Jan 5 2011

Lessons Learned 2010

Last year we spent a lot of time imagining, writing, and testing new games. We expected to get two titles out of this at least and maybe three or four. We didn’t get any. Well, we got one (Hollowpoint), but it’s still not in publication because I am a lazy bastard and am still laying it out. I will spend a little energy thinking out loud about what this year taught me and why that translates into so few new games.

There’s a great book you should probably read called The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. It’s about software engineering in the 60s and it’s not strictly true any more with respect to software engineering, largely because of critical changes in communication technologies which change the cost of interaction, possibly below some critical threshold. Anyway, whether or not the core premises are obsolete, the book still contains powerful insights about system projects, and games are system projects.

A system project is a project that builds some relatively complicated machine that can be broken down into sub-components that are also machines. Machines are things that take an input, crunch some process over it, and create an output that is more useful. A lever is a machine. It takes force in one side, uses some basic physics relating to length and mass, and produces different forces on the other side that might be more useful in some contexts. Games are machines too. Complicated games are systems of machines (a randomization machine — dice, a narrative effect machine — modifiers, a spotlight-management machine — taking turns, etc.).

Making a system is complicated because you care about the interaction between sub-system as well as the specific function of each sub-system. And you can get effect loops, which is where the real monsters hide, where a sub-system affects the operation of a seemingly unrelated sub-system because you didn’t do a complete feedback analysis. Anyway, a game is sufficiently like a software project that there might be something interesting in this book if you’re interested in games.

A lot of what’s in that book is no longer strictly relevant, but one thing I think certainly is: the second system syndrome. This is when you finish one system and it works and is well-received and so you start work on your next one and you imagine all the things you did wrong on the first one. Or find new enthusiasm in focus on some particular element of the previous one. Whatever your passion relating to the first system, you over-focus and produce a plan for a second system that is broken because you’ve lost sight of the explicit requirements of your project and instead see only the passion from the first project. Projects can progress for a very long time down this fruitless path before aborting or reigning in the process.

We kind of went there. Reading The Mythical Man Month does not make you immune to it. We floundered around with several ideas which looked good to me because am designing-as-art a lot of the time and having a great time doing it. But in play it was not coming together and it took a long time to figure out that I had to start over rather than keep pushing at something that was very pretty as a machine but did not function as intended.

The eye-opener was playing other games. Note to self: play other games.

Partly this was playing games that did not work for us. Some failed because they had exactly the same pretensions I had. Some failed because they were quite the opposite of what I want to do (whether in play or in design). Some failed because character creation was not fun and I need it to be fun. Most of these failures revealed errors in my own work. Some gave me clues to new features because I didn’t know I didn’t like some things. It pays to analyze failure.

The other part was playing games that did work. Gamma World was a hoot and yet it is very far afield from my own design interests. We played some Wings of War and the elegance of that card-controlled simulation struck all kinds of chords for me. And we played several sessions of Diaspora, which reminded me what parts we did right — and that we should at a minimum not throw those bits out when designing something new with the FATE engine.

So last year we built a few second systems but, to our credit, we didn’t pursue them too far. Well, barring one, but I will reconstruct Soft Horizon this year so that it’s more fun than clever and see if we can’t rescue it. It was a fun year with lots of creative frustration but also lots of great gaming with very smart, witty, and above all, patient friends.

Oh yeah, the lesson learned? It’s not really how to avoid second system syndrome, because having read the book I didn’t really discover a way to avoid it in the first place. I only discovered that it happens. And the book doesn’t teach you how to avoid it because in a way it’s not avoidable. Rather it’s something that you can recover from once it happens.

So here are some lessons. FATE is pretty bloody good at what it does so don’t dick with it too much. The cluster generation system in Diaspora is awesome but it’s not automatically awesome — getting the stats right is critical (yay Chimaera, nay Soft Horizon). Phased character generation is a reliable way to get shared character generation sessions to work — start there. A cool new system isn’t automatically cool for every new game idea. If Tim’s not having fun then something is actually wrong. Ignore the advice of anyone who does not actually play games.

