Thursday, January 26, 2006

What are the 'Power 19' ? pt 2

Prerequisite: read Power 19 part 1.

Okay, so you’ve answered the Power 19. Now what? Excellent question and one I am now ready to explore. First, let’s look at some threads on the Forge that are actively using the Power 19.

Smithy’s Game
Darren’s Game
Jaoa’s Game

If you look through each of the initial posts in these threads, they all have one thing in common: They don’t ask for specific feedback! The “Power 19” is a design tool. It can lead discussion, but that discussion needs to be focused. And the author of the thread (whether on the Forge or at RPGnet) needs to highlight which portions of the Power 19 he wants feedback and scrutiny on. Just expecting people to read your answers and infer from that what needs help is an expectation that will be disappointed every time. But to better understand how to do this, it’s best to understand what it is that the Power 19 actually do. Look at the first question:

“What is your game about?”: That’s the concept of your game. It’s not asking for ANY mechanical details of your game. It’s not wanting details about the resolution system, strength stats, XPs, and all that jazz. It wants to know what the concept of your game is. So, this question really speaks to what is the first part of game design- the concept stage. Check out the next two:

“What do the characters do/What do the players do?” These questions ask about what playing the game is like. Still no mechanics, just what playing looks like. Once you have a concept of what your game will be about, it’s good to have a concept of what experience the players will have while engaging your design. These questions are really the second step of game design. 1st is concept, 2nd is activities.

Questions 4 and 5 (see Power 19 pt. 1) address two major components of an RPG- Character and Setting. I put Setting first, but order isn’t important. Different people work in different ways. The important thing is that the Setting fits the Characters and the Characters fit in the Setting. Don’t make a detective game set in Victorian London where all the characters are kung-fu masters. That seems kind of obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of designs meant to be about inter-character relationships and how they grow that spent tons of time detailing with how characters can break things and kill people (IE Combat). If what the game is about and the Setting you’re making for it aren’t going to provide the characters an opportunity to use an ability (say combat or magic or kung-fu) then don’t make that a part of your Chargen. A game does NOT have to have characters capable of fighting or using magic or being diplomatic to be fun. The Characters and Setting should both point back to your answer in #1.

Questions 6-9 ask you to elaborate on questions 2 and 3. You know what the characters and players will be doing. You know where they’ll be doing it (Setting) and you know how they’ll get there (Chargen). So now it’s time to go to the next step. That Step: Rewards and Engagement. Rewards are a key facet of game design. I could probably write a whole ‘nother article (and probably should) on Rewards/Reinforcement. Briefly, Rewards are the fuel that powers the rest of your design. It’s that carrot and sometimes it’s that stick that leads the participants to advance the game. In DnD, it’s XP. In Dogs in the Vineyard it’s Fallout. In Cutthroat it’s Status Modifiers. Rewards are the part of the game that makes the players want to continue playing. Read this article for more details.

Engagement is a bit trickier. At least for me it is. This is the part of the game that holds the player’s attention between Rewards. Often, that is narration and setting up conflicts. In DnD, it’s combat. Rolling the dice and fighting orcs is way fun, especially when you can use your kewl powerz. In Cutthroat, it’s the Raids. In Dogs, it’s exploring the Town. This part of game design definitely takes playtesting and requires a lot of thought.

Okay, after you’ve got how you make characters, play characters, and explore the setting of your game, it’s time to start getting down to the nuts and bolts. Resolution is on the docket for questions 10 and 11. There’s a million ways to do it, so if you’re looking for the right or best way here, you’re going to be disappointed. What those questions really want are two things: a brief explanation of the dice (or card or narration) mechanic of your game and how that enhances your answer to #1. Yes, the Resolution system of your game should tie directly back to What your Game is About. Look at what Vincent said Dogs was about: “…It's about the problems small towns face, it's about sex and lying, and most of all it's about violence. What use is violence? What justifies violence? What are its consequences?” That last bit is the important part: Consequences. In DitV, your character will change- a lot. That’s the point. Check out the Resolution system: roll, if you win you get what you wanted, if you lose your character CHANGES! The dice rolling itself stresses what the game is about.

