Game Progression

Friday, 1. October 2010

One of the elements of a game that I always harp on is that I think flow is a quintessential element. Granted you still need to have story, players willing to role play… but really overcomplicated rules slow down game play and can really put a drag on having fun, especially once you get rules lawyers involved.

What do you do to keep games flowing quickly?

My typical methods involve..
1) Generalized notes on areas and characters for quick reference
2) Minimized additional rules
3) Avoid going into too much detail for beginners, letting them play and pick the game up as it goes.
4) Quick arbitration, detailed arguments can be heard after the game is done
and lastly
5) Favoring simple systems

Obviously the last point doesn’t work if you’re a tactical battle guy that enjoys playing with miniatures.

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Soap Opera Elements

Monday, 27. September 2010

Any ongoing campaign is going to have a bit of transience in it’s players or possibly storyteller depending upon it’s setup.  Likewise, we want all of our campaigns to have outside appeal to the casual listener if we are to be able to spread the trade so to speak.  In this regard, we need to have both short term and long term appeal of story elements.  Something the casual listener can sink into in a short time, yet details that longer term listeners (players in this case.) hang on for.

In order to do this, I believe we can take a few good lessons from soap operas.  Not in the “as the stomach turns” sort of way unless thats the sort of game you’re running, but rather in the ability to create short and long term hook for players and listeners.  Soaps do this through a few methods and I think they are all easily adapted to most game campaigns, long term and short. There are 2 in particular that I want to touch on.

The idea of running several concurrent story lines is one that soaps use frequently.  Minor or major, elements are introduced continually and constantly shifting in importance depending on the characters perceived goals.   At least one of the  story lines needs to be short term resolution, developed or solved within a few sessions.  This is as I said, your hook for anyone listening short term, and makes for good “water cooler” conversation if you’re one who frequently discusses games.   One of them should also be very long term, running over the course of the campaign before transitioning into yet another story element.   Story points with this come slowly, and make for a long term hook into the game, as well as a good direction of overarching goals.

The other useful concept is that of gradualism.  The major plotline is typically slow to progress, and can linger in the face of other more important, but temporary subgoals. Taking time to make sure all elements are well developed can be very useful.  Even as players goals are reached, the next major drama is built into the storyline at a slow pace, until it becomes the next major issues they’re dealing with.

Some of the other more nauseating elements in my mind are unchanging characters, suddenly struck up conversations,  last minute rescues, betrayal and all that goes with it.  Things that make soap operas soaps.  I think a lot of the times our players expect the unchanging characters, lessons that aren’t learned from the last time and the constant morality of the character.  They tend to be either evil or good, and any deviation from the usual pattern is a trick.  There are a lot of elements listed are useful, but if overused produce the same “as the stomach turns” feeling that comes with not being productive and watching TV in the afternoon. (I haven’t done this in a while, mind you!)

Love them or hate them soaps produce a lot of plot elements that can be judiciously applied to RPG’s for a good overall result.  The trick is to not overuse elements, to apply them gradually and to run them concurrently.

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Consumeables in RPG’s

Friday, 24. September 2010

Adventuring parties in any day and age tend to drag along a substantial amount of equipment. (Hikers just might be the modern day adventuring party now, hah!) The majority of all of this is easily taken care of with a list, carried, worn, stuck into a backpack and drug along. All of this weight is tallied up and if it’s not too much, they player in question can still move.

Most storytellers like to keep track of the essential items as well as major consumables. Damaged gear is always kept track of, as well as ammunition, and most of the time food and water. (At least it should be, starvation and dehydration makes for an interesting if not persistent enemy.) Of particular concern however is spell components, where a variety of weird items are used. Some of them are very mundane, going to the very rare.

I try to keep track of anything thats uncommon or reasonably expensive to the players in question. Likewise it’s generally carried in a pouch or some sort, so losing that can be just as damaging in the short term as losing a book.

What is your threshold and method for keeping track of these?

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Sounds & Noise in RPG’s

Monday, 20. September 2010

I got to spend some time out in the woods this weekend away from everything. It’s been a long time since I’ve actually got to do this, so it brought back a few details that I already knew but were quite important for gaming in wilderness environments. This can be taken and used to an extent in cities as well, but you really don’t understand how much ambient background noise there is until you get away from it.

For starters, sound travels a long way. Small actions such as leaves being crunched or sticks breaking are essentially a horn for anything approaching. Even quieter sounds such as a bird flapping its wings can be heard from a fair distance in some cases. Without a little bit of noise discipline, you won’t see anything that doesn’t want to be heard. Likewise it’s fairly easy to track via sound in a quiet environment… you’re far more likely to hear something long before you see it, particularly since most critters blend into the background. In describing things in most cases sounds from far off are likely to be heard or the scents.

