Sunday, November 29, 2009

Masques & Machinations: Building a Neo-classical RPG About Social Interactions

On Twitter, Oddysey asks:

D&D is a game about exploration with no mechanics for exploration, just success (XP, treasure) or failure (traps, combat, hireling loyalty).

Taken from that perspective, what mechanics would you want in a game about social interaction?

It's an intriguing question and feeds directly into some of my personal interests. I also don't currently have the time and discipline to compose a Twitter-appropriate answer. So y'all get a blog post.

I'm going to talk about two sorts of mechanics here: randomized and inventory mechanics. D&D uses both, as do most of the games that came after. Randomized mechanics are the ones most folks think of when they discuss mechanics specifically, as opposed to rules. They're good when you want to introduce risk and uncertainty. Success usually yields a small reward (in classic D&D it opens up new areas for exploration and grants a few drips of treasure and EXP), but even success drains resources.

These resources are the basis for inventory mechanics. They basically are anything the party keeps track of that can be spent in the course of engaging in the game's primary activity. In classic D&D, we're talking about things like rations, light sources, rope, spells, and potions. Combined with the threat of combat and other randomized mechanics that threaten uncertain levels of resource drain, they serve as the (usually) soft limits on the amount of exploring the PCs can do. The game largely consists of the players judging the amount of risk vs. reward on further exploration based on the amount of resources they have left.

So, in a game of social interaction, we need rewards for successful interactions, and if we use classic D&D as our model, resources that are spent in social interaction and randomized events which could unexpected cause a greater drain on these resources.

First, let's take a look at the rewards. One of the interesting things about the rewards in classic D&D is that they primarily allow for more exploration. Higher levels, more magic, and large piles of coins give the PCs greater resources, which allow them to dare bigger risks. This creates an interesting feedback loop where the players are not only encouraged by success to do more exploring, but also given the wherewithal to do that exploring.

Taking this to our social interaction RPG, we can easily port over money as a reward for social interaction. It might be hard currency, as in D&D, or goods offered by clients who need our PCs to intercede on their behalf. (And these clients could also spur the game as a potential source of “adventures.”) On the other hand, the “currency” might be something more like credit. The more well-known you become, the more likely people are to loan you things, loan you money, or even give you things or do things for you for free, simply so they can get exposure to a larger pool of potential customers and have their work associated with you.

Experience levels also map over quite well. If the culture of the game includes hierarchical levels (and most do), going up a level might correspond to achieving a level of social fame that allows you to elevate yourself to the next hierarchical category: from commoner to noble, from layperson to clergy, from apprentice to master. Cultures with varied layers of social hierarchy and interaction would lend themselves well to this sort of gaming.

So these are your rewards. But how do you earn them? By engaging in social activities and interactions. Some of these may require very little risk for the PCs, but the greatest rewards should go to those who dare the most or find clever ways to minimize their risks, just as in classic D&D. What sort of activities are we talking about? I imagine they might be things like putting on events and spectacles (parties, circuses, the military defeat of a hated or threatening enemy, the publication of memoirs), attempts to forge personal alliances (marriages, blood-brotherhood, partnerships, friendships, romances, treaties, commerce), and overcoming social rivals or triumphing in social contests (court battles, legislation, duels, arguing policy points before a voting assembly or a monarch).

And these offer other suggestions for more personal, but probably more potent rewards: reputation, trust, and respect. Risking these, along with personal fortune, social standing and perhaps even life and limb (“...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”), the players would engage in acts designed to increase their social standing and collective influence. There may be some risk involved (Are the barbarians crushed before they breach the gates? Is the gala rained out? Does the Duchess attend our party or go to the opera instead?) and dice may be rolled. But all of these only set the stage for what such a game would be about: taking on a persona and interacting with each other and the NPCs. Just as classic D&D was about exploring but had no rules about exploring, so this social game would leave the actual interactions up to the players of the game. How the players approached the NPCs, engaged with them, and created the web of relationships the game is about should be left to them and their GM, not the whim of dice.

This, honestly, is what I think should be at the core of a game based on properties like Babylon 5. As for Oddysey's game, I suspect she wants a bit more swashbuckling and derring-do than I've implied above, and a bit less high society. But this sort of game is a ton of fun to think about.

