Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Theory vs. Practice, or "How did I get myself into this mess?"

I'm going to assume the dearth of posts lately hasn't escaped your notice.  This isn't like the other long periods of blog-silence, my creative energies are being channeled elsewhere these days.  A few months ago, I started talking about the Dresden Files RPG.  Well, now I'm actually running a campaign of the game for my gaming group.  I'm even keeping a wiki of the campaign for the group, or others, to follow along.  If you're at all interested in such stories, you might find it worth a read.  Although I've already fallen behind on the session synopses, surprise-surprise.

Despite the last few posts I've written here being about the theory of running RPGs, I'm finding myself completely overwhelmed at times trying to follow my own advice.  Yes yes, "Gaming is hard," blah blah blah.

Take my earlier posts on making all called rolls count.  The general advice there was making both failure and success interesting, and not calling for rolls if either state was boring.  In practice, this is more difficult.  A big part of playing RPGs is getting to toss dice.  Most players will balk at the idea of letting their dice sit idle for the majority of a session.   It's not so simple, because most failure states are boring, and players ask to roll their dice.  A lot.  Typically, this will go something like, "I want to find out what I can about that NPC and what he's been doing."  (Maybe your players word their questions that vaguely; I try to push my players for specifics, but sometimes I forget.)  Because my players hate me, this will always be regarding an NPC for whom I have not prepared answers.  Which leaves me about 3-5 seconds to answer the following questions:
  • Is this NPC worth an answer?
  • Will the player have the capacity to find these answers?
  • Do I have an answer to the question at all?
  • What makes sense, and does this critically affect anything?
  • How difficult should this be, and what is their chance of success?
  • Should I encourage them to take measures to increase their chance of success, if needed?
  • What should success look like?
  • What should failure look like?  Should I just deny the information, let them have it after a delay, cut off a finger for the information?
  • Oh crap, they're already rolling.  Why are they already rolling?

Yeah, no pressure.  Repeat that for four more hours and you can see how all that theorizing about proper challenge design gets chucked out the window in favor of hemming, hawing, and hedging. 

A lot of this is me being my own worst critic.  I have incredibly high expectations for myself, and despite my feelings of inadequacy, my players have issued mostly praise for the way things have gone so far. 

I guess the lesson is that RPG theory is only as good as its ability to be implemented under fire.  (I.E. No battle plan survives enemy contact.) 

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

When to call for a roll: Further thoughts

I've considered a few more things worth tacking on to my previous post about calling for rolls.  Hey, if I'm lucky, this could turn into an entire series of posts.

The Knowledge Dump
Many games have knowledge skills; for example, in D&D 4th edition, you have History, Religion, Arcana, Dungeoneering, and Streetwise.  It can be tempting to put game information behind these skill rolls in order to get some use out of them.  I'm inclined to think these days, however, that that is a bad idea.

Information about the game world touches on a lot of elements.  It gives depth to the setting, showing off the skills of the GM (or whoever wrote the material being used).  It provides players tools for interacting with the setting and understanding the nuances of how things work.  It can even be critical for short-term goals, such as deciphering the instructions to a puzzle in a dungeon, or discovering the location of a mission-critical goal. 

So why would putting any of that behind a skill roll be a good idea, given the chance of player failure?  If it's mission-critical stuff, then we're back to the problems in my first post on this topic.  If it isn't mission-critical, then risking the players not rolling high enough does not provide anything.  Your world will seem flatter and less interesting for the lack of information.

However, if only ancillary information is put behind knowledge skill rolls, some players may be less likely to take them, since they don't provide anything "necessary."

Success, but . . . 
The Dresden Files RPG describes this strategy as, "Success, but . . ." and I really like it.  That scenario from before, with the locked door?  Instead of interpreting failure as the players not getting through the door, the players get through the door but make so much noise that they attract a guard's attention.  I like this, as it makes failure much more interesting without letting the game grind to a stop while your players make the same roll over and over until the dice-gods relent. 

Here's an example to put it together:  Let's say your players are looking for the location of a mages' tower long lost to common knowledge.  They rightly suspect that the historical archives in the capital city will have the information they seek.  The player with the best score in History would want to go to the archives to study and find this information. 

In the past, I might have had the player roll, with a bonus to the roll for using all the reference material of the library.  This still invites the possibility of failure, unless I make the bonus so outlandish that the information was coming one way or another.  I don't think this is a very interesting way to do things.

