you’ll see a place where you might have twisted off.” Being the uncultivated minor natural talent that I was, I didn’t ever want to do any of this because it might have led to improvement, but there’s something to the idea of stepping back from something, looking at it from a different perspective, and seeing what’s actually there.

This is a practice that can work very well for game design, as well. In working on the WoD MMO, I’ve observed a big shift in how I do my systems design. When working on tabletop RPGs, I always built the narrative first, then I built the system, then I retooled the narrative to fit the system. In working on MMO design, the narrative becomes “How will the player use this?” Without a live GM to adjudicate special cases, a game system is inflexible, and the narrative derives from the actual function, not from how a pair of players can collaboratively, mutually craft a dramatic outcome. Systems design in a video game creates immediate results, whereas systems design in a tabletop game creates a situation in which two or more players arrive at a conclusion.

When designing systems, I use bullet points. This lets me focus on the concise function of the systems, and it fits well into tasking and time management software. Using nested bullet points, or visually “diagramming” systems design lets me look critically at each piece of a design, and it also lets me see each component of the design. This, in turn, shows me what the system actually does, rather than what I think it does — it shows me where the design has “twisted off” from the intended result.

Here’s an example. This is just thrown together for the topic at hand, this isn’t a design from the WoD MMO, so put those knives away.

Now, what we see here is a variety of things.

We’re dealing with a power that has a narrative theme of shadow. “Shadow” could be anything — lightning, cosmic dust, slime molds. It’s set dressing, not part of the system design.

The power is front-loaded for combat. It has a higher damage rating than defense rating.

However, the power is also built for the long play, defensively. The damage rating is higher, but the armor lasts longer and I can’t fumble it.

That informs my other systems design. If I’m designing another offensive power, I will either need it to inflict more damage or cost less resources to implement. If it’s otherwise the same as this power, why would I ever choose another, when this one does all that the other does and then some?

Being able to choose what I want on the spot is part of the power’s, well, power. The above two uses mean that the power is flexible. In some cases, you might want to use it for offense, while in other cases, you might employ it defensively. This means that other powers probably do more damage or offer more protection, but don’t offer the choice that this power does.

Creating the environmental object adds even more versatility, and is a little more open ended. Are we in a side-scroller or platforming type game? Then I’ll probably be using this a lot to overcome challenges posed by level design. It may offer me access to power-ups that people without the power can’t access. Is this a tactical game? I’ll probably use this object creation to impede my enemy’s movement, or to grant myself some kind of cover. Is it an action game? I might use this to trap a foe in a “shadow cage.”

This additional dimension of the power is included with the offensive and defensive capabaility. There’s probably another power that lets me create more “shadow platforms,” does it quicker, or costs less. Again, pairing this ability with the offense and defense potential makes this flexible, and thus either more expensive or weaker than the core object-creation power (otherwise, I’d just take this one and always be prepared for multiple eventualities, rather than the less-versatile, same-cost power that only built environmental objects).

So, in diagramming the power, we see not only what it does, but how it relates to the other systems in the game. As well, this makes it easier for us to change individual components of the design instead of having to scrap the whole thing and start over.

When you pick up a game book, it’s full of paragraphs. When you fire up a video game, the systems are logics, inherent to the play. The rules themselves, though, are concise, distinct, and often dependent statements.


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