Art by Raffaele Giannetti, José Benlliure y Gil, and Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Give Them What They Want...

Over at, Old Geezer asks:

One of the things computer games have going for them is QUICK rewards. In an interview about Diablo, one of the designers said they swiped the reinforcement schedule from Las Vegas slot machines; small, frequent, irregular reinforcements...

How do we translate this into table top gaming? How can we incorporate small, frequent, irregular reinforcement -- which Skinner clearly demonstrated is the strongest kind.

The discussion generated deals almost exclusively with mechanical tricks to give table-top play the “ding” of MMOGs. I think this mistakes the symptom for the disease.

Yes, you need to give your players little shots of happiness on a regular basis. That's the core of all games, whether we're talking about WoW or Monopoly or bingo or poker. Different games deliver this jolt of happy-happy endorphins in different ways. For WoW and slot machines, it's the randomly delivered reward for simple, repetitive action. In chess and poker, however, it's the head-to-head cerebral duel between players. WoW kinda combines the two where it incorporates player-vs.-player play, but doesn't do it nearly as well as the card game Munchkin.

RPGs are different from these other games in that they are infinitely flexible. Yes, I used the word “infinitely” and I meant it. As a GM (or a player, though that sometimes takes a bit more cleverness) you can reproduce the quick rewards by giving your players what they want.

No, I'm not talking about Monty Haul campaigns full of +5 dancing vorpal swords and characters with stats in the 20s (or whatever is amazing for your game de jour). I'm not talking about numbers at all.

If it's got a number or rule attached to it, it's completely useless for what I'm talking about. Numbers are only short term, one-time goodies. Sure, they're fun to get, but less fun to have, and you can only push them so far before you start to bump into the limits of your game's mechanics. This is why Old Geezer's thread is full of notions for mini-bonuses and short-term power-ups. Offering longer-term bonuses and such throws the mechanics out of whack and accelerates the power creep that is central to the reward mechanics of most games.

Those little mini-rewards, however, are a lot of book-keeping headaches. Honestly, do you track all the numbers you want to right now? Do you really want to shepherd more? And doesn't this just play to the strengths of computerized entertainment, while ignoring the strengths of pen-and-paper play?

Your players don't want mini-power-ups. They don't want to keep track of more numbers. They don't want more paperwork.

They want to be heroes. And being a hero has nothing to do with numbers.

Ok, I'm guessing here. Maybe they don't really want to be heroes. Maybe they want to be villains. Or they want to be sparkly vampires engaged in blushing teen romance. Or they want heart-tugging drama. Or they want to do things they'll never be able to do in their real lives. Or they want to misbehave. Or they want to fight the good fight. Or they want to evade the fiendish traps while trading verbal jabs with each other.

I can't tell you what your players want. Sometimes they can't (or won't) tell you themselves. You can tease it out, sometimes, through play. What's going on when they become most animated? What do they ask questions about, especially between sessions? When do they tune out? What does their body-language tell you?

Once you know, you can give it to them. If they seem to really enjoying chatting and deal-making with powerful beings, include more monsters that outclass them, but who are willing to deal for the right offer. If they really enjoy outfoxing fiendish traps or turning those traps against their foes, get a few issues of Green Devil Face and sprinkle the contents liberally through your dungeons. If they thrive on Red Harvest/Yojimbo/For a Fistful of Dollars -style cross and double-cross, give them warring factions to play off against each other. If they want romance, toss a handful of potential partners their way and see which ones stick. If they relish overcoming impossible odds, give them adversity. If they're really about exploring, give them free rein to wander where they will, but tease them with places they can't reach, knowledge that is forbidden, and secrets that are dangerous.

This is where games that follow modern design styles paint themselves into corners. When there's a rule for everything, everything is reduced to a roll of the dice. In spite of what some Old Schoolers will tell you, rolling dice isn't fun. It's boring.

Games are about making choices, not rolling dice. It's not the dice that separate pen-and-paper RPGs from computer games, it's the infinite latitude in the choices you can make. It's the ability of a real, live person to riff on your choices, and for the interactions of all involved to make the game something more intriguing than stat modifiers and dice mechanics. RPGs are not, after all, overly-complex, baroque versions of craps.