In addition do that, unnatural sounds travel even further and are very recognizable. Noisy metal such as clips, hasps and other adornments can easily be heard from across a field if its truly quiet out. Likewise for those of us who prefer modern fabrics… most of them are extremely noisy if rubbed against each other. On top of that, the sound doesn’t fit in at all (likewise with the metal.) It’s very easy to write off the occasional stick breaking or brush moving because there is a lot of life out there. Anyone that’s not prepared to attempt to be silent is going to make a lot of noise simply because they’re not used to it.

Just a little bit of background noise mutes quieter sounds immediately. As soon as the wind starts blowing a little it becomes an entirely different ballgame. All of the movement of the trees and grasses become a dull roar, in addition to the wind further scattering the sound. This is still considerably quieter than a city might be, but it’s enough to break your long distance hearing entirely. This can be used for characters sneaking easily, but can also be a major problem for those who are used to hearing their opponents.

Lastly, there is a lot out there that makes noise. Birds, insects, rodents and all are a lot noisier than you might think. Sounds of movement in trees and brush is really sporadic, and as long as your noises are limited to bursts resumed by silence it’s pretty easy to pass off as something that’s supposed to be there. This means sneaking up on anything (say a campfire to see whats going on.) takes a lot longer than you might think. Any movement has to be slow and deliberate, and try to avoid any major give aways that something is out there.

So, there is my RPG application from my little trip. Hopefully this is something useful to think about in any sort of quiet area versus the standard background noise that most of us think is “quiet” (but isn’t) in cities.

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Preparation? No, Triage

Monday, 13. September 2010

Fame and Fortune is running this months RPG Carnival, with the theme being preparation.  A lot of times it’s either all or nothing depending on what you’re running and how long you’ll be running it for.  It’s a very good test of storytelling ability to be able to run a good game on the fly.  I can only do it part of the time, and the rest really prefer to get some proper preparations in.  This leads into questions such as…  How do you spend your time setting up for a game, how much is too much, looking at a variety of variables depending on the game you are running that include but are not limited to…

- complexity of game system (compare 3:16 with D&D 3.5 with high-level Rolemaster)
- session duration (D&D Encounters vs. tournament vs. an evening’s gaming)
- if the game is a one-shot or part of a campaign
- nature of the setting (pre-generated module vs. self-created sandbox).

I think it’s a good start if you want to try and quantify everything, but is really overkill. I can simplify how this works to 1 simple word.. “Triage.” Time is limited, and no matter how much time you have available eventually you can only get so fine in the amount of detail given. Depending on the setting and your style of game play you might not even want to get ridiculously detailed. Having another book to look up information from (this time your self created module) can really stifle game play.

With that in mind there are 2 things you need to put in place before you really get started.
1) Your style of Game play (Noir, Mystery, Action, Horror, etc.)
2) How much time you have (or want to spend) to prepare
Once you’ve figured those out, you can get started on the next process. You’ll have to budget enough time to get the first 3 steps done or you’re really going to be winging it.

1) Overall Area Map – This doesn’t have to be detailed, it’s simply a sketch of major points of interest in the area your campaign is being held in. Cities, Kingdoms, Spaceports, Dungeons and the like.
2) Roughing in the Major areas – You are going to go into a little detail with major NPC’s, Organizations, and the overall “feel” of each major area. You’ll be able to build more detail later, this is simply setting up framework to run a campaign.
3) Probable Plotlines – Since you should already have an idea of how you are going to run the campaign you now need to populate it with some motivations between characters and organizations, who hates who, and what the current happenings are in the area. With this in place it becomes very easy to wing it if your players decide to do something completely different. However, you are also set in case they decide to run with whatever your plot lines are.
4) Minor Map areas – Continue filling in your map with minor areas of interest. Your plot lines should help direct what some of these might be (Towns in duress, druid circles, crashed spacecraft, etc)
5) Familiarization – Make sure you have a good feeling about being able to describe all the major areas that might be visited, how you are going to describe them, points of conflict and so on. Understanding what you’ve put together at this point to make it run smoothly is more important than adding more detail.
6) Minor NPCs and events – I put these after familiarization simply because they’re simply filler for you to pull from for personalites, enemies and the like.
7) Additional detail work – Self explanatory, and can be repeated ad nauseum.

This entire process should give a pretty good breakdown of putting together a campaign within some time frames, and whats actually important to your running it. Its possible to get as detailed as you like, but the major elements are the most important part and are what need to be there first. After that, everything is just feelings and filler.

