Saturday, May 30, 2009

Story Games as a term; its relation to Creative Agenda

Over at, and a couple of other blogs, as of late, there has been some discussion about the term "story games". Honestly, this is a term I've not precisely heard before, but I can get the gist of what they mean. Narrativist/Story Now games come to mind.
Eero Tuovinen, writer of Game Design is about Structure, made some interesting comments at on the subject of "making story" and playing an RPG:

I can't get really interested in conch-passing storytelling games either, the ones where I'm supposed to be responsible for creating a good story. As far as I'm concerned, I want the rules mechanics to take care of that part so I can focus on playing my character / throwing nasty stuff at the player characters or whatever other fun things there are in the game to be done. "Making a story" is not on my list of fun things for roleplaying simply because when I want to make a story, I write one.

Looking at TSoY in this context, though, the xp rules of the game work very well in giving me what I want: instead of me the player getting more control over the fiction the xp gives my character more control over his environment, his fate, his society, his friends and enemies - which in turn directly drives frozen conflicts of his life towards resolution now that he finally has the power to do something about it.

Something really, really important to take from this is that the Creative Agenda stems from the players themselves, not from the game or its rules. I feel like this is something that's been troubling me, distracting, even, when I'm working on game design - from a standard definition of Story Now, the rules are there to heighten the exploration of the Premise. A Story Now game gives the Premise, sets up some rules that allow Exploration, and then the players run around in that space.

I dunno where I'm going with this; I'm not quite sure what the phrase "story game" means to other people, given that I'm a Forgie and it doesn't come up at the Forge, like, ever. But the point of this post is a reminder - if it's protagonism and theme and such that you're after in play, rather than Being There, Stepping Up, or what have you, then grab a Story Now game and you'll put the right foot forward.

It may not need to be said, but it's possible that the misunderstanding here (Eero and others' reasonable misgivings aside), comes about because of what folks think a story is. Without rules that deliberately limit the mechanical focus to the Egri premise, the play group is at a disadvantage for achieving "story". More importantly, perhaps, the GM's role of managing and heightening tension cannot take on the focus needed for Premise without rules to support that.

Unless you put it out there that, say, the forces of good reputation and personal desire clash, and set up mechanics that make these things abstract in some way, you can't play Mask of the Emperor. Not really.

Friday, May 29, 2009

D.F., scene-creation, and other thoughts

So here's what I'm thinking: the creation of each resource node, and new chamber in the Fortress, for that matter, is an opportunity for a scene. Using a node or a chamber is also a chance for a scene.
For that matter, friendly visits from merchants, immigrants, and invaders are always, guaranteed, instances for new scenes. As in, I'm thinking you have to have a scene here. Merchants can be instant conflict/interest - if you need something from them, to help a dwarf in a Strange Mood, they will take you to the cleaners over the necessary item. Or, they might try to take advantage of the ravages of the local clime: in a desert, wood and stone will be dear to purchase; on a muddy plain, maybe gems and ore are tough to come by. Ah, and let's not forget an easy way to stir the pot in the original game: low-balling a merchant to the point of causing insult.
Dwarves might have orders from the Crown; elves are pretty easily offended in general, and humans ... well, maybe they're likely to try and exploit your situation.
It occurs to me that, doing admin-type stuff for the Fortress, you could consider yourself to be in "Fortress Mode" (to go along with "Battle Mode" and one of the motifs of the computer game), and, ha, the times when you're actually running scenes should totally be called "Adventurer Mode".
For those who don't know what in gods' name I'm talking about - in the Dwarf Fortress computer game, there are three modes of play available from the title screen - Fortress, Adventurer, and Legend. Sadly, at this point Legend Mode is merely a sort of "read through the history of the game world" exercise, in which you have exhaustive lists of all the events the computer has "crunched" while putting together the randomly-generated world, based on a few specifications you've given. It might sound cool, but I don't think it is, in the current incarnation.
Anyway. I think declaring different modes would be cool, as things work pretty differently in Battle Mode, and differentiating Adventure vs. Fortress would be a good "background" bit of info to draw attention to scene-framing as a Technique of play.
What I'm curious about is what people would actually *do* in a game of DF. I'm trying to avoid the niggling little voice in my head that says "Story Now!" because, honestly, I don't think there's enough "meat" to what's happening in the game world to really find themes or a Premise or anything to really, um, work with. The game is about resource management and survival; not much explicit moral conflict. So, we'll see.
Kobolds would be fun - scrappy little thieves who are fairly easy to kill, but certainly liven things up. Goblin baby-snatchers are a good time, too.
You know what? This game totally needs a relationship web of some kind. Births, marriages, and friendships (as well as dwarves who just don't get along!) are all an important part of the original game - happy (or unhappy) dwarves will greatly affect life in the Fortress. For that matter, decorating and the creation of trinkets, furniture, and the like are all other contributing factors to dwarven un/happiness.

