Friday, October 31, 2008

Drilling down on situations

Consider Burning Wheel's Fight! mechanics. You can play a fine BWr game without using Fight! at all, just using Bloody Versus. Fight! is a way to drill down on a situation and look at it much more closely than a single roll encourages. Similarly Hubris, Bring Down the Pain, etc. Each also has other effects, but there's definitely some common thread to be abstracted.

One possible problem is that if players are significantly more effective at one level than at the other, there is incentive to choose based on effectiveness rather than which looks like more fun. Playing a BWr character with very high Power and Speed but low weapon skill, for instance, you can win many Fight!s which you would lose were they Bloody Versus. In an ideal world you'd choose based on whether or not the table wanted to drill-down on the situation, and this choice wouldn't end up "screwing" a player skewed toward one or the other.

The main benefit, in my opinion, is that you can have several different sets of rules for different situations. Yes, I'm saying more rules is a benefit. :) Unified rulesets are elegant, messy situational rulesets have more descriptive power. So in BWr, you have Fight! drill-down for small-scale melee battles, Range and Cover for small-scale ranged battles, and Duel of Wits for small-scale social battles. Each has a very different feel and drills down on a different situation which could otherwise be resolved in one roll by the rest of the rules.

It's like playing a number of different games, connected through the story, shared resources, and some shared numbers. D&D, for example, feels like playing two different games: the game about adventurers taking on long odds and growing to become like gods interlaced with lots of games about miniatures battling it out on a grid. Or in Burning Empires, playing a game of planetary defense against the Vaylen while drilling down on specific aspects of the conflict which make up most of play.

I see two main uses of the drill-down that I care about. The first is in D&D, where (as far as I'm concerned) the goal is to connect a bunch of miniatures battles into a coherent whole. Here the drill-down is expected in every fighty conflict, and brings into question whether I should really even call it "drill-down" or not, because it's closer to abstracting up a level from the standard. The second is in BWr, where the goal is to have a fun minigame that explores a fighty conflict in more detail than the general rules can easily cover.

So when can I use this in extant games? What pitfalls are there in throwing a new drill-down into BWr, like a detailed spellcasting duel minigame, or in blanketing the entire thing in a metagame, like the Battle! rules attempt? These are on the face of it two very different questions, and at least for now I'll think about them separately.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Story Arcs and Narration

After our D&D session, Eric, Thomas and I discussed skill challenges for a while. I have forgotten much of what we said, but of course I remember what I brought up. During a skill challenge as Thomas has been running them, I have no support from the System to help me set up a mini story arc for skill challenge narration.

Specifically, from play, we found a bunch of hobgoblin ghosts and were attempting a skill challenge to get them to peacefully convert one member of our party into a Dark Pact Warlock instead of attacking us. We talked them down, demonstrated magical proficiency, gave "character references", etc. At one point David repeated several times "And let's make one final Diplomacy check..." (emphasis on final). But here's the thing - we, the players, had no way of knowing that any given roll could or would be the final roll. The DM did not reveal length (4 successes before 2 failures? Who knows.), DCs, or technically even results of rolls, though in general it is easy to tell based on narration whether a roll succeeded or not.

Also from play, we were trying to set up a base of operations in the dungeon which would allow an extended rest. IMO one excellent way to do this would be some setup with rolls to make traps and misdirection, then a roll or two about exciting solutions to specific situations, then whenever there is just one success needed, an Endurance roll to successfully keep watch while still getting an extended rest. Success is a perfect falling action, failure that also fails the challenge is a perfect lead-in to an encounter, and failure that doesn't fail the challenge is perfect for a climactic final roll or two.

Contrast this to our PTA game which specifies story arcs across sessions, where anyone can look over and see that the Producer has X budget left and there's Y fanmail out so we know how close to the session climax we are, and where there's not a seemingly arbitrary endpoint so every individual arc within a session can be manipulated to the players' will. Of course PTA is all about narration making great arcs, but skill challenges should be better.

How can they be fixed? I see a couple of methods of fixing our System. One is for the DM to not announce when a skill challenge is complete. This allows the players to narrate and roll however we like, making as pretty an arc as we like, and the "wasted rolls" after the challenge was complete are a small price to pay for a better narration. Of course it's not clear what happens if we finish before the challenge does.

