Wednesday, April 11, 2012

5 Questions (Analysis & Design)

Wow…it looks like I’m finally, finally going to be getting the last few pieces of artwork for my new B/X supplement by this weekend…which means (hopefully) I’ll be able to get a print run going in the next couple-six weeks. Which is GREAT NEWS since I’ve got to knock one book out before I can get to the next…and it seems like I’m always working on the next.

The last couple weeks I’ve been rolling some ideas around in my head (I mean, other than the whole combat/initiative thing) and wondering how to approach it. The concept is still a little nebulous at the moment: in my head it’s kind of a combo of Rifts-Twilight 2000-Appleseed with perhaps a bit of the Mutant Chronicles thrown in. A real “war game” set in a blasted, devastated future Earth…think of the old John Byrne OMAC mini-series. This is NOT a Thundarr the Barbarian kind of game (that’s already been done anyway), but more the horror of war mixed with the resignation of “wow, even if this ends, there’s not much left to celebrate.”

Kind of a depressing concept, I suppose, but it’s a way to work with certain tropes and stylings that interest me at the moment.

But nothing’s been committed to paper at this point. I’m still trying to crystallize the idea and ruminating on whether or not it would make a good RPG. Since I do RPGs, not (miniature) war games.

I know I’ve talked about game design more than a little on this blog. Lots have been written and posted to the web about different approaches to game design, many of which consist of answering a series of design/concept specific questions. For the most part these are all good things to think about (I don’t think there’s ANY “bad questions” for generating thought…), but I don’t usually follow any particular paradigm of design brainstorm. For example, I don’t usually do a Power 19 list, though I know that was popular for awhile.

However, there are some very specific things I look at when I analyze the PLAYABILITY of an existing RPG, and they may be good things to review in any potential game design…as the answers to these questions speak to the actual playability of a game, coming up with poor answers in the design process may be a sign that a particular concept needs to be junked. For my own amusement (and for the interest of my readers) I’ll list ‘em here:

1) What objective brings the player characters together?

2) Aside from personality, what is it that distinguishes one player character from another with regard to GAME PLAY?

3) What common game systems are accessible by all characters?

4) What rewards are given/earned in play?

5) How are rewards earned?

Question #1 is a matter of practicality: if a game can’t answer this in a satisfactory fashion, it may well be too broad a concept for real playability…at least for my purposes. Some people might like the “open-endedness” of GURPS, for example, but I see it as a pain the ass with a lot of potential pitfalls: there’s a lot of potential for players and GMs to be totally disconnected from the play expectations of each other. This is why I hate tool kits, and why many IP-specific-driven concepts are difficult to work.

Question #2 is a bone for players’ self-esteem, pure and simple. Not everyone is comfortable playing a game without defined “roles” unless the concept is exceptionally simple. Few players indeed are satisfied with just being defined by their in-game choices and behavior and like an actual set of rules describing what makes their character "special."

Question #3 is the bone for the GM…it defines what characters can actually DO and can tell me if the scope of the rules are too broad (or too narrow). If my skills as a GM are going to be taken up searching out obscure systems in the rule book or if I’m going to be able to focus on running the game…and if the systems provided are specific enough (and on board) with the concept of the game.

Question #4 explains what, besides the joy of play, is the “bennie” of play. What are players working towards? I prefer long-term, serial play (for the development and identification of characters and subsequent stronger role-playing). In order to sustain this type of play, one must provide incentives.

Question #5 examines whether or not the behavior associated with the incentive actually directs game play in the proper direction. Well-designed games match concept-driven behavior with specific incentives to channel game-play in a particular direction; poorly designed games do not.

I can apply all five of these questions to games I like to play on a more than “one-off” basis. Many Story Now games don’t bother with answering these questions because they just want to create short stories through role-playing: addressing premise within a specific scenario or event to have a nice little bit of emotional or intellectual catharsis. Which is cool and all…I enjoy this type of play on occasion myself. But I prefer long-term play, pretending to be “a character” in a fantasy environment. I prefer the development of a (character/world) concept over time…because I want to live the fantasy for awhile. I enjoy long films and novels, too. I’m weird that way.