A Dwarf Fortress RPG (long)

[cross-posted at the Forge in the First Thoughts section]

So, a couple of months ago I became obsessed with the Dwarf Fortress strategy/world-building game for a few weeks, and part of my obsession involved the very basics of an RPG based around it.
I've been messing around with these ideas again this week, and I wanted to post my thoughts here for consideration. For the unfamiliar, the point of this RPG idea is to explore the Dream of dwarves building a fortress, interacting with elves, humans, and goblins, going to war, scouring for resources, and so on.

DF is a bit of a tall order, in that it's incredibly detailed, single-player only, possessed of an almost inscrutable interface... did I mention how detailed it was? My initial concept centers around a few simple stats that get a lot of mileage and multiple, layered uses:

Beard - social standing among dwarves, a measure of how much clout you have; this extends to interactions with non-dwarves as needed (may be able to declare discovery of other settlements/civilizations, be they elves, goblins, humans, or other dwarves)
Metal - skill at crafts in general, and the creation of finished products, including complex mechanisms for traps and bridges and the like
Wood - exploration of the surface world, speed of movement in the wilderness, harvesting plant life in general (can declare discovery of natural features on the surface world, such as rivers, copses of trees, and so on)
Meat - hunting, fishing, and butchery
Stone - mining/digging, architecture, alcohol tolerance, movement speed underground, and exploration of the underground world (can declare discovery of natural features underground, such as rivers, veins of gems or metals, magma flows, etc.)

Those are the civilian uses of stats. There is also a "battle mode" into which any dwarf can enter, at which point all stats take on different meanings:

Beard - combat leadership, and how intimidating you are to your foes (since goblin invaders often run away when outmatched, I think Beard should be useful to scare away enemies, if you desire; also useful to rally and command dwarves)
Metal - a measure of how well-armed you are (probably relates to damage-dealing and damage-prevention; a dwarf going into Battle Mode must stop by the fortress armory to gather weaponry, or his Metal will be at 0 in combat; this is not always a bad thing)
Wood - ranged combat capability, dodging, and speed (out of Battle Mode, speed is mainly at issue to see how quickly unarmed dwarves can make it back to base, either to arm themselves or just to get to safety. In Battle Mode, Wood is your overall speed, both above and below ground)
Meat - your ability to get through/around an opponent's defenses; also a general measure of the fury of your attacks. Also, measures your capacity for the infamous Wrestling skill, which allows you to pin, disarm, and then torture enemies
Stone - your resistance to wounds, and possibly a measure of your defenses

In combat, you generally select two stats to roll together for each action (probably going to to a dice pool thing, since I like that, but it's up in the air for right now), and that reflects what you're up to: Metal+Meat is a standard attack, Stone+Metal is a standard defensive maneuver, etc. I am all about determining different combinations and figuring out what they would mean for the fight.

Greatness - in the original computer game, the sum total of all your material wealth, furnishings, etc., is collected into a rating of how awesome your fortress is. I want to have something like that here, but with a lot less granularity than a computer could support. This will hinge on two things: resources and fortress-building. Whenever a dwarf uses Wood or Stone to exploit a source of lumber, minerals, etc., it's assumed that those materials are added to the coffers of the fortress for a "base level" amount of Greatness points.
You'll need to break out a sheet of graph paper at this point - the players put their heads together and work on their fortress. I want to encourage actually drawing what it looks like, probably from a pure-vertical perspective; on another sheet of paper entirely, record the distance to various "discovered" resources and natural features. As the fortress grows and gets filled up with details (decoration, finished goods, a well-stocked armory, etc.), the dwarves essentially turn the base-level Greatness points of your acquired resources into high-Greatness weapons, trinkets, goods, and so on.
At this point, I have some vague ideas about a turn-based, "seasonal" time system, which would make the distance between resources and the fortress meaningful even during times of peace (in terms of how much you could collect, I suppose), and that, in turn, would give some structure to how quickly a fortress could accumulate Greatness.
Greatness isn't just-because; it's actually going to be used to determine how much attention your fortress gets from immigrant dwarfs, merchants of other races, and screaming hordes of goblin invaders. For now, I think a d100 system would make some sense, as far as establishing when these events happen (migration, trade, invasion) - you roll d100+Greatness and consult a chart to see whether you're hosting merchants, being attacked, or home to new immigrants. As in the original game, merchant visits occur in specific seasons, based on the race of the merchant (elves in spring, humans in summer, dwarves in autumn). Invasions can happen in any season, as can immigration; each season, then, you'd roll three times on the chart, to see if you get trade, migrants, or invaders. The exception is winter - no one comes to trade with you in winter!
I have absolutely no idea how trade should work, or even if some level of granularity even makes sense, here. It's probably sufficient just to have general resource pools with a rating attached to them; in that case, you could trade 1-for-1 of a useless or excess resource for something you do need.

