Tuesday, August 29, 2006

When is a Concept Ready to be a Draft?


As I get ready to make an official announcement about how I’m going to sell my games, I’ve been wanting to stockpile a lot of different game concepts. Of all the steps in RPG Design, this is BY FAR the easiest. So let me preface this article by saying that having a game concept doesn’t really mean all that much. Practically everyone who plays RPGs has a game concept of some kind.

Okay, so what is the article really about then? Well it’s about knowing when your concept is fleshed out enough to move on to actually writing down a coherent version your game. Everyone is a little different, but for me I have a checklist. I call it my “Systems Design Checklist.” What I do is break my game concept up into seven distinct parts (or systems). Think of it like the systems checks that NASA does before they clear a space shuttle for liftoff. If I don’t have each of these systems in place, the concept stays in my notebook. If I do, it’s off to my keyboard. So what are these ‘systems’ I’m talking about? I have a checklist provided below if you’d like to copy and paste that, but for now I would like to describe each individual system in some detail.

System #1- The Play System: This system basically answers the question “What do the players do?” It covers items like scene framing, narration rights, procedures for entering ideas and actions to the shared imagined space where in-game events take place, stakes setting, and stuff like that. In essence, it’s the rules for talking. The play system spells out who gets to say what about what things, when they get to say it, and how far that power goes. This tends to be fairly free form in a lot of games, and that’s totally fine. However, some games ritualize this a great deal (e.g. Polaris).

System #2- The Character System: The character system covers two aspects of character. That is both the creation of characters and their components. This system answers the questions, “What does it take to make a character?” “What resources does the character provide its main player?” and “What resources does it provide all the other players/GM?” Character is one half of the components that go into Situation. So the character system should include arenas of conflict (since conflict is what drives the Situation). Usually arenas of conflict will be tied to a characters stats, personal history, or abilities. When designing my character systems, I make sure I have plenty of built-in arenas of conflict for the player to explore. However, it’s not just the character’s primary player that matters. All the other players, especially the GM if there is one, will be interacting with that character. So the arenas of conflict need to be made available to them as well in order to facilitate collaborative storytelling. When creating your character system, think about what parts of the character can other players (including the GM) use to springboard action? If you want to break it down, I believe the character system consists of three main parts:
1. Process of Creation
2. Main/Primary Player Resources
3. Other Player/GM Resources

System #3- The Resolution System: There are two main types of resolution: Task and Conflict. Each one of those can be broken down into styles: Drama, Fortune, and Karma. I’m not going into any sort of detail about those right now. Check the Provisional Glossary if you’d like to learn more about them. What I am going to talk about is what a resolution system accomplishes for a game. Mainly, it answers the questions, “Where is the element of chance?” “How can disputes between characters be mediated?” and “How are the outcomes of task or conflicts decided?” This can bleed over a little bit into the Play System. But that’s fine! All parts of a game should be related to each other in some form or fashion. When should a Resolution system be engaged? Answer: any time there is a dispute or conflict of interests between characters and/or players in the game that cannot be resolved by talking it out. Vincent’s, “Say yes or roll dice” seems a very appropriate answer to that question.

System #4- The Endgame System: An endgame system is very optional in an RPG design. A majority of games don’t have them, but some do. It answers the questions, “What is the final objective of the game?” “How does the character’s story end?” or “When does play stop?” Not every game needs and endgame. I happen to like designing with them because it helps me conceive of what a session or campaign (for lack of a better word) should look like, what I want the players to do, and the product I want the game to produce. For me, it is a device that helps drive the action to a climax. You may find that you don’t need one, but I encourage anyone working on an RPG to consider just how the game will end and if there is a way to mechanically support that ending that would enhance the experience.

System #5- The Reward System: Or really, the “Reinforcement System.” This system answers the questions, “How do I encourage the kind of actions and behaviors I want and discourage the kinds of actions and behaviors I believe are detrimental to play?” “What mechanical rewards do the characters receive?” and/or “What mechanical rewards do the players receive?” The best way, IMO, to break up rewards is to split them into two- Character Rewards and Player Rewards. It’s very important to understand the difference between the two. Heh, that’s probably a whole ‘nother article in and of itself. But anyway, examples of player rewards would be things like narration rights, plot tokens, or spotlight time. Examples of character rewards include experience points, relationships, and improved proficiencies. Not every RPG will have both kinds, but it is important to consider whether or not your game should. Remember the reinforcement system is the main tool you, the designer, have at your disposal to help the people playing the game to get as much out of it as possible. A weak rewards system will likely result in a weak play experience.

