Monthly Archives: September 2012

GMotW: Cthulhu Dark

Thinking about starting a new feature here. Something to keep me around and saying things, even when my head is wrapped around playtesting and re-writing and other things that don’t translate especially well to Internet Content.

I like talking about game mechanics, because I’m very interested in the power they have; how does a mechanic work, why does it do that, what does it say about the story the game is telling or the people who play the game or the concept of “story” or “game” or “person” altogether? Mechanical interaction is spectacularly over-analyzable. Among my favorite websites, then, is the sadly static Game Mechanic of the Day, which does Just That. Or did; it had a fun but brief run but hasn’t updated in a month, and that was itself after a silent month. It was a keen idea. I’m going to exercise Author’s Privilege and steal this keen idea for myself; I do hope that the author doesn’t mind. Not every day, that’s a fast-track to me burning myself out. Call it a Game Mechanic of the Week.

To inaugurate this (the weekly process at least, not the idea of faffing about concerning mechanics I enjoy), an utterly beautiful rule from Cthlulhu Dark, by Graham Walmsley, a game which has so few rules that EVERY ONE must be brilliant. This one certainly is.

“[Y]our highest die shows how well you do. On a 1, you barely succeed. On a 6, you do brilliantly.”
Cthulhu Dark cover

Ah, it is lovely, isn’t it? The crux here is this: if you attempt something, you WILL succeed; I’m ignoring the means by which players can interfere with one another for the moment. You say you want to climb the wall, you climb the wall; all you need to do is find out how well it happens. You say you’re searching for information, you WILL find information, all that’s to be decided is how useful it will be. You want something, and it is yours. Hot damn!

Missing is boring, don’t you know? Failure is, nine times out of ten, boring. Saying that you don’t make it up the wall means the story staggers as you try again; saying that you don’t see the interesting things in the room means that the story is put on standstill as you look around some more or, worse, stumble on with no idea where to go. On top of that, there’s that awful, emotionally dissonant beat when you say “I hit the guy!” roll, and get told that, well, “no you don’t.” That’s not fun.

Cthulhu Dark, however, eschews this. Instead, your rolls determine how you succeed, building off the old improv adage that you don’t say “no,” you say “yes, but”. Your roll is a gradient running between an awful yes-but and a decent yes-and. Narratively, things always keep moving forward, with two exceptions: if you voluntarily decide to fail (in which case, well, clearly this is in service of the story, because you decided it was a good idea), or if another player decides to interfere. In this case, it’s still in service of the narrative: someone at the table thinks failure would be fun, and explains how and why it could happen. In either case, someone at the table is getting what they want when a character fails, there is never a moment of useless whiffing in service of the Rules.

“But Ed,” you say, “how in heaven’s name is it in service of a Lovecraftian narrative to feature protagonists who always succeed? Or at least, protagonists who succeed quite often indeed? What sort of tentacle-pulp Derleth horse-crap are you trying to pull on me here?”

To that I answer, oh no friend. No, look back to your Lovecraft. Look back at what it is that truly damns his protagonists. It’s not that they fail. Never. It’s that they get what they want and it’s more horrible than they could possibly imagine. Robert Olmstead escapes Innsmouth, but brings its taint with him. Herbert West is utterly successful in his attempts to re-animate dudes, but they are uncontrollable. Francis Thurston learns everything he wanted to know about the mighty Cthulhu, and that is what makes him a target for the cultists. “Yes, but…” is the backbone of a Lovecraftian tale! Yes, you find the truth… but it drives you mad.

Cthulhu Dark characters are as doomed as any Lovecraftian hero. More so, even then your average Call of Cthulhu character, who can take cold comfort in the fact that maybe, just maybe, they might fail a spot check and not discover the ancient tablet of eldrich runes, sparing them the inevitable descent into madness. No such luck here.

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Aliens and Otherkind

One thing that strikes me in gaming, and I’m far from the first to make this complaint, is that aliens and other non-human races are rarely anything more than humans in funny hats. We see this in full display in D&D and its ilk, which is unambiguous in making human a default template for all creatures: squish human down and give it low-light vision and you’ve got a dwarf, turn it green and pump INT into STR and it’s an orc, and so on.

