Apr 5 2010

Sudden focus

Right now the VSCA has several games percolating. It’s interesting how they swim in and out of focus.

Chimaera is the latest example. Until recently it was mostly still in JB’s head and it seemed to derive largely from fiction he wanted to tell, and consequently lacked a presence as a game. Instead it was more a sequence of visual ideas, which is fertile soil for a game to germinate. But it’s not a game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a sequence of visual ideas that was all that compelling to me and so I was having a hard time assisting in its transition from “cool stuff” to “game”. It was out of focus and I honestly saw no game there (though I did see a number of cool ideas that could become part of other games).

On Easter Friday we sat down and went through community and character generation for Chimaera, something that had a few rules written down but nothing as concrete as a checklist. Now part of the problem with designing in your head is that the order of use makes you go in circles. When you sit down and do it, you can iterate in those circles, though, and design and pare and sculpt and fix and text and again like that. So at the table instead of one linear idea, we got this happening:

“Here’s how you make communities.”

“Hrm, I don’t have a feel for my community with these numbers. Too many zeroes. It’s, what, ‘disorganized’ and ‘isolated’?”

“Maybe a different curve? Fewer zeroes?”

“How about this? No. This? No. This? Whoa that’s cool; low probability of zero, peak probability of one, and descending probabilities to five.”

“Zero should be special then. Not ‘least’ but maybe opposite or transitional. A new state.”

“Try it first.”

“Okay my community seems cooler. But what’s Integrity zero now? Just ‘chaotic’ or ‘unstable’?”

“Should be a new state. It’s not a community at all at Integrity zero — it’s property for someone else. Call it ‘commodified’.”

“So my community is a baby farm that your community is using as a buffer to keep the daemons off? Holy crap that’s dark.”

“And cool.”

And like that. We built communities, tweaked the rules, built them again, tweaked the dice, built again, and so on until we found a place that wasn’t “good enough” but rather “awesome”.

Now with characters you have something more complex happening and this makes design necessarily iterative for the same reasons that it’s hard to figure out what order to make the chapters in the game book: in order to make a cool character you need to know something about the resolution system so that you can see how the character representation will impact play. In order to test (or demonstrate) the resolution system, though, you need some characters.

So JB already had a character generation system established but it wasn’t very clear exactly how the resolution system would get pushed around by the character representation. So we went straight to the resolution system and did something that I will suggest to any designer: quit dicking with the dice. It’s not that important. Pick a dice system and then make the character representation play the dice like a fiddle.

So the dice system we went with is simple: roll a pool of dice based on something. Odd numbers are successes. Most successes wins. For now, who cares how you get the dice pool size.

We rolled some opposed checks and it’s good. It creates successes and failures and ties. Taking a card from Hollowpoint’s deck, we decided that ties are mutual failures mostly because that’s not boring (a wash is boring) and because it speeds up rather than slows down the progress of a multi-stage conflict. So if you lose, you lose as many dice as the difference between your and your opposition’s roll. If you tie, you both lose a die.

Now here’s where cool dice mechanisms often fail to meed the road with any grip: how do three players conflict against opposition run by one player? There are two basic choices: take turns and resolve piecemeal, or all roll at once and discover. We’re all a little tired of you-go-I-go-you-go systems and dice pools are amenable to roll-and-discover so it goes like this:

Each player rolls her pool. We test with sketched characters that have skills and aspects, though we don’t really know what these will mean yet. Ranking the skills, players have four dice in their best skill. See what happens.

The GM rolls an opposition pool that’s big — say four dice per opposing player for an equal match.

The GM can use successes in her pool to cancel successes in any or many players’ pool. Shades of ORE and Hollowpoint. If a player’s pool has been reduced to zero, the GM may declare the rest of her successes as damage on that player. Or she can use them to cancel more successes in other pools. For each damage unit, the player loses one die somehow.

Players with remaining successes can use them to damage the opposition. For each success the GM removes a die from her pool.

Cycling through this a few times it seems to work. It’s fast, it’s exciting, it’s a little tactical, and it’s easy. It always has a resolution.

So we go back to character representation. Characters have Traits which are like skills or something. They are ranked from four to one. JB previously had the idea that each Trait has a number of Aspects equal to its rank. That’s cool and simple. And it’s suggests a mechanism that it turns out binds all aspects of resolution together in a tight little bundle:

You choose the Trait to play with and get that many dice. You may tick off one or more Aspects under any other Trait and add a die for each. When you take damage, you must tick off an unticked Aspect. You can’t use a ticked Aspect. If you have no unticked Aspects, you are dead.

Okay so now you have a way to record damage, a way that damage impacts effectiveness, a risk/reward balance for grabbing extra dice, and something cool implied in character generation (here we iterate): you do not want Aspects associated with a Trait to be about the things that Trait is obviously about, because they cannot be used to assist that Trait! We smell something cool.

See, let’s say you have this character:

SOLDIER 4

  • “Crack shot”
  • “Martial artist”
  • “Marksman”
  • “Ruthless killer”

FARMER 3

  • “Grows great corn”
  • “Weatherbeaten”
  • “Animal handler”

Now, in a fight she will use SOLDIER and grab four dice. But what will she draw on for additional effect? “Grows great corn”? So it’s mechanically defective but, worse, it’s boring. Very little under SOLDIER tells me anything interesting. However, a player playing tactically during character generation (and I feel strongly that a game ought to do best when played best) would choose Aspects that are not strictly related to the Trait in order to maximize usage in other contexts. Say:

SOLDIER 4

  • “Born leader”
  • “Can march for days”
  • “Plans everything”
  • “Cool under pressure”

FARMER 3

  • “Varmint hunter”
  • “Strong as an ox”
  • “Handy with all manner of dangerous tools”

Okay now we have two valuable new results: first we have a character that will play well at the table. When making SOLDIER checks, she can grab “Varmint hunter” for shooting and the other two for hand-to-hand. We just learned that because of her background, she’s a soldier with powerful close-combat specialties. When making FARMER checks, she’s grabbing her planning skills and her endurance and even her leadership for successes, and so we learn how life as a soldier impacts her duties as a farmer. So the second valuable result is that this character is way way more interesting!

So we run a fight again with these new characters, and we find that there is benefit in switching out skills (a common failure in games is using the same skill over and over which is boring as hell)! If you use a Trait and tick an Aspect or two, it will often pay to use the Trait with a ticked Aspect next because the skill you used last time has lots of Aspects available! And, further, damage will influence your next choice as well. This means that your best Trait is often the optimal choice initially, but as the fight evolves it may become the worst choice because it has all your unticked Aspects under it. This is really cool — combat becomes a series of dynamic choices. It’s tactical, and the tactical choices drive the creation of unexpected stories. How can I get my FARMER Trait into this desperate battle with mutated wolves?

Any really great session winds up generating art. So, in celebration of the fact that Chimaera began as a set of visual ideas without cohesion (well, without game-like cohesion) and finished the evening as a concrete and delightful game, I went to the drawing board and worked up an image to incorporate into a cover for the game. One that has none of these visual ideas. I picture it in the upper right corner of a field of black. Because I smell a very dark game here.

–BMurray


Oct 23 2009

New author: tquid

TQuid will be writing here at his leisure. He’s part of the VSCA gang — no better word for our association, really, as the company is pretty much just me in legal terms, but there is a cluster (lol) of authors that are involved in R&D, playtesting, development, and so on.

I don’t know if his real name is a secret or what, so I’ll leave that to him. If he doesn’t come clean, I’ll out him in a week.

–BMurray