Thursday, December 30, 2010

Missions and Quests / How Grand Theft Auto taught me to love again

I recently traded in my PSP-1000, or Base Pack. It was old, battered, the battery was shot, the power pack had blown and i'd completed all the games I owned, and wasn't in any danger of getting any new ones. The last new game i'd gotten was Star Wars Battle Front Elite Squadron, on Father's day. That's when I discovered that the power pack was gone - it'd been on charge for about two months, and had the battery ran out after 15 minutes of play.
Whilst it was a hard decision, the only games I would definitely miss were the Grand Theft Auto games I had - Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. I think I actually knew my way around the streets of these two games better than my home town.

So, to help soften the blow, I bought myself GTA Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS. My wife has a DS and never uses it. It's my wife now, Dave!

I was thrilled to discover that Chinatown Wars is massive, detailed, immensely playable and possibly even more morally corrupt than the LC and VC Stories games.
In short order I found myself immersed in the sandbox of the game. Sod the actual missions - they're dangerous and likely to get you wasted or busted and cause the loss of your entire arsenal - i'm suddenly running around a huge map building a rep as a reliable and savvy drug dealer, making green and putting cheese in my pockets. Either that or feeding my burgeoning gambling addiction by way of scratch cards or rooting through dumpsters looking for guns or food.
Crime is glamorous.
The game play is 'top down' like the original GTA, and makes excellent use of the lower touch screen for controlling your GPS or throwing molotovs, hot wiring cars or reading emails.
Some screens from Chinatown Wars -
two game play shots, hot wiring a car and a cut scene
One of the things I love about the GTA series, especially since GTA 3, is the way the missions are assigned by recognisable characters. I quite liked Salvatore Leone, Phil Cassidy, Umberto Robina and others from the games.
All of the characters you meet in the games are obvious stock caricatures, often to comedic effect, but they all have a position, and they all want something, usually to do with the overall plot. None are neutral, and they all credible (if not actually believable).

And this led to a revelation, an epiphany if you will, when I first played GTA Liberty City Stories. This may be old news to many of you, but I found myself thinking "this is what my games should be like". Specifically, any 'quests' or 'missions' handed out should be for recognisable characters that polarise the players. They can either be loved or hated, but they should never be anonymous.
The players should always have a slight, ever present fear that something is about to go horribly wrong - either there will be unexpected complications or the guy who gave them this job will screw them over somehow.
It should always be clear to the players that the person they are talking to is an individual, and wants something bad. The players don't have to know immediately what it is, but they have to know that they are being used by this person to achieve a definite goal.

Ideally I would use these ideas in a Vampire: The Requiem game, as I see clear parallels between the dysfunctional social hierarchy of the Kindred and organised crime.

EDIT: Further to my train of thought, let's talk about 'Sandbox' games. GTA games allow the player to run around and entertain themselves in any number of ways. Players are not constrained by the game plot or missions. It is entirely possible to amass an in-game fortune and be thoroughly entertained without actually gunning down a single triad or hells angel.
Players can complete time trial races, street races, put out fires, dispense vigilante justice, save lives, drive taxi cabs, smuggle drugs, run protection rackets, sell guns and stolen cars, become a pimp, take on a set rampage challenge or just blow shit up.
I have even heard of somebody driving carefully around Liberty City and obeying traffic laws.

This level of player freedom is something I think every GM should aspire to. Some of the better games I have run have allowed the players to explore indefinitely. The better games I have played have happily provided me with ample rope with which to hang myself.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons / Narnia vs Middle Earth

I was watching The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian yesterday, and discussing it with my wife. We both feel it's a far superior film to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In particular, I feel that the fight scenes are spectacular, and that the film does an excellent job of redeeming Edmund. During our conversation, I commented that I felt the director had taken a similar approach to Lord of the Rings, and really amped up the combat and drama.
Which got me thinking about roleplay, which most things do.
My train of thought was basically "how could I make this work as a game", which logically led to D&D.
Now, most people consider D&D to be 'heavily influenced by Tolkien', but I would like to present the argument that D&D is now set in Narnia, and has been for years.
If you want to play a Tolkien game, then may I suggest Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
A Minotaur and a random fantasy creature
storm a citadel

My argument focuses on playable races. The Fellowship of the Ring are Dwarves, Humans, Elves and Hobbits. The playable races in Warhammer are Humans, Dwarves, Elves and Halflings (nee Hobbits). The playable races in D&D are almost too numerous to list, but include various races of beastman and all variety of fantastic creatures in a bizarre mixed bag of randomness. Like Narnia.
A Minotaur and some random fantasy creatures
storm a citadel

Market research / How cool is my wife?