I’m not saying your game has to do it the same way. For instance, a good Resolution system for a Western game may involve Poker rules. A game where the number 8 is a significant number in Setting’s cosmology might have d8’s be the only dice rolled in the game. A game built on social standing, may give characters at different levels different sized dice to roll. Whatever you decide on, make sure that your Resolution system reminds players immediately what game is about.

Questions 12 and 13 deal with character advancement. You are really starting to build your game at this point. You’ve got the foundational elements: Concept and Play Behaviors. You have the initial bricks laid: Chargen, Setting, and Rewards. You have the process of resolving conflicts, tension, and tasks: Resolution. Now it’s time to add the top floors the players will go through as they play. This is Advancement.

One of the most common errors made when designing Character Advancement in games is that people tie it directly to numerical increases. Advancement means simply that characters change. It may be that they get closer to their Destiny. It may be that they gain a new relationship. It could be that they move up or down a social ladder. It doesn’t have to mean they get a higher score in the Combat skills. Which brings me to the second most common misconception about Character Advancement: “Characters must always get better at what they do.” That’s a bunch of crap. In games like DnD, Rolemaster, Vampire, and all the games based off them, yeah that’s what we see. But in games like Cutthroat and DitV, we see characters moving up and down in their proficiency all the time. Break loose of the bonds of tradition in your design. Don’t settle for the way things have always been done. Challenge the players. Make the game tough and memorable. And characters don’t always have to advance on a steady, upward scale.

The last four questions (16-19) deal with production and marketing of your game. They ask you to focus on what the best parts are, enhance/magnify them, and then set realistic goals for yourself. Just producing a free game on PDF is a fine production goal. Full-on book printing is good too, but be prepared to have to fight to get your game out there. Talk to Vincent, Ron, and Nate Peteresen. They know their stuff. Oh and check out This Thread for further info.

Okay, so looking back through this article about the Power 19, what can we learn about them? Holy crap! It’s the initial design process! Or at least it is for me. It starts out at the concept stage and draws you through the process of designing all the major parts of an RPG and ends in production. It’s not a checklist, it’s a chain of events. You complete the first question. Then go to the second. Using that info, you go to their third. Using the info from 1, 2, and 3, you answer #4. And so on. You compile each of the previous answers to answer the next question. None of them, NONE, exist in a vacuum. They are all inter-dependant.

So what do we do with them now? Answering them is the first part, but when you post your answers about your game, ask for specific feedback on specific parts of your game. Don’t just throw them out there and expect people to pick up on it. No. It’s your job to tell the readers of your post what you want out of that thread. They can’t read your mind. The Power 19 is a great tool, but it’s useless if it just sits there.

So are the Power 19 the end of it? Heh, no they are just the beginning. There’s at least that many questions again if not more that one has to answer for his or her design. Maybe I’ll write some more up some time. But for now, let’s talk about these. Is there any part that is unclear? Is it still uncertain what they were meant to do?



Monday, January 23, 2006

How do I Appeal to Youth?


Normally I don’t repost something that another person has written on their blog. First, I don’t want to steal their thunder or piggyback on their bandwagon. They deserve all the credit for what they created. Second, usually what I find is very interesting and useful to me, but not all that useful for the goals of this website. However, every now and then I’ll come across something that hits me right in the face and makes me go, “New designers NEED to know this!” I have just had such a cases.

Over on his blog “Deep in the Game” Chris makes an excellent post regarding how RPGs should appeal to youth, specifically young people of color in America. But I actually think that what he says appeals across race and across gender. Here are brief tenets he wrote on this:

1. Games should deal with things familiar to the players.

2. Games should acknowledge the power fantasies of youth.

3. Quicker to play, quicker to action

4. Your role [as the designer] in this [is to fade into the background so the kids can express themsevles in their play].

Don’t just read my summary here. Go read his Article and learn from it yourself. He is dead on when it comes to what younger people are looking for not just in games but all forms of expression and entertainment. If it’s not relevant to their life, feh, they won’t care about it. If it’s not something they make their own and express their individuality with, then they’ll take two looks and forget about it.