Specific Resources - presumably, the exploration ability covered by Wood and Stone would be two-fold: successes would determine whether or not you find the thing at all, and some other way of reading the dice would determine how far away it is/how hard it is to get to. That second part is something I haven't quite figured out yet; maybe the number of dice that come up as failures could dictate how accessible the resource is, and yes, this means that the more skilled you are, the more likely you are to locate a resource that's far away. That makes sense to me - I want to limit the number of "nodes" for a particular resource you can find at a single time, giving more skilled dwarves greater access, but also limiting resources to one "node" per distance-rating. Common resources require a single success to find; more rarefied goods require more, while omnipresent goods require no successes at all (the distance is the only relevant factor, in that case). That being said...
Choice of "Map" - since selecting where to plant your fortress is so important to the original game, I figure a quick discussion of what's rare, what's common, and what's omnipresent is important before the game begins. A list of resources (wood, gems, ore, farmland, hunting grounds, etc.) and natural features (rivers, magma flows, hills, etc.) will be hashed out, in terms of modifiers to things - gems and ore are less common than stone and wood in general, but in drier or more mountainous climates, wood might be harder to find, and in flatter or sandier climes, stone and ore and gems will be harder to find. I imagine trade will become more relevant when certain resources are more precious, or even non-existent.
Of course, what DF adaptation would be complete without ... Strange Moods?
Haven't worked this out at all yet, but the basic idea is that a dwarf PC stands a chance of becoming an utter master at either Stone, Metal, or Wood, but could very well go insane/die/go on a killing spree if the requirements aren't met. The other upshot is that a treasure of great worth is created as a result of the Strange Mood, which would add a tidy sum of Greatness points to things. Those requirements could be easily met (materially) if the right kind of merchant were visiting that season, but if not, the Stone and Wood specialists would need to hurry up and find what the moody dwarf needs to ensure success. I think striking a balance between Greatness points consumed on the project vs. the difficulty of the dice challenge is important; if you can buy what you need from a merchant, it should really cost you, but the alternative is a roll of the dice. Something like that.
I realize that there's a certain board-game quality to all this, a certain lack of RP-style Exploration; at least it feels that way to me. I figure that the other half of the game, the part not directly covered by the rules, is the interaction of all the dwarves in the fortress a) with each other b) with the Royal Court that commissioned the expedition, and c) with other races.
Romance, jockeying for position, squabbling over the priorities of the fortress, not to mention good old fashioned grudges and bar-fights, are all important things to actually "do" as a dwarf - as much as I've outlined a bunch of mechanical thingies, but those are intended to be co-central or background elements, sharing or giving spotlight with/to the actual interactions between dwarves. Dwarf NPCs should be needy little bastards who take credit for others' discoveries, pick fights over imagined insults, cower and flee at the approach of invaders, and so on. I think the GM's role is to introduce complications whenever possible/enjoyable, holding the power to cause cave-ins, floods, breakups, etc. There should be space for stories or plots within the game - stuff that goes deeper and more detailed than the rules themselves would do alone - stuff like weird discoveries in the mines, agents of the Crown showing up with hidden agendas, things like that.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Authority, conflict, and D&D

