Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reward systems - are we getting anywhere, or..?

Thinking about this thread at the Forge, which mentioned RPG "reward systems".

I think a reward system could be a "hamster wheel" if the way to earn gimmes and Currency doesn't actually encourage people to engage in the point of the game, nor encourage them to "drive towards" it. Basically, your Exploration of the game system should promote the Exploration of "what play is all about" (be that competing for glory in Agon, or wading through moral quandaries in Dogs, or making tough choices in ApocaWorld) by-way-of Exploring character, setting, and situation.
For instance, some games have it so that the rules for advancement (a common avenue for Exploring the game system) are detached from the "presumed" content of the game - - maybe you MUST seek out a trainer in order to improve your abilities, but the majority of the game is dungeon-crawling, far from the academies and gymnasia (where the trainers are), then people have to go outside the normal fictional "play space" in order to "earn" the encouragement to buy into the activities of the game.
"Gold=xp" editions of D&D have a pretty clear, intentional reward cycle, especially if you can't level up until you leave the dungeon: you need to explore "efficiently" and try to use all your cleverness and care to maximize your gold-haul and minimize your exposure to danger. Dungeon crawling, using gold=xp/exit-to-levelup, is different than dungeon crawling that's defined as kill=xp/levelup-down-here. Not better or worse, but one is more of a puzzle game with a combat element and the other is more like a combat game with a puzzle element.
Specific reward systems do more than just encourage Creative Agenda; they also encourage a particular taste or style of play. Each reward system has its own particular take on elements like competition, exploration, and theme, serving as different varieties of play of a particular sort.
In D&D0e, the emphasis is on coordination, detail-inspection, and careful rationing of resources. We could say 0e rewards Attention to Detail.
In Agon, the emphasis is on inter-player competition, individual acts of heroism, and exciting, bombastic command of resources. We could say Agon rewards Chutzpah.
These are related types of gaming, but they are nonetheless distinctive enough (due to their respective systems and the style thereof) as to make playing them each a very different experience.
Polaris vs. Dogs in the Vineyard is good, too - - in both games, your character is powerful and in a position of authority. But the crushing weight of world's end (in Polaris) means that, logically, to advance your character is to hasten the apocalypse - - you have to lose Zeal and gain Weariness to get better on your dice rolls. Each advancement pushes you closer to the end of the game. You can avoid this by being "weaker-willed" against the Demons - - be more agreeable with your Mistaken, more willing to compromise and let things go, and you will last longer. But you will also be giving the Demons more of a foothold in your world. Fighting your battles is the only way to prove your worth, but fighting ALL battles only hastens your inevitable doom. Sort of a gloomy, Ragnarok take themes of fate and destiny.

Meanwhile, in Dogs, your character is always right. People may disagree and try to block the execution of your judgment, but you know they're just demons or idolators. The big question that helps to twist this theme is: how far will you/must you go to get your way? You have to be very tactical when crushing heresy, all the while wondering if you really deserve the authority given to you - - sometimes your judgments ruin lives unfairly. It's much like running an actual religious institution: handling dissent and disagreement proportionately, deciding how many administrative resources to dedicate to handling a problem, and of course wondering all the while whether any of it is worth it, ultimately.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

settlers UNLEASHED!

Biff and I started joking around about capitalism during a game of Settlers tonight, and after the game we hashed out some ideas about how to play as the humble peasants of Catan instead of their lords and masters.

- Each player keeps track of two hands of cards: their own and their king's hand. A player can only use resources from their own hand, not from their king's hand. The game itself plays the role of the kings.
- Each turn, each city OR settlement in your color produces one resource-unit from each adjacent hex.
- Next, roll the dice, as usual. Whatever number is rolled, hexes that would normally produce will instead "eat" one resource of the appropriate type from your hand - this resource goes into your king's hand. Call this "tithing". Cities, though, eat two resources of each type from your hand.
- If you roll a 7, you can place the Robber on any hex you like; any player with a city or settlement bordering that hex takes one random resource from their king's hand and puts it in your hand.
- Each turn, check your king's hand to see if it can afford to buy any development cards. Buy all the development cards you can afford (using the king's hand only!) and play them as soon as possible (your next turn, I think). Lumber and bricks just sit in the king's hand (you must trade them with the bank or any available harbors, in order to collect as much wool, ore, and grain as possible - for development cards!)
- Development cards that award resources are instead tithed by that player to his or her king's hand. Those that award victory points work normally.
- When Knight cards are played, they are placed under the Robber's new location; this hex now produces nothing, but demands tithes when its number is rolled, and upon Robber-placement, a random resource is taken from an adjacent player's own hand and put into your king's hand. When the Robber changes locations again, such Knight cards return to the corresponding King's hand.