I’m not saying that you as the designer don’t have something important to say. Not at all. But the way you say your Important Thing will be different from the way a kid in Detroit will say it, which will be different from the way a kid in Birmingham will say it, which will be different from the way a kid in San Diego will say it.

“Pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit precedes destruction” is a universal truth and something that can be seen in every culture in the world. But the way it plays itself out in each culture is wildly different. That’s important to keep in mind when you design.

So what is all this stuff above boil down to? KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. That’s the first rule of writing. Know who you’re targeting with your game and know who you may potentially target. You won’t ever write a game that will appeal to everyone. If that idea is in your head, the sooner you get it out the better. There is no such thing as a Universal RPG! Use your target audience to your advantage and design a game that will appeal to them and empower them to express their own thoughts, ideas, dreams, and goals.

Chris closes with this: If you want to know why hiphop has taken such a hold on people, it's because it's a form of self expression that kids can do at the lunch table, on the bus, anywhere they go, and it automatically conforms to whatever they want to make of it. A freestyle cipher is identical to an improvised game, in terms of expression, input, and even stories at times. For [my gaming group], rhyming and roleplaying were not much different.




Thursday, January 19, 2006

What are the 'Power 19' ? pt 1

What are the ‘Power 19’ ?

Somewhere along the way between writing Cutthroat and writing Hierarchy, I hit on something. I had been working on my own design philosophy (a different thing from theory) when I really got hooked on The Big Three. But the more and more I explored those three questions, I realized they just didn’t go far enough. There’s a LOT more to a game than just what it’s about, what the characters do, and what the players do. What about the Setting? What about Rewards? What about the Color and Character Advancement? These things are only tacitly spoken of in The Big Three.

So what I set out to do was expand on them. I got some great advice from guys like Ralph Maza, Mike Holmes (who is an excellent resource for designers), Vincent Baker, and Tim Kleinert (of Mountain Witch fame). What I came up with was 9 “Power Questions” designers should ask themselves before and during their design process. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized those 9 were still not what I wanted. The 9 became 16, and then the 16 became 19. These 19 became the Power 19 and are what I use to guide my work. I have directly applied them to both Hierarchy and Standoff! And I definitely plan on using them in future designs.

This is the first of two posts I plan on making about the Power 19. This one basically introduces where they came from and what they are. The second post will go into more detail about them. And just for review, make sure you check out the Universal Disclaimer before reading these.

1.) What is your game about?**

2.) What do the characters do?**

3.) What do the players (including the GM if there is one) do?**

4.) How does your setting (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?

5.) How does the Character Creation of your game reinforce what your game is about?

6.) What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)?

7.) How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game?

8.) How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game?

9.) What does your game do to command the players' attention, engagement, and participation? (i.e. What does the game do to make them care?)

10.) What are the resolution mechanics of your game like?

11.) How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about?

12.) Do characters in your game advance? If so, how?

13.) How does the character advancement (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?

14.) What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players?

15.) What areas of your game receive extra attention and color? Why?

16.) Which part of your game are you most excited about or interested in? Why?

17.) Where does your game take the players that other games can’t, don’t, or won’t?

18.) What are your publishing goals for your game?

19.) Who is your target audience?

It is my sincerest hope that new designers find this list of questions and use them to help guide and review their designs. I know that my skills greatly improved after implementing this method. Now let it be said that the ‘Power 19’ is only one out of many methods of design. This one happens to suit my style, but it may not be for everyone. I will say this, though: It is better to have some method of design than to have none. Aimlessly prodding at a design with no clear focus on how you plan on addressing the various aspects of an RPG will, in all likelihood, lead to incoherence. It’s better to have some kind of plan to follow rather than just guessing.

If you are in the middle of a design, I encourage you to take this list and see how many you can answer. At the very least it will confirm what you are wanting to achieve and at the very most it will show you where you need to concentrate your efforts. I truly hope that this post and the follow up to it will be helpful to anyone who reads it.