I like roleplay games and video games. My wife knits. It is very rare for our hobbies to collide, but when they do I usually love the results.
So, as stated, my wife knits. She has knitted me a couple of dice bags in the past, a Cthulhu bag and an R2-D2 bag. They rock.
Don't just take my word for it, look:
The Cthulhu design was taken from a chart, and she designed the R2-D2
pattern herself.

I've been trying to tell her that people would want to buy bags like this, and would pay a good price for them.
I pointed out that the official Dungeons and Dragons dice cost £8.99 and the bag is a small bit of polyester with a logo on, and the bags she's producing are at least twice the size, made of quality wool and designed to specification.
(It's worth noting that any designs sold for cash money would have to be generic and definitely not infringe any trademarks, copyrights or intellectual rights. The knitting community are well versed in these things)

So, a question for you - would you buy a bag like this, and how much would you pay? Other comments are welcome and encouraged.
The R2-D2 bag holds my collection of 14 jumbo dice, and the Cthulhu bag holds, god, over 100 assorted dice, both loose and in smaller bags.

For some reason, this photo keeps defaulting to a sideways view. Gah!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Forgotten games of yesterday / In Nomine

You can read a basic summary of the game on Wikipedia. The article is fairly short. Instead of telling you what the game is about, i'd like to tell you why it is worth your time and effort.

Basically, it's the setting. The system isn't amazing; it's functional. The author went for a simple mechanic that suited the setting - you roll 3d6, with a 111 being good for Divine characters, and a 666 being good for Infernal characters. The first two d6 determine whether or not you succeed, and the final d6 determines the degree of your success or failure. It's fairly simple and easy to grasp. The dressing around this mechanic gets a bit fuzzy at times, like when applying damage or determining character benefits at creation (and character creation is spread over three chapters of the book, which I put down to sloppy editing).

However, it's the setting, and the tone of the book, that set it apart, and above, other games.
In Nomine is about the war between Heaven and Hell, with players portraying either Angels or Demons caught in this conflict. The tone of the book owes an incredible amount to Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman, and dark humour and pop references abound (see side bars about Angels and Soda Machines, and Demons and Backrubs).
As the setting allows demons to be played as sympathetic characters, angels to be portrayed as flawed and corrupt and the various superiors - both Archangel and Demon Prince - are flawed individuals with obvious character weaknesses, the book treads on thin ice, dealing with the largest religion in the western world.
To side step this, the author, Derek Pearcy, added an idiosyncratic and individual voice to the book which takes the edge off a lot of the content. Angels are bastards? Yeah, but it's funny. Demons could be the good guys? If they weren't so fucked up.
It's also worth stating that the angels are also the good guys, and the demons are still evil fucks. It's all a matter of perception.

At character creation, players choose two things:

  1. The type of angel or demon they want to play - A Seraphim or Cherubim, for example angels, or a Lilim or Djinn or Belseraph as example demons
  2. Which superior within Heaven or Hell their character reports to

Characters report into a predefined structure. They have a 'handler', usually an angel or demon with a Word (an aspect of creation that they have grown to champion and represent, like the Angel of Luck or the Demon of Pipe Bombs), who in turn reports into a Superior, an Archangel or Demon Prince with a really big word, like Michael, Archangel of War, or Vapula, Demon Prince of Technology).
The celestial hierarchy is laid out in detail, with space given to which of the Archangels and Demon Princes are aligned and opposed to each other, with overt hostilities existing between superiors within the same camps.

The setting has a strong focus on music. Creation is said to God's Symphony, and all angels are attuned to that symphony. They are individual instruments, organised into choirs (the Seraphim, for example, are a choir). Demons have opted out of the great work and instead have chosen to focus on their own, personal arrangements. Demons are grouped into bands, and care only about their own solos.
If a celestial being starts acting against their nature, they start to gain dissonance, which can lead to discord, which can be detected by any being able to perceive the symphony.
Magic, or miracles, are made possible by Songs - pieces of celestial music that achieve specific effects. Most angels and demons know a number of songs.

