Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Future Face of Gaming

Over at Yog Shoggoth's Dice, Brand responded to a challenge from me on how a games company could publish non-Illusionist games and not go bankrupt. The conversation developed from there to begin just touching on the outskirts of marketing issues the likes of which gaming tends to avoid. These are the issues that I had written that post about but Blogger ate.

At present, the 'Generic RPG Marketing Model' goes thusly: Core Book (sometimes Player Book and GM Book) which generates the majority of the revenue, and Supplements which do much worse, but keep the game 'alive' and the Core Book selling. This is as seen in White Wolf, 7th Sea, GURPS, Rifts, et cetera, with a few elaborations (World of Darkness now has two hardcover player books necessary to play). The Generic model tends to assume play will go for years; the supplements are designed to keep the line going for years. Players buy supplements, encourage their friends in the playgroup to buy their own copies of core books, and even replace their original copy of the core book. There is also the 'Indie RPG Marketing Model' which goes thusly: BOOK! The Indie model defaults to play lasting a couple months; these games tend to be more focused and also tend to generate stories that actually end.

The company (or individual) creating the game, if they have any hope to support themselves on the affair (which is another matter entirely; I should post about the RPG Cottage Industry sometime), need people to keep buying books. They don't actually need people to use the books; they don't even need people to play the game (I have a number of games I've never played; you?). They need people buying books now, and more importantly, they need people buying books next quarter, too. They need people to buy the books they have (so they can stop paying warehouse fees) and they need to generate demand for the books that are currently in development. 7th Sea did this by revealing information bit-by-bit, using a bit of legerdemain to suggest that there really was this gigantic vibrant world that was already established, just not in print, as they feverishly created new content to add. Eventually this imploded. Exalted continues offering bigger, badder, and more ludicrous content, stuff that you just have to have / see / kill. It's doubtful that this will implode any time soon. Generally speaking, Indie games don't do any of this, because there is little long-term planning in indie RPG design; even Sorcerer, which has many supplements, is more a succession of chapters that should have been in the original book and are being published separately as afterthoughts.

What is it that game designers (and game companies) offer to customers that will continue to get them to buy those books? It's difficult to get a handle on this, since once you get down to it, the game designer supplies perhaps a fifth of the actual game experience (and I'm being generous). Most supplements are fluff that never actually gets used in the game; the best of these offer color that informs and inspires actual play indirectly, but even then there is very little 'content' being delivered. Good games offer a sort of blueprint for enjoyable social interaction, but this material is almost entirely included in the core book, and once that sells, what more do you have to offer customers? Maybe you have something to offer to that first customer's friend, but that is not the same thing. Oddly, game companies may have more in common with car dealerships and computer salespeople than with people who sell hammers and dry goods.

I'll cogitate on this and post more later; in the mean time, I'll throw it open to whoever happens to be reading: what is it that game designers offer customers that keeps them buying more books? What do they give us that we support them and their families for?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Conflict, FLFS Style

A more elaborated version of the short notes I posted before; this is (rather obviously) in draft stage.

Conflict


from Full Light, Full Steam, Storymapping Chapter

If all the characters did was sit around the bridge and look at eachother, the game wouldn't be very enjoyable. Something has to happen so that the characters have something to do. That "something" can be external like a pirate attack on a nearby port, or it can be internal, like one of the characters trying to prove her worth as a soldier. It can be provided by the GM or the other players. Whatever its origin and character, this is conflict, and all conflict has two parts. The conflict must engage the characters' desires and there must be a threat or resistence to the fulfillment of those desires.

Pirates attacking a nearby Russian freighter might pique the character's curiousity, but unless one of the characters really likes Russians or really dislikes pirates, it does not immediately engage them and get them to care. Their response may be -- quite legitimately -- "so what?" Making a British freighter, though, appeals to the characters' sense of patriotism and duty; making the ship's captain someone the characters know and respect appeals to their friendship and loyalty; putting the sister of one of the characters on board the attacked ship really gets their attention. The difference is a matter of immediacy: how close to home does the conflict come? Making conflict personal increases character involvement and player enjoyment.