**Denotes key question that should be answered/discussed first and foremost when designing a RPG.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Personal Update


An old friend of mine back from the Ember Twilight days wrote me an email. It was great to hear from him after about 6 months of not getting a word. He asked me how my new games were coming, so I told him about how I’m revising and playtesting and whatnot. While I was writing the reply, I figured it would be a good time to share with you guys how things are coming along.

-Cutthroat has had its second revision and a second playtest has been scheduled.

-Hierarchy has just had its first revision completed and a plan for playtesting is being formulated.

-Standoff! is now in the process of being revised which actually won’t take all that long.

-Preliminary covers for all three games have been designed and submitted.

All three should (crosses fingers for luck) be done in the next three to four months. I’m settled into married life now and this semester’s classes are easy to teach. So all is well in Socraticland. The next thing I really have to do is get my corporate website up. But I’ve already made some good contacts to make that happen. Expect movement on that in a couple weeks.



Thursday, January 12, 2006

What is Situation?


There are five main elements of an RPG as defined by Ron Edwards for exploration in a game: System, Character, Setting, Situation, and Color. Sometimes I think Player might be a sixth, but that’s another article for another time. When you’re designing your game, you must address ALL of these elements at some point in some way. While the rest of this article focuses on Situation, I want you to keep that in your mind at all times- a good design address all of these.

Situation gets tossed around a lot when it comes to designs, especially by newer guys like me, because it is something that is very noticeable when it is absent and something that is taken for granted when it is present. Let’s start with something that’s both a game and literature.

-What’s the Situation in Middle-earth? Well, there’s a darklord in Mordor looking for a ring that is in the possession of a hobbit in The Shire. Keep the terms Dark Lord, Mordor, Hobbit, Shire, and “is looking for” in your mind.

-Now something perhaps a little more familiar: What’s the Situation in Vampire: the Masquerade? Well, you’re a modern-day vampire who deals with politics and killing innocent people to sustain him/her self. Keep Modern-Day, Vampire, and “deals with” in your mind.

-And to use an Indie Game: What is the Situation in Dogs in the Vineyard? Well, you have these holy guys called Dogs who go from town to town to make just what was unjust. Keep Dogs, Town, and “Make Just” in your mind.

Okay, got all that? Let’s put it all together to see what we get. Let’s group Dark Lord, Hobbit, Vampire, and Dogs together in group A. Lets put Mordor, Shire, Modern-Day, and Towns in group B. Finally, lets put Is Looking For, Deals With, and Makes Just in group C. Group A is full of Characters. Group B is full of Settings. Group C is full of action. So what is Situation? It’s Characters acting in the Setting. (note the capital letters)

Uh, okay Troy, we’re not here for theory how does that mean anything? It’s like this. Think how boring Middle-earth would be if there was no darklord. Or how lame Vampire would have been without all the vampiric political intrigue. Or what a snoozefest Dogs would be if the Dogs never went to a town. They are all related, all connect- and in your game they should be too.

Character and Setting are components of Situation (all you radical theorists out there, this is a loose association). This means that every aspect of your character creation rules should directly relate that character to the Situation, or (in my opinion) it needs to be junked. Every portion of the Setting that doesn’t contribute to the Situation is unnecessary filler. My recommendation is to trash it or keep it very brief. Don’t distract the players with stuff that won’t ever come into play.
This is where we have to ask ourselves some tough questions. Start with character creation. Do you need 7 stats or will 3 do? Or will characters even need stats at all? Skills? Do you need a five page list of skills or perhaps just a few categories that the players fill in as the need arises? Do you need stuff like classes, equipment lists, and feats? And even better are questions like: How can I make Stats, Skills, Equipment, and so on enhance the Situation?

On to the Setting. Do you need a lot of techno-mumbo-jumbo that explains faster than light travel? Do you need to name every king in every country? How do all the nifty NPCs and magic artifacts relate to what the characters will actually do in the game?