Let me give a couple examples of using these Five Questions:

Old School D&D (regardless of the silliness of the premise) is a pretty well-designed game from the perspective of my questions:

1) Common Objective: Characters are a party of adventurers; they share the goal of plumbing a dungeon for treasure.
2) PC Distinction: Characters are distinguished by class (in some editions by the sub-class “race”).
3) Common Abilities: Characters share the in-game systems of combat, saving throws, and searching (for traps and secret doors). Other actions PCs wish to take may require DM rulings. Class specific systems (multiple attacks, thief skills, cleric turning, spell-casting and magic item creation) are limited in scope and thus easy to manage.
4) Rewards: Characters gain levels increasing class effectiveness and survivability.
5) Rewarded Behavior: Characters gain XP for acquiring treasure and defeating opponents.

Compare this with the equally tight old school game Top Secret:

1) Common Objective: Characters are secret agents of a particular agency: they share a common mission.
2) PC Distinction: Characters are distinguished by Bureau (classification) and Areas of Knowledge known.
3) Common Abilities: Characters share all systems: combat, interacting with contacts, defeating security, chases. Other types of action may require rulings by the GM (what other actions do you need?).
4) Rewards: Characters increase effectiveness by spending earned XP on ability scores; characters earn fame points with levels.
5) Rewarded Behavior: Characters earn XP and money for completing mission objectives, earning bonuses for accomplishing objectives within their own Bureau’s sphere (for example, killing someone for a member of the Assassination Bureau).

Now let’s look at Vampire the Masquerade, an RPG I deem problematic in a number of ways, despite appreciating the aesthetics and general premise of the game:

1) Common Objective: None. It is suggested characters are a “coterie” of individuals and provides some possible reasons for banding together (they’re all anarchists for example). However, if one player wants to be a member of the establishment and another an anarchist, well…
2) PC Distinction: Characters are distinguished by Clan which provides specific disciplines (vampire powers), weaknesses, and political leanings. However, as being members of the same clan is an easy method to bring players together, well...
3) Common Abilities: There is an EXTENSIVE list of systems to which all characters have access; most come down to an ability+skill roll versus a specific target number that varies depending on the system. There are nine abilities and a ton of skills.
4) Rewards: Characters increase effectiveness by spending earned XP to boost abilities, skills, and disciplines but it requires a LOT of XP to do so, especially in the 2nd (and later) editions, making progress exceptionally slow.
5) Rewarded Behavior: Characters receive XP for showing up to play, “good role-playing” (undefined), “danger,” and “learning something.” Each of these things is worth 1 XP. None of them reinforce the concept or provide influence on in-game behavior.

You’ll note these questions do not address specific systems only the concepts that underly those systems. The Vampire system, for example, works fairly well and quickly, compared to, say, Top Secret’s horribly clunky hand-to-hand combat lists…but the latter is more coherent from a design standpoint because it reinforces what the game is all about. An assassin gets bonus rewards for killing (class distinction) and all characters get bonuses for “clean killings” (knifing someone in a dark alley rather than blazing away with automatic weapons in broad daylight, for example)…and smart players in TS are going to avoid combat anyway if it’s not pertinent to the (shared) mission objective. Vampire has a neat combat system…that has nothing to do with anything. Why bother?

[for those unfamiliar with VTM, allow me to elaborate for a moment. Your characters are vampires in the modern day. You’re supposed to be concerned with vampire politics, the loss of humanity associated with becoming a monster, the mysteries of the vampiric origin and possible methods of overcoming one’s curse…I mean, those are the “themes” and major plots of the game. But then you have a large section on combat and the use of firearms and “soaking damage” and the effects of spending “blood points” and all these other fancy, slick systems. I mean, combat isn’t even necessary to drink blood (mortals simply succumb to the vampiric “kiss” automatically without rolls) but it’s important to know the difference between a large automatic handgun and a small automatic handgun? Is it any wonder that many (most) Vampire games turn into gun battles with cops?]

Let’s look at another game designed for serial play that is problematic for me, despite slick mechanics: Traveller. I currently own the nicely done Mongoose version and it frustrates me to no end:

1) Common Objective: None. It appears to assume that all PCs are a member of the same ship’s crew, off in search of adventure. Of course, it’s possible that none of the PCs will have acquired a ship during character creation. And then there’s the difference in expectations (what if some players wants a Star Trek “exploratory mission” while another player wants to be a band of roving mercenaries or pirates? disconnect!).
2) PC Distinction: None. I mean, characters will PROBABLY have different skills (or different degrees of skills) based on careers chosen in their pre-adventuring life…but many skills are shared between careers and besides money and gear, past career really provides zero in-game distinction.
3) Common Abilities: All characters use the same slick skill system. The only uncommon abilities would be if a character has psi powers unavailable to others.
4) Rewards: None except money earned for missions, allowing the financing of additional missions, I guess.
5) Rewarded Behavior: Trading or accepting missions that pay money will get you money.