Obviously, you can give your non-humans different powers and limitations; you can say the robots get no benefit from medigel and ghosts can walk through walls as if they were open space. But they’re still fundamentally human. Talk about culture, talk about psychology, fill in a thousand generations of fluff to explain why drow get +2 to Torturing or whatever, and they’re still HUMAN. A talented and clever role-player can make them seem like a true Other, and that’s all well and good, but from a basic, mechanical level, they’re still based on the same mold: everything in the D&D universe sees the world in terms of Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Wisdom, and Charisma. That is the core of EVERY race, and that prevents them from being truly alien; even if you stick something in the world with a 0 in Strength, or a -1 or a ‘null’ or whatever, that’s still a part of their mindset, it still defines their approach to the world, and it prevents them from ever being truly alien from the default, human template.

What’s interesting, or what I find to be interesting at any rate, is that there is a world of differences to the default human template. Oh yes. In D&D, there’s no such thing a fatigue; you don’t get tired. In GURPS, you have fatigue points, which can drain. D&D humans are adventurers who don’t stop. GURPS uses 3d6, which creates a bell curve with 10 as the average roll. D&D uses a single d20; 10 is still an average roll, but every number is equally likely. GURPS heroes are far more consistent than their D&D counterparts. My point isn’t that one of these is better or more realistic or more fun than the other, my point is that one can try to build one character using both systems, keeping him or her as equivalent as possible between the two, and still end up with two characters who are ALIEN to one another. Two identical dudes whacking kobolds with a sword, one of whom is like “what do you mean you can’t keep this up for a full16 hours without passing out?” and the other is like “what do you mean, 5% of the time you just straight-up miss for no obvious reason?”

To put it another way, one has to conserve energy but knows every hit will most likely count. One doesn’t, but knows they might not. These two humans are more alien to one another than any human/non-human pair within either system.

The big question then: can we use this to our advantage? Funnily enough this is something one sees in board games or card games fairly often of late: two sides who function so differently as to be playing effectively different games (see Netrunner or Fury of Dracula for quick examples). In RPGs though? I see a form of it in DnDNext of all places, where the different classes function in a manner incomparable with one another (i.e.: wizard magic, warlock magic, and sorcerer magic, which are both mechanically AND narratively differentiated from one another at a fundamental level). But even then, the stats are the same, swords get swung the same. I want to see it turned up a notch.

I want to see a game where the stats are different, and not even really related; where one group has standard ability-style stats, while another has In a Wicked Age’s purpose-style stats, and still another has Apocalypse World’s style-style stats. Elves can do feats of strength, but only when acting For Others. Gnomes can pull of feats of strength, but only when its Cool to do so. Humans can pull off feats of strength if and only if they have high Strength. In this instance, it’s easy for players to game the system (or systems, as the case may be), but it will create characters who are forced to approach problems in wildly different ways, and who can never truly place themselves in one another’s shoes.

One step further? What if their basic interaction with the game world was different? What if they used different mechanics altogether? There’s a pile of d6s on the table; the humans build pools to try and gain a target number of successes, the mer-folk roll a pool of assumed successes and count those which come up as failures, the pixies roll a pool and add it all up trying to hit a target number, the robots roll a set number of dice and try to form patterns, and the manotaurs don’t even look at the numbers, they just collect dice and spend them to punch things really, really hard. OH MAN that would be a nightmare to adjudicate and OH MAN the concept of balance would be even more laughable than it inherently is but OH MAN, OH MAN I could totally get behind such a thing.

But that’s an extreme example. Even at a more minor and controllable level, changing the stats a PC uses can alter how they see the world. I have Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma. You have Battle, Endurance, Knowledge, Speed, Perception, and Trickery. We are similar, but we are different. We can be Otherkind.


Playtesting!

Yesterday was the second Steamcraft playtest, and the first one with with multiple players. Yeah, I’m still working with the title “Steamcraft,” even though it’s been used before… I’ll change it eventually once I get a better handle on the setting and whatnot. Anyway. We didn’t get around to combat, so that’s still on the table for future weeks, but we did make some characters and shake them around, and I, at least, learned a few things, some of which is general enough that I’m going to share it.

