21 October 2013

Warning: Ruminations

I feel like running a very low-magic fantasy game with a very simplistic resolution system. Maybe something with d6 dice pools, and some sort of way of making what you're wearing and being protected by important.

Maybe something where your character's level is defined by the number of d6s they have to spend, and your weapons and armor are their own sort of thing, so you could have a guy that had three dice in Sneaking and two dice in Suave and he's got a bow with Accuracy 2 and Power 1, and his buddy in the picture is a dude with Beardliness 1, Strong Arm 1, and Tenacious 3, and he's got a sword with Sharpness 2 and Crossguard 1, and his shield is Stout 1 and Sturdy 2, and so on.

It kind of seems like a good bit to keep track of, but it's really not so terribly bad. You could sort of nest it into each other in the same way, so that you could buy a Rank 6 sword and then assign the stats, and nobody really cares what your sword is like (other than its relative quality- I.E. its rank) until it's time to swing the bastard around a bit, just like nobody really cares how charming you are until the Duchesses' (or Duke's, whichever you like) undies need to hit the ground.

And that means that you could have a couple of sub-systems that get put away until it's time for you to need them, like in very old-school D&D. Like your character is Rank 7 and that means that you have 7 dice to distribute between your qualities, so you pick three Social qualities and two each of Physical and Mental, and you can drill down into each category depending on what's going on. So you've essentially got three different parts of your character, and each one can have different benefits and maybe even spill over to the next ones...

The fun part is that this can go up and down each way, too, so that if you ever get to the domain level of the game you can separate out your character's Leadership qualities and Personal qualities, so you can have a guy who's not really smart or really personable but knows a thing or twelve about how to lead, or maybe a Barbarian King who's a whole hell of a lot better at decapitation than at decisionmaking...

I'll play with it more. Don't mind me.

16 October 2013

The Hard Sell

How on earth do you sell a domain-level game to your players?

"Oh yeah, you guys don't play as adventurers or detectives or knights or anything, you play as noblemen and Barons and Dukes, see, and you give commands to other people to solve problems, and build walls, and levy armies, and elect people from the populace as reeves and sheriffs and magistrates. That still sounds fun, right?"

And to the right person (me, for one), it does sound pretty fun. I remember using the excremental 3rd edition D&D rules to whip up some quick conversions and figure out how long it'd take any given group of craftsmen to construct a wall, for example, or how much gold some miners could dig up. I even ran it once, for my brother, although that abortive campaign really went nowhere fast for some reason. I can't remember why, honestly, because it started out pretty well.

But I digress.

Part of the problem is that the players are no longer working directly together. Instead, they are directly pitted against each other in a sort of ethereal board game, or perhaps they form a sort of cooperative ruling class where the main gameplay is arguing about stuff and waiting for their underlings to do things. The best case scenario I can think of is that one player is a sort of king, and the others are ministers of a certain part of the government (like the general of the armies, or the Head Reeve, or maybe the Lord of the Merchant's Guide) so that each player has a separate job, and they have to decide how to partition out their money and time and experts so that each person is accomplishing plenty of things without stepping on each others' toes or feeling useless...

But, really, at this point we're playing a really huge kingdom simulator, and I don't know if I'm able to simulate an ancient-worlds kingdom from a high level. It's a huge job, and would probably require a lot of reading and memorization and knowledge if I wanted to avoid the typical fantasyland boringness of "nothing ever changes unless something Named and Powerful does it," which I do.

The other part of the issue is that the genre as a whole is heavily skewed towards playing as an exceptional individual doing individually exceptional things. It's all about personal glory and personal belongings and very rarely about doing anything for one's society or even group. Maybe I've been reading the wrong games? Who knows.

Still, a man can dream.

12 October 2013

Terraria Distraction

I've been playing a lot of Terraria recently instead of paying attention to the community recently, so if there have been any kerfluffles or minor crises that you'd like to read about, you'll have to do it somewhere else, because I'm going to talk about adventure and mayhem.