There are other options as well. Players can choose to play humans, either normal humans, or soldiers of Heaven or Hell or Sorcerers, who are humans who can perceive the symphony (although they call it the Cacophony, as they can't perceive the whole piece).
Alternately players can choose to play old gods from myth and legend, who live in the Marches, a shared dream space, and who have a distinctly different view on the world to Heaven and Hell.

It's the character of this game that really comes alive. The first supplement featured an adventure entitled The Demon Prince of Rock and Roll, which was about the Demon of Hardcore trying to elevate his status to that of a Demon Prince. In the game fiction, the narrative follows a demon servitor of Death, who has a zombie cat.

If I were to run a game of In Nomine again, it would be heavily inspired by Comfort Eagle, by Cake

EDIT: It occurs to me that I didn't go into what happened to this fine game. It is allegedly still supported by Steve Jackson Games, although is only available as a PDF from their online store. I think SJG kind of didn't know how to support In Nomine, and the later supplements lacked the irreverent humour and voice of Derek Pearcey, shifting focus from the games unique character to 'fixing' some of the system bugs, and dully expanding the game world. 
I would agree that the system was laid out badly (I bought a second hand copy, which was helpfully embellished with yellow highlighter in the combat and character creation chapters, which lowered the price and increased the value - Win) and allowed certain anomalies to occur, but the way that later books blatantly slated sections of the core rules never sat well with me. 
You can get more info on In Nomine at it's SJG website.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Popularity / re-routed traffic

I've been developing this blog recently, and trying to turn it into a serious concern. Therefore i've been spamming old gaming buddies with a link to it, and putting more thought into what I write.
And having examined the stats provided by Blogger, this methodology is paying out.
Yesterday I smashed my previous best 'views in one day', and reached the heady heights of 27 views.

A small part of me suspects that people are erroneously viewing Total Party Kill because of the various links and images i've included.
Is this true? I'm not sure how i'd find out.
In the mean time, here's some unrelated images.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Rocks fall, everybody dies / You say "Total Party Kill" like it's a good thing

Thanks for the suggestions for a new blog name. I nearly went with "3d6 Sanity Loss", but drew back at the last minute.
Then I performed a Google search on "Rocks Fall" and stumbled across the incredibly useful TV Tropes site, which in turn introduced me to the phrase Total Party Kill. Which will be the new name of this blog.

Whilst we're on the subject of pictures and game humour, this is funny because it's true...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Name and Shame / Mind blank

A quick one. When starting this blog, I really struggled with a name for it. Apparently everything needs a name, or we edit it out of our consciousness.
After a few false starts, I settled on "Nook.Geek", reasoning that I could change it later on when I had a better idea.

Months down the line, I thought "Hey, 'Dump Stat' would be a great name for my blog, and totally original too".


So I am now trying to think of a new name, or I'll have to revert to Nook.Geek again.

Any suggestions? Any ideas I can think of right now are just too cheesy, or don't really reflect the content of this blog thus far.
The best one I have is 'Gaming by Idiots', but that sort of implies that there's more than one contributor, or that everybody who reads it is an idiot.
Or 'Dramatic Fail', which references the WoD system, and is nicely self depreciating. Doesn't really give you an idea of what the blog's about though.

What about using one of my game titles? Modern Mythic? Danger Illustrated, maybe?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Past Mistakes / Former Glories

There are two things I want to achieve with this post. The first is to re-establish my title convention - Thing / Thing.
Job done. Let's move on.

The second is to think about the games I have run over the years and try to identify what was good about them, what was bad, what I did wrong and what I did right.

I originally started this blog to ruminate over the games I was involved in at the time, both running and playing, and with the current draught that vision has been replaced with game design and idea dumping.

So, what have I run over the years? Let us look at the highlights and low points.
A number of people who have played my games over the years read this blog (or so they tell me). I'd be interested to know what you consider the highs and lows of our games, and any feedback on my GMing style would be welcome
Warning - This is a sizeable post...