Another method is for the DM to reveal the scale of the challenge (4/2, etc.) and keep a public running tally of successes and failures. This should be enough for the players to set up pacing appropriately, even without knowing DCs. Maybe knowing DCs is better too, but I'm looking for a minimalistic set of changes to our current System because I love minimalistic changes.

Finally, in a few weeks I'll be GMing a Burning Wheel game. Are there any problems with story arcs that I need to be aware of and give the non-GM players good solutions to? I can't think of any, everything is open, so the only potential problems are the mechanics constraining an arc in some way that everyone at the table misses before it happens. If a problem like that exists then by definition I've missed it thus far.

Friday, October 10, 2008

PTA: Securing Narration of the Thing You Just Thought Of

We're playing PTA. Mike has an idea for a scene he really wants to narrate and starts saving fanmail. We get to the scene and it goes something like this (paraphrased heavily and possibly misremembered and undoubtedly misunderstood):

Mike: "I want a scene where I'm fighting the Krell in the lake and I get them to stop firing on the Iroquois."
Eric: "Okay so you're on the bank of the glacier land and..."
Mike: "No, in the lake."
Eric: "Sure, alright."
Mike: "My conflict is whether I can stop them." (spends all his fanmail)
Guy: (spends a fanmail)
Cards: "Mike wins, Guy narrates."
Mike: (looks sullen and defeated because he wanted to say shit)

Here's how it should have gone instead...

Mike: "I want a scene where I'm fighting the Krell in the lake and I get them to stop firing on the Iroquois."
Eric: "Okay so you're on the bank of the glacier land and the Krell are forming up."
Mike: (says his cool thing he wanted to narrate and probably gets fanmail for it)
Eric: (eventually) "Look, a conflict!"

The moral of the story is that if you want to say something cool, start saying it. If there's a conflict, fine. You can try to win narration or suggest someone else narrate your cool thing. If not, great. Go ahead and narrate. You don't need a conflict to get permission to narrate, you just need to win narration rights of a conflict to get permission to narrate the outcome of the conflict.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Time Pressure

I hate time pressure in an RPG. Okay, it's fine sometimes, and no one should neglect it as a useful tool, but when every single goddamn situation has massive time pressure, that cuts out so much from possible stories. What's it good for? I would argue there are two uses for it. The first is that making a situation have massive time pressure can be awesome. The second is that it can coerce players into caring about the situation.

Wait, really?

That sounds amazing! A method to guarantee players care about what's happening?

Well, no. What it actually does is say "look, unless everything you do is aimed at resolving this situation, it's going to resolve itself to your character's detriment, so no you can't try to do something that interests you more". It produces the actions you'd expect from players who care about a situation without actually making them care, which is far more insidious than when players who don't care let the GM know.

Next time I GM I will try to completely avoid time pressure and see how things go.

Friday, October 3, 2008

D&D Clever

In our latest D&D session, something odd happened at the very end. Here's the setup: the PCs are sneaking into the second floor of a large building through a giant hole in the wall. The room inside is filled with a kobold and his fire beetles and firebat minions and is obviously quite trapped. We kill everything inside while jets of flame shoot out from the walls.

Now to disabling the trap. Our cleric takes a gander at a complex set of controls and tries to figure out how to turn off the flame jets. There is a small skill challenge (4/2) in which only the cleric participates, which boils down to "roll Thievery a bunch of times, sometimes with Dungeoneering interspersed to provide possible +2s". Nothing besides color occurs. Then I stick a frost spear into one of the nozzles to plug it, which boils down to "roll a standard attack and damage". Then our wizard suggests pouring a bottle of acid on the control panel, which the cleric does, and the nozzles are shut off.

After the DM said the trap was disabled, Chris said, "That was really clever," referring to the acid action.

This got me thinking. Was pouring the acid onto the control panel clever? Maybe, but its result, that the nozzles shut off, is not much evidence that it was clever. Perhaps the DM thought it was clever. Perhaps the DM thought it was time to move on. Perhaps Chris was referring to Eric figuring out that the DM wanted to feel satisfied about his decision to disable the trap and move on, and wasn't referring to the supposed act of thinking acid on a control panel should shut off the nozzles. Perhaps Chris was saying that given that the DM determined the acid shut off the nozzles, we should add "Eric's character was clever in figuring out that the acid would shut off the nozzles" to the SIS. Perhaps Chris was just saying random things.