Tuesday, April 07, 2015

What is a “Catch-Up” Mechanic?


Heya,

Every RPG, just about, has some kind of tactical situation.  A lot of people confuse “tactical” with “combat”, but that’s just wrong.  Tactics can be used in the political arena, historical arena, the emotional arena, or in lots of places I haven’t even thought of.  The point is, these games produce someone who is ahead and someone who is behind at some point during play.

We all know that’s true, so what then?  In many games, especially traditional games that were made prior to 2001, the usual method of resolving this imbalance was the person behind had to get extremely lucky to win or he just lost.  This was especially true of games that featured a Death Spiral.

But something has changed.  Games have developed a series of methods to help the player who is behind to regain an equal footing (and in some cases, surpass the player who was ahead).  I call these methods “Catch-Up” mechanics.

Catch-up mechanics have been around for ages, and they didn’t start with RPGs.  Think about the escalating scale for reinforcements when you turn in cards when playing Risk or about landing on Free Parking in many house-ruled games of Monopoly.  These mechanics are great because it decreases the frustration players feel once they get behind.  They know that there is a chance that they might land on the right space or draw the right card and turn the tables on their opponents.  But it’s just a chance, never a guarantee.

And that’s the important thing.  Catch-Up mechanics offer an opportunity to catch up, not a promise that you will.  So let’s look at some from some RPGs you may know:

Healing Surges in D&D 4e:  This mechanic lets a hero who is behind on hit points recoup some, most, or all of them (depending on what else is going on) during a fight.  The hero (or villain) who was near death is suddenly back to health and ready to continue combat.

Critical Hit system in Rolemaster: In Rolemaster, the slightest knick can kill.  During combat, if you score a hit, you deal damage AND inflict some type of critical wound.  Even a light hit causes a roll on a “Critical Table.”  Just about every level of critical (A-E back when I was playing) can kill if you roll high enough on your d100.  So, no matter how far you are behind in a fight, your next sword strike could drop your enemy.

Escalating in DitV: In Dogs in the Vineyard, Vincent created an “escalating” mechanic.  Let’s say your character starts an argument.  You roll some dice and they don’t roll in your favor.  So you escalate by hitting the guy.  In DiTV when you make that decision to use your fists you get a band new pool of dice to roll.  Let’s say you lose that roll too.  So you pull a knife.  When you pull that knife, you get a new pool of dice.  And so on.  Each time you escalate, you are given a new chance to win the conflict.  There are consequences for doing that, of course, but the escalating mechanic helps the player who’s behind catch up and get another shot at winning.

Catch-Up mechanics are great for games of all types.  Combat-centric games like D&D and Rolemaster benefit from them in the same way artsy-fartsy games like Dogs in the Vineyard benefit from them.  Giving the players a chance to win from a losing position keeps them engaged and can mitigate the effect of an unlucky roll or tactical misstep.  The important thing to remember, though, is the Catch-Up mechanic cannot guarantee victory.  It should never be an auto-win panic button.  It should just give the player a second shot at victory, and might even come at some kind of price.

Peace,

-Troy

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Relay the Message: Dyson's Dungeons Patreon

Heya,

Some of you may be creating games that use dungeons.  If so, you might check out Dyson Logos' Paetreon: http://www.patreon.com/dysonlogos?rf=49282

He creates some of the BEST dungeon maps out there, and he releases them on a Creative Commons license that allows you to use and modify the maps in your game, royalty free, as long as you attribute the original work to him.  That's pretty rad!  You can read up more about it here: http://www.patreon.com/dysonlogos?rf=49282

Artwork and dungeon designs can be very hard and/or expensive to get as a RPG designer.  This may be an avenue that works for you at a much lower cost.

Peace,

-Troy

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Who has final say?

Heya,

This is a more advanced theory topic than I usually deal with on Socratic Design, but in light of me coming to a deeper understanding about RPG play and RPG design, I feel I need to share this with my audience.

Within the last twelve months I have written articles about GM Fiat and The GoldenRule (aka Rule Zero).  I’m here, today, in this article to state that neither of these things actually exists.  GM Fiat and The Golden Rule (“the GM is always right”) exist only as a means to describe a phenomenon at only the most surface level.  The truth is, the GM cannot assert anything in any game without the group’s consent.

Now, that may sound absurd to some, heretical to others, but it is the truth.  Consider this: the GM in whatever FRPG you’re playing says, “Okay guys, you walk into the nearest tavern and a sorcerer kills all of you.”  That’s an excellent example of Fiat and/or The Golden Rule.  The GM made a decision and enacted it.  So what happens next?

Do the players go along with it?  Do they rebel and leave?  It doesn’t matter.  Either way, what the GM said doesn’t happen until the group agrees to it.  If they don’t say anything and start rolling up new characters, it means the group assented.  If they argue, “Hey, I never said I even went into town!” then the situation will not be resolved until the entire group-including the GM-agrees to what happened or the players get up and leave.  And if the players get up and leave, the situation is still up in the air because play ended.