Vampire: The Masquerade (revised edition) - Australia game
I think this is the first game I seriously ran. I'd tried running Ars Magica 3rd Ed a couple of times, and just fallen flat on my face. I think I didn't get it.
With Vampire:TM I had been playing it for a couple of years, and was growing increasingly frustrated with the storyteller, who played favourites, had no grasp of narrative and either doggedly adhered to or completely ignored the rules without any rhyme or reason.
I bought a few books, read up, then took matters into my own hands.
I decided to set the game in Australia - I can't remember if it was Sydney or Melbourne. It had a Brujah Prince, though, as per the World of Darkness 2nd Ed sourcebook.

What went well, and why?
The preludes went exceptionally well. Almost too well, as they almost didn't stop. I ran solo sessions with each player, and a couple went on for over 12 hours. In retrospect I think I was confident in a one on one environment, and the sessions were very collaborative, as we both told the story of how this character became a vampire and fell in with the rest of the group.
I also had a couple of good ideas. One was inspired by a Billy Connelly in Australia show, in which he visited a place that sold houses on stilts - you buy the house, dig a load of holes and sink the stilts in, and your house is suddenly fixed. The house 'lot' was full of these houses on stilts, and had this weird two tier feel to it. An under house, with think beams and poles, and a 'street level', with loads of houses crammed tightly together. I ran a session in which the characters had to apprehend a fleeing vampire that had taken cover in one of these lots, which gave them loads and loads of rooms to search, lots of shadows to jump at and a fairly interesting chase scene and combat towards the end, especially when the fire started.
The game itself ran for a few months, with a high player and character turn over rate, which leads to the bad stuff...

What didn't go so well, and why?
I was unassertive and lacked confidence when it came to the larger group. I said 'yes' when I should have said 'no'. I let the disruptive players get away with murder and lost all focus. One of the low points was letting the players solder silver cutlery to the front of their Volvo and run down werewolves. Another was the clans I let in. I ostensibly wanted to run a Camarilla game, yet ended up with a Tzimisce, Giovanni, mortal sorcerer and a Caitiff that oddly had the exact same disciplines as an Assamite - I had told the player that he could not play an assassin, yet I let this pass. The game had a Brujah. He dropped out.
I think in the end it just petered out.

Vampire: The Masquerade (revised edition) - 1950's Sabbat game
This game owes its genesis to what is, in 20:20 hindsight, a fairly poor game concept. For some reason, God knows why, although it made sense at the time, I decided that a game revolving around a college fraternity in the 1950's, who were also evil vampires, was a great idea. I even convinced a number of people that it would be as well.

What went well, and why?
The main reason this game stood a basic chance of success was because the players all got on, roleplayed really well and formed a cohesive group identity that made sense in the context of the game. The characters were well formed, and it was the first time I had played with a group, rather than a collection of individuals. All the high points, for me, involved the players roleplaying well.

What didn't go so well, and why?
Me, basically. I lost control of the narrative almost immediately upon the mass Sabbat embrace, with the players making a group decision to not take crap from their new undead masters and positioning themselves as independents. From there on the story focus moved from my vision of proud Sabbat warriors growing in power through the decades to a small group of neonates fleeing the Sabbat and Camarilla, not trusting anybody and trying to carve out their own niche in the world without any guidance, support or knowledge of their new undead state and its social conventions.
Actually, that's a positive. The negative here is that I lacked clarity of vision, and had an incomplete understanding of my groups dynamic. I think the game would have been much better if I'd had these.
Other low points include my eagerness to randomly include elements from whatever supplement i'd bought that week, making it all a bit of a jumble.
And I point blank refused to include guns, because I didn't like/understand the gun rules.
The game eventually ended when the characters turned on each other. Rivalries and grudges that had festered for decades came to the fore, a character was murdered and the rest of the characters went their separate ways, no longer able to trust each other.
I don't think it could have ended any other way.

Hunter: The Reckoning / Mage: The Ascension / mortal psychic  - Stouring
This is the first game that I actually ran to completion - I wanted to use a character i'd  played in a Dark Ages chronicle as the 'big bad' in a modern day game, set it up, introduced the elements over time and the group eventually faced off against him and triumphed at the conclusion. An achievement.
The players were primarily from my previous 1950's Vampire game, so already I knew I had a group I could work with. I just had to plan it out, work with them and reign myself in a bit more.