1. Sometimes concepts that are perfectly clear in your head are muddled on paper; sometimes this is a problem of vocabulary. I’ve got a problem with this, because I can easily distinguish between the two in my head, because I know exactly what I’m talking about: yeah, an Accessory is a special form of Style Dice which you add to your Pool Dice which are different Style Dice! OBVIOUSLY.

… It’s also super-easy to overload simple words like “points” and, yes, “dice” to the point where the reader of the rules is making connections which shouldn’t be there because you’re duplicating terminology. So… don’t do that. Terminology is a tough nut; too many terms may stop people at the door, too few means that folks get muddled. Old-hat or traditional terms like “hit points” are, well, old hat and uninteresting, whereas futzing them into “valor levels” or whatever obfuscates what they actually are.

2. Sometimes muddled concepts it a problem of presentation. I had not, for instance, put a lot of thought into the order in which parts of a character were created. What does it matter, thought I, if we decide upon a character’s vocation first and then his props, or vice versa? After all, you have to do both.

Well, that was silly of me. It makes a great deal of difference, especially in a game where there is a limited degree of mechanics related to what characters can do and carry with them. There’s a reason some games lead off with a “character concept” phase… because that’s a useful way to think about things. That was just silly of me, forcing my players to decide what they looked like before deciding who they are.

3. On the whole, simplifying things is good. This is a practical lesson I learned between playtest 1 and 2, in which am overly complex system of “conditions” cribbed from the various FATE games was cut away and replaced by a far simpler rolling Advantage and Disadvantage system. Quicker, easier, but doesn’t sacrifice what I want it to be. Ideal! I’ve got a fair amount of this I need to continue doing (which will go a ways to aiding the “too much terminology” problem above. Why do I need both Fortune and Misfortune points as narrative currency, when the only difference is who’s holding them? Why do I need a Most Famous Exploit which is separate from Important Milestones? Answer: I guess I don’t.

4. Sometimes things just don’t work. This may be a fault of the players, or of me as a GM rather than a designer, but Fortune points never got spent. Were they not compelling, were there no opportunities, did they not feel they were useful? Actually, I think the real problem is that they only ever had the one… there are rules to gain more, but they never came up, so… yeah. Here’s a case where the core rule just didn’t seem to do anything, and a rare instance where adding more (rather than taking away) might be necessary.

5. Sometimes you up and don’t think of incredibly obvious things. Here I am, preparing for testers to come around, when I realize that, uh, right now NPCs just use the same rules as PCs, which is well enough for important people but makes no sense for throwaway characters… I need some way to make minions on the fly, so I just cobbled something together at a moment’s notice. I’m sure I would have thought of it EVENTUALLY, but man, it surprised me at the time.

6. Sometimes things DO work. And the folks at the table are like, “Oh, I get it now!” and start rolling the right things at the right time. Man, that’s pretty awesome. That’s a no-holds-barred winning condition, probably comparable to letting go of a child’s bicycle handlebars and letting them take off under their own power, except instead of birthing the child you invented the bicycle. Ad that’s awesome.

On the whole, I’m calling it a successful playtest, albeit but the second ever. More will be forthcoming, hopefully before too long.


Fiasco!

Ah, delightful. I just returned from an evening of playing Fiasco for the first time (a super-science and supervillians playset). It was a lovely time, and I ended up trapped 10,000 years in the future with a zombie tiger. So, that’s a thing.

On the whole, I don’t consider myself to be much of a player of Story Games. They’re fine enough, and I certainly enjoyed myself this evening, but I’m still beholden to the call of slightly more traditional games: GM-led narratives and mechanics-heavy action and characters defined by their skills more so than their goals, and things of that nature. Which is odd, because I AM a dude who values the story inherent in games, and appreciates the potential for narrative arcs which are present in story games and harder to shoe into traditional games. But you know, it’s a spectrum, isn’t it? And I like hanging out close to the highly narrative story-telling systems, but with a foot firmly planted in thick rulebooks and the tracking of hit points.

Still, I did have a lovely time, and it is likely to be something I’ll do again. A valuable experience and, yes, one with zombie tigers in it, so that’s not to be overlooked.