There is no common objective in Traveller and no real incentive for play other than “wanting to play Traveller.” As opposed to (I suppose) a different “space game.”

Now, of course, lots of folks play Traveller and manage this through the time honored tradition of putting the whole goddam burden of the game on the GM’s shoulders. Great, fantastic. Some folks want that burden…you’re welcome to it. I don’t want it. I don’t want to be responsible for “finding a way to make it work” (let alone, “make it fun”). Throw THAT in my face and I’ll probably shrug it off in favor of a different RPG (at least Star Frontiers has the Pan Galactic Corporation versus the Sathar).

Anyhoo, these are more-or-less the first five questions I ask when reading a new RPG. To be sure, there are other sub-categories to the questions that I haven’t bothered to list here as many pertain to my own personal prejudices (example: under Question 3 would fall the sub-question – “Does the designer lazily rely on a damn ‘skill system’ for resolving in-game action?”). But I think they’re helpful “conceptual” things to think about when designing one’s own game…whether it’s your own version of D&D or some new twist on the Zombie Apocalypse idea.

At least, they’re helpful to ME. If I can’t answer these questions to my own satisfaction with regard to my own game design, I can junk the whole project without needing to worry about the specific systems of the game. Why? ‘Cause it’s probably not going to be a game I want to play!
; )


  1. I don't think it's fair to give D&D the common objective of "party of adventurers" and not Traveller. In my experience, the group objective for both games tends to be similar: Go on missions to gain more treasure.

    Also, what's "lazy" about a universal skill mechanic? Do we really need a unique subsystem for each type of character? That tends to be a headache for the GM who has to memorize it all. It was the lack of universal mechanic that made me stop playing D&D long ago and explore other RPGs. Traveller's simple task resolution is still one of my favorites. Of course, Spaceships are a totally different subsystem, but that seems natural to me.

  2. @ Deinol:

    Actually with regard to D&D, I was thinking more that the shared objective was 'party of treasure hunters;' the default method of play is for a group of PCs to 'delve' an adventure site, overcoming challenges to acquire treasure. While a band of Traveller PCs are a de facto 'adventuring party,' and looking for money (unless they're not, depending on the scenario) the way they set about this goal varies from player to player and group to group. They may be traders or a charter vessel or a mercenary company or a pirate band...or a group of wild psykers with no method off planet. There isn't a central concept...that's my point.

    I agree that not all skill systems are 'lazy,' but some are (and by lazy I mean 'not well thought out;' they may be extensive and/or complex simply for the sake of having a 'skill system')...and it's the lazy ones I'm wary of. As I said, that's a personal preference of mine. And, no, I don't feel that having dozens of different unique systems is 'better;' though I do think it's better to include ONLY the systems you need for the concept of your game (few and focused is what I prefer).

    : )

  3. If you haven't already looked at it, 3:16 - Carnage Amongst the Stars might be of use as inspiration for your future war game. It too is a war game without being a wargame, and although it is a bit storeygamey, it does support extended campaign play. I think it does Space Marines better than the official Deathwatch rpg -- which is still quite good - does.

  4. @ Kelvin:

    Yes, I own 3:16 (a good game), but it won't really work for my purposes...firstly because I don't the game to be THAT cynical, secondly because the game is set completely on earth (and the opponents faced will include a lot of 'repeats'). Right now, I'm thinking it will look much more like TL2000.

  5. These are good points and they are things I'll be thinking about for every game I design in the future. The one question that springs to mind, though, is this: how many of your points are "system"-level and how many are "campaign"-level? How much can/should the two overlap? Does every campaign setting need/deserve its own associated system?

    It's interesting to consider that "game theme" and "system" are pretty closely intertwined. D20 (D&D 3.5/Pathfinder) is a great, great system for epic fantasy roleplaying at just about every echelon of play. D20 modern, despite being basically the same system, just isn't nearly as fun. Is this because our "modern times" archetypes and adventures aren't painted with as broad a brush as are fantasy tropes? I.e. is it that, in our minds, we're totally okay with the idea of an armored knight going toe-to-toe with a dragon, but the idea of a modern soldier duking it out with Godzilla is just absurd?