What went well, and why?
The players were once again spot on, with an excellent mix of characterisation, creativity, humour and emotional range. The monster hunting motivation of the Hunters, mixed with the curiosity of the Mages/the psychic mixed well.
By far the best part for me was that I created a fictional small town and five surrounding villages, and added enough flavour and detail to make them real and believable - sometimes enough to drive the story. The fact that I'd built the town's history around the 'big bad' concept did me a few favours as well. I was so happy wit it, I've used the town, Stouring, again and again.
Some of the monsters the group faced worked well for me too. A favourite being a ghost who convinced them he was still alive (a risky gambit - he was lucky none of the Hunters switched on Second Sight or the Mages used any magic to determine his true nature) and then manipulated them into killing the werewolf that had quite justifiably killed him. The final showdown with him was played out very well by the group, who were furious at being used as pawns in his game.
The secondary bad guy, a Nephandi Mage, was introduced as a sympathetic figure early on, and took weeks to reveal his true colours. I was quite proud of that, and more than a bit excited before the session where the characters found out.

What didn't go so well, and why?
I think mixing Mages, Hunters and a psychic together in one game was a bit dodgy. I should have stuck with just Mages, or Just Hunters. It worked out in the end, but was an unnecessary risk.
After all that build up, I definatly through the final battle away. I think it lasted about four or five rounds, and was poorly executed. They met him in a narrow tunnel, traded blows and he fell over.
There should have been a number of challenging minions to wade through first, as well as environmental challenges, innocents to rescue and, dear God, somebody should have spoken.
Overall, I think I gave the characters too easy a time of it, fairly often, and should have pushed them more, used more obstacles at the same time and made them make difficult decisions.

Oh, how good is this game? I'm going to cover this one off really quickly - There's so much you can do with this game, and so much fun you can have, that it's entirely possible to just wing an entire story arc, and the players only really notice when ninjas attack randomly because the storyteller hadn't prepared, and ninjas were slightly more likely than neanderthals or dinosaurs (being a session set in a gentlemans club in London).
I have nothing but fond memories of this game, and the sad knowledge that it could have been the greatest game i've ever run if I just tried a little harder.

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e - Tethyr / Saradush game
This game was a mixed bag of hours of painstaking preparation, and frantic  improvisation. It's the second campaign that I actually completed from start to finish, and had two distinct volumes - Intrigue and revolution in Saradush, and an undead horde in Tethyr.

What went well, and why?
The Saradush plot went incredibly well. I'd originally intended to just run a few self contained missions in the city so the party could level up, but kind of pulled a massive, convoluted plot of intrigue, betrayal, treason, revolution and invasion out of the air without realising it.
I introduced the captain of the watch as an antagonist. He was unsympathetic, obviously up to something dodgy and existed to make life difficult for the party. Somehow he became an ally, then a friend as he tried to stage a coup in the city to prevent Yuan-Ti infiltrators from seizing power.
What was an after thought of including snake-men as a random encounter turned into an epic battle through burning streets, heading armies off at the pass and leading the city's gentry out of harms way before re-establishing government. Hooray!
I tried an experiment for a few sessions, where, as the plot emerged, I statted up a load of mid-level characters, gave them names and roles within the city watch and gave them to the party to play. After some confusion on the part of the players, they got to see the coup from another point of view and learn more about what was going on than they would have been able to as their characters. Then die heroically.

Oddly, I regard the session in which every single attending character died as they botched an encounter as a good one.
Two of the party couldn't make it that night, which was fine because we were a large group, and that left five other players. They were exploring sewers, or similar, when they ran into a Yuan-Ti and some henchmen. The Yuan-Ti used a mind affecting power to befriend the fighter who charged it, an, unfortunately that fighter had a Will save only slightly more potent than a pot plant.
Long story short, the fighters player happily slaughtered two of the party. The other two killed him, and were in turn murdered by the Yuan-Ti and his boys.
I think the Yuan-Ti went home with a big grin on his face that night.
So why is that a positive?
The massive party cull really polarized things. The two surviving characters became exceptionally motivated by their need to avenge the death of their friends, and the players creating new characters became invested in the game. They designed a new set of characters, who were all introduced at the same as an established group, and they didn't want to die again.
Sometimes GM needs to cull a few characters so that he's taken seriously.
That sounds harsher than it is. It really refreshed the dynamic, and that's a good thing.

