Monday, April 30, 2007

How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics?


One of the largest barriers, if not the largest barrier, to playing an RPG is learning the mechanics. Human beings are so unpredictable in the way they use words, understand words, and act upon words. For instance, back in the 90's I played ADnD with three different groups. Each group interpreted the text differently. Everything from the number of spells wizards got per level to how to roll initiative was slightly different- not because of house rules, but because people just read the official rules differently. IMO, this sort of thing is not all that desirable. So how can we avoid it?

First, examples play a key role in helping people understand new content. Giving players a model to follow offers them a template for their own experiences with your game. There are three types of examples I'd like to talk about for a moment: Generic, Faux-play, and Actual Play.

Generic examples are quick bites of information just to make an abstract idea concrete. For instance, if you were to give an example for Stats, you might say "John's character has a Strength of 5, an Agility of 4, a Logic of 10, and a Charisma of 8." That's a Generic example. Usually, you are not recounting anything that actually happened while someone was playing the game. It doesn't matter what the numbers were or who the players were, and the example will have no further bearing on the text beyond the section where it is included.

Faux-play examples are very common in RPGs. They often appear at the beginning (like my own Ember Twilight), during the resolution chapter, or at the ending of a book. They are usually written as a script where players are sitting around a table talking through their play. Sometimes, they include an over use of words like "Awesome" or have lots of exclamation points. Such an example might go something like this:

GM (rolls and 18): Okay, the orc swings and hits you with his club. 5 Damage. Your turn, Jake.

Jake: Ouch that hurts. I'm going to swing back. (rolls a 17). I hit!

GM: Nice hit, Jake! He takes 8 damage and dies.

Jake: Awesome!

I call this a Faux-play because it's totally manufactured. This is hardly how people play an RPG, but it is how play is commonly portrayed in an RPG text. However, these kinds of examples are still useful. They can demonstrate the order of mechanics and how various parts of the system work in concert with each other.

An Actual Play example is when a writer uses an Actual Play report, either one posted on the Internet or one he wrote for his own reflection, and includes that in the text. This isn't done too often. However, an Actual Play example provides the reader with an authentic model for play. By reading an Actual Play report within the text of a game, the reader will gain much more insight as to how the game truly works with real people in the real world. This can be invaluable especially if the game has a lot of complex mechanics.

There is room for all three kinds of examples in an RPG. A writer should be aware of each and use them appropriately.

A second way an RPG can teach its mechanics is to be aware of how learning takes place. Over on Story Games, Doyce Testerman wrote a series of posts talking about adult learning styles. Rather than replicate his work, I'll link them here for you:

[Teaching Your Game] Rules for Teaching Adults
[Teaching Your Game] Teaching Specific Tasks
[Teaching Your Game] Attention Span and Effective Use of Time
[Teaching Your Game] Readability – The Fog Index
[Teaching Your Game] Using Adult Learning Techniques to Deliver Game Content

Finally, a game can teach its mechanics through a tutorial. Some games turn themselves into graphic novels that visually and literarily teach the mechanics to the readers. Sometimes a game will offer a step by step procedure for the players to follow to create and use their characters for the first time. This is most common on CRPGs or MMORPGs, but tabletop games can do the same. It becomes a matter of writer's choice.

It is very important to be aware that a game must do its best to teach the mechanics it contains to the reader. Failure to provide clear examples or failure to understand how people read and learn will cause real problems when people sit down to play your game. If you would like to test the "learnability" of your game, give it to someone who's never seen it before and ask them to make a character and tell you how they will use that character in play. It might just surprise you.



Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What Else Besides Dice?


I’m going to talk just a little bit about resolution systems today- specifically using things other than dice. Nothing too deep. I just got back from Forge Midwest and grad school is still swamping me with work. But anyway, I haven’t made a real post in a while, and I thought I it’s about time I did.

First, let me say that not using dice in your resolution system does not automatically make your game cool or awesome. Nor does it instantly garner you some kind of “indie cred” with other designers if that’s the sort of thing you’re after. Choosing not to use dice will not make your game any better if all the other mechanics don’t hold up on their own. Do not interpret this as a call for more diceless games or an article extolling the virtues of non-traditional resolution systems. This is simply an informational post about a certain portion of resolution mechanics I’ve either used, toyed with, or played with in some way. Also, do not mistake this as an exhaustive list of how to use non-dice resolutions mechanics. These are just the ones I’ve considered at some point. Maybe you’ll find them useful too :)

Cards: A deck of cards can be a useful set of randomizers to use instead of dice. Without the jokers, you have 52 possibilities. That’s quite a few, and may give you the range of possibilities you want for your game if a d20 is too few and a d100 is too much. You can also organize cards into various groups. You have 4 suits, 2 colors, 12 face cards (not counting aces, 16 if you do), evens and odds. Depending on how often you want a certain result to come up, you can look at card groupings to get percentages and probabilities. If you decide to include jokers, you have the opportunity to throw in really rare or powerful effects when the jokers do get played that won’t come up so often that they break the game, but often enough that they get noticed. Also, don’t overlook the fact that there are already many games out there that use a standard 52 deck of cards. Games like poker, blackjack, and euchre can all be employed by an RPG designer to act as the resolution system itself. They become a game within a game.

