Thursday, September 28, 2006

Is Min-Maxing Bad?


For a while now, there’s been talk goin’ round that Min-Maxing isn’t a bad thing; that players are just choosing the optimal strategy and finding a niche for their characters. Those that say this do have a point. You can’t hardly blame a person for wanting their character to rock! They’re just doing what the rules allow. However, the full-on supporters of Min-Maxing might have a narrow point of view. In truth, I see three legitimate PoV’s on this: Min-Maxing isn’t bad, Min-Maxing might be bad, and Min-Maxing is bad. I’ll explain.

Let’s take “it isn’t bad” first. Min-Maxing is a strategy. Period. In fact, I’d say it’s a very obvious and natural strategy. Minimizing resources allocated to character components (skills, stats, advantages, whatever) that will seldom see use and/or character components that have drawbacks or flaws of some kind is sensible. Likewise, maximizing resources allocated to components that will see a great deal of use and/or components that provide advantages and bonuses is very logical. It’s almost a kind of “Duh!” moment, if you will. Whether it is during character creation (Chargen) or advancement, Min-Maxing is indeed a legitimate and probably beneficial strategy. Thankfully, those that decry it as a bad way to play are dwindling, however they are not gone completely. Which brings me to why Min-Maxing might be bad.

There are people and play groups that feel that Min-Maxing is bad play or that it’s not very sporting. They feel that the strategy undermines both the spirit of the game and the spirit of the group. It is in this circumstance that Min-Maxing might be bad. More important than good strategy is the Social Contract a group has set up (consciously or unconsciously). If Min-Maxing violates that contract, then if becomes bad play.

So what does one do in this situation? As I see it, there are three options. First, is to open a dialogue and work out a mutual compromise everyone can agree to. Come up with a solution that makes the entire group comfortable, so play and enjoyment can resume. Second, is to conform to the group’s Social Contract. Sometimes one has to sacrifice one’s own preferred style of play for the good of the group and the opportunity for having fun. Finally, one can simply leave the group. If a compromise cannot be found and there is no willingness to conform to each other’s style in either party, then perhaps it is a good time to bid farewell and find a group that better matches that style. Staying in a contentious situation ruins everyone’s fun. Each person will have to decide on their own.

Now for an instance where Min-Maxing is bad (IMHO). I submit that any game where Min-Maxing is the dominant strategy either during Chargen or Character Advancement, that game needs revision. Min-Maxing is one legitimate strategy in play, not the only legitimate strategy. If a design funnels characters into tight Min-Maxed boxes, then I believe the designer has come up short. He has left open a lot of room where he can design far more interesting strategies in his game. Especially if a game focuses on strategic use of character components, Min-Maxing as the dominate strategy is horrible. That’s not really strategic at all. It’s just following the only real path presented by the rules. Others may disagree, that’s fine. But I honestly don’t believe those kinds of game have the potential to produce as much fun as games with multiple and varied strategies. There’s a lot more out there than Min-Maxing.

So to sum up, Min-Maxing is a legitimate strategy. However, players should be mindful of the Social Contract of their group and designers should be mindful of incorporating other strategies in their games. Just because it is legitimate, doesn’t automatically make it good.



Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Design Journal: Saviours


As mentioned back HERE, I am working on a new RPG for my quarterly release called Saviours. I’ve written of Big Three on them and added in answers that respond to two questions raised by Ron and Vincent in THESE videos.

What this Game is About:

Saviours is about superheroes with super flaws. It’s about being powerful and being tragic. Though you save the populous of Ultraopolis time after time, they will turn on you in a second. Though you defeat your nemesis time and time again, there’s always another to take his place. You are powerful, no doubt. You have saved thousands, for sure. But the constant demands of the desperate citizens and the pressures from your enemies lean hard on your back and the temptation to turn against those who support you can look so gleaming at times. Society is doomed anyway, why hold on?