A few months ago, an old gaming buddy of mine named Marc, having listened to me at length about RPG theory, expressed an interest in playing D&D with me. I agreed, thinking it an opportunity to show, rather than tell, all the stuff I'd been talking about. Given that we're on opposite sides of the U.S., we resorted to playing over the phone.
A few ground rules: we used the Kicker technique, it would just be the two of us playing, we would use 3rd edition rules (sticking as close to play-as-written as possible), and there would be no GM, only two PCs.
That last bit was probably what got us in trouble, and what prompted me to think a lot about conflict, authority in the gaming group, and so on.
In the Mask playtesting campaign I've been running this year, I noticed that reliable sources of antagonism have given the game the fuel it needs to stay high-energy, to stay focused. Without dedicated antagonist characters, it's drifted into listless, low-key play that largely hinges on Exploration for its own sake.
This is essentially what happened in our D&D game, as you might expect. To start, we only had one Kicker, and it corresponded to his character, not mine. As a result, it was up to him, by and large, to drive play through decision-making. At least, it was supposed to be: I've managed to get pretty heavily into player-centered RPing, the sort of play where, as i stated above, it's up to the players to act as protagonists, making decisions that drive the plot along. Antagonism provides something for the PCs to push against, a sort of context for their actions. Without any kind of push-back against what they want to do, there's no tension; Lumpley has already explained the non-relationship between tension and winning the game here, so I will refer you to that link instead of elaborating here. But, on that note, antagonism isn't always personified. A target number to perform a task can be the "push-back" you need to give a little more shape to the story, but real-live enemies work better, and are much more interesting.
Anyway, we were going somewhere interesting, and I have to admit that Marc and I came up with some cool stuff (he's a nobleman's son who's given up his birthright for a career in music; I'm an elf-turned-mercenary who's hiding out from agents of my former king). The problem(s) were: inconsistent antagonism and very one-sided creativity. The two relate, of course; Marc, having had a bog-standard, GM-centered RPing career, kept looking to me to decide everything, but because I had a PC of my own, I had a conflict of interests to deal with. I could come up with where to go and what to do, and suggest new areas to Explore, but without anyone else dedicated to stopping me doing as I please, I hesitated constantly, afraid that I was "doing it wrong".
A big, big chunk of all this: creative authority went pretty much undiscussed, despite my efforts to the contrary. This happens a bit in my sessions of Mask, but because there's a fairly traditional, if player-centered, set of roles in place (the regular players mainly portray a single character each; the gm-player portrays nearly everybody else), I can always say, "Yeah, well, it IS up to you guys right now to decide what happens. It's right in the rules!"
Traditional roleplayers will want to push back against any attempts to empower them, of course; there's a vague, underlying notion that there is a "real" game world out there, but only the GM can see it, so he must relate it to the players in a manner of his choosing. Working with this false assumption, you have a range of benevolent-to-maniacal GMing styles, largely differing on the degree to which they a) share information with the players and b) manipulate player ignorance.
These may seem like the same thing, but they aren't. I daresay you could make a two-axis graph that has "level of information shared" and "level of manipulation" as the axes. Or, well, I suppose ignorance-manipulation is an inherently dysfunctional, Illusionist technique, as it's entirely predicated on the implicit assumption behind "sharing" information, i.e. that the GM is actually scrying the game world and revealing it, like the Oracle at Delphi, for the players. This isn't what's happening, and every opportunity you can take to show that the GM is making it up moment-to-moment (no matter how much prep is involved), the better it is for players, and the more likely they'll chime in and be creative along with you.

Okay, big money: this is all leading to a re-evaluation of the Wisdom stat in Mask: it occurs to me that there was something I was going for with it, a sort of "say, do I have any good dirt on this guy?" kind of resource that acted, a la Dune, like the slow knife to Wit's swift knife. To unpack that metaphor, think about it like this: in most games with physical stats, you have something like dexterity and something like strength. One is your finesse, and the other is raw power. That was my original, albeit vague, divisor for each "stat pair" (two social, two physical). In actual play, my "dexterity" stat, Self-Discipline, acts as a sort of social/physical hybrid for everything related to self-control (not responding to taunts; keeping your balance), Strength is purely physical, and Wit is purely social.
Given that, I'm free to experiment with Wisdom. Because Wisdom had no clear role, however, that left us with only three stats to go with the nine skills, and meant that sometimes stat-skill combos got shoehorned into uses that felt, at best, forced. Okay, okay: Wisdom's new function, which I've managed to implement successfully, is to create pure information about the Shared Imagined Space. While "I use my Strength+Banditry to torture him into talking" is certainly creating information about the SIS, it's doing it within the context of the stakes set for the dice roll.
To use the above example, a successful roll there would mean "I torture him, and he gives us the information we need". A failure would mean something akin to "He resists, or gives us bad information, or something else happens". Like usual. But if you used Wisdom instead (along with a skill, presumably), then success would mean "I introduce something relevant to the situation that is useful or interesting."
That was vague. What I mean is this: rather than asking the GM, a la Mother May I, if this or that fact is correct about the situation, you simply say, "This is true. Now, let's roll!" It's just like any other roll, in that respect: declare, roll, continue. But, instead of the stakes referring to actions and events, they refer to information about the events at hand. Because a standard stakes-setting roll works with what has already been established, but it's still so darn flexible, Wisdom actually doesn't/shouldn't come up all that often.
You can see I'm having a hard time defining this. Okay: if you, the GM, find yourself in a situation in which a player wants to find out information, ask/determine if they're looking for color or control. If it's color, you might as well agree to it. If the player is looking for control of the situation, and it hasn't been established that what they're asking is obvious, then the player should roll to make it true.
Hopefully that's clear, to you and to me.