If it’s not part of play, why is it part of your game? To address the Situation in your design, it helps to gear your Characters and your Setting to enhance what the characters and players will actually be doing in your game. You’ll find that your game will be a LOT more focused and the players are more likely to follow the rules as written.

For a followup on this idea, see Josh’s post "Sitch and Scene" on his blog.

I’ll close with a metaphor. Think of the elements of an RPG like this. Situation is what the players work with. Characters are the tools they use to do the work. The Setting is the workbench on which the players manipulate the Situation. Color is the decals that you add to the situation to make it cooler. And System is the blueprints you follow to engage working on the Situation.



Monday, January 09, 2006

What Should I Expect from My First Design?

To learn. Your first design is your chance to cut your teeth, explore the new world of game design and learn the ropes of all the game components that are there but you took for granted. Learning is the most valuable thing (way more than money) you can take away from it.

Your first design, no matter how many times to revise it, will be rough around the edges and mechanical in nature. That’s okay. Nobody expects you to nail a homerun on the first try. Some people have. Matt Snyder’s Dust Devils is a good example, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t meet with that sort of success. Game design is a skill that requires practice and patience to improve in.

Your goal for your first design should be to create something you’re happy with. Many people may attack your work. Many more may ignore it. Some will read it, play it, and offer feedback. Listen very, very closely to them. And it’s not so much what they say about your first game specifically, but about the mistakes and areas of growth you have. Your character creation may be weak or your rewards not effective enough. Listen to what they criticize, not just how they criticize it. Often, their words will have larger implications. View game design as a holistic process, not a series of steps and requirements.

Your first game is an experiment. It really is. Sometimes those experiments turn out great! Sometimes they blow up in your face (like mine did). The important thing is to watch the experiment as it runs its course. What ingredients worked for you? Which ones need tweaking? Which ones should you leave out the next time? If it exploded, why?

Some people will say that your first will be crap game. I don’t believe that’s the only inevitable outcome. What I do believe is that your next game will likely be better. And your game after that will be even better and so on. So what I’m saying is be realistic with yourself. Put everything you have into your first design. And if it doesn’t turn out like you had hoped, dust yourself off and get back at it again. Trust me, the inspiration will come.



Wednesday, January 04, 2006

What is 'Chargen' ?


Just a quick comment today. To me, there are few things worse than showing up somewhere, really wanting to participate, but not being able to simply because everyone around me is using jargon that I just don’t understand. The frequent use of “Chargen” on the Internet is a great example. It took me forever to learn what it meant, and surprisingly it’s not on the Provisional Glossary. As my blog is mainly there to appeal to nascent designers, I thought I’d tackle this word so they don’t have to stumble around trying to understand it for as long as I had to.

Chargen is a shortened way of saying, “Character Generation.” Most games call it Character Creation, but somewhere a long, long time ago someone coined this word and it has stuck. Basically, it refers to the process of creating any character in an RPG, usually but not always before actual play begins. Pretty simple, but I promise, there have been tons of people who’ve gone years seeing this word but never getting what it meant.

I hope that bringing it up here saves some consternation for newer designers like myself. I know I wish I had understood the word a lot sooner than I did. It would have saved me a good bit of grief, heh heh.



Monday, January 02, 2006

Is Play its own Reward?


Ah finally, back to questions. Almost thinking I had forgotten what this blog was supposed to be about, didn't ya? heh heh.

Anyay, this may be one of the hardest questions for a newbie designer who is also a long-time gamer to deal with. I mean, there’s not hardly a gamer out there who can’t point to at least one time he got together with his friends, donned the hat of an adventurer, and had a great time rolling dice and shooting the breeze with his buds. That’s very rewarding and very enjoyable play. So much so that they want to do it again. But is “play itself a reward?” That requires a bit more thought.

First, let’s examine what the term “Reward” means for this article. Unfortunately, the term itself isn’t defined in the Forge’s Provisional Glossary (it uses Reward System which to me is slightly different), so we’re going to use My Own definition for it. Why? Cause this is my blog (heh heh). I’m going to tag Reward as this: “Any part of System (usually a specific rules mechanic) that encourages and sustains a particular kind of behavior from the players and/or GM.” Basically, that’s all fancy talk for “what you get for doin’ what you do in the game.”