What the Characters Do:

Player-characters in Saviours are divided into two types: Heroes and Sidekicks. Heroes are faced with three main situations: Fight a Nemesis, Rescue your Beloved, or Avert a Disaster. Each of these carries potential benefits or costs to resolve. While doing nothing will certainly earn you the ire of your fans and your colleagues, doing something thrusts the temptation to abuse the great power bestowed upon the PCs. The Heroes must constantly balance gaining power with keeping control of themselves. Sidekicks are helpers to their mentor. They use their powers to augment that of the Hero’s. However, they are often the first to suffer the brunt of the Hero’s frustration and are sometimes forced to sacrifice themselves to save their leader.

What the Players Do:

Players in this game are charged with creating a Crises, how much help they will ask for while facing those Crises, and how much help they will give. They will have to closely manage the resources of their character(s) in order to defeat the obstacles that lay before them and to be sure none of them betray the Organization.

The Game Master in Saviours will provide the opposition to the players. He’ll take on the roles of the Nemeses, Henchmen, and Disasters the characters will fight. He will also provide Temptations for the characters to stumble and Hazards that the characters will have to overcome. His job will be multi-faceted as each player will have his own character with perhaps a sidekick and then choose which crisis to take on. It’s a lot to keep track of, but very rewarding to see how the players deal with the high stakes situations.

Why do I want to make a Superhero Game?

Well, first, I’ve never written a Superhero game. I’ve played plenty of heroes, but never with any real satisfaction. The Superhero genre is one many of us can relate to. Many of us got comics as youngsters that stirred our imaginations. I remember my first Spiderman comic. It was the one where the Scorpion is invented. I wish I still had it. It was awesome to me to see how a person with power could be tempted to use it for his own selfish purposes and how another person could use his power for the benefit of others. It was from that initial, childhood impression that Saviours would some day be born.

Why do I want to make a new Superhero Game?

I like games with strategic choice and tactical encounters. I like games that pose a challenge to me, that I had a part in creating, and ask me to figure out a way to overcome that challenge. I also like to narrate. I’m not very good at it, but I like to do it anyway. From these desires came several ideas for a game. None of the other Superhero games, I felt, gave me the kind of play experience I wanted or that others who are inclined like me want. I want strategic fights that are heavy in narration with consequences that matter (i.e. mechanically represented explicitly) at the end. I wanted a game where I got to make both the hero and the villain he faces. I wanted a game where I had the option of making a sidekick, but didn’t have to play him too. I wanted a game where people had to care about and support my character and where I had to care about and support their characters too. So basically, in the words of the Durham 3, I want others to make me look awesome, and I want the chance to make everyone else look awesome too!

So what’s next?

Well, I need to finish my first draft. It’s mostly done, but there’s a couple issues I need to hammer out. I have some tough choices to make. I’m sharing this here on my blog because I talk about design a lot, and I felt that I had better start showing my words in practice. So with Saviours, I’ll try to show how I implement my own design ideas. Today it was the Big Three. Of course, feedback is always welcome! :)



Saturday, September 16, 2006

Memory Lane


Good ole, good ole times. If you're into the Forge at all, check out this link: Bringing back some old memories- good and bad. I'm sure by the time it's all done, there will be a lot to learn from what's posted there.



Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What is 'System' ?


In previous articles I have touched on Situation and Setting. Today I’m going to tackle another key component of RPGs: System. First off, you should know that I do subscribe to the “lumpley principle.” So if you have serious issues with that, then I’m afraid that this article won’t help you very much.

But anyway, the lumpley principle states: “System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” The first time I read that I went, “Huh?!?!?” Then, through the years, I read a lot of explanations to it and the definition finally clicked.

Basically, System is big. Real big. In fact, we should really write it in all caps like this: SYSTEM instead of just capitalizing the first letter. Writing it like that, I think, might clear up a lot of confusion, because when someone (especially if they are new to RPG theory or design) sees “System”, they might think of something like the D20 System and say, “Well the whole system is just the SRD, right?” Well, not exactly.