See, the players and GM have a co-authorial relationship when play is happening.  Nothing the GM says becomes true until everyone agrees- either explicitly by saying “ok” or implicitly by not raising an objection.  Likewise, nothing a single player says becomes true unless the rest of the group (including the GM) agrees to it implicitly or explicitly.

GMs who think they have all the power in a game are sorely mistaken.  They must still get approval from the players at every step of the way in order for play to continue.  If they don’t, play stops until group consensus is reached or everyone quits.  The players, therefore, have just as much control over what happens as the GM.

Now, it may not always appear that way.  It may appear that the players are allowing the GM to railroad them into whatever direction the GM wants.  Or the GM may be using subtle social manipulation to nullify the choices made by the players.  But those are just illusions.  Nothing happens during play unless the whole group agrees to it or, at the very least, fails to object (implicit agreement).

So what does this have to do with design?  Well, if a designer understands that this dynamic is already in play, then he or she can take advantage of it rather than fight against it.  Instead of trying to create rules that help a GM keep the players “on track,” the designer can create rules that aid and facilitate group consensus.  This way, play moves along at an orderly pace, there are fewer arguments and hurt feelings.  I.E. you avoid making a game where the 20:4 ratio is the default mode of play.

Peace,


-Troy

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Meeting at the Inn - A Lament

Heya,

How many of you started some RPG campaign of any genre by meeting a group of people in an inn, bar, tavern, or Mos Eisley Cantina?  Raise your hand, because you know we've all done it.  How good was it?  Yeah, it pretty much sucked.  I don't think I've ever heard someone say, "And it was so awesome how we all started as characters who didn't know each other sitting around a table at a tavern when..."

Part of the reason this motif gets eye-rolls is because it's SO contrived with nothing supporting the players.  Why would strangers be loyal to each other?  Or if they knew each other, why didn't the motivation for the campaign arise from their shared experiences and history?  Why are the characters suddenly risking their lives on a tip taken from one of the least reputable places in any town?

Another reason it usually stinks on ice is that the people in the tavern or inn are transient.  They aren't staying in one place, even the barkeep and stereotypical barmaids are easily replaced.  Hence, there's nothing for the players to ever really come back to for validation, help, or enrichment.  The tavern little more than a springboard and then forgotten, at least in my experience and in all the anecdotes I've ever heard.  It's sad how the tavern where the adventure began becomes so astonishingly unimportant to the action later on.

I would like to see someone take this tired, lifeless old trope and really make it good.  I've played a few modules that tried (like Return to the Tomb of Horrors), but none did a very good job.  I lament the tavern meeting for this: it is usually so unsatisfying that it leaves a blotch on the memories of those who have played using it, and I want people to have the best experience they can playing RPGs.

So, if you have some great tavern stories OR a theory on how to improve ye olde tavern campaign kickoff, I'd love to read about it in the comments! :)

Peace,

-Troy

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What is TPK?


Heya,

Short one this time around.  I hate gamer-talk sometimes.  We develop our own jargon that we assume everyone gets but really just creates a taller barrier to entry to new people into the hobby.  If you’re reading this entry, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you typed, “What’s a TPK” into Google after seeing it on a post at RPGnet or something.  I’m here for ya.

TPK is an acronym for Total Party Kill.  It’s simply when everyone in an adventuring party (usually a traditional fantasy, sci-fi, or horror RPG) ends up dead after an encounter.  It could be because of player error, GM error, a combination of both, or some really bad luck on the dice.  It happens. 

Anyway, I’m defining this here because I plan on using this jargon (and linking back to this post) in a future entry and just want to have my bases covered.
Peace,

-Troy

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Relay the Message: Early Fall Kickstarters

Heya guy,

Hope you are having a good harvest season.  There's a pretty good crop of Kickstarters I'm following, and I thought I'd share them with you.

First, we have Warlocks.  I'm usually more of a tabletop guy, but I'm getting more and more interested in video game design as that medium gets more and more democratized like RPG publishing did in the early 2000's.  This game is a pretty cool fighting game with old-school pixilated graphics.  If that's your sort of thing, I encourage you to give it a look.

Next, I submit Smoke and Glass by Shoshana Kessok.  It's a SteamPunk setting for Fate Core.  I still haven't got my SteamPunk itch scratched by a game yet.  I'm still looking for something I can't put my finger on.  S&G looks pretty cool, so if you're like me at all, you can check it out. :)

Finally, we have Broken World which is powered by the Appocalypse.  I've enjoyed other AW spin-offs like Dungeon World.  If that system is your thing, check this game out!