On the other hand, conflict needs teeth. A player interested in playing out the difficulties of serving as a lady officer will be sorely disappointed if her character is surrounded by people who assume she is as competent as any man. If there is no resistence, there is no conflict, and the players' expectation of playing out that situation is not fulfilled. Giving the lady officer a misogynistic rival gives her something to play about whenever she has to deal with him; making her captain paternally patronizing affects what assignments she is given. If the other players portray their characters as often discounting her abilities due to her gender, the conflict is real and no mere window dressing. Conflict is made to be overcome, and so the rival will be bested, the captain's respect will be earned, and the other player characters will come to value the lady officer. If these victories come too easily, though, there is little satisfaction in winning them.

When creating the Storymap, the GM can find conflicts from two sources: from the characters and from the setting.

Conflict from Characters Players give the GM a list of conflicts they'd like to participate in, often without even knowing it. A character's Thematic Batteries can often be plundered for stimuli that will get an enthusiastic reaction. After all, this is what the character is about -- what better way to make conflict so immediate that it strikes at the core of the character? A character with a "Veteran Pirate Hunter" battery will be engaged when conflicts involve pirates -- either hunting them down as he is used to, or being forced to work with them against a greater threat. The character who is a "Mechanical Genius" will sink her teeth into conflicts where she rehabilitates a derelict ship or shuts down a doomsday device.

Whether the players decide on writing one-paragraph or thirty-page character backgrounds, these are often fertile harvesting grounds for conflict. Old enemies, lifelong friends, and family members can make conflicts personal. Unfinished business, long-held ideals, and lingering regrets not only make related conflicts immediate, but escalate the threat, since no one wants to fail again at something they never quite got over. The general tone of a character's background can also inspire conflicts: characters who are rough-and-tumble survivors will take to challenges out in the wilds, and be challenged by social manuevering in cultured salons; xenophile diplomats will enjoy conflicts which put them between their own culture and those they study.

Conflict from the Setting The Solar System is a complex, dynamic, and especially conflicted place. Nationalistic rivalries, imperial ambitions and the struggles of the colonized, the dogma of proselytizing religion, the mysteries of the unknown -- all of these are laid out for you to exploit however you like.

Moreover, playgroups should feel free to deviate from "setting canon" if they can get a better story out of it. The Solar System is presently at peace as described in this book, but a playgroup who wanted to roleplay through a war need only change a few details to get the martial conflicts they desire. Insectile natives of Mercury, bloodthirsty and cruel, can be added if there is any need for them. The only thing to remember is to make sure everyone is aware of the canon changes that will affect their roleplay -- discovering that ant-people rule Mercury and always have can be rather frustrating when you were expecting a friendly port as described in this book!

Running Multiple and Parallel Conflicts Every story needs at least one conflict; most good stories have more than one. The best stories feature conflicts that conflict with eachother! Keeping multiple conflicts current and engaging can be a difficult balancing act, but there are a few techniques to keep things under control and enjoyable. Limit the conflicts being addressed to something manageable, like three or four at a time. Try to find conflicts that appeal to more than one character, even if they may be on opposite sides. You might choose one to be the "primary conflict" and let the others occupy B-plots that flavor the primary focus. Don't be afraid to resolve conflicts; that just lets you introduce a new one to replace it.

The GM is not alone in juggling conflicts. The other players should also be addressing the current conflicts with their characters. This is almost automatic when the conflict is inspired by their characters, which makes conflicts from characters that much more useful. The GM can communicate what other conflicts are being addressed implicitly by focusing attention on pertinent related events, or explicitly by simply declaring them aloud. Good players will play along, and give useful feedback between sessions.

Resolution

On This is My Blog Ben is going off on Conflict and Task Resolution, which are Forge terms the usefulness of which I am skeptical about. Ben's version of the definitions are "Conflict is what the players care about and Task is what the characters do". He claims they are completely orthogonal and disjointed. There are some major issues with the definitions stated thusly, and to my mind, the fault is in the definitions as they are stated rather than distinctions in actual play.