And derived from that last: play games.


Nov 5 2010

Playing Gamma World

A while back I wrote about a game of Pathfinder that we tried and how that didn’t work (for us, IMHO, YMMV, etc. — please take all that as read throughout so  don’t have to repeat it). We played 4e for a while and it didn’t sing. Then we went on a bender playtesting new games.

The other day I wrote about buying and reading Gamma World. Last night we played it. We played it for a few reasons. Certainly it’s a sexy little thing and demands to be played because it looks fun. It’s also an interesting iteration on the 4e rules and in ways I can mostly love. Other will certainly hate — it seems like it’s even further from the roots of D&D than ever before. I’m certain that the reverse is true, but I also don’t care where it sits on any hypothetical graph of D&D versions, so it’s easy for me to pick a side here. But mostly I needed to bring a popular game to the table so that we can deconstruct it a little and find the fun-organs (not a euphemism) because obviously when we make our own games they also need components that generate fun.

So I prepped a simple little game with an abstracted map (you live in New Desuka and you can head to the old highway, into the carnivorous forest, or down the river), a fun NPC (Doc, the Android/Doppleganger who conducts extensive obscure research in New Desuka and kind of runs the place and kind of not), and a problem (the river is being blockaded and the dabber village downstream has stopped trying to get through — and so now New Desuka is starving). This has the basic features needed to get going fast: an idea of where you are relative to what else, someone fun to talk to, and something to do that makes you feel like a good person for doing it.

And get going fast it did. It followed the usual pattern of D&D games since I was 11 — talk talk talk (adding, in more recent revisions, a static skill check or two) followed by fight fight fight and then more talk talk talk. I do not want to resist this pattern in case it’s a feature. That is, I’m trying very hard to constrain any bias I’ve developed over the past several years and play this game pretty much exactly as it is sold to me in the text.

So, there is talk talk talk and then the characters (a Giant Mind Coercer and a Mind Breaking Empath) get a river barge with whatever they feel they need (they ask for a crate of grenades — as per my advice in RPG.Net discussions of nerve gas, I give them a crate of grenades) and start sculling downstream. As they head downstream (hoping to reach the neighbouring city of Vista an in attempting this, discover the nature of the river blockade) two Cloud Worms drop from the overhanging trees on their barge! Fight!

I draw a quick map. The river with some trees on the bank. We put a card on the table to represent the barge (a stroke of genius from Bob, who’s playing the giant) and draw a narrow channel down the center of the river — in this channel you are swimming and maybe drowning. Outside the channel you are wading (double cost to enter). Simple map with tactical power in maneuver and, it turns out, at least one emergent property that I suspect Bob had planned: you can move the barge, which moves everyone on it. This, by the way, is the first clue to a major fun-organ.

The combat is painless. It proceeds quickly, amusingly, and contains rich opportunities for tactical choice. Players, even with first level characters, fruitfully explore different powers and different actions. Optimal solutions appear to be rare. This is interesting because these are pitfalls I have repeatedly fallen into in design, so the question I obviously want to answer is, “why does this work?”

At one point the giant (Claygore!) decides to move the raft so that it is out of the channel. He takes a move action to scull it one square over. I rule that this is reasonable. I could have also said “make an Atheltics check” and that would also have been cool. What is meta-cool, though, is the ease and freedom (and permission, though it’s implicit) to make that un-ruled maneuver happen. That was fun. And so what I realized at this point is that this game leaves a lot of egg out. It also leaves it out in fun places and knows where those are simply because that’s sort of always where we’ve done that. It’s only more recently that deconstructing these games have allowed us to recognize the absence of egg and therefore that we better put that in because, what the fuck, no egg.