So when everything has a rule associated with it, you move away from the fun and towards rolling dice. Your elven sorcerer's knowledge of ancient cultures becomes a +6 bonus instead of knowing that winged serpents were associated with planar travel. Your rogue's charm and etiquette are reduced to bonus dice in a pool, rather than scouring the wine-cellar for just the right vintage and learning what her favorite books are.

These details make the game come alive, organically generate new adventures, and draw the players in. They make worlds feel real, they make NPCs seem three-dimensional and multi-faceted, and they make pen-and-paper RPGs something that computer games may never be able to touch.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"The Gods Have a Plan for You"

Words that would certainly strike fear into the hearts of most of my players over the years. Luckily for them, I'm just quoting this movie trailer:

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in HD

Trailer Park | MySpace Video

I'm not getting as much of a fun vibe off this as I got from the "Pirates" movies or "The Scorpion King". Still, it'll be great fun for the visuals and, I suspect, another Hans "ATTACK!" Zimmer soundtrack, even if the rest of the movie is only so-so.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Daisy Chains of Death and Destruction

I regularly read Roleplaying Tips Weekly, and while it's not chock full of gold every week, there's usually one or two bright nuggets in most issues. This in spite of the fact that the styles of play assumed by the authors and contributors tend to be a bit removed from my own.

This week, there was a question to the readership that caught my eye:

Dear Johnn,

Just wondering if you have any tips on large-scale battles
where the PCs can influence the outcome. My entire campaign
has been to get to the point where my players can be part of
a battle that they could possibly do different things where
the outcome is not pre-scripted. It's theirs to win or lose.

I GM a Star Wars Saga game, so it's likely to contain big
starships and starfighters, as well as ground forces with
blasters and Jedi. What's the best way I can manage this
without going insane? Splitting the party is bad enough.

- Melissa

I'm answering this question in my blog, instead of emailing it in, because this poor corner of the 'net has been languishing and needs some love.

Actually, while that's true, I also think the answer I have isn't one Melissa or her group would enjoy. It will probably feel like cheating. But it's perfect for folks who play in a style more similar to mine.

First, don't even think about fighting the battle with dice. That way does, indeed, lie madness, or at least the risk of a few failed SAN checks. Don't think of the battle as a giant combat. Think of it, instead, as a puzzle. A nasty puzzle with a timer that kills more people the longer the PCs take to solve it.

Duking it Out

The Battle of Endor at the end of “Return of the Jedi” is probably the best example from all six movies. It includes both ground and space forces, as well as a clash between jedi, all happening simultaneously, and interacting in interesting ways.

On the planet, Han, Leia, Chewbacca and company need to knock out the shield generator. They are not there to kill stormtroopers, to blow up war machines, or assassinate the commander of the imperial ground troops.

They have one mission, and that is to take out the shield generator so the rebel fleet can destroy Death Star 2.0.

What ends up happening is a disaster of epic proportions. They stumble right into the trap that's laid for them, without any indication they're even aware of it. Luckily, because they befriended the Ewoks, they get a second chance.

Here's where things get interesting for us as gamers. Yes, they're in the middle of a battle. Yes, people are shooting all around them, and yes, people are getting shot and killed, equipment is getting destroyed, and all of that. But the goal remains taking out the shield generator. The combat is a complication to the goal, not the primary focus of our heroes. The troops they have with them are basically told, “Hey, hold these guys off long enough for us to get inside this bunker.” Bodycount is hardly a consideration; the only thing that matters is getting into the bunker before the rebel fleet gets destroyed.

No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy

Because of the utter lack of success on the parts of Han, Leia, and Chewie, Ackbar and Lando have to improvise a new plan. Their original strategy was to smash through any defending fleet, get to the Death Star 2.0 as quickly as possible, destroy it, and then get the hell out. Because the deflector shield is still up, they have to quickly change tactics. The new plan: stay alive long enough for the folks on Endor to destroy the shield generator.

