Monthly Archives: October 2012

GMotW: Don’t Rest Your Head

Hallo, fright-fans and scream-thusiasts and spooky-time party people! It’s almost Halloween and I’m going off to a haunted house in a few, but I’m not about to overlook a Game Mechanic of the Week!

Don't Rest Your Head cover“Once a protagonist’s discipline