What didn't go so well, and why?
I lost my cool a couple of times when running this game, and yelled at a couple of players. I'm not proud of it. I've always struggled with D&Ds rules, and get a little stressed out at times. Add in a seven person party with all the out of character chatter and distractions that come with that, and I failed to assert myself as a GM. Bad move. I've not done it since, but the memory still makes me wince.

World of Darkness - Mortals soul quest
I enjoyed this game, it had a lot of potential, but suffered from a lack of clarity of vision, again. I thought up a fairly solid lead in to the main plot, which was about the party having to reclaim their souls from a cross-roads demon, and kind of just let it sit there. The party dutifully drove around backwoods America looking for clues, and I gave them encounters from the Mysterious Places supplement, but nothing really happened.
In the end the party fractured as two characters gave up and signed up to work for the bad guys, and the rest ran off in separate directions.

World of Darkness - CSI
I still like this concept, and the plot for the first adventure is one I think i'd use again. I wanted to run a cop game set in the WoD, and see how normal detectives, lab techs and beat cops would investigate a supernatural crime. The first story centred around the botched dumping of a body that an elder vampire had drained of blood, and the local vampiric political power struggle. I did about the right amount of prep for it, and it worked well.
In fact:
What worked well, and why?
The first crime. I'd tweak some details if I ran it again, as nothing is ever perfect, and this definatly wasn't. It was pretty good though. I used the University setting from Mysterious Places for the second crime, and that had some classic moments as well. Particularly the undead janitors.

What didn't go so well, and why?
It became pretty apparent early on that a mortal cop is not equipped to bring a supernatural creature to justice. That kind of blew the game out of the water for me. We also had some issues with the groups ability to attend, including my own. We dropped three players by the end of the first crime, and only gained one, then had a handful of sessions in which two players alternated attendance, then we just stopped.
It's a real shame. The game did have a great deal of potential, although probably as a cop-oriented Hunter game.

World of Darkness - Quarantine City
The first WoD game I ran for The Role-players of Bolton (TROB). This one kind of reached its conclusion, although not to my satisfaction.
It was a zombie survival game, which I envisaged as The Kill Point meets The Walking Dead. The characters are taken hostage during a bank robbery, and whilst the bank is under siege, zombies rise up and destroy the city. The end goal, the 'survival point' was for the characters to make it out of the city before the military firebomb it to contain the infection.

What went well, and why?
The slow realisation that the dead had risen, and there were bigger things going on in the world than a mere bank robbery went well. The characters first encounter with a zombie child was fairly disturbing, as they realised that they had to completely dismember it to stop it coming for them.
The scenes where they saw cops shooting people who had been bitten unnerved them as well.
In one session, only two of the players could make it, so I ran a sequence in which their characters had to explore a Wal-Mart store room in the dark. At one point the only light source they had was the muzzle flash of each others pistols, whilst the zombies seemed to be doing quite well by sound alone. Tense and fast.

What didn't go so well, and why?
I'd agreed to end the game by a certain date, and had to artificially push events along, skipping scenes and glossing over challenges to get to the 'can they get out of the city' resolution.
I think a couple of characters did escape, a couple were infected and took their own lives, and they valiantly tried to leave each other behind to die so they could save their own skins.
Actually, that last point is so genre faithful that it's a positive.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fighting Talk

I was reading Gameplaywright on my mobile phone on the way home from work, and they, in turn, pointed me to this blog entry by Ryan Macklin, which talks about how games that focus on story rarely focus and skills tests and vis versa.
Macklin's comments about 'beats' within combat got me thinking about RPG combat resolution mechanics. 
As you do.

His point was, kind of, that RPG combat often loses that cinematic flow and excitement due to the artificial interruptions of dice rolling and rule deliberation. Yes. I see that. 

Then I thought of something. 
Wouldn't it be great to have a combat that's narrated between players without the interruptions of dice rolls, but still took the abstract concept of skill points etc in account?

Here's my idea. 