I find that examples are always helpful, so I’ll give a few. Designers out there, if I get it wrong for your game, please correct me here. In D&D the reward is XP. You kill monsters you get XP. Gold pieces could also be considered a reward (but for reasons I’m not going into right now, they don’t do all that much in-game for D&D). In Dogs in the Vineyard, the reward is Fallout. You raise the stakes in a conflict and suffer the consequences (good and bad) to get more proficient in those conflicts. In the Shadows of Yesterday the reward is XP. In Universalis, the rewards players earn are Coins.

Okay, so now that we hopefully have an equal footing on what a “Reward” is, let’s talk about play itself. When someone asks, “Is play itself a Reward?” they are really asking, “Does play encourage further play?” If the person asking is a designer, what he wants to know is if he designs a game that’s just fun to “be there” with, does he really need to add in things like XP, Drama Points, Fallout, and all their kin to further encourage the players to play and have fun? My response is this: if you design a game that is fun to play without using any mechanics to reinforce the behaviors that make it fun to play, then yes play is its own reward. BUT!!! Your game will still be lacking. Why? you may ask. Well, here we go.

I’m going to quote something from Ron Edwards oooooooold school but still brilliant essay “System Does Matter”:

--I have heard a certain notion about role-playing games repeated for almost 20 years. Here it is: "It doesn't really matter what system is used. A game is only as good as the people who play it, and any system can work given the right GM and players." My point? I flatly, entirely disagree.

"Whoa," you might say, "my GM Herbie can run anything. The game can suck, but he can toss out what he doesn't like and then it rocks." OK, fine. Herbie is talented. However, imagine how good he'd be if he didn't have to spend all that time culling the mechanics. (Recall here I'm talking about system, not source or story content material.) I'm suggesting a system is better insofar as, among other things, it doesn't waste Herbie's time. --
Alright, this quote is talking about system as a whole, but it applies to Rewards which are part of System. Yeah, your game is fun to play, and play will tend to perpetuate more play, but think of how much MORE fun and how much MORE play you can encourage by consciously and explicitly rewarding the key facets of your game that players will like. The players don’t have to work as hard figuring out what they might like about your game, they will instead be directed right to it. Not only will they be directed to it, but they will be given the tools to participate and improve at having fun play in your game. Make sense? I’ll explain some more.

Going out and whacking orcs with a big ole’ bastard sword is fun. I mean really. Violence is something we all find entertaining and exciting (well, most gamers do anyway). But what heightens that kind of fun in D&D is the fact you get XP and loot so you can whack even MORE orcs in even MORE fun, new, and exciting ways. Look at the reward systems in Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, and The Shadows of Yesterday and you’ll see that they all deepen the experience of the players with the game. They all create greater meaning and raise the stakes. They all directly target the parts of the game that are fun as hell and intensify them. And all those games are better for having Rewards. Ask the designers themselves if they believe they would have sold nearly as many copies as they have if the Rewards absent from the game. I promise they’d say no.

I’ll let you in on one last secret before I close: almost all games are fun to play and that fun-ness does and will encourage further play. By making the “play” your key reward system, you’re game will have an immensely hard time standing out and an even harder time attracting people to it. It doesn’t do anything the other games don’t already AND those other games have a double dose of fun because they Reward the right behaviors. For me and the advice I give, having Rewards of some kind (other than just play itself) in your RPG is as necessary as having characters. Your game will be severely lacking without them.

If you are working on designing your game, find which parts of your game are the most fun. Then find ways to make the players and their characters better at them or able to do them in more numerous, different, and exciting ways. Or better yet, find a way to reward the right behaviors in a way none of us have come up with yet. That would be really awesome.



Sunday, January 01, 2006

A New Year Dawns


Happy New Year everyone. I hope that you find success in it. Looks like this year will be stagnant in the Mainstream, so here's hoping that Indie games can continue to forge ahead and continue their recent successes.