If "what the players care about" and "what the characters do" aren't intimately connected, what you have is a broken, or at least rather useless, mechanic. This is part of Ben's point, I believe, in that if you want to "save the princess" but all your character sheet and the game's mechanics tell you is if you can swim the moat, slay the dragon, and overcome the sorcerer, but not tell you if you save the princess / resolve the story / win the game, then your system isn't speaking to what you're interested in. One of the flaws in Ben's argument, however, is that his conflict (AKA what the players care about) is more often than not in terms of story, which may or may not be the case.

An illustrative example: recently I recovered my old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games, and my wife and I play a game called "Beat 'em Up". In this game, we create characters (since that is half the enjoyment of the game) and then fight. There is no story. What we the players care about is, roughly, making a neat (or ridiculous) character and winning the fight. My guerrilla warrior chicken beats her pommeranian mechanic (see what I mean about ridiculous?). Prima facie, Ben would likely say that TMNT:OS (roughly analogous, mechanically, to Palladium FRPG, Robotech, and Rifts) has no Conflict Resolution, only Task Resolution. But when my wife and I only want to make characters and fight, that's all we care about, and so by the above definitions, the (terrible, terrible) combat rules are Conflict Resolution.

As I said in comments on This is my Blog, I don't think the conflict/task resolution distinction is a useless one, but I also don't think it's a universally useful one, either. Nor do I think that any specific resolution system is fundamentally one or the other; we can use the combat system in TMNT:OS for piddly in-character action, or we can make it the focus of the story.

Conflict is great and all, really, and I'm glad that gaming is turning its attention to conflict because it can be a very useful tool for specific kinds of play. Conflict isn't the end-all be-all of all gaming, however. While Ben is correct that conflict appears in nearly all forms of roleplaying, the same holds true for characters, settings, situations, and monty python jokes. One could define conflict very very broadly as "what the characters care about" but... we already have a term for that: creative agenda. Conflict is something smaller, more specific, and more precise.

When I get home I'll excerpt the portion of Full Light, Full Steam that talks about conflict and harnessing it for your game. In the mean time, I'll outline the basic ideas. Conflict consists of two parts: (a) something a character wants, and (b) something that is threatening that outcome from happening. Resolving the conflict(s) of a story is the focus, and in some cases the goal, of a story. To reduce the resolution of conflict into a die roll (however complex) unconnected to the details of the story saps the vital energy out of that story.

Ben gives an example of play where the task resolution is completely unrelated to the conflict resolution; a young knight tries to save the princess and fails repeatedly to do anything towards that goal, but in the end saves the princess, anyway. Were I playing in that game, I would feel dreadfully cheated. Nothing I or my character did affected the outcome at all! If I wanted to experience Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I'd read it. That sort of set up is fine for a story where the reader's perspective is neither authorial nor bound by one character; the revelation of events is enjoyable because that's what I'm after. In a role playing game where I am an active participant in the story, I want to be, well, an active participant in the story. I don't want to play through the GM's short story aspirations.

Perhaps this is the distinction I've been groping for: "what is important to the players" is a concern of creative agenda; every specific instance of actual play will have a different emphasis, if only slightly. The mechanics written out in a game rulebook, on the other hand, are set. Every specific instance of actual play using that system will be using the same exact system. Unless the written rules are only good for one instance of play, the encoded resolution mechanic must be independent of creative agenda, must be tools useful for supporting more than one approach to the game. Any given resolution system is not "task resolution" or "conflict resolution". They are resolution systems that can be applied to tasks or to conflict, depending on how your playgroup uses them.

