Feb 23 2010

Bloody Diaspora clusters are everywhere

I’ve been resisting this. Really.

However, I started playing around with something for Hollowpoint (tired of the acronym) based on some feedback from friendly and interested folks on Buzz and Twitter and Etc. Turns out they are smart too. Because Hollowpoint is basically about agents of some agency handling some more complex relationship diagram, it is a natural to build that relationship diagram and the cluster system from Diaspora has already demonstrated functionality. Okay I give.

The first idea was to define the agency itself, but I don’t want the agency to become a character. The opposition, however, is a character, so that’s what we’re defining. I establish three attributes, use the same rules for linking as in Diaspora, and then add some rules for interpreting the results. Some of the rule outputs need re-wording but I think the idea is clear. So the attributes are:

Honour. How honourable the entity is.

Cash. How much cash the entity has.

Manpower. How much force the entity can bring to bear.

Now because we’re using six-siders for Hollowpoint, this must also, so we use the d6-d6 method: roll two differently coloured dice and subtract one from the other using a pre-determined rule (subtract black from red, say). This gives a shallow curve from -5 to 5, peaking at 0. So we roll that for each stat and then for each node roll it again for connections. A negative result connects to the neighbouring node only, a zero result adds a connection to the next available node after, and a positive result adds a a third connection to the next neighbour open after that. An open neighbour is one not already connected.

And then we interpret based on these rules:

A connection between nodes that both have positive or both have negative values for an attribute indicates that the nodes are allied on this attribute. Honour implies friendliness, cash implies a mutual reliance, and manpower indicates a pact or truce.

A connection between nodes where one or another has a zero attribute is ignored.

A connection between nodes where one is negative and the other is positive indicates an imbalance that is a potential source of friction (mission driver!) So for honour this is a debt of honour: the negative seeks revenge on the positive. For cash this is a simple debt: the negative owes money to the positive. For manpower this is weakness and strength: the negative is weak to (and therefore defers to) the positive. Here’s an example:

Well I have to say that that invites some missions. We have some debts, some weaknesses, an interest in revenge and an interestingly cash-poor overall operation where everyone is interdependent. Clearly there are too many families in this syndicate! We also see the hub — that second node that everyone is weak to and everyone is connected to. And their sole realy strength is manpower — violence.

There’s something deeper in the cluster creation system than it looked at first. And though we touched on what it might be right there in the book, I don’t think it was clear until now just how rich it is in the abstract. It’s nice that it’s also an icon for VSCA, so if I use it in everything I ever produce I guess that’ll be okay. Or at least explicable.


Feb 19 2010

Losing by winning too hard

In a game I am working on that I can’t name because it still doesn’t have a satisfactory name, we ran into an interesting impasse. While playtesting we hit an unexpected state that revealed to me exactly what we were making. Here’s what happened.

First a little background on the game. In this game the characters have limited resources in which to complete a mission. A mission is composed of multiple conflicts, each of which chew up resources. There is a way to refresh some resources, but let’s assume there isn’t because it is Special. Just hold on to something — I promise I’ll explain that.

Now every time the characters win a conflict, the opposition escalates. The next conflict will be a little harder.

Stated this way it’s sort of obvious what can happen but it surprised me anyway. Maybe because I never stated it clearly. Anyway, what happened is that the players won four conflicts in a row without achieving their mission objective. So now they are facing the hardest conflict yet and with no resources. Intellectually that’s really cool. I think it’s a wonderful result. But can it be fun?

On the surface of it there are two solutions. They can confront the last objective directly, knowing they will probably die trying. This is highly consistent with the genre and, I think, a desirable choice. Or they can slink off, failing the mission, because they forced the opposition to entrench and prepare by doing too much without pursuing the objective adequately (partially because the objective was badly defined — something that the rules will fix now). Both of these work for me. There’s actually a third possibility that derives from details of the system, but it’s another win-by-failing, though very specific to a single player. It’s also genre-consistent.

What this state revealed to me is that the game is being played by the players (to win!) at two different scales when we thought it was only one. Certainly you play to win each conflict, choosing your resources well and your skills to bring to bear and what dice to do what with. There is tactically rich play inside the conflict that you have do well (it’s not hard, mind you) in order to win. And the probability calculations are not (remotely) straightforward, so you learn by playing.

But because you have resources that are largely limited per mission, you are also playing a resource management game at the mission scale, and that’s what we all missed. Sometimes you have to make a sacrifice play and lose a conflict in order to preserve (or regenerate) resources for a more important conflict. If you blow resources on a conflict that doesn’t progress the mission objectives, you’re playing the mission game badly. Unless you have a plan to recoup them, of course!

Rewarding sacrifice play is something I certainly want to come out of this game. There is no question that (and this wording is deliberate) I want PLAYERS to make sacrifices during play. Characters too, but I want players to sacrifice their characters to achieve success sometimes. And I think play last night underscored that that has to happen (players were operating very conservatively compared to the previous play test) and let me write some new rules that encourage it. So that’s really cool. That’s the kind of playtest I love.

Oh yeah I promised to mention the Special way to refresh resources. If your character dies (or otherwise exits play), your new character brings fresh resources with her. So one way to renew some resources is to make sure you get taken out in a conflict. You get rewarded personally, too — the next scene after a character exit is always the new character being sent in to fix this giant cock up, explaining to the others how it’s going to get on track and not get anyone else killed and talking about how valuable and wonderful the exited agent was and how everyone should be ashamed for letting her down. Players really seem to get into this scene.


Feb 15 2010

VSCA new updates

Oh yeah, a few news updates.

Corrected version of Diaspora

Yesterday I got the corrected version of Diaspora up at Lulu. If you buy a copy from Lulu now, it’s the corrected version. The difference between it and the previous version is mostly superficial — typos and grammar, really. You can tell the difference between the old one and the new in a couple of ways: the copyright notice says 2010 as well as 2009, the softcover ISBN is included, the acknowledgements include a nod to our close-reading fans, and on page 220 we use the word “social” instead of “socail”. Sometime in the next month or so we’ll get a document up that summarizes the changes. Thanks so much to everyone that submitted errata. It was a pain in the ass.

Softcover Diaspora

I’m just waiting for my test copy of Diaspora in softcover. If it looks good, I’ll change it’s status to “for sale” and you can go get some. There are a few advantages to the softcover. It’s softer, obviously. It’s also slimmer, which means it fits in a mail slot which means it’s much cheaper to ship. It’s cheaper to buy (don’t know how cheap exactly but I think around $25 USD). It’s even cheaper if you buy 5 of them (whereas you need to buy 50 of the hardcover to get any discount). And it is better suited to selling through IPR, so we’ll be pursuing that. That is also good news to vendors. Oh it also prints faster, so going from click to get is only 5 days or so.

PDF of Diaspora

This seems very likely now. I won’t have concrete news until later. There will of course be bundles and all that good stuff. Watch this space.

Agency is now Crew

Who’d have thought there’d already be a game called Agency? Oh well, thanks to those that pointed it out to me.