To really help me understand what SYSTEM (the lumpley principle) meant, I had to brake it up into two parts: Rules and Procedures. For my purposes, Rules are the games text. They are the printed words on the page, unmodified in any way by the participants. Rules are the author’s expression of the game objectively observed in black and white on the page. Everything in the book, from cover to cover, is Rules. Anything that is not in the book that affects play is Procedures.

EXAMPLE OF A RULE (A): “Roll three d6 seven times to generate the seven stats for your character. Arrange them any way you like on your character sheet.”

EXAMPLE OF A RULE (B): “Choose one of eight races included in this book for your character. This will be his/her heritage and background.

Procedures can include modified Rules (often called “House Rules”), dialogue between participants, deciding who the “leader” of the party will be, who gets to roll dice first, narration of events/actions by characters, negotiating conflicts between players and/or characters in a fashion not provided for in the Rules, and so on. Procedures are essentially the talking around the table and the actions/agreements made by the participants that are unique to the group. It’s anything the participants agree to do or establish that affects the in-game events. Sometimes Procedures are based off Rules; sometimes they are not.

EXAMPLE OF A PROCEDURE (A): “Hey guys, instead of rolling 3d6 for your character’s stats, roll 4d6 instead and drop the lowest one. Arrange them in any order you like.”

EXAMPLE OF A PROCEDURE (B): “Guys, there are no elves left alive in this world we’re going to play in. So when you choose a race, you can’t choose to be an elf.”

So if you look at it like that, you can see that SYSTEM really is big. It includes everything that goes on at the table no matter how closely or loosely it adheres to the written rules of the game. It even includes stuff that people term as “meta-game.” Anything that affects the in-game events is part of SYSTEM.

So what does that mean for a designer? A designer must be aware that the SYSTEM of his game will, no matter what, include two parts: The Rules and The Procedures. It’s been said that the only part of SYSTEM a designer really has control over is The Rules- the words he writes in his game. But this isn’t entirely true. A designer can encourage players to develop Procedures for the game. In fact, many games are enhanced by players making up the bulk of SYSTEM and only referring to the Rules when there is a dispute. A designer must signal to the players (using the text) when it’s probably okay to use a Procedure to handle something and when it is advisable to use a Rule instead. You have to decide, will your game be Rules Strict (i.e. encouraging players to play as closely to the rules as much as possible) or Rules Relaxed (i.e. encouraging players to improvise and customize the rules as much as needed)?

This is quite important. No group will ever play the game strictly by the Rules as written. Human communication and understanding is far too limited to allow for that as a possibility. However, no group will ever completely toss out the Rules either. People sit down to play a game because the game text inspires and intrigues them. Therefore it is vital that the Rules give the participants guidance, explicit and thorough guidance. A designer must ask himself these two questions constantly as he writes his game:

“When do I want them to use my Rules as written to help advance play?”

“When is it okay for them to take ownership of the game and use Procedures of their own?”



Tuesday, September 05, 2006

New Business Plan


((This is also cross-posted HERE at the Forge))

What a trip my path towards game publishing has been lately. Recently I read This Post by Ron. There’s a road of no return that people walk when they get fed up with RPGs and never want to come back; I almost went down that. Just for some quick background two of my games Cutthroat and Hierarchy won Ronny awards last year. I was pumped about getting them tested and published. Well, I got that done, finished the layouts scooped up all the art I could for them on my budget and had it all ready to go. Then several things that I wanted to go my way didn’t. I was disappointed, very disapointed. When my cousin Stacey scheduled her wedding on the weekend of GenCon, I just swore the whole thing off. I thought I was done. But, after several encouraging conversations with my wife and a really awesome trip to the Western United States this summer, I came back with a new perspective. I knew I still wanted to publish my games, but releasing all four (adding Standoff and Holmes ‘n Watson to the list) at once didn’t seem right. I had an opportunity to do something unique, but I didn’t know what. Then I listened to Paul Tevis’s interview with Ken Hite on Have Games will Travel.