System #6- The Setting System: Setting is the second component of Situation. Where the action takes place has a great bearing on what sorts of conflicts (and by extension Situations) you can have. Creating your game’s setting is therefore, critical. The setting system answers “Where & when does the action take place.” “What is the geographical context and and/or social context for the game?” or “What parts of the fictional world do the players *not* have to worry about?” My games tend to be setting lite, but that’s not necessarily the way to go. Each game will be different. You’ll have to decide. In any case, the “setting system” can be represented in several ways. First, the setting can be predetermined. For instance, White Wolf has World of Darkness. Second, a setting can be hinted at in the text and then left up to the players to fill in as they go. Example: InSpectres. Finally, a game’s setting can be generated on the spot through play and discussion among the players like in Prime Time Adventures or Unversalis. It is important to know how your Setting System influences the Situation of your game. Providing a context for the conflict and action of the game is the main job of setting.

System #7- The Responsibility System: This system is the one you’d probably think about the least. It is the system that decides who does what in the game. For instance, it doles out whose job it is to decide when the Resolution System kicks in or when the Reward System kicks in. It decides which and how many characters each player will be in charge of. The Responsibility system is basically the job list of your game and procedures for deciding who is going to be in charge of what. Does your game have a GM? Does your game allow anyone to introduce conflicts? Does your game force each participant to portray a character? Basically, the responsibility system answers the questions, “What is everyone’s job?” or “What is each participant in charge of?” Sometimes various responsibilities will overlap. Sometimes they wont. Sometimes this will overlap with the Play System. Sometimes it won't. But whatever you decide, your game concept needs to make it clear who is going to be doing what during the game and what tools/mechanics/game pieces they will be able to use to accomplish their charge.

It doesn’t matter in what order you tackle these systems. I just sketch them out as the inspiration arrives. I put them in this order for this article as I found them in my notebook. So don’t feel like I’m prescribing a certain order of conceptualizing. I’m not. All I am doing is suggesting something to you that might be helpful since I have found it helpful to me.

So in conclusion, basically this is the method I use to determine whether or not a concept is worth taking to the next level: the drafting level. Drafting is probably another article for the future, but I feel that if I can have something - some idea - to drop into each of these seven slots, then I feel I have a game worth transferring from the scribbles in my notebook to a coherent document on my computer. You may have more systems or you may have fewer. But I would say that having some kind of method that determines when a concept is worth pursuing and when a concept is wasting your time is a valuable and time saving device.

::System Design Checklist::

O The Play System
O The Character System
O The Resolution System
O The Endgame System
O The Reward System
O The Setting System
O The Responsibility System



Monday, August 21, 2006

Which is Better: Hit Points or DPS?


Like last week’s, this post may actually be more applicable to playing RPGs than Designing, but I feel there is something to learn on both fronts here. Anyway, I was thinking about RPGs and the RPG market the other day. Depending on who you ask, the market ranges from “Never better!” to “A nuclear wasteland littered with the corpses of dead companies.” Either way you believe, there can be no doubt that RPGs are facing some competition. But this competition comes not from CCGs or Minatures or Boardgames. It comes from MMORPGs (Massive-mulitplayer Online Roleplaying Games). Games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and DnD Online. I know Mike Mearls has talked about these things once or twice, but I thought I would add my observations.

To me, there is something very important MMORPGs can teach us. First, people don’t need to be sitting in the same room to enjoy an RPG. I salute Code of Unaris for recognizing this and making that a centerpiece in its design. Second, is that games with a Gamist slant (which include MMOGs), hit points are a character’s key feature. They are far more important than DPS (damage per second or how much damage characters can do per round) and the breadth of his repertoire of spells or abilities. This is true for both online games and for tabletop games.

I generally prefer Gamist style games and really look for the best strategy in situations, especially combat. When I examined all the resources available to me during combat in Gamist-leaning games, I came to a conclusion: Hit Points are the most key resource. Not to my surprise, this was backed up by Jonathan Tweet in this article.

In essence, you can really boil combat down to this statement: “You run out of hit points, you lose; your opponent runs out, you win.” Speaking in absolute terms (ignore retreat, capture, etc) that’s the bottom line for victory in combat- the winner is the guy who ends up not running out of hit points.

Victory does not go to who deals out the most damage. That may seem odd, but you have to take the victory conditions into account. You can dose out insane amounts of damage each round in a game, but if you can’t get your opponent’s hit points to zero, you will lose. If your opponent starts out with more hit points than you, can heal himself, pick up extra hit points, or reduce your net damage, then your DPS won’t matter. He has ways to counter it.

So what does that mean? Well, if you’re designing a game where combat is strategic, violent death is a likely outcome, and hit points or something equivalent is involved, be mindful of how you design other aspects of your game. A lot of things that typically go along with hit points such as healing, damage spells, character enhancements (buffs and enchantments), and equipment can inadvertently and radically affect how victory is decided.

Take for instance healing spells. In my mind, these are very powerful spells. They prolong a fight, in fact they can prove the clincher. Even if you only got 1d8 hit points per spell like back in DnD, it made a major impact on the game. If your opponent doesn’t have access to the same spells, the impact is even greater. This is why, if you ask anyone who has played a game like oh say EverQuest 1, clerics are the most vital class to have. They are not the ones who kill the bad guy, they are just the ones who make sure the good guys don’t lose.

