31 January 2011

Mind Games: Part 1

Drak Lich-Bane was clearly outplayed by his nemesis.
When writing about mind-games, I'm going to define yomi so that we're all on the same page.

Yomi is japanese for "reading," and we're using it in the sense that you're reading the mind of your opponent. Have you ever played a game of Chess, or whatever your preferred game would be, where your enemy was always two or three steps ahead of you, and it seemed like no matter what you did, he always had a plan and a counter-strike for every single one of your moves? Then you understand yomi already.

Central to the concept of yomi is the counter. But not just counters. Let me explain, in fantasy terms.

Let's say you have a strong character, a champion of sorts. Let's name him Drak Lich-Bane, a name I invented no more than five minutes ago to describe the character on the picture to the right. Let's say you're a good swordsman, tough and quick and strong and brave. You're even fairly bright, and have picked up a magic trinket or two, and maybe even learned a simple spell or something. It doesn't matter.

Now let's say you're dungeoneering and you come across another hero, armed similarly. Let's say his name is Erik the Brave. You both have roughly equivalent swords and shield, and neither of you are lacking in strength of arms or courage. In short, victory will come to whoever's luckier. In your standard D&D mode, it's whoever can get the lucky critical hit, or rolls slightly higher dice for damage, or who continuously rolls low for no reason other than it's not their lucky day.

There's a reason that people continously complain about combat in D&D (and by extension, 99% of roleplaying games) because there's usually only one real option and combats go downhill from there. Drak Lich-Bane's only real option is to attack or retreat, and his opponent's choices are the same. In the situations that should be the most exciting, the fights to the death over things that are worth sacrificing your life for, the game is the least exciting.

I attack the goblin... again.

And that's where yomi comes in. Let's say your best move for ol' Drak is a regular attack. If your opponent's best in-combat move is also an attack, then you're encountering the problem that you usually encounter; namely, that you're in a slug-fest to the death. There's nothing more boring than rolling dice back and forth.

But if we're going to create interesting tactical gameplay elements, we need for there to be a counter to your slicing sword attack. Let's say that Erik the Brave, your enemy, has a counter-move to your attack, which we'll say is a Block. He just straight Blocks your attack, and you get hurt because of the shock going up your arm. Or something.

But this isn't yomi either. If your best option is to Attack, then his best option is to Block. And he knows it, so he's going to Parry while you Attack, and that's going to be that. Of course, you could both Block, but then nothing happens. So what you need is a counter to his Blocking.

Let's say that you can also choose to smack him with your shield. We'll call it Shield Bash. You can't block a shield bash, since it slams into you whether or not you're blocking it. It doesn't hurt as much as your sword attack, but he can't do anything about it. Of course, if he chooses to attack with his weapon, then he'll take advantage of the fact that you're not protecting yourself, and his Slash will do significantly more damage than your Shield Bash.

So we've developed a little guessing game. Your strongest attack is the Slash. But if you do nothing but Slash, he'll counter you by Blocking every time and you'll end up losing. So you mix it up and Shield Bash him when he starts to rely on Blocking, but you don't want to Shield Bash too much or he'll Slash when you're trying to Bash and you'll take more damage than him, and he'll win the battle of attrition.

But we're not done yet. We have your optimal move, Slash, and a counter to that move, Block. We even have a counter to the counter, in Shield Bash. But if that's all we have, then it really is just rock paper scissors, which, even though it's yomi at its finest, we need a little more to make it interesting. After all, we're all rock-paper-scissors guys and really like complications.

Always smiling, those Legionnaires.
Let's say that there are a couple of classes we can choose from when we go into this deathmatch-styled arena. Let's say that you can choose to be a Legionnaire, in which case your Block move is stronger since you've got a great big shield. Your Slash and Shield Bash moves are weaker by comparison. This means that you're going to tend to Block when you're not sure what's going to happen, which is a stylistic approach that vastly changes the metagame, so to speak. If you're going to tend to Block, then I'm going to tend to Shield Bash, which means that you're not going to want to block quite so much. You can even bait your enemies by acting like you're going to Block (which is where roleplaying comes in, I suppose), and then Slash to counter their Shield Bash.