Terraria is great because it's what Minecraft was supposed to be all those long years ago. It's an actual building and fighting adventure game, and it's absolutely brilliant. It's always got something for you to do, it's always got something for you to work towards, and there's always something awesome to discover.

Part of what makes the game work is that it has a certain structure to it, and it's sort of built into the game. You find natural caves and so spelunking for a while, looking for treasure chests and for valuable ores deep in the earth, which you mine and then transform into more useful equipment and weaponry. But unlike Minecraft, you eventually hit your peak with those weapons and armor. Where do you get more?

By fighting through the Corruption/Crimson and getting it, of course. And this entails you having built housing for a couple of NPCs, who form a town for you and provide their services. If you've built enough, you can get the Demolitionist to move in. And with his bombs, you can blast your way through the super-hard corrupt blocks and get to the Orbs/Hearts. Destroying them gets you gear, and also summons the bosses, who attack you with a vengeance. Beating the bosses nets you some supernaturally powerful ore, which you can make into weapons and armor.

But once you have beaten the bosses a couple of times, it becomes easy. Where to next? Why, the Dungeon, of course, where you'll fight the dungeon boss and make your way to a place with more treasure chests, traps, and powerful enemies than before. Eventually, of course, you'll master the Dungeon and where does one go next?

One goes to the Underworld and mines Hellstone and fights Imps and Demons. And the game continues like this for quite some time, all with a common theme; when you master the content you're given, there's always a place with greater risks and greater rewards around the next bend. And each place requires a different approach, a different style of moving and fighting, and different ways of building and digging. It's frankly brilliant, and it's always rewarding.

There's a lot we can learn about this sort of thing in our own homemade sandbox games.

Always Include Something Else

Not every game has to be about "progression" in the sheer gaming sense of getting new items and more levels so that you're strong enough to get new items and more levels. But it should be about progression in the real life term, where you're always trying to do something new and get something accomplished. A game where people sit around and contemplate their satisfaction with the way their life is would be interesting for perhaps a session, in a philosophical kind of way, but hardly the sort of thing you'd talk about with your buddies for the next ten years. It's kind of boring, right?

Similarly, a campaign where your characters sit around going "where do I even go next," is kind of boring for everybody involved. You're being entertained on a moment-to-moment basis, sure, but because you're not connected to the world as a player, neither are your characters. You're kind of aimlessly floating around, because you're not engaged to the world around you, and you don't know where to go next.

In Terraria, you're rooted to the world fairly quickly. You have to build a house to get shelter from the Zombies and the Flying Eyeballs, so you're connected to the place. It's not much, but it's alright. It's got a workbench and a door, and maybe a furnace. But soon you realize you need to expand, so you make it a little bigger. And then you realize there's a guy wandering around outside and so you make him a house, too. And then, next thing you know, somebody else moves into your house with you, and you realize that you need to keep building up your town so that more people move in.

And next thing you know you're part of the world. You explore and wander and discover, and then you go back to the town to store your belongings and sell them to the NPCs, who sometimes die and who have things happen to them. The world is its own character and has a very real impact on the way the game unfolds.

Speaking of which...

Put the Fiction First

The Corruption/Crimson are great in Terraria, because they spread slowly across the surface and actually change the world in its wake. The monsters are noticeably different, the ground itself turns into a strange and hideous color, and the background and music change. Everything is different, and it's obvious that you should check it out. If the monsters are too tough, you know you're not ready, so you head back into the natural caverns. This time you've got a purpose. You're not just getting strong so you can fight the zombies and flying eyeballs that were plaguing you, you've got to fight some bigger, tougher monsters.

And so you head back to the Corruption and head down the tunnels, fighting the monsters off at every step. And you see in the caves these enormous glowing things. What are they? What  do they do? You try a couple of things out on them, if you can reach them (and if not, the Demolitionist that moved into your town will sell you some bombs), and when you smash them you get messages on your screen and a neat magical item. Smash enough, and it's boss fighting time. The boss, of course, drops more magical items and some magical ores that you can smith into improved armor.