So now what? Heh, if you are playing a game where combat and hit points are important, look for feats, skills, and rules that help you not lose hit points. Things like cover, armor, spells and so forth that grant additional defense or hit points should be high on your tactics list. Things like weapon enhancements, fireball, criticals, and so on should be farther down. From my experience, it is better to have strategies to not lose a fight than it is to have strategies to win a fight.

From a design standpoint, designers should think carefully about how you want combat to begin and end and how long you want it to last. The more hit points (or wounds or whatever) a character can amass, the longer an instance of combat will take. Especially if the characters have access to hit point saving strategies like healing, buffs, armor, etc.



Friday, August 18, 2006

Monday, August 14, 2006

What is a GM?


What’s a GM??? Even for Socratic Design, isn’t that a little basic? Heh, maybe. This article might be more useful for players rather than designers. We’ll have to see. But over the years I’ve been roleplaying, I have heard the GM defined as many things. The GM is God. The GM is a moderator for the action. The GM is the one who tells the story. The GM is a game referee. The GM is the final authority. The GM is the opponent. All these things have been said and applied in games at one time or another, but from a design perspective, they aren’t all that helpful. So let’s look at what I believe a GM really is.

First and foremost, the GM is still a player. He is a participant in the game just like everyone else. I think this concept is sometimes lost on people, especially new designers. The guy behind the DM screen still wants essentially the same thing as the guy portraying the half-orc barbarian. He’s there to have fun and use the system to kick ass. So one thing designers need to keep in mind, if they plan to include a GM in their game, is that the GM really is on equal footing as all the other participants. He’s there to explore the game elements, have fun, portray characters, and socialize with his friends. He’s not a mystical entity behind a curtain with smoke and thunder surrounding him.

Second, the role of the GM boils down to responsibility, specifically the degree of responsibility a game thrusts upon him. All participants in a game have certain responsibilities dictated to them by the game. For players it is generally their job to portray one or more characters. GMs, however, are usually responsible for handling everything else. That’s a lot. But in recent years, this has started to change somewhat.

Imagine, if you will, a spectrum. On one side you have a game like Dungeons and Dragons. Players play one character that is strictly defined by class and race. The GM creates the setting, NPCs (both enemies and allies), and challenges the player-characters will face. The players have a very limited amount of responsibility, while the GM has a very expansive amount of responsibility. Moving over slightly you have a game like Ars Magica. In this game, players might portray many characters- especially allies of their main character. The GM still creates a lot of the setting, NPCs, and challenges, but player input in much more encouraged and even supported somewhat with mechanics. Next over you might have a game like Dogs in the Vineyard. Here, the GM is responsible for creating a town, its people, and a Situation. However, it is then up to the players to decide how all that relates to each other. It is the players that tend to drive the action while the GM rolls dice in opposition. At this point, the responsibility of the players and the responsibility of the GM are about equal, IMO. Finally at the opposite end of the spectrum is InSpectres. In this game, it is almost totally up to the players to decide what parts of the setting will be explored, who/what the monsters are, and how the whole thing ends up. The GMs role is pretty much just to react to what the players do. Most of the responsibility is lifted from his shoulders as the players are most definitely in charge. There’s a million games in between and beyond even those, but when you envision what a session of your game will be like (if your game has a GM) think about how much you want the GM to be responsible for.

Third, the GM is the pace setter for the game. Often, it is the GM who starts a scene and who declares a scene over. This is often called “Scene Framing.” It’s up to the GM how fast or slow a particular set events take. This is where a GM has to be very responsive to the players. He has to gage what the players want to get out of a particular scene and how much they are enjoying it. Sometimes a scene will last a few minutes in real time but encompass hours or days in the game’s imaginary time and vice-versa. Designers need to consider this role of the GM. What tools do you give a GM to create, explore, and end a scene? Is it his sole discretion? Is that authority shared with the players in any way?

So in the end, what have we got? The GM is a player first, he’s endowed with certain and specific responsibilities, and he is the pace setter for the game. Every GM in every game will be slightly different. Examine the GMs you’ve had in the past. What made them great? What made them suck? For your game, what would the ideal GM do? How much responsibility and credibility are you going to give him (or deny him)? What tools and aids are you going to create so he can do his job? Finally, what makes your game fun for him?



Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Socratic Design Anthology #2


So I’m working getting back to a regular posting schedule. Things are coming along well now, and soon the hectic pressure of school starting up again will be behind me. Anyway, to tide everyone over I’m releasing the second anthology of posts on this blog. If you haven’t read the First Anthology, go back and look it over. It’ll give you good context for this one. Anyway, expect a new, original post in the next week or two.

Anthology #2

What is the ‘Alt 3’ ?
When Should a Character Die?
What is a Death Spiral?
Does Setting Still Matter?
How Can Magic Be Used in an RPG?
Where Can I get Art for My Game?
What is Troy’s 12 Step Process?
Another Process.
Yet Another Process.