Or let's say that instead, you're choosing to play as a berserker. Your Slash is more powerful when you're in your Berserker Rage, but it's obvious when you're in that state because you're frothing at the mouth and scrabbling everywhere. It's a similar situation, where you're more inclined to try and Slash your opponent to death, but your opponent knows the same thing and will be inclined to Block until you calm down. So let's say that the Berserker knows this, and has a move where he can totally neutralize your ability to Block by grabbing you and trying to bite you with his teeth. He can only use it if you go totally defensive, so it throws yet another wrinkle into the system.

If you Slash him, he'll Slash back and probably win the fight. If you Block, then he'll Grab you and that's not going to be pleasant. If you Shield Bash, you'll be alright, except that you're still going to do less damage than him, since his only real options are to Grab and Slash. Very berserker-y, and very painful. So what do you do?

Well, you know that he's going to Slash, with a side of getting underneath your guard and Grabbing. So you have to guess your enemy's moves, try and predict when he'll Slash and when he'll Grab by using how much time he has left in his Rage. He's going to try and end the fight before he runs out of rage, so you can afford to play it defensively until he's winded, at which point you'll have the upper hand.

This ran a little longer than I meant it to, so I'll come back and write more later, including a couple more additions and wrinkles that I think can be added to the game, including the great fun of magic and how, in a sense, yomi has been here all along- just hiding a little, and neglected.

30 January 2011

Snippet: Mindgames

This is going to be a frightfully short post, but I am unapologetic.

One of the biggest things, I think, that games do wrong is that they leave a lot of space where there's nothing particularly interesting to do. The other mistake, of course, is to give the players too many things to do, and that's just as bad. I'm thinking about textbook combats in older-edition D&D games and combats in 4th edition D&D. It's easy to "zone out" in either of them, and kind of sit there, attacking the same target until it's dead.

An Igniter, from Bloodline Champions.
One of the games I've been playing recently has been Bloodline Champions. It's a great online fantasy action game, very fast-paced and it's a blast and a half. One of the best parts of that game is the way that it makes the game go forwards. Limiting healing to 40% of your health is one way- you can only heal up so much in a round, so you need to go forwards and kill them, rather than poke and heal and poke and heal.

The other big thing is that there's always a mind game going on, where you've got to predict what they're going to do to make your own move optimal, and to attempt to out-play your enemy. All of the combatants are roughly equivalent in ability and in power, so it's up to the player's decisions to make the difference. You can't rely on brute force (at least, unless you're a class that enjoys a size/strength/durability advantage), and even if you try to, you need to consider your enemy's moves and their likely counterattacks.

It's something that should, and could, be codified into a neat game mechanic, and I think it's where my attempts at development will go. I would love to bring yomi (in the David Sirlin sense of being able to read your opponent) into roleplaying games. It's the one part of any game that I truly enjoy, and it should be present in one of my most long-lasting hobbies.

24 January 2011

Mazes and Minotaurs

Perseus suddenly realized he left his sheild back with the Hesperides...
I was looking through my dropbox filled to the brink with junk and free roleplaying systems, when I re-discovered Mazes and Minotaurs. Is it just me, or is M&M the absolute coolest system around?

I know it's not much to blog about, except that the next time that my buddies are up and over here (which will be soon, I think), I'm wrangling them into a game or two. Greek mythology is the bee's knees.

23 January 2011

The Unlikely Hero

Yesterday I mentioned my preference for anti-heroes, unlikely heroes, and generally anything other than the standard intentionally-saving-the-world type heroes. 

I'm no fan of King Arthur or Gandalf, and Superman's always left me dry. I'll take the Punisher or Samwise or Cugel, (especially Cugel), or Elric. 

I think Elric's really the best archetype for my style of adventuring anyways, since ol' Sam knows that he's trying to save the world despite him being the least seemingly-capable person to do so, and the Punisher's sort of trying to at least make the world a better place (although the violence makes him a bit morally questionable, there's no way you can say that he isn't at least trying). And Cugel, as we all should know, is kind of an idiot and doesn't even manage to save himself. Or get anything accomplished- he generally manages to get even further behind than he was before he started on whatever ill-attempted methods he'd been trying.

But Elric manages to make the world a better place, and not because it's the "right thing to do", since after all, sometimes it isn't. But in pursuit of coinage, power, or knowledge, he at least manages to get some stuff done. His adventures are always interesting and varied, because he's after something. The world doesn't need to be saved, and it's honestly more interesting for it. 