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Defining games through combat balance and utility

Wednesday, 1. September 2010

We’ve all played games that have absolutely no balance of what classes or characters can do in combat. If the majority of what you do in a game is fight, you will absolutely hate such games if you’re always consistently underpowered. The real problem comes in though, when the characters are equally useless elsewhere, and the game fails to recognize it by describing such a character as weaker. We like to think of games as being somewhat balanced in characters being equivalent in some abstract sum of their abilities.

If what you’re truly working with is a tactical combat game, then everything has to be equal in some form in that arena. What characters lack in brute power need to be made up for in utility or perhaps durability, or mobility. MMO’s are notorious for this (Notice I didn’t say MMORPG, because the latter part is basically nonexistent.) because they’re glorified combat simulators, often in very, very slow motion. D&D is attempting to do that same thing as a holy grail, simply because that’s what the system represents. Bashing things in combat and taking loot. It’s no fun to be useless in such situation.

The lesson taken from that of course, is as mentioned above some sort of abstract balance is required. Balance = fun after all. That’s hardly the case though if it were, scales would be the majority of modern entertainment. Reality of course has no such qualms when it comes to balance. People vary wildly in both their abilities and the sum of their abilities and skills. We simply attempt to recognize talent when we see it, and along with it… lack of talent as well.

If anything coming up for such a formula is incredibly difficult, particularly when you factor in non-combat skills. Is stealth more powerful than medicine? It’s completely abstract. Well developed political and persuasive power is one of the strongest human forces on earth and yet is incredibly difficult to quantify on paper. The best that can be done is purely an abstraction. Pure balance is obviously not the answer.

Therefore what we really need to produce are interesting characters, interactions and situations. Players need to feel useful unless they are playing something that is intentionally useless. Good role playing and planning of situations by storytellers can easily make this happen. Drama is also required, with a lesser or greater extent depending on your style of play. If characters are truly weaker, simply recognize such a fact and work with it.

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Foggy Situation

Thursday, 26. August 2010

From time to time it’s occasionally useful to have a fog or mist over the table for dramatic effect.  Bubbling cauldrons, thick fogs, flying through clouds, enemies dissipating into mist when defeated and so on and so forth.  The question remains how to do this in an timely, cost efficient manner preferably without harming anyone in the room… Breathing fumes isn’t always the wisest idea.

The first is the time honored method of dry ice and water.  This probably scales the best; as you can use a relatively small container with water in it to put the dry ice into.  It’s also potentially one of the most dangerous; as dry ice contacting the body does some damage.  (Modern wart removers now use a similar method.)  Essentially a container is taken full of hot water, and dry ice is dropped into it.  The CO2 is denser than air, so it billows out in a neat fashion.  It also can displace oxygen, so using a lot of it in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time is probably a bad idea.  Party supply stores should have what you need to make the dry ice.

The other option is to use a commercially available fog machine, such as the ones detailed here. The availability of these has gone up considerably, and the price has gone down within the last few years. A friend of mine acquired one for under $80 and was able to convert his entire basement into a foggy mess for a party a year or 2 ago, so they work rather well. They essentially boil a fogging solution (also cheap now.) and put it out into the air. Larger machines can produce more fog, but be careful that too much volume isn’t produced as players and storytellers still need to see the table. These are also obviously useful for Halloween, parties and the like.

These are just 2 simple, relatively cheap methods of extending the role playing experience. I find them particularly useful in Lovecraftian or similar horror setting to build tension. There is lots of fun having the fog creep in with accompanying background music just to watch players look around and dread whats coming next.

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Pondering Poison

Friday, 30. July 2010

Blackrazor has reminded me of how much I hate the old school rules of instant death for poison.  Yes, the attack damage is often more lethal than the poison particularly to lower level characters.  Still, something dosen’t quite sit right with it.  While there undoubtedly poisons out there that are lethal, even the ones we do consider “extremely lethal” often take their very sweet time to meet out the ultimate results in death.  A few examples below.

Coral Snake- Delay of several hours before the venom takes effect, but the results are potentially neur0muscular paralysis, death occurring when the lungs fail. This may get more hazardous because it is apparently no longer profitable to produce anti venom through the FDA licensing process. Awesome.

Black Widow – Cramping, Abdominal pain, Perspiration, Nausea, etc. Death is rare.

Sea Wasp - This one does kill them as quickly as possible, just to prevent it from tearing up the jellyfish. Death occurs within 4 minutes, assuming you get it badly enough. Excruciating pain, and shock/drowning occurring as well.

King Cobra - Large amounts of toxic venom injected, typically death occurs within 30-45 minutes. Lethality rate on this one is actually pretty high 33-66% depending on treatment.
Read more

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Flat critical failure percentages

Thursday, 29. July 2010

One of the things that I’ve always hated in various d20 and d100 based systems is their method of critical failures.  No matter how skilled or unskilled a character is the chance of failure is always flat.  Be it 5% in a D20 system, or a varying 2-5% in a D100 system.