Peace,

-Troy

Thursday, September 04, 2014

What Do I Do if I Find Myself Designing a Heartbreaker?


Heya,

Back in the saddle after a nice long summer break.  I hope all of you are well.  It’s good to have you back at Socratic Design!

This blog entry was inspired by THIS THREAD.   Back when that thread was active, I just did not have the time to sit down and write the kind of response I really wanted.  I was swamped.  If I had said anything, it would have just been something dismissive or insensitive to the OP, and that’s not something I wanted to do.

For context, I highly recommend you read my oooooooooooold article from 2006, What is a Heartbreaker?

I’m not going to critique Xarcell’s design in this entry.  I think the folks on Story-Games did a pretty thorough job of explaining the potential problems, challenges, and reception Xarcell could expect.  Instead, I’m going to try to offer some advice to him (any anyone) who wants to still drive ahead and publish their D&D-like Medieval Fantasy game. 

To begin, let me say I’ve been there.  I’ve done it.  My first published RPG was a Fantasy Heartbreaker in every single definition.  My friends and I spend years creating a derivative of Rolemaster.  We spend thousands printing up books.  And we sold probably less than a thousand.  So I’m not some ivory tower dude passing my judgment down on the great unwashed.  I’ve lived it.  It’s not pleasant.

But if we’re going to go ahead with it anyway, what should we do?  There are five things I think a person should do if they are going to publish a Fantasy (or Sci-Fi or Vampire or Cthullu or whatever) Heartbreaker. 

1.Play it!  If you’re not playing it when you go to start the publishing process, then I personally think you’re doing it wrong.  You must stay in touch with what makes the game fun.  You must still be excited about it.  People get excited about things other people are excited about.  If the game isn’t still worth your time, how can it be worth theirs?  Also, continuing to play will improve the game quality, and you’re going to need the quality to be as high as possible.

2.Put it up for free first.  You need to get the game out there somehow, even if it’s just a plain text or PDF version.  1km1kt will host your file for free, and it doesn’t require any special accounts or logins for people who want to get your game.  It’s easy and easy is good.  There are plenty of other sites who will also do it, but that’s just the one I like.  You need your game on the Internet for free because you’re going to have to do a lot of ground work to make this thing successful.  You’ll need to be able to give everyone who hears about your game a frame of reference.  A free copy does that, and it creates  a good feeling in those whom you contact.  If you’re willing to give the text version away for free, it must mean you’re confident in the quality of your game.

3.Build up a community.  The first two points are easy.  This is where things get a little harder.  You need to get people involved in your game.  You need a community who is anticipating your game’s release and is excited about it.  It may be tempting to go find a way to host some free phpBB forum and try to get people to come there to talk about your game.  That is almost certainly going to end in disaster.  Messageboards require a lot of activity and a lot of participants to be truly successful.  A Heartbreaker game just isn’t going to generate that much interest at the start.  Instead, I recommend starting a blog, Facebook page or G+ account for your game.   Start liking, friending, circling, and linking other people.  Create lots of entries on your blog/Facebook/G+ about your game INCLUDING actual play reports.  Be excited and promote other people’s games on it as well.  It’ll make you feel good for helping others and it may encourage others to link your game on their social media site.  That’s what you need.  Building a network and a community where people can come, read, and easily comment on your work.  Just make sure you get the people playing the game with you from Step 1 posting and commenting as well. 

4.Try a Kickstarter.  Kickstarter is great because not only does it get funds to ideas the market wants, it denies funds to ideas the market doesn’t want.  Once you’ve laid the ground work for your game by posting it for free and building up a community, it’s time to see if the market wants your game or not.  I can’t tell you what your goal should be.  You have to decide based on how much the cover will cost, how much the interior art will cost, how much your time on it has been worth, and whether or not you’ll offer a print version.  If I were going to do a Kickstarter for The Holmes and Watson Committee today, I’d probably set the Kickstarter goal at $1,000 to get a new cover, new art, and maybe a map of Victorian London.  But every person is different, and every game has its own needs.  If the first Kickstart fails, you can try a second a few months later.  If a second campaign fails, the market is telling you that your game is A) best left as a free game on the ‘net or B) needs a lot more work.

5.Finally, even with a successful Kickstarter it’s important not to keep sinking your own money into the game.  More money does not equal more success.  Vincent Baker made a great post on what to do with a game once it’s published.  Continue steps 1 and 3.  That will drive future sales of your game (if continuing sales are something you want).  But whatever you do, do not sink thousands of dollars promoting or selling your game.   Do what you can for free and let the sales grow organically. 

Well, that’s the best advice I can offer.  Avoid using your own money as much as possible.  Stay excited about your game.  Help promote other people’s games.  And build up a community before going to Kickstarter.  If you do these things, there’s a chance (just a chance) that your game will be a successful business venture.

Peace,

-Troy