Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Equipment Lists - A Lament


How boring is an equipment list?  Ugh, it’s got to be the most tedious yet necessary thing in a fantasy or science fiction RPG.  Everyone (or close to everyone) loves the little fiddly bits you get with a new supplement: new weapons, new electronics, new armor types.  Each new thing is just a sight modification of the old stuff, but it’s still cool, right?  Well, it’s not cool enough for me.

You know what I would like to see?  Answer: an equipment list that sparks the players’ imaginations and prompts new avenues of play.

For instance, how cool would it be if an equipment list had five entries for Long Sword or Laser Pistol?  What if each entry showed how the weapon or item could be improved using different components or techniques for making it?  Even better, what if the equipment list rules gave hints about how the characters had to quest to find the right material, the right tinkerer, the right artisan, or whatever to make the weapon something beyond its mundane, default entry?

So, take a laser pistol for instance.  A pistol might have 5 attributes: weight, hitting power, accuracy, durability, and other.  The default material on the equipment list would be the cheapest and least reliable material- you know, the kind of laser pistol you would buy at the Wal-Marts of the future.  Then, elsewhere in the equipment section, the rules would give a list of materials that would reduce the weight of the gun, increase its hitting power and accuracy, make it more durable, and the “other” category in this case would be # of shots per battery pack.

In addition to the improved materials, the rules would tell the players how they could fabricate the materials or how to purchase/find the materials.

In a fantasy world, it would give names of weaponsmiths, artists, alchemists, etc. where they could get the blade sharpened to a keen edge, the pommel weight reduced to balance the weapon, or magical enchantments to make it more powerful.

Equipment lists are so mundane in most games, but I think they can add a lot of depth to a campaign if the designer just takes the time to think about how awesome weapons are in the first place and the different ways heroes in the stories we love to read have tried to make them awesomer.



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What is 'Chopping the World in Two' ?


Chris Chinn coined this phrase a year or two ago.  Basically he asked, “if narration is a part of your resolution system, what mechanics in your game stop a player from saying, ‘If I win, I chop the world in half.”  This is a severe problem and it’s a design flaw that has shown up manytimes, especially after Dogs in the Vineyard was released.  My own Hierarchy is an excellent example of a game that suffers from this problem.
In Hierarchy, players can raise the stakes in a conflict at will.  There’s no mechanical stop-gap to prevent them from betting the fate of the entire world in a single contest.  This, of course, is terrible.  The design relies total on the Social Contract to keep things in check.  That’s possible to some extent, but there are a lot of shades of gray between “my character smacks yours across the face and leaves” and “I chop the world in half.”  It can be hard for a group, especially a novice group, to enforce reasonable limits on narration trading during resolution without some mechanical backup.
It is tempting to allow narration to take the characters in any direction the play-group desires, but narration, like all things, needs constraint to breed creativity.  Putting mechanical limits on what can be brought into a contest is a necessary part of design.
So what are some ways to do that? 
First, you can include a “back-out” clause.  Ben Lehman did this in Polaris, where a player in a conflict can negate an escalation by an opposing player by saying, “You ask too much.”  So, by designing a way one player to return the stakes back to an earlier a previous state, the game can prevent things from getting out of hand.
Second, you can set explicit options for what can be at stake.  For instance, you can say the players may risk “wealth, status, or health in a contest but not life or relationships.”  In this case, you are setting up parameters for the resolution system and prescribing what is in bounds and out of bounds for conflicts.
Third, you can have a way to escalate a conflict with a cost and a cap.  Dogs in the Vineyard does this.  Escalating a conflict from words to fists is possible, but doing so puts the character at greater risk.  There needs to be some sort of cap on how much a player can risk when escalating a conflict.  Often this is the character’s life.  It doesn’t have to be that way, but there needs to be an explicit way to cap the escalation.
Fourth, you can have a resolution system that just doesn’t allow narration to set the stakes.  Task resolution does this.  Many forms of conflict resolution do as well.  You could have the GM always set the stakes, or do it by total group consent.  Whatever.
Fifth, as part of the Chargen and prep work for play, the players can set up their own parameters for what is allowable and what is not during narration of stakes in a conflict.  Sometimes, in a inter-planar superhero game, chopping a world in half may actually make sense!  Cool!  But it needs to happen in accordance with the players’ expectation for the game, the designer’s vision for the game, and the limits of the Social Contract.  Letting the players hash this out before play allows for really powerful characters and situations without breaking the mechanics.
The main thing is, don’t let the power of narration get out of control.  Narration is awesome.  It is a lot of fun, but it is also dangerous.  It can take a well-designed game and wreck it.