Sunday, November 22, 2009

Freemarket, as seen by a socialist

[Disclaimer: I do not like Luke Crane games. This one is no exception. I am going to try a little to be even-handed, but when stuff irks me, I am going to be a jerk about it. When stuff is cool, I will probably make back-handed compliments. That being said...]
It's a Luke Crane game. That means we're not going to get along, pretty much guaranteed. Still, on a whim, when I went to Buddha's house last night and they said "Check this out" I said "Okay". We, ah, took about three hours to get through character creation; we didn't end up playing.

To be fair, the resolution mechanic doesn't seem so bad; you more or less pay attention to three main card colors (imagine dealing random Magic cards and only noting their color) and count some of them as points, and some of them as not-points. I can't exactly give you the precise mechanic, but suffice it to say it's a tiny bit like AP contests in Hero Wars - it might look intimidating from the rules text, but it's not probably so bad. "Probably" is necessary because I haven't played either, and don't want to, you know, lie to anybody.

I like the concept for the setting: you're on a space station with matter replicators, infinite cloning for all, every physical need is met, at least on a level of comfortable, if boring, subsistence... also, there is a social economy, as you may have heard. That's why it's called FreeMarket, by the way (also: jab knitting needles in my eyes - people on the station are known as Freemers. Get it? This is almost exactly like the nickname for those who frequent the authoritarian-rightwing site FreeRepublic - "Freepers". Blech) - it's called that because, um, well, okay, so there isn't really any good reason to call this high-tech, socialist utopia an ANYTHING market, but there you have it.

Anyway - so you're kind of on the Facebook Space Station - you get Flow, which is a combination of Diggs, Pokes, "You like this", etc. You lose Flow from Frownies, which means that, by the 52nd century, Facebook has finally devised a Dislike button. The Facebook comparison is not at all meant to be demeaning, by the way - I merely think it's apt, and the bright-and-bushy-tailed feel of the game text pushes me further in thinking so.

Strictly speaking, Flow is given to you by the Aggregate, aka the station CPU, as a reward for giving gifts, acting in concert to overcome challenges, and other things. Of course, being gamers, we spent a good bit of our time devising hypothetical scenarios in which we trick or otherwise game the Ag into Flowing us like whoa.

Speaking of terms that I tire of capitalizing, the skill list ("Experiences", for some reason) makes-a no sense. There are three different skills, that is, Experiences, that relate to social interaction (Shaping, Thin-Slicing, and Social Engineering; no, they don't mean what they sound like), skills that have nonsensical names, given their function (Mobbing is Modification Of Body-ing. Why not MODding? Search me!) and a few that I'm skeptical of, but I'm sure play would make it clear why there's a difference between them - using replicators is its own skill (Printing), separate from building things by hand (Cultivation) or retrofitting/reusing things to make new stuff (Recycling).

There are also MRCZ groups. The text mercifully recommends you pronounce this acronym as "mercy", with "mercies" as the plural. Catchy, and interesting. This is where some of the inspiration behind the game comes through a bit more - the text speaks of theoretical, anti-bureaucratic(I get it, and yet...) adhocracies, or groups that form ad hoc for a purpose and then disband when said purpose is completed. Given that there are arduous levels of MRCZ prestige to climb through, this actually sounds like the very opposite of anything temporary or ad hoc - where's the spontaneity? A barn-raising would be a more fitting adhocracy than these, well, WoW guilds the authors are describing.

Going back to the much-mused-over title of the game, I have this to say: it's a gift economy, in the sense that generosity, when it's received, is a source of social status. Flow is, chemically speaking, a byproduct of the social interaction, and not actually brought into the mix by any party involved; the Aggregate generates and distributes Flow. So - while there's certainly an economy taking place, it's not, you know, anything at all resembling a "market". It's really a "network". If this game is some attempt to realize a great big Objectivist impulse, then I'm going to go throw up red Kool-Aid on Luke's lawn in protest. But then again, maybe I won't - it's a lousy attempt at this. Why is everyone provided for? Why is there no cold and finite resource that rules all others?

This really should have been billed as Facebook: the RPG. And maybe there, it could have had terms that made some more sense, and less misplaced attitude. When you Poke someone, all it means... is that you Poked them.

Oh, and I can't make heads or tails of what the goddamned CA is. It's your Right to Dream about this really cool, crazy space station, presumably, since the relationship mechanics are about as deep as those on the for-real Facebook site (and that's a huge lynchpin for Story Now, to me), and there's way too much going on that isn't related to Stepping on Up (nor are there victory conditions, permanent death [mostly], end-game mechanics...) to count as that, either. There's this whole thing where death isn't really death unless your body is so totally fucked by horrible, multi-system destruction that they have to make a whole new clone. Even then, you're not really dead.
If I really wanted to play an MMO, or face off against the never-really-dying Saturday morning cartoon villain, then... nah. I wouldn't want to do either of those things. Not again, at any rate, as far as MMOs.

You know what? I take it back. This isn't Facebook. This is Second Life, converted to tabletop!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

hero wars/heroquest thoughts and stuff

So I've been eying my newly-acquired copy of Hero Wars, and thinking about a concept used in the game's Extended Contests (big, important conflicts use these, as opposed to a simple, single die roll): the concept of Action Points (now called Hero Points in the new edition).

So. Action Points.