The idea struck me like a bolt of lightning. Ken said the gaming industry, specifically the distributors and shop owners, were increasingly looking at RPGs as periodicals rather than books. His words also jived with what I’m learning in my masters classes about children: attention spans are getting shorter and new stimulation is required *often* to keep their minds focused on something. So I thought, “Hey! Why don’t I turn my games into a periodical rather than just dumping them on the market all at once!” It was crazy. And I liked it. So here it is, my new business model:

I am going to offer customers the opportunity to purchase a subscription to my games rather than purchase each new game as it comes out. A subscription would include four books that would come out quarterly (every three months) and be complete, self-contained games. This is not a model where I create one “Core Rules” and release supplements every quarter. Each game is a unique individual and very fun to play. As of right now, I plan to offer three different kinds of subscriptions.

The first kind would be a PDF subscription. This would be the cheapest. I would just send the customer the pdf over email the day the game is “released” and they would have it waiting for them when they got home. PDFs are getting increasingly popular and if someone wants to test the water this way, it’s good for both them and me.

The second kind would be a Book subscription. This is kind of the “normal” subscription. At no additional cost for shipping and handling, they would receive a new book (paperback, perfect bound) sent to their address every three months. International orders would probably cost a little more and take a little longer to ship.

The third would be a Lifetime Book subscription. While it would cost more, it would guarantee them a copy of every book I release under the periodical model I’m talking about for as long as I can keep it up. They would never again have to pay another fee for the books, shipping, or handling even if the costs of my other subscriptions go up. Once that fee is paid, you get one of everything I make. Period.

I think I would probably also offer to sell “back issues” if people wanted those. I wouldn’t make them available, however, until the next “issue” came out. But if someone gets a subscription in the second year of this and wants Cutthroat let’s say, then he’d have a chance to get it. Of course ordering four back issues would be more expensive than ordering a subscription. Subscriptions are what I’m really interested in selling.

Now I know this sounds a little crazy. A book every three months!?!?! That’s nutz! But hey, I’ve got the first four already written and tested. That’s the first year at least. I’ve got two more games in the draft stage and will start testing them after a couple more revisions. So for the first year and a half I’m already set. Plus, if you’ve followed my Blog at all, you know that I’ve created a good number of tools to help me write these games. I now know what it takes to make a complete game and I’ve got a whole wad of ideas just waiting to be realized.

And you know, honestly, the games I write are pretty simple. They aren’t designed on the same level of depth as say Dogs in the Vineyard or the Mountain Witch. Character creation in each of them is fast and easy. 5-15 minutes for most of the games. And they are really designed to give the players a complete game experience in one sitting. Kinda like a short story rather than a novel. So imagine a customer gets his book. It’s 50-70 pages long and takes less than a half-hour to set up and only 2 to 5 hours to get a complete game. If he and his friends play twice a month, then by the time my next game comes out they’ve had 6 play experiences with it. They’ll be ready for something new. And that’s the idea. I will provide customers with frequent, new gaming experiences at regular intervals that won’t take up a lot of their time with things like set-up and prep. At least, that’s the hope.

I will be a little bit before I get this in motion, though. I’ve got to redesign my website. I need to figure out PayPal a little better so I can set up a storefront on my site. I need to revise the covers and touch up the layout on a couple games. So no sooner than the 4th quarter of 2006 would I be able to get this out the door. That sounds about right.

Anyway, here is what I want from you guys. I’m not really interested in comments on why this model won’t work, why the games will suck, or how I can’t possibly keep up the pace. I am very interested in comments that suggest way to HELP make it work. I’ve discussed this privately with a couple other people. Interestingly, they had opinions on the opposite ends of the spectrum. But I am very interested in what do you think I need to do to make this happen and happen well, and even more interested in anyone’s publishing experiences that might be helpful. How can I avoid potential pitfalls? What are the good points of selling games in this fashion?

I do appreciate you reading this far and all the feedback you will offer.