Most of us have tasks, jobs and skills that we are very proficient at either from hobbies or from work.  I happen to do a fair amount of technical work on equipment.  If I had anywhere near a 5% failure rate even under stress, people would be dead and I would be fired in a heartbeat. It’s probably well under 1% with actual failure rates perhaps slightly higher, but still underneath it. I’m sure everyone agrees a good amount of their work is similar, with a very low rate as well.

Now, very delicate work in hostile conditions? Probably higher depending on interruptions and the tools the character in question has to work with.  Higher still if they’re under attack or under a time limit (Bomb ticking away perhaps?) Character dosen’t care?  Higher, so on and so forth.

You can get this to a point by adjusting failure %’s flat out.  You are of course, limited to your die’s resolution… 5% increments for a d20, 1% for d100…  Even doing that however, it still leaves that annoying flat failure percentage.  No matter the skill of the character in question, the chance of critically screwing up remains the same.

The simplest solution that I can work with is to start using small dice pools.  I say small because I really don’t play games to roll dice.  If I did that I’d just play Yatzee or maybe craps.    For instance in the case of the d20.. have another die in there for a failure die. Your failure die can be tuned to whatever you feel the % needs to be.

Crit Failure on     Crit Failure
1 no fail die            5%
1, fail die 1-10       2.5%
1, fail die 1-5          1.25%

Another (more preferred option, in my case) is to use something similar to what heavy gear uses. Your skill levels determine the dice you throw, and the highest is kept. If all come up 1′s, crit failure. Standard dice used is d2, and throwing 2 of them is considered average. 3 is professional, etc. In addition to dropping the fail rate, it also consistently moves the average roll up making trivial and nontrivial tasks easier. I realize its still a set % get a certain number, but it still feels less “chancy” then relying on one die for some reason.

Mind you with the tables below that any skill above 3 is incredibly rare
Dice    Thrown Crit Fail %   

1          16.7%                            
2          2.77%                          
3          0.46%
4          0.07%
5          0.012%

The system tends to use compared rolls, so crit failures even in combat aren’t necessarily lethal.  In addition, the system allows you to burn small amount of experience to save your character in a bind, in case there is a critical failure.  All in all, very well laid out and it feels fairer for players involved to be cheated less by dice.

Thoughts on the matter?

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Villainous Hierarchy

Tuesday, 27. July 2010

Players face many foes within a standard game.  One of the most standard is varying villainous organizations, which have varying sizes but typically have similar structures as they get progressively larger.   In this particular issue, we’ll examine the standard base organizations and look at their possible associations later.  With that in mind, here is a birds eye view.

The standard organization is very similar to the military and paramilitary.  There are generals, tiers of commanders and soldiers.  Typically the titles will vary, but it generally works out to boss or masterminds and associated high level assistant and associates.  After that, there is a tier or tiers of lieutenants, and finally henchmen.   Typically masterminds have little contact with player characters, they may or may not be know depending on what the organization is (And of course, the villains wishes.)  Lieutenants are encountered somewhat more frequently, and hopefully only in larger organizational operations.  Henchmen are what the players are mostly likely to encounter on a regular basis, as they are the arm of the organization when it comes to getting things done.  Often they’ll have a lesser leader in charge of them on more important jobs.

Cellular organizations are quite different.  These are more likely to exist in the face of overwhelming opposition, as they are far less connected and therefore have less information on the organization for enterprising heroes, corporations or governments to crush.  Rather than operating from a central point, smaller cells often of 3-10 people are given goals and allowed or encouraged to accomplish them on their own.  There is often a leader within the cell and communications between cells are kept to a minimum and discrete is possible.  The organizations leader exists more in the form of guidance and encouragement for the groups operations rather than a direct commander.

The organizations goons of course don’t work for free, there has to be some motivation for their employment.  The most obvious, common and uninspired reason is money.  Going beyond that however is the acquisition of power, prestige or both.  There are of course negative ways of employment.  These are threats, coercion and blackmail.  A character in such position is often far more desperate and therefore dangerous than one that is getting comfortably paid.  These means are useful for the organizations to recruit unwilling assistance, such as player characters.

The villainous organization will have a goal in mind.   This is determined by their leader; although bear in mind however that not everyone desires to rule the world.  Having an iron fist on the immediate surroundings, revenge, lots of respect or lots of money is good enough reason for many.  This can of course change with time, but is something good to start with that can also grow as player characters do. (Or shrink depending on their effectiveness…)

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