Now certainly some systems are better geared towards tasks than conflicts, and vice-versa. There is also the important distinction between system-as-printed and system-as-played. In most cases, the system-as-played includes a lot of other mechanisms like player negotiation, power struggles, GM credibility, and so on: social interactions, but mechanical nonetheless. How or whether the conflict gets resolved can be stated explicitly in the encoded rules, or it may arise out of the unwritten rules the game runs by. Rules-as-written may be tossed out if they don't do what the playgroup wants at the moment, or may be amended or shoehorned (get five successes and you catch him). But however it turns out in the end, the rules-as-written are simply tools that are used as the playgroup sees fit; they are no more task or conflict resolution than my old computer is an excellent paperweight.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Yay, Blogger!

I just lost an entire post on Marketing Roleplaying.

Note to self: Do not hit the 'Recover post' button.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Freeform Setting

So to switch tracks, I just put the other project into Playtesting. The other project is a card game by the name of Dynasty, in which the players control a ruling house of nobles and use warfare, scandal, and marriage to build a Dynasty that will someday ascend to the Imperial Throne (and win the game). One of the things that intrigues me about the game is that is generates its own setting, and does so differently in each game. To whit:

There are Noble cards, Land cards, Title cards (and Action cards, which don't really bear on this discussion). Nobles have first names on the card, and you put a family name chip on top to make their full name. So the "Phillipe" card with the "Montego" chip becomes "Phillipe Montego". Nobles typically survive about five turns, which is maybe a quarter of a full game -- you play through generations -- and the deck gets reshuffled, so the Phillipe card may resurface later. He may be in some other player's hand, or in yours, he may get another family chip (this is Phillipe Ettinbourge) or he may not (this is Phillipe Montego II). He is, however, a different guy who has the same first name and the same characteristics as the first iteration (in Phillipe's case, a tendancy to lose his wife). But a different guy.

Your nobles accrue Lands and Titles. The Lands are divided into a couple regions, with a few extra Lands unconnected to any specific region. The Lands have little flavor texts on them, and their game-effects imply some character to the specific area. There are Faithful or Infidel lands, Seaside and Landlocked lands, and so on, but they're all part of the Empire. But there is no map of the Empire. There is no established relationship between the Antilla Highlands and the Biblon Plateau. Are they next to eachother? Are they miles and miles distant? If one Noble holds both Lands, are they part of a consolidated holding or farflung satellites?

While the details of geography aren't written anywhere, in each game a sort of phantom sense of where things are starts to emerge. The Schullen Nobles control most of Carnathia as well as Biblon, so they're all up thereabouts, for instance. Other cards, such as the Biblon Plateau which is only useful if you have lands in other Regions, which it 'connects' via 'the High Road', actively encourage this sort of thing. At least in my mind (and this may be different for someone who isn't the game designer), a continent seems to distill out of hardly anything at all.

The Titles, too, are accrued and passed down through generations, and seem to elaborate on themselves to create a social context within the game, where those sneaky Schullen have had the Count Palatine who is also the Spymaster for generations, and they keep assassinating the Archduke, whoever happens to be holding the title. Again, the details sort of accumulate and stick together creating a semblance of substance.

The character of the Nobles, Lands, and even the Titles are very intentionally archetypal. Phillipe is a rake; the Carnathian Valley is a Versailles wannabe; the Spymaster is... well, the Spymaster. So when these archetypal elements are flung together "randomly" through the game, and in increasing order by intentional play, it's easy for the players to grok: Phillipe the Spymaster in Carnathia Valley is the vice-ridden intriguer in a den of luxury. As more events happen through the course of the game, the details just sort of snowball, so Phillipe's son (the mother Maria left in a huff) is Benjamin the warlord, branded a Bastard (an Action card) by those scheming Ettinbourge, so is off conquering the Infidel lands because he won't be able to inherit anything from his father. And take a step further back and you can start to typify families and Dynasties and the Empire itself: Carnathia is a place that is constantly being fought over, while Antilla is a haven of peace due to the robust line of succession of its rulers. This emporer (an NPC, more or less) was good and just and kept his nobles in check, that emporer lost all his holdings to court politics and is nothing but a figurehead.