There needs to be a way to give the information on a failed roll, but offer up a minor penalty to the players anyhow.  You could say that the research takes longer, depending on how badly the roll failed, but that can be game dependent.  In some games, the passage of extra time might not mean much to the players, nor to the GM.  Instead, let's say that failure results in needing the staff of the archives to help the players find the information they seek.  Of course, the staff of the archives doesn't work for free, so it'll cost the players some amount of gold to pay for the services.  Even better, let's say that instead of paying in gold, the players could offer to run "errands" for the archivists, retrieving specific historical texts from the locations they visit, including that mages' tower.

Failure has been made more interesting, but what about success?  If the players are getting the information either way, success needs to be more than just, "You don't get punished."  Perhaps, in finding the location of the mages' tower, the players also find some other interesting bit of information.  A treasure depot, perhaps?  Or maybe they learn about some of the defenses the mages' tower used to have, giving them a heads up on what to expect when they get there.  Maybe there are monsters in the tower now, but the excellent research gives them an advantage in combat when they fight the monsters.  In a completely different route, you could say that the player's research leads him to translate a section the archivists had been unable to interpret previously, so they pay the players for their help. 

It seems like it would be difficult to make every skill roll this dynamic and interesting; not every player action is quite so complicated, after all.  Still, as far as skill rolls are concerned, I think a little extra planning and the right frame of mind can do a lot to add to a game.

Friday, February 04, 2011

When to call for a roll

I tend to discuss RPG topics with my friends, and one of the topics that came to mind a while back has stuck with me enough that I think it's worth putting to the blog:  When do you ask your players for a roll?  It might seem simple enough, but it starts delving into the fundamental aspects of how (and why) RPGs are played.

For the uninitiated, RPGs tend to have players roll dice to determine the outcome of any event the player wants to resolve which would have an element of randomness to the outcome.  For example, you would roll to see if you hit a monster with a fireball, and then roll again to determine how much damage the fireball does to the monster if it connects.  But you might not roll if you're, say, hitting a door with an axe, since inanimate objects tend to be easier to hit.

There was something in the Dresden Files RPG books that I really liked, and I think makes for a great jumping off point.  This is the advice they give GMs when considering whether to ask their players to roll:  "1.  Consider success.  2.  Consider failure."

When you're asking someone to roll for something, there is the implication that they could fail at what they're trying to do.  For the game to be fun, both success and failure need to be interesting.  Combat seems to cover this automatically; if you succeed at a combat roll, you're that much closer to victory, and if you fail, that much closer to defeat.  But skill and knowledge checks, well, there are definitely right and wrong ways to handle those.  Here's some examples as to how that might work:

The Inevitable Victory
Let's say there is a locked door, and a character with a skill for picking locks wants to get through it.  If they succeed, great, they get to find out what's on the other side, but what if they fail?  Some GMs might just tell the player to try again, and keep that up until he gets it right.  That's boring.  Same thing if you let every other player with a lock picking skills to take a crack at it, as the odds are good that at least one person will roll high enough to make it happen.

Oh, and if they get through that door?  There needs to be something worth seeing on the other side; if it's nothing of interest to the game, then you shouldn't have had them roll to get through the lock in the first place.

The Quick Recovery
Let's take another scenario:  This time, you have the player in a treacherous situation, like avoiding a trap or accident of some kind.  The player rolls to avoid the trap but fails.  The consequence?  Let's say a small penalty, or some minor damage.  This is a fine consequence.  But let's say that you then avoid any situation where the consequence would matter . . . what was the point?  If the trap did damage to the character, but the character immediately gets to sleep it off, then there was no reason for asking him to roll to avoid the trap in the first place.

The Necessary Success
Quick story:  I ran a game in which my players spent a lot of time fighting an evil lich who had raised an army of zombies.  At the end, they met with the leaders of the combined mortal armies to push back against the lich; the idea being that they were going to ask the military leaders to lead the charge against the lich.  So I had a player roll to see if they go for it.  He failed . . . and I just let him have it, anyhow.

What was I going to do?  The game had been building to this climactic final showdown, why would I just cut it off because of a single roll?  That roll should never have been called for in the first place.