Characters have a 'Combat' score. This score equals the number of 'Combat Moves' the character can perform in a round of combat.
A round of combat lasts an indeterminate length of time, and is best described as a flurry of activity within the combat - the participants circle each other, enter into a short burst of activity in which they attack and evade, then fall back to safer distance to plan their next move.
The character with the highest Combat Score goes first. If the scores are tied, then the GM arbitrates using such criteria as they find appropriate.
The players take it in turns to describe the combat, and are able to describe one Combat Move per point they have invested in their Combat Score. In an ideal combat, the players will react to and build upon the Combat Moves described by each other.
Once all Combat Moves have been described, the players roll their Combat Score + 1 Die. 
They then split their total between Damage and Defence - e.g. One player may roll a total of 9, and opt to allocate 5 points to Damage, and 4 points to Defence. This would allow them to apply 5 Damage to their opponent, and evade 4 points of Damage in return. Their opponent also splits their total in this way. Probably best to write the split down before declaring it. 

It could play out like this:

Classic Fantasy example
GM: Your characters are gambling in a tavern when you have a disagreement about the legality of concealed cards. Words are exchanged and it becomes clear you must fight. 
You leap up from your seats at the table and quickly take in your surroundings. The tavern is dark and smoke filled, with tightly packed tables and chairs and is currently incredibly busy. A set of aged wooden stairs against the far wall lead to a narrow balcony. There are chandeliers about ten feet above your heads. The bar is a plank of wood laid across a collection of barrels, and is next to the doors.

[Player A has a Combat Score of 4. Player B has a Combat Score of 3. Player A goes first. Player A can describe 4 Combat Moves, whilst Player B can only describe 3]

Player A: I kick the table towards the cheating bastard, hoping to knock him off balance, and draw my sword!

Player B: I still have my flagon of ale in my hands, so I throw that in his face and reach for my daggers.

Player A: I swing my sword wildly at him, laughing and wiping the cheap ale from my face.

Player 2: I try to fall back into the crowd. Hopefully he'll hit an innocent bystander instead of me.

GM: Player A, you connect with somebody. You don't think it's the right person. Chaos erupts around you both.

Player A: Charge towards him, sword raised high, and land blows all around. One or more will hit him.

Player B: Dive forward, tackle him at waist level and sink my dagger into his side.

Player 1: Bring the pommel of my sword down on his head again and again and again.

[Both players have now described the combat using their assigned Combat Moves. Now they must determine their Combat Totals and decide how many points to assign to Damage and Defence.  
Player A rolls a 3, which he adds to his Combat Score of 4, giving him a Combat Total of 7.
Player B rolls a 5, which he adds to his Combat Score of 3, giving him a Combat Total of 8.
Player A decides he was more concerned with attacking than evading, so assigns 5 points to Damage and 2 points to Defence. 
Player B decides he gave as good as he got, so splits his total in half, with 4 points assigned to Damage and and 4 points assigned to Defence. 
Player A's 5 points of Damage are partially countered by Player B's 4 points of Defence, meaning he only delivers 1 point of Damage to Player B. 
Player B's even spread means that Player A suffers 2 points of Damage, and blocks 2 points.

After the first Round of combat, Player A has taken 2 Damage, and Player B has taken 1 Damage.]

All the numbers used are off the top of my head, and don't reflect what a balanced and well designed system would require. Probably. With these Damage totals, a characters hit points would either have to be very low, or we'd have to beef up the damage a bit.

Anyways - This post has been a bit of a tangent. I just had this idea, and really wanted to put it down before I slept. Any comments or improvements are more then welcome.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Game Dogma

I've been talking a lot about game design lately, and wanted to share something about game design that I find inspirational.
This is the Game Dogma, or mission statement, that Pelgrane Press / Robin D. Law's Gumshoe system endeavours to follow:

Game Dogma
Over the last few years, there have been many developments in the
roleplaying game design field, and we’ve been watching them with
interest. A year ago we devised a simple new set of rules for new games
we are producing, our game dogma.
Our new games will be:
- Fun to play
- Easy to learn
- Easy to teach
- Easy to play
- Innovative
- Approachable
- Sustainable
A GM should be able to learn each game in half an hour, nuances in a
hour or so. It should be easy to teach the basics of the game to a novice
in fifteen minutes. The design should take account of developments in
gaming over the last ten years and offer something genuinely original.
GMs will want to run the game time and time again, and players will
want to play it.

Pretty sweet.

Game design by Idiots - Fighting people

I think where a great many RPG games fall down is in the combat rules. However we try to dress up roleplay as a socially interactive hobby that's about character development and playing a part, we love to kill things. This is why most rulebooks dedicate an entire chapter to combat, and generally wave their hands when describing how you should play your character or interact with NPCs or other PCs.