Anyway, fight fight fight and JB’s character, Dale or Dwayne or something like that, gets flanked and that turns out to be all kinds of bad. He’s smacked down to well over his instant death marker and is gulped down by the beasts. Claygore is smacked unconscious and, rather than just halt the game, I have him awake in the dabber village attended by the little racoon people. They must have saved him, scaring off or killing the Cloud Worms. Or something. And so, while JB is rolling up a new character (an electro-kinetic plant which I name Herb (he’s a sage) but that JB gives a totally different name) Claygore converses with the dabbers and discovers why trade has broken down. Talk talk talk. And it’s fun talk and it reveals a new direction and it introduces Herb.

So as far as I am concerned, Gamma World is old-school. Combat is traditional, tactical, map-and-mini, with a relatively short list of options that all have clear narratives. It runs fast and without excessive bookkeeping (of note here are the rules for continuing damage and the meta-game timing of effects — roll on your turn, it lasts until you get to act; that kind of thing) and yet is rich enough to create circumstances that require on-the-fly ruling. And that’s important — inventing the game as you go along is something I want (even expect) from a role-playing game. It’s why Reign sings so sweetly to me — it’s just so easy to push the ORE around all over the place to suit circumstance.

And part of “old school” is the simple rules that evoke complex ideas trivially. After we played for a bit we stopped to discuss what happened for a while and one of the things I brought up was how there are some origins that are very hard to find the story in. “Yeti cockcroach” was my example. Bob suggests that this might be a giant sentient albino cockroach and that fellow sentient cockroaches have an unassailable mental block against the very idea of a white cockroach. That is, they don’t believe in him. So instead of drawing “ape-like giant” from “yeti”, Bob draws out “pale hoax”. I slap my head. Not because there is a story — you can find a story between any two unrelated things — but because the story is actually really easy to find.

Combat was pretty lethal. I set the difficulty level on that encounter a little high (they probably should have run away) but even if it was corrected, a bad roll can send you to the grave. That seems to be okay, though. Character generation is fun and fast, and if you’re looking forward to chucking the dice on the origin table again then death sort of loses its sting. That’s swell because that lets the dice stay in the open and that amps up the tension and that’s really fun.

The gonzo element is something I’m cool with in small doses. This heads into old Gamma World territory but it also treads (lightly mind you) on Paranoia turf. That’s all good — not that it means that this is the game I want to play every night forever, but because those are fun games with a clear space set aside in my head. I know what this game will deliver and so I know whether or not I want to play it. This is a great game to lighten the mood for a few sessions between other more savoury fare. And you can come back to it so very easily, I suspect, so you can keep inserting it in your calendar without much work. Certainly my 4,000 or so words of prep contain enough material for a half dozen sessions at least.

So: fun, light, and illuminating. Well worth its (very low) price tag.

The index still sucks. We had more hits this time but in one case the thing linked in the index was actually a pointer to go to a completely different page. Yup. Look up “basic attack”. Holy moly.


Nov 1 2010

Gamma World (you heard me)

I bought a copy of Gamma World the other day. What the hell — the price is right for this thing and I am in the mood to explore some less serious post-apocalyptic stuff.

Now, I should say out of the gate that I am not all that interested. Gamma World has always been too gonzo for my tastes. I loved Metamorphosis Alpha but mostly because of its resonance with that Heinlein short story I can never remember the name of. And the gonzo seemed a product more of naivety than of a love of lunacy. But some people I trust have been hinting that interesting things are in the box and so I bought one. I figure that if I hate it I can write it off as VSCA research material.

I didn’t like D&D 4e much. I’ve tried to talk about why, but honestly my thoughts on the matter are too vague to really make a good discussion. I just didn’t like it. It’s worth keeping in mind that I had already soured on D&D 3.5e and previous versions, and yet it was still a hope for subtle improvement on those that seems to have been violated. I didn’t feel I got subtlety or improvement. Gamma World is certainly derived from 4e. In fact, it’s really enthusiastically a 4e game. It’s more 4e than 4e. It embraces all the new stuff and shucks off all the D&D baggage 4e is carrying. It’s a new game.

So throughout this please keep in mind that I haven’t played yet. I’ve read it, I’ve punched the counters, I’ve fiddled with the cards (including a couple of boosters I bought), I’ve made a few characters, and I’ve prepped a game for Thursday night. Here goes.