Not sure how victory points factor in or how I'd want them to be different. What I'm going for is some kind of end-goal of turning a city into a "free republic" a la the Italian Renaissance.
Help me develop this :)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sunny the RPG

Been thinking about It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and how to realize it as an RPG.

Some elements:
- the gang tries to come up with a plan or scheme, usually in order to get one over on somebody. Let's call this The Plan.
- each member of the gang will attempt to push the scheme in a direction that benefits them most, even at the expense of their friends. Let's call this Taking Advantage.
- getting one over on a friend or someone else seems to give the gang more control over further events: once they've demonstrated their (temporary) superiority to someone else, they tend to keep having success with their endeavors for a while (til random chance smashes it all to pieces in some absurd or contrived way... say, this DOES sound like an RPG!). Let's call this Value - you have to demonstrate it. Value is a currency for getting your way more effectively.
- it does seem, though, that someone with Value can use it for others, if they wish. I see absolutely no reason to stop players from doing this; clearly it's exactly what was going on with the Denim Chicken.

- Of course, if the Plan starts having setbacks, you can always Take Advantage of a fellow gang member in order to regain Value, and drive the Plan back in the direction you want.

Hm. I'm guessing that Keys would be an excellent way to represent the different characters - each of them is about projecting a certain desired persona, and in turn having short-lived moments of fallibility or selflessness for comedic or dramatic effect (usually just comedic, like in Mac's Project Badass tapes).

I think this basic idea could be ported over to other "Cast of Bastards" style shows - as in, a comedic ensemble cast whose members are antagonistic towards each other, yet affiliated with each other in some fashion. In Sunny, the affiliation is that they run a bar together; in Arrested Development, the affiliation is familial.

Goals would probably be a useful device for establishing the interests of protagonists - goals could be short-term and temporary, or long-term and earnest, ranging from the Sunny gang's fleeting financial investments, to Tobias's Queen Mary, to, I dunno, Bender's commitment to boozing and whoring at any chance (though Futurama falls more into the category of pratfall comedy/comedy of errors, with only one Bastard among the protagonists [hint: he was built in Mexico]).

There might be Talents also, which are both the problem-solving appoach a character takes AND things that a character could spend Value on to achieve success. So... Mac could pummel someone, whereas Dennis is more of a scheming, cackling manipulator; Charlie is better at getting into weird, cramped spaces, while Dee is pretty good at fast-talking people.
You can go outside your archetype (and use other people's Talents) by spending Value. If you describe yourself using someone else's Talent without spending Value, they might get a bonus against you - - George Sr. is pretty much a master of teaching people lessons, and usually gets the final word in these sorts of situations.

Hm. Giving this serious consideration...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What Story Now play looks like

So I feel like play-style is a pretty stable thing; I, for one, will pick a relationship, goal, or situation in play and charge at it, hands outstretched, in order to get a good grip and squeeze drama out of it.

Relationship? No one can tell this person what to do but me! This way, interacting with him/her will be charged with potential conflict.
Actual play example: [game: Storming the Wizard's Tower][my character: a fisherman, father to a (secretly) pregnant shepherdess] The blacksmith's apprentice is my daughter's best friend. She knows about the pregnancy, and (out of character) says as much aloud.
Best part? I made a Charged Conversations roll, then asked, "Is my daughter actually pregnant? Is that the truth?" GM thinks about how to respond (since I was asking about something a player said, not a character. Yes, quibbling is a big part of what RPGs are about ^__^), and then says, "Yes. She is." I really liked knowing something as a player, but not as a character, and having the dramatic irony give off an awesome vibe.