I find the balance of combat rules hard. I have stated previously that I am turned off by complex or heavy combat rules - Exalted being the case in point, but any system that requires multiple rolls to resolve 'I hit him with my sword'.
I am also concerned with the disconnect between real time and combat time.
An example - I took part in a Rifts campaign about 11 or 12 years ago (god, that long?) and at one point we spent over 4 hours playing out a combat that took 17 seconds in game time.
WTF?! That's over 14 minutes of play per second of game time!
I think the culprit was the fact that we all could take extra actions (and had powergamed our characters with this end in mind) and we were fighting some 30+ opponents, however, no combat should run that long unless you're playing a strategy game.

Turn duration
So, how should combat time work? D&D uses a base of 6 seconds per combat turn, with actions broken up into attack, movement and minor actions, as well as a presumption that your character is actively avoiding being hit (hustling, they call it). Broken up like that, 6 seconds seems fair.
The World of Darkness rules use 3 second intervals, with characters being able to perform one directed action, move a bit and avoid being hit, as well as occasionally perform a reflexive action. That's a lot for 3 seconds.
Ars Magica 5th Edition also uses 6 seconds as its turn length, which includes movement, one attack and defence, as well as spellcasting.

Ah, now, that could be the differentiator. Fantasy spellcasting, as used in ArM and D&D, requires a good amount of time to wave your hands about, shout in an arcane and no doubt dead language and possibly burn some incense or sacrifice a goat, whereas WoD magic is usually an innate ability that just requires an effort of will. OK, Mage may require hand waving, shouting and the trappings of ritual, but that's the exception.

So, when asking how long a turn should last, I need to determine what actions the could characters conceivably want to perform in that time. Simple actions = short turns. Complex or esoteric actions = longer turns.

Next question - Initiative, how should it work?
Most games use a stat + die roll, with the highest roller going first. Gumshoe uses a different method - whomever decides to act first, goes first, with the subsequent order of action going in the order in which the players arrived at the session. I kind of like this. Yes, it has no baring on the characters you're playing, and the  hyper aware ninja may end up going last because the player missed their bus, but we're dealing with an abstract system, not real life.
I've read of house rules where the players sit in order of their initiative modifiers, and just take all combat in that predetermined order. It's simple, and clearly works for some people.

So, do we need that extra step of rolling a dice at the beginning of each combat? What value does it add? Does the system reward you for going first, or does it treat all actions as occurring at the same time?
Is it better to be potentially able to kill each other simultaneously, or better to be able to gank the other guy before her gets to pull his gun and gank you?
Is it better that Greedo shot first, or Han, or both at the same time?
God knows.

But I need to decide on one for my system.
I could introduce a new stat - Speed - which could also be used to determine running speed and crap like that, but i'm loathe to do so. More stats equal more complexity.
That would leave me with using the Gumshoe idea, which is that the aggressor goes first, and then decide on some other method to determine order.

How's about: Aggressor goes first. The order of combat turns are then determined by the participants current Luck score, with the highest going first and the lowest going last. Participants with the same Luck score are deemed to be acting at the same time.
It is possible to disable or kill an opponent before they can act.

Actually hitting somebody
How do you fairly determine whether or not you've hit somebody, or been hit?
There's usually an attack roll, but what is that roll made against? A generic difficulty modifier - score 1 success/roll 10 or above and you've hit? Roll against a defence score?
The former can be seen as slightly unfair - players like having the chance to avoid being hit - whilst the latter requires another stat.
Another thing I like about combat in Gumshoe is that your character is not only presumed to be trying to avoid getting hit (like hustling in D&D), they are presumed to be diving for cover as well.
Which translates as -1 defence if you state you're stood upright in the middle of a room, not ducking, bobbing or weaving; normal defence if you don't state anything, and +1 defence if you state that you're cowering behind a 6" thick lead wall (and limiting your attack options in the process).

Ideally i'd like a combat resolution system that just works with the minimal number of die rolls. I've already decided to have flat damage, for simplicities sake, and I am now looking for a 'to hit' mechanic that allows for flexibility and simplicity.
I.E. I'd like it to make a difference if players duck behind walls and over turned tables or use enemy minions as human shields, yet intuitive and easy to resolve.

Any ideas?