Coins: Coin flipping is a game almost everyone has played as a child. It usually involves very low stakes gambling, and provides binary results (heads or tales). However, coins can be expanded in an RPG to where players are flipping multiple coins and checking the results either against another player’s flip, a table of some kind, or a difficulty rating. Coins are fairly accessible, but can be a pain to keep up with if the numbers coins getting flipped gets too high. But the fact that they are quick, easy to find, and can serve double as tokens or currency markers, makes coins a viable choice for RPG resolution.

Dominos: Dominos are seldom used by RPG designers, but they are just as legitimate as anything else. There are several different sets you can get on the market. Some sets go from double zero (a blank domino) to double 6 (six dots on both sides). There are others that go from double zero all the way to double 18! And, of course, there’s everything in between. Dominos can be used in several ways for resolution, and I’m sure there’s some that I won’t list here. First, you can use random draws w/ a comparison of the totals on the dominos to see who wins. A domino that is 6/8 would beet a domino that is 1/2. You could actually build a train of dominos on the table, and if a player want’s his character to do something, but can’t play a tile, then he is unable to act. The dominos would serve as gate keepers in this sense. Players could also possible build their own trains, then spend the dominos as currency throughout the game to gain the effects they want. And there’s plenty more creative uses for dominos in an RPG. The key to this, however, is to take advantage of the properties of the domino. That is, they are physical object, they have two values, probably have varying colors, and rules for a game that uses them already exists.

Tokens: Tokens can be anything from glass beads to plastic disks to rose petals. Tokens keep track of some resource a player has access to or can serve as a countdown to some endgame scenario. They are physical objects and thus, everyone at the table is probably going to know who has how many tokens everyone has available to them. In resolution, tokens can be used in bidding wars, comparisons, gambling, and spending. In a bidding war, players would go back and forth bidding tokens until one person gives up or they both run out. Comparisons between token pools would put an emphasis only on accumulating large numbers of tokens in order to defeat enemies. The more tokens you have, the stronger the foe you can overcome. Gambling is like a bidding war, but instead the winner would receive some amount of tokens back. The loser would lose all of his. Gambling puts an emphasis on resource management and risk-taking. Finally, spending tokens is the simplest way to use them. A player would simply need to spend X number of tokens to generate Y effect. There is no real randomness in that system unless the X is somehow variable and constantly changing.

Point Pools: Point pools are a lot like tokens, however they are easier to keep secret. Typically, there is a spot on a character sheet to track them. They can be used in much the same way tokens can, but don’t require the players to have physical objects at the table to manipulate during the resolution phase of the game. In fact, this is they system I’m using with one of my games that I’ll link over on my design blog once I get the chance. One nice thing about point pools vs. tokens is that trading points between different pools is quite easy. Shift points from your “Power Pool” to your “Relationship Pool” involves just an eraser and a couple pencil marks. This can be done quickly and easily. Counting out tokens, sorting different colors of beads or chips from each other, and stacking them all in a neat pile can be tedious and time consuming.

Talk: Finally, the last non-dice resolution mechanic I’m going to cover is talking. Of all the gimmicky things I mentioned, talking is probably the most basic. In fact, you probably do this all the time in your group. The GM might say, “Okay, you walk into the bar…” and another player replies, “No wait, I want to get something out of the trunk of my car first…” That right there is an example of talk resolving a conflict. An entire game can work like that, however, there has to be a significant “buy-in” by all the players. You, as the designer, are counting on them not to just run wild and describe themselves conquering the world in a single instance of resolution. You’re also not giving the players much to work with. IMO, people generally do feel more comfortable with some “objective” item telling them what happens. Dice, cards, and points are all popular for a reason. Talk can be tricky to incorporate into the actual mechanics of a game. Use it with caution.

Like I said earlier, nothing profound here. Just a simple catalog of a few non-traditional mechanics. I am neither encouraging nor discouraging their use, but I definitely wanted to get this up on my blog for future reference. It’s good to be aware of the wide variety of possibilities out there when it comes to resolution systems. Take care all! :)



Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Interview Part 2


The guys over at Cannon Puncture have posted the second part of my interview with them. It's my first podcast interview and I'll have to say it was intimidating at first. But I got to talk about two things I really love: playing and designing games. Oh, and I got to plug my two favorite OOP CCGs, too! That rocks. Anyway, hope you enjoy :)



Monday, April 02, 2007

Game Chef Update


Life has gotten really busy for me lately. Between participating in the Game Chef competition and grad school, I haven't had must time for blogging. So I'll point you towards some other guys who are talking about the competition. Over on Canon Puncture, several designers (including myself) are doing some interviews about their games and the competition in general. Andy Kitkowski gives a really good description about the contest and what he hopes comes from it. Give it a listen if you get a chance :)