So, I think I can see a few principles for calling for rolls in an RPG:
  • Success needs to be meaningful to the player's goal
  • Failure needs to have consequences that are both felt and tested
  • The game cannot hinge on a successful roll
I'm willing to bet I could come up with a few more, but this seems like a good place to start.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Non-Combat Gameplay

First things first:  If you think video games can be more than just mindless entertainment, and actually enjoy considering their potential and meaning, then you should be watching Extra Credits over at The Escapist.

That said, their most recent video was about non-combat gameplay.  In short:  A great majority of video games are mostly played through combat, and while this is both entertaining and a cheap way of introducing tension and drama, it neglects the many other aspects of life that video games could entertainingly portray in order to tell a good story.

Why is this so?  I imagine it's the same reason sex, by which I mean scantily clad females, is so ubiquitous in video games.  A great deal of both the creators and the players are male; while this has balanced somewhat in the last decade or so, men seem to be the dominant force in the industry.  And let's face it:  Men like violence.  I don't mean this in any sort of denigrating way, it's just the sort of fantasy which we enjoy.  Let's save psychology and philosophizing about why that is for another time.

Could you make a game that is entertaining which doesn't involve combat?  I've no doubt.  But I think the thing that will ultimately make that sort of game successful is a good story, not good mechanics.

The problem is that unless you have programming good enough to respond to a wide variety of player inputs, these sorts of games will probably be a long series of if/then statements.  If player does X, computer responds with Y.  Which is fine, and I'm sure it can be more complicated than that, but it will eventually boil down to predictable management of minutiae, which is going to be problematic for this sort of gameplay.

The entire idea is that you're offering a different way of overcoming obstacles in these games.  Not combat, basically.  If you don't replace the elements that make combat a cheap dramatic resource (tension, risk, the unknown possibilities), then the gameplay becomes formulaic.

Which is not the kiss of death for game, as I said; it's just that the impetus is then on making a good story.  I loved the Phoenix Wright games, and I think they're an excellent example of this sort of thing.  But I'm skeptical we'll ever see a game that fully replaces combat with philosophical debate, pushing the cloak and sheathing the dagger.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Unlockables

I picked up the new Goldeneye: 007 game for the Wii over Christmas. This is a classic game for me, one I spent many hours with in high school, whiling away afternoons with friends. In fact, I never played the single player game when this was on the N64, so finding out that Nintendo was remaking the game inspired a lot of nostalgia for the days of sitting on the couch and blowing my friends up.

So you know what happened when I picked up the game with some friends on New Year's Eve? I found out that half the features I wanted had to be unlocked, including the proximity mines (AKA the greatest video game weapons ever). There was much nerd rage to be had.

Seriously, why do game designers do this? What possible reason could there be to make players spend hours and hours playing one game mode to unlock features in another? I'd say it's to get people to play the game for longer, but it's not like designers get paid by the hours people play the game. It reeks of artificial padding.

I can think of worse examples, of course. Wario Ware on the Wii required you to beat the single player game before you could even access multiplayer. I've played DDR games where you had to progressively unlock each difficulty level for a song. Smash Brothers is defined by all of the unlockable features, which is pretty obnoxious if you bought it to play with friends. It's pretty disheartening when you crack open a game, anticipating a heavily advertised feature, only to find that you have to play the game endlessly before you can access it.

Consider this a negative review of Goldeneye for the Wii. The one feature I was looking forward to, proximity mines, is only unlocked through online play. How? Why, by earning experience and gaining levels through good performance. Oh, and what level do you unlock proximity mines? Level 53. Yeah, whoever made that decision can go suck an egg.

Edit: Forgot to add probably the most important point: This sort of gameplay has a limited shelf life. That is, the online community with which to play the game is only going to be around for so long. What happens when that well dries up? Will that content be forever locked away?

Monday, January 03, 2011

As FATE would have it . . .

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been reading The Dresden Files books recently.  Well, "recently" may be generous, as I burned through the last of the books in May; the only things I haven't read yet in that series are the short story collections.  With thirteen novels in the series, you can rightly call my interest piqued.  I even purchased the Dresden Files RPG books by Evil Hat.  I'll be the next person to sit in the GM's chair for my gaming group, so it's likely I'll end up running this, if for no other reason than I think the guys are ready for something besides D&D. 