It's a quirky little card game that takes an hour or so to play, but each time a new phantom empire is conjured out of hardly anything at all. Even the Families, which have no game effect whatsoever, they're just chips, take on personalities. And it's a different personality every time, for nearly everything. Phillipe is always a rake, sure, but when he's the Captain of the Dauntless he's a very different rake than when he is the Archbishop! Some Empires are august, serene things full of high purpose and honest, muted competition; others are fucking bloodbaths where nobles are assassinated and the Archbishop has legitimized-bastard children who inherit his lands.

I like the card game; I think it's a nice, complete experience all to itself. It's in playtest now to iron out kinks, but it is, in terms of scope and focus and content, 'done'. But I love the phenomenon of the players of the game cooperatively generating a whole world together, complete with geography, social context and even a rudimentary economics. And because I'm a nutbar who can't leave well enough alone, I keep thinking of how this can be applied to a somewhat grander project, a roleplaying game with no set setting, just the tools, parts, and pieces with which to make the setting cooperatively. I know Ron Edwards has made a GM-less fantasy game somewhat like this (but the details bandied about weren't specific enough for the sense I'm going for), and I understand Dogs in the Vineyard has some sort of cooperative town-creation rules (I pre-empt Brand mentioning it) that seem similar to the ship-creation rules I'm putting in Full Light, Full Steam. What I want, however, is a world-generation set of rules that the whole table does together, and then the players pick up individual roles within the world and roleplay that out.

The Next Project is a detail-oriented Fantasy(ish) game that tries to provide crunchy rules for all interactions on a par with how combat is usually provided in the 'typical RPG'. Whether or not a freeform setting would complement or detract from that design goal I'm not sure about. This may need to wait until the Next Next Project, or it may pre-empt the Next Project until later (in all truth, I suspect the Next Project is a phantasm on the horizon that is quite content to stay right there indefinately). As it is, it's just pecking at my brain, prodding at me to take the gestalt-consensus creation of every fictional world and make that process explicit and a focus of the game, rather than an implied and assumed (and unsupported) part of the foundation.

Anyway, lunch hour's over.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Book and the Game

So I am writing a Role Playing Game called Full Light, Full Steam in which you play officers in a Steampunk Victorian Space Navy. It's more elaborate than that, but really, that's all the context you need for the ensuing discussion. At present, I have about 80% of the book written, and I am trying to structure the section which describes putting together a game and making characters. I have tried throughout the book to make the entire thing 'safe' to read by all players in the game; there are no GM Secrets or anything to that effect. The problem I am coming up with now is a rather simple, but frustrating question, that being: who is reading the book?

I always read the book of the game that I'm playing. I usually read cover to cover. I find the game mechanics sections as engaging as the setting sections. I enjoy the experience of the entire game developing in my mind's eye. I am, in other words, something of a freak. I know some other people might read like this (I'm looking at you, Brand), but on the whole, I have the distinct impression that most players do not. Some may only want to read the setting; some folks who aren't verbal/linguistic learners want the system to be explained to them by a real person with concrete examples of dice in their hands. Some people just don't read the books but still want to play the game. There's nothing wrong with these approaches; they're how people prefer to approach their games, and I'm not going to tell them that they're enjoying their hobby incorrectly. It does, however, make writing the game a trifle difficult, since I cannot make assumptions about what people have read.

This very well may be the genesis of that hoary old tradition, the split Player's Guide and GM Handbook, the assumption or realization that there are some gamers who want to read all the information they can, and some gamers who just want bits and pieces. The info-gluttons become the GMs and the rest become "players". Which... doesn't really do it for me. Being a self-declared info glutton, I would like to play every once in a while, and I don't want my only option to do so rely on my ability to find a bigger info-glutton than me. Not to mention there are a whole lot of info-gluttons out there who obsess on the info-glut and lose focus on the story and the game (I'm pretty sure Rifts is a good example of this happening to a game designer). Info-gluttons are not necessarily GMs, and moderate readers are not necessarily only "players".