Again, as a GM, there's no need for much dice rolling here. The battle is huge and you have exact specifics on every piece of hardware in the sky. You know how many rebel ships the imperial fleet can destroy in a round, and vice versa. The trick is to find ways to minimize the damage done to the rebel fleet at all costs. “Accelerate to attack speed,” says the general. “Draw their fire away from the cruisers.” At this level of abstraction, it's more like chess then traditional RPG combat. The pieces (squadrons, attack groups, capital ships) maneuver to support one another, deny movement to the enemy, or move to threaten enemy resources. (Lando's solution to the “fully armed and operational battle station” is, I think, an especially gamist one; the Death Star 2.0 will destroy one rebel capital ship a round, but the star destroyers take four rounds to destroy a ship. Therefore, fight the star destroyers where the Death Star can't safely attack.)

Dice Rolls and Lateral Thinking

How long the fleet must endure the punishment of the trap is largely up to the folks on the ground. R2-D2 and Han both horribly botch their “pick locks” rolls. The most important fight on the ground involves Chewie and some Ewoks taking over an AT-ST. (Notice that the poor guys piloting the thing can hardly fight back. The fight is horribly one-sided, with the imperial drivers trapped without weapons in an enclosed space with flesh-eating, midget hunter-gatherers who are brutally adept at butchering far tougher game with their stone-age weapons). Since the bulk of the imperial troops have been led off into the forest, Han is able to use subterfuge to get into the bunker and destroy the shield generator. This finally allows the rebel fleet to execute their original plan of attack.

Daisy Chains of Death and Destruction

The key to making this work is the cascade of consequences in each part of the battle. The effectiveness of Han and Leia and Chewie on Endor has immediate consequences for the fleet action (which affects Luke's confrontation with Vader and the Emperor). This means that, even though the party might be split up all over the place, the players still have a vital interest in what the others are doing. It also gives the GM clues on when to cut between groups.

Han's Player: Oh, crap! It's a trap.

GM: And the shield generator is still up when the fleet arrives. Lando, when the fleet drops out of hyperspace, you're ambushed from behind by a bunch of enemy fighters, and you're not getting any reading on those shields.

Lando's Player: Ok, we'll use our fighters to screen our capital ships. We get right into their teeth and give them something more important to worry about than destroying our big ships.

(Maybe some dice rolls to take out enemy leaders or some such here, but only things that will have a direct impact on the tactical situation as a whole.)

GM: Ok, the TIE fighters are stuck in swirling furballs with the rebel fighters. Meanwhile, back on the moon, as you're marched out of the bunker by the stormtroopers, the Ewoks attack!

Han's Player: Ok, I try to get back into the bunker. We'll have R2 pick the lock.

(He rolls some dice.)

Han's Player: Crap! My dice are cursed. (He scowls at Chewie's player.) Did you touch my dice while I was ordering the pizza?

Chewie's Player: Hey, don't look at me. Uh, I try to find the leaders of the Ewoks and see if we can't get them to draw the stormtroopers away from the bunker. That should give you more time and breathing space to find another way in.

GM: Ok, while the Ewoks battle the stormtroopers, in orbit over the planet, Lando, you can see the imperial capital ships are not driving home the attack, but spreading out to keep you from escaping. Why becomes abundantly clear when the Death Star 2.0 fires it's giant, planet-killing gun to destroy your cruiser Escargot.

All Players: CRAP!

As one group finishes an action that will have an effect (or lack of an effect) on the chances the other, you switch. When one group says, “Ok, change of plans...” or needs a minute to react to a change in the situation, you switch to the other group.

Note that this is why the combined space-and-ground battle in “Phantom Menace” doesn't work as well as the Battle at Endor. In “Phantom Menace,” what happens on the ground has very little bearing on the success of the overall mission. The only thing that really matters is destroying the ship that controls the 'droids. Once that's done, the battle is over. And there's nothing the ground forces can do to make that easier or harder for the ships in the fleet action. If you're playing a battle like that, try to avoid having any PCs involved in the unimportant ground battle. If players have to be there, try to make it interesting by giving them a chance to face a hated nemesis or achieve some ancillary goal that's important to the group as a whole. Otherwise, the folks in the fleet battle are going to tune out and get bored when you cut back to ground battle.

UPDATE (11/17/2017): Variations on this theme by Chris Lindsay and Satine Phoenix:

UPDATE 2 (08/07/18): Variations on this theme that gets into more detail on how to make this happen at the table from Emmy "Cavegirl" Allen.