Character creation involves the forced pairing of two random “origins”. You roll these and make sense of them. Making this a player burden is so hippy-indie I have to laugh. I love it. You roll Android and Doppleganger and tell me what you are. The joy of this is that it’s so easy even when it looks hard that you get crazy bizarre magnificent results. The instinct is to not roll or roll until you get what you want, but trust me and dive in with both feet at least the first time. This is one of the Cool Things in this box.

Each origin has several aspects. It has traits, which describe special defenses, skill affinities, and that sort of thing. It also pins down the primary stat for the character, and I will diverge to point out another place in the game that is awesome: stat generation is solved. You your primary origin’s stat is at 18. Your secondary is at 16. If they are the same, that stat is 20. Roll all the rest with 3d6 and no gimmicks. This is so awesome it hurts. You get the character-forcing coolness of random stats without the bitter betrayal of stats that no one can love. You get your 18. And your 16. And they are in stats that you care about (because of your origins!) and so you can use your inevitable 7 to colour your character. You will often get some skills that are crappy because of a botched stat even though your origin says you are good at this skill (my Cockroach/Yeti has Mechanic at 3 even though everyone knows that Cockroaches make the best mechanics). It’s colour. It’s wonderful.

Now part of why this all works is because it makes character creation colourful and fast and that means it’s okay that your mortality rate is fairly high. You will have PCs die rather more often than in D&D. But that’s cool! I’ll talk about why in a sec.

The central conceit of the Gamma World story is that in 2011 someone turned on the Large Hadron Collider and all hell broke loose. This is referred to as The Big Mistake. During the early period, millions of alternate timelines came to exist nearly simultaneously here on Earth and, as things stabilized (and we’ll see that this term is relative) foreign timeline material got stuck here. Most notably, the dark-energy wielding Xi android culture that dominates many versions of Earth have a presence here. So do the powerful and wonderous super-Inca-Babylonian-Aztecs, the Ishtari. And there is also a lot of very mysterious stuff about Grays and Area 52. But the key feature of this new world is change and though change is related to these three alternate worlds, it is also much more diverse than them.

So your character is either derived from or intersected with some of these timelines. And these features have bred true-ish. Fact is, they’ve bred truer in others than in you. There are whole cultures of badger-people out there, but your culture is composed of bizarre mongrels 1 or at least breeds them (purposefully or not — your story). So you have some zany attributed from these timeline-pastiches. You might be a hawkman with empathic tendancies. Or a yeti form composed of hive-mind rats. You are outrageously different and equally powerful.

Thing is, this change is unstable. You have your basic origin powers and these never change: you will always bee a rat-yeti and have rat-yeti powers. But you also have unstable powers, which are drawn from a deck of cards (a deck that can be stacked to be more or less random and more or less thematic — this is one of your gonzo dials). And whenever you roll a 1, there is an Alpha Surge — a big trans-dimensional change as the Big Mistake continues to settle — and you have to discard one of these powers and draw a new one. You may or may not have some control over the deck you draw from. The GM certainly does. But the specific power? No control. You are changed as the timelines re-align.

These are the cool things. The other cool thing is that the system is deeply streamlined. There are precious few special cases that are not on a card or your character sheet, and that is an awesome change.  You get enough monsters in the book to build a few thematic encounters with no trouble. And I’m pretty sure it’s not a major drawback that the character rules only cover up to level 10, because living that long seems unlikely. And that brings up an interesting hack that @Epidiah (I only have a Twitter name!) suggested: whenever a character dies, that player becomes the GM. A kind of meta-alpha-surge. The GM hands over her notes and rolls up a character. The world changes in subtle, perhaps ineffable ways, and yet remains the same.

Any game that suggests that mechanism and makes me grin at the same time is okay by me.

The book itself has deep flaws but so what.


  1. actually this isn’t clear — my take is that there are also human cultures with some deformities but basically human. Player characters represent the rare super-viable mutations that have heroic possibilties.