I don't mean to tread on anybody's toes, but the least interesting thing about a danger to the entire world is the danger itself. For a good example, look at Zombie Apocalypse movies. The reason for the zombies is almost always left unexplained, and none of the characters are particularly interested in finding out. It's not even relevant. They're not trying to save the world, or uncover the mystery behind this enormous earth-crippling catastrophe. Nobody cares, and the movies that are about the actual disaster tend to be uninteresting (I am Legend comes to mind; the most boring parts of the movie are the ones with boring psuedo-scientific babble, and the most interesting ones are the parts where he's dealing with the fact that the entire effin' earth is dead, except for him) 

And so it is with fantasy novels and, by extension, games. The interesting part about the Demon Lord Psodi'dsfzx wrenching the world's sky with a hellish fire-portal isn't that now you get to march over with shining armor and weapons so magical that they sizzle and fart with magical power, it's the fact that life, inevitably, goes on. How does the world change when demons irregularly rain from the sky? Do people live underground? Do they live in giant groups for mutual protection of their livestocks and livelihoods? Has humanity been ground into dust and serve the demons with their lives like human cattle? That's the interesting part, not some big silly flashy battle. 

For a good comparion, we'll talk about everybody's favorite book, the Lord of the Rings. I maintain that it is substantially less interesting than the humble Hobbit, for all the reasoning I already went over in the paragraphs above. It's focused on a band of adventurers who are going to slay a dragon not because it's a terror (it isn't), but because a small group of dwarves wants their mountain back. In the process, they manage to find the One Ring, burn down a lake town, slay some goblins, meet elves, get captured and then break out of said elves' jails, and have a giant pointless battle. Sounds like a hell of an adventure to me.

20 January 2011

Breaking the Ice

This will come as no surprise to anybody: I haven't blogged in a long time. I haven't realized exactly how long until I got an email on my Salvador Dali post stating simply, "Wake up and blog, dude."

Fuckin' A! I'm on it!

See, it's really not so much that I haven't had the time as I hadn't had the inclination. Role-playing games have always been an on-again, off-again sort of pursuit, especially when I'm not actively playing them. I moved away from the group I was playing them with, and then I moved again.

Nary a die has been rolled for an unusually long while in my household. There's not even a particularly good reason for it.

So in order to motivate myself to doing something and putting it out into the nebulous silliness that is the interwebs, I'm gonna make a list of things that I've started and stopped recently.

1) Dark Skies Above Us: I'd been working on this since the release of my diseased orcs killfest, Servants of Plague. The reason it stopped? Well, it wasn't based on a session I'd played. Everything I made was more or less intentionally designed and, well, my mind just doesn't work like that. It works best on the crazy juices that flow when you sit down with a couple of your buddies and shoot the shit about going underground and stealing gold out from the noses of some sort of elder evil. Not because you want to save the world, mind you, but because that shit-head's got a mountain of the stuff and he's not even using it. In my D&D world, adventurers are three parts mercenary, two parts Thomas Covenant, and one part Frodo Baggins: They're out looking for money, and any good they do is going to be because greatness is thrust upon them accidentally.

2) Mailed Fist: The what, fifth rename of my system, and this time it's lighter than ever. I wrote it one night when I was bored out of my gourd, and it's actually a pretty slick system. See, there's a sweet spot between the arduous complexity of AD&D by the book, and FUDGE, and it's different for every single person. Some people get off on calculating bonuses for positioning and weapon length vs foe size, and that sure as hell isn't me. Some people really love their characters being 99% idea and 1% character, with character sheets that list their three favorite foods and what they're wearing and that's that. That also isn't me. My ideal is like Dead Meat meets Labyrinth Lord. I want about ten pages of dungeoneering, and that's that.

3) Aremorican Addendum Volume Two: I don't even know what's going to be in this fucker, but I named the first one, so I'm stuck to it. Maybe I'll add a thing about the world itself, so people can play in my world. Why would anybody want to? Fuck, I dunno, I thought it'd be an interesting experiment (like everything else I do) and if anybody likes it they can have it to use as they like. That's what I'm all about, you know.

Anyways, that's me. Look near this space for more juicy, opinionated text.

Looking Back

They say that if you don't look back at who who were from a year ago and cringe that you haven't grown enough. What if I look back f...