You can see, naturally, how the progression is obvious and clear, and how the game is designed to present you with the next step not by some sort of shoehorned "OH WOW LOOK ITS THE NEXT BOSS AND HE'S HERE FOR YOU TO FIGHT HOW CONVENIENT," it's presented as a natural and insidious part of the world you live in.

I illustrate the entire chain of events because it's basically the way every good threat in your game should work. If your players aren't aware of it, it's not in the game. If it doesn't noticeably change the game world in a way that the players dislike, it's not a threat, it's background. And players probably aren't interested in attempting to change the background.

This leads me to my last point.

Use Rewards

Some DMs like to use punishments to keep players in line. To wit, I recall reading a post chain on Reddit's /r/RPG board about "keeping it interesting," and what to do if the players are being boring in a sandbox game. The link to the pertinent part is here.

Ivaclue is doing fine until he says, in response to "but my players don't respect authority and would probably kill the guard captain for talking to them like that," that the guard captain should just be stronger and more powerful than the party, common sense be damned. And the worst? The advice "Make him and indestructable force. Make them stop disrespecting you." Frankly terrible.

What should happen is that you reward the players for everything they do. Not in the sense that they get rewarded in-game, but that they get rewarded with fun. Let them kill the guard captain- they obviously don't want to be model citizens. And they're rewarded with the fun of killing him, then the fun of escaping the town, then the fun of being fugitives who (as far as anybody can tell) blew up a tavern, killed a guard captain, and fled the city. Isn't that more rewarding than "you attack the guard captain but he counterattacks and knocks your weapon out of your hand and tells you to do as he says or else?"

That's what I thought.

Terraria, of course, uses the rewards of better gear and neat magic items to keep you on the right track. For the most part. Some parts (like when the flying skulls kill you when you're at the Dungeon without fighting the boss, or the way that the Underworld is almost silently hidden away deep underneath the earth) aren't perfect, and are of the "you just plain can't do that" section.

But most of it is ready for you at any level. You can tackle the Dungeon in wooden gear. You can ignore the Corruption and head straight for the Jungle. The game doesn't change based on what you do and it doesn't shoehorn you into a single path the way that Ivaclue from Reddit apparently thinks is the best way to run a sandbox game. The entire world is there for you. Some parts are harder, and some parts are easier. Take on the challenge you think you can handle.

Anyways, I hope this all gave you food for thought. This one kind of got away from me, so enjoy this unusually long and dense post.

04 October 2013


For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about sinkholes, to the point where I've actually been fleshing out the skeleton of a story about them.

In the story, this young man walks through his backyard and he sees this sizeable hole in his backyard where there used to be nothing more than a smallish tree and some grass. And the weird thing is that it's pitch black all the way down. He can't even see the reflection of the sunlight off of the sides of the earth, so he goes up to it, right? And it's completely pitch black. He can't see anything. He tries kicking some rocks into it, but still nothing. He goes and gets a flashlight, but it's nothing. And he's too creeped out to get closer to it, so he calls apartment management to try and get somebody to look at it, and then he goes back into his house.

It's not long until the maintenance guy gets there, but he's stumped, too, so he calls another guy to come look at it. The two of them bring a length of rope and a flashlight, but can't figure out anything and they're both creeped out by the fact that the light doesn't go anywhere. They were going to climb down but now neither of them want to, so they call management.

Management calls the police, and the police set up the crime scene DO NOT CROSS tape, and try and figure out what they're doing. They call in some geological surveying types, but they're confused as hell, too. They've got a camera with a light on it, attached to a pipe that's attached to a machine, but they're getting the same nothingness. It's like reality just stopped inside of that hole.

That's not the end, of course- the protagonist goes back into his house and can't sleep and things start getting weird from them on out, but I haven't decided exactly how. I'll get back to you on that one.