Basically, these represent your overall mojo, combining ability, equipment, emotional investment in the conflict, positioning, tactics, allies(!), etc., all thrown together in a single numerical value. It's, overall, how well you're doing.
Here's the kicker: you don't lose until you are completely out of Action Points. And by "don't lose", I mean you basically don't suffer any just-you-personal consequences until this point is reached. Heck, you can even bet a few points to possibly gain a bunch back, and then you're still in it!
That bit about not losing? It means that, in a combat Extended Contest, you don't get wounded in any meaningful way (beyond a cut or a bruise) until you run out of APs. This is that kind of thing I was trying to achieve in Mask of the Emperor, the idea that you have to corner your opponent (verbally, physically, whatev) before landing a blow on them, as befits actual fighting between actual fighters.
[ready, go, tangent!] Even if you skewer a guy on your sword pretty quickly, there are probably a few shield-blocks, parries, dodges, and feints that happen first. If not, then the scenario would probably consist of your (apparently masterful) swordsman facing multiple foes, and stuff. The point is that I think it makes total sense to have some back and forth in a conflict before anything decisive happens.
So - you run out of APs, and THEN you get your hand severed, or the baroness throws her drink in your face, or whatever. As this Forge forum thread reminds us, you can get down to 1 AP and still pull off a win, and then keep your hand or your dignity intact.
I think that's pretty damn cool. One thing it doesn't do (potentially) is account for Pyrrhic victories, a la Otherkind. We shall see if that's the case, and if it matters, the effect that that has on things, etc.
I can see the logic behind it, though - both the Intact Skin approach (one guy wins and one guy loses, cut and dried) and the Mel Gibson approach (a la any movie he's ever been in where there is violence, and his character gets an ass-whupping even if he wins the day) have their merits. The former pushes for a vision of combat as either deadly OR merely "to the blood" - different rolls and results will of course dictate how that goes, and I betcha the Extended Contest result table has some kind of "you both suck" result. Alternately, in social conflict, the former approach would suggest a sort of "you end up looking awesome, handing someone's ass to them as well as looking good to passersby". This approach seems to suggest that once things start tipping in your favor, they keep going that way, OR you get a very clean reversal - again, you don't get chopped up until you totally, definitely lose, although you might take some light flesh wounds and your followers might all die (I'm thinking Braveheart, where Mel takes a couple arrows to the chest at Falkirk but then gets back up and rides after King Edward. 'cause, you know, whatever).

The latter approach suggests that combat is a bloody affair, and arguments make everyone involved look bad - in the case of violence, there's that old saw that people wear armor because you can't swordfight without getting chopped up once in a while. In the case of social conflict, it's possible that browbeating, haranguing, or otherwise nailing someone's verbal ass to the wall has lots of fallout and makes you look like a tool. This approach is one of "you have to give it to get it" - if you want something, you're going to have to crawl through crap to ensure that it's yours.

Oddly enough, both of these approaches expect and demand a lot of risk-taking: these aren't conservative strategies by any stretch. The former, in particular, could be very see-saw-y: win big or lose big! The latter, at least, lets you get mangled up a bit and maybe decide that you concede, after all, having reached your depth.
Things to think about and research, at any rate.
Oh, one last thought: the Otherkind mechanic exists to draw in more conflict like a fisherman's net, grabbing problems and pulling them towards the PCs. The Hero Whatever mechanics may or may not really do that, and seem a good deal more trad win/lose in that respect. They let you handle a conflict that arises, rather than find one for you. Maybe. We'll see.

My intention is to finish up Questing Beast soon (I'm done meandering...) and then get folks in the group to check out Hero Wars. Hotnessss! Character creation flowcharts await!

[Edit] Quick, last-last thought: Extended Contests and Otherkind do something similarly - in the Braveheart scene I mentioned, the EC is arguably resolving the entire battle! Let's go with that. The Scots get flanked by English reserves, the film personalizes this reversal through Willaim Wallace (his facial expressions, his arrow wounds), and then the battle's outcome is personified through William alone - he gets on his horse (while the Scots try to rally alongside their newfound Irish allies) and rides after King Edward, only to have the (surprise!) turncoat Robert the Bruce joust him right off his fucking horse. He lies there in the dirt; the contest is over.

ECs handle this by saying "hey, look at it go back and forth, with the English steadily widening the AP gap". Each reversal is exciting, and roleplayed to the hilt because we care, and when it's over, the Bruce helps William into the arms of an Irish rescuer; that's all post-EC developments. It's all important, yeah, but it's probably "off the map", i.e. it's devised by fiat, by on the spot creativity, without interacting with dice mechanics.

Otherkind dice handle things in general as jumping-off points for more and more conflict; it seems like conflicts are less officially "happening" and "not happening", given that, quite clearly, each roll of the dice can lead into more and more problems and complications. It's like the EC system says "ok, we're in conflict now", while O says "okay, roll. Okay, five more things go wrong. Okay.... roll again. Repeat."

The real difference might be that O sort of checks in with the players more often and says "ok, hey, here's some consequences. At least in terms of handling time (huge difference, no doubt), O gives us resolution pretty quickly. If what you're looking for is a lot of back and forth, then EC might be the way to go. If you're looking for really punchy, pithy moments that cause the plot to pivot, then O might do it.

O seems more suited for gunshots, sudden bursts of action that die down quickly, that sort of thing, the kinds of decisions one makes rashly and quickly regrets, whereas Hero Wars is pushing a sort of more nuanced, you've-got-time-to-think back and forth thing, like a fencing match.

Not that one or the other can run situations or scenarios that the other couldn't; I'll report back when I discover what's better at what!

[EDIT EDIT] Apparently in both Simple and Extended Contests, if both sides roll badly enough (technically, you roll against a Target # and THEN compare to your opponent), both sides can screw the pooch. So to speak.