Dresden uses the FATE system, and if you haven't heard of it before, you should really check it out.  I've been highly intrigued by it, and I'm really looking forward to giving it a shot.  In short, there's a lot of mechanical inducements for role-playing, and the flexibility of it seems like it could make for very cool gaming moments.

Each character has to take a number of Aspects.  These are essentially descriptors of the character, for anything from personality quirks to life goals, or even just physical attributes.  The more wordy, the better the Aspect.  For example, Harry Dresden, lead character of the novels, might take an Aspect such as "Wizard."  That's accurate, but very dull and boring.  Instead, he might take the Aspect, "The only Wizard listed in the yellow pages."  Much more descriptive, and gives a lot more room to work with.

Why do you need room to work with?  Well, characters get a number of Fate points to play with.  You can spend your Fate points to obtain supernatural powers or learn special skill tricks, but all unspent points can be used in the course to play to make things go your way.  This is done through "compulsion" and "invocation" of Aspects. 

Let's say that Harry wants to make something happen in the game.  He can invoke one of his Aspects by spending a Fate point if it's related.  This can give him a bonus to a roll, let him reroll, or even just declare something to be, depending on the situation.  Of course, the GM can also compel his Aspects.  If Harry is trying to keep a low profile during an investigation, the GM could compel his Aspect mentioned above, forcing circumstances or actions on Harry's part; if Harry accepts this, he gains a Fate point he can use later.  If he'd rather not have this hanging over his head, he can instead spend a Fate point to tell the GM to go suck an egg. 

Aspects aren't just for characters, either, meaning there's a lot of interesting ways to make use of this system.  I really like the back-and-forth potential this creates between players and the GM, and it sets the players up for really getting to shine in the spotlight when they need to.

I know some might complain that the GM has a lot of power to screw over the players in this sort of system, but I think if you're worried about the GM abusing power, and the players, then you already have problems in your game.  This sort of system only works when the GM is working together with the players to tell an interesting story.  If it's just the GM telling his story, or just pushing the players as hard as possible because you're only doing it right if the players are tearing out their hair, then the system breaks down.  Those GMs, though, probably don't get the point of this sytem in the first place.

Go check it out, if nothing else.  It's a really neat looking game, and the design and production values of the books are fantastic. 

Saturday, January 01, 2011

TRON: Legacy

As part of my resolutions for the year, I'm attempting to post more frequently on the blog.  While a Monday-Friday schedule might be more conducive for traffic, I may as well start the year off right.

You might recall (by scrolling down the page) that I wrote about a little game called TRON 2.0 back in August.  This was partly as preparation for the upcoming film, TRON:  Legacy.  Well, I saw said sequel over my Christmas holiday. (For what it's worth, none of the content of TRON 2.0 is referenced by the movie.)

Overall, I liked it.  I think this is partially because of my fondness for the concepts and atmosphere of the series.  The film isn't breaking any new ground, story-wise.  In fact, I'd argue that most of it is simply recycled from the first film.  So, light on plot, heavy on spectacle; exactly the reasons I disliked Avatar.  I'm still not sure what to make of that, except to say that Legacy seemed to at least attempt to tell a new story, albeit one with very familiar elements.  

The film really is stunning, though.  I didn't see it in 3D*, but I'm told it's makes good use of the technology.  As with the original, the film does a lot with a little, making very attractive settings through the use of geometrically simple structures and monochromatic designs.  The music is a fantastic companion to the visuals as well; I liked Daft Punk before, but they truly outdid themselves for this film.

Should you see it?  If you're a fan of the original, then you won't want to miss this.  If you like sci-fi action films, then this is worth your time. If you're into the spectacle of films, and loved Avatar because of how pretty it was, then you'll probably enjoy this as well.  Everyone else . . . your mileage may vary. 

You might also be interested in this review of the movie, courtesy of Movie Bob, over at The Escapist. 
* - I really, really hate the surge of 3D films coming out in the last 5 or so years.  I find it to be mostly a gimmick, as well as an excuse to sell $15 tickets.  After all, if you're having trouble putting butts in seats, why not reverse that trend with double-price tickets and a technology that isn't easily replicated at home? 

But mostly, it's because I wear glasses.  Those 3D glasses you have to wear are a massive pain to wear for the course of a movie, and eventually those movies end up making me vaguely motion sick.  Stupid 3D movies.