So I said up in the first paragraph that you just needed the broad strokes of my game and I lied. It's also pertinent that I am trying to dissolve the distinction between the GM and the "players". In Full Light, Full Steam, everybody at the table is a player, GM included. The GM does not "create the adventure" nor is the GM "in charge of the story". These things are done together; the GM is responsible for implementing what the group as a whole designs. Consequently, the Character Generation section of the book is within the larger Campaign Generation chapter called The First Session. In the First Session, all the players get together and talk about what they want to play, what they want to see in the game, what their comfort zones are, et cetera. Then they make characters, together. Then they create elements of the setting, together. Then the GM prepares to run the game based on what the whole group has created and talked about.

Here is where I run into my problem, however. The players all sit down for the First Session, right? Envision that in your mind. Take on my role as author of the book that describes the game that they are about to talk about and play. Now ask yourself the question: who among the players has actually read the book? Supposedly they are going to talk about the game, right? Supposedly in order to talk about something you need to have some idea what you are talking about. Assuming that all players have read the entire book is... somewhat ludicrous. And yet they need to have a productive conversation. Herein lies the rub.

Really, this is what you need to know, setting-wise, to create a character and play the game: "It's 1890 or so, Victorian-era humanity has colonized the inner solar system using etherships. There are ancient mystical Martian and primitive Venerian aliens, and the greatest human nations, the Solar Powers, are all rivals for the most profitable colonies. You're going to play British sailors." From there, anyone who has ever gamed can have a profitable conversation about the game they'd like to play in that setting. The only thing is, they'd be dragging in all of their assumptions from prior games, primarily that the GM is going to create some big adventure for them to knock about in. Which just isn't the case. The missing pieces about how Full Light, Full Steam is supposed to play are far more complicated, tied in with the game mechanics and social contract issues and... yeah, complex. The broad strokes of it are possible to lay out, but the devil is in the details and the writer and editor in me screams, "support with details!".

Perhaps the solution is to begin the First Session with a monologue like this, delivered by the GM (who, it is assumed, has read the majority of the book): "I'd like to play this game. It's sort of different than usual roleplaying games, because the GM doesn't hoard all the power and the rest of the players get to do a lot of the things that the GM usually does. Everybody helps put together the setting and develop important NPCs and sometimes they even design or narrate parts of the adventure. It's 1890 or so, Victorian-era humanity has colonized the inner solar system using etherships. There are ancient mystical Martian and primitive Venerian aliens, and the greatest human nations, the Solar Powers, are all rivals for the most profitable colonies. You're going to play British sailors." If the GM stands up and abdicates traditional GM power to start the session off, how does that affect the rest of the First Session? Is saying "everybody helps create the setting" and following it up with a summary of that setting going to encourage or discourage active participation? Will it inspire them to think about it in new ways, or will they immediately think that they're being offered a sham and all the power will remain in the GM's (and book's) hands?

The Book is not the Game. This is something that you have to tell yourself over and over and over as you write the Book that describes the Game. I am creating the Book. I am not creating the Game: that will be done by players, some of whom I will never meet. There will be Games created that I will never experience or even hear about. The Book isn't completely unnecessary -- well it is, technically speaking, but in practical terms it's convenient for players to have as a baseline, reference, and guideline. My influence on the Game is wholly indirect, like operating waldoes to build something on the moon. Or better yet, operating waldoes to direct moon-men via sign-language to build something of their own. The players -- some of them, at least -- will read the Book, follow the directions that they like, and play their Game. Perhaps it's hubris on my part, wanting to control their Game, but I want the Book to be more than a description of a setting and rules for rolling dice. It needs to be a description of a functional social construct which can create an enjoyable evening or two. The only question is how to ensure that that social construct will be created when not everyone is reading the blueprints.

Monday, June 13, 2005

First Bloggitude

You know why I started this blog?

So I could comment in other people's blogs, because they're not thoughtful enough to post in a LiveJournal where I already have an account.

That's how it spreads, man. It's viral, just like zombies.