Situation? I will seek the origin of the curse upon your house, and later we will ret-con that I actually placed the curse, myself! Hahaha! Now, there is another twist in the emerging situation, and it pits us against each other in a bad-blood way. Cool!
Actual play example: [game: Polaris][my character: a Knight of the Stars who is a skilled male midwife; tasked with concealing the deformed byblows of another noble house] The women of the House of Corvus, it is whispered, give birth sometimes to reptilian monsters that do not live beyond birth. It's my job to dispose of them discreetly. Then, one day, when I'm burying one in the courtyard, I discover a lizard-figurine buried in the dirt that's just stinking with dark magic. (I enter this element into the story because it seems like a fun answer to, "Why is House Corvus cursed?")
The sages inspect the thing, and determine that it is, indeed, the source of the curse. Another of the Knights (a fellow player), cynically suspecting treachery on my part, narrates, "Sir Fornax moved the curse-lizard from the courtyard of his own House into ours. He means to push his own line's barrenness onto the Corvus clan!" Ha, well, I didn't challenge this assertion using any Key Phrases, and decided it was just too awesome a twist to turn down.

Goal? I will pick the worst (best?) possible moment for my quest to conflict with yours, so as to achieve delicious drama.
Actual play example: [game: Exalted][my character: an Abyssal (a champion of death) who truly believes in the purifying power of Oblivion] My master, a Deathlord, is uninterested in anything but his own consolidation of power. When this means fighting other Abyssals instead of banding together to spread our dark power, I rebel, flee the Deathlords, and throw myself on the mercy of the Solars (champions of the sun, my people's implacable foes) rather than serve a lord without integrity.

Note - Exalted lacked any direct means via the rules (explanatory text about background and setting is not "rules" in the normal sense) for me to address theme in the way that I wished. On the other hand, if goals/relationships are not tied closely to the game system in some way (explicitly, or emergent in play), it can be tough to find your "way in" to that. My character was pretty crappy with the dice rolls in this last example, so really the only recourse I had was in my allegiances, not my actions, in play. I wasn't blocked from exploring Theme all on my own, but it would have been a lot more satisfying if character creation had gotten other players thinking in this direction, too.

Bottom line: rules can't stop you from playing as you wish, but if you follow them, they sure can help with a particular style. You can tell pretty quickly (during character creation, maybe; definitely in play) whether the game is working with you or against you. Is the game too creatively demanding for your tastes? Does it get lost in the "fluff" instead of who wins and who loses? Is it too creatively constraining? Lots of things can go wrong; playing a game that seems to "get" your style is an extra-awesome experience.

Friday, November 4, 2011

tales of Apocalypse World: Red Front

I used to think that a couple of my AW players were being really passive in our game, but I was reading this thread about passive players, and it occurred to me:

- my players seek to avoid conflict, yeah, but they're doing it because it's true to their characters. It's kind of impressive: the tunnel-rat Gunlugger only leaves his hidey-hole if anyone bothers him, and if they do, he shoots them dead with his 4-harm high-powered rifle. The Angel, who wears a scramble suit and does hir doctor's rounds for the town every single morning, wants absolutely no trouble or discord with anyone, ever. Zhe makes no enemies, holds no grudges...
In short, they're both a real test of my ability to tease out scarcities that matter (so there's conflict), but it could be a lot worse: they could decide that I'm trying to give them "cues", and then they would try to follow them.

It actually came up kind of directly, the other night: Rue the Gunlugger's player, John, joked that obviously Boo the Angel should follow the biker gang to the local warlord's citadel, because, "It's the RPG thing to do, right? Go check out the big city, you know, explore a little?" Still, he did mean it in jest, and when Boo's player, Valery, just laughed and carried on trying to avoid any conflict with the townspeople, it was clear that she felt no such pressure, or at least was resolute enough to ignore it.

I love playing with people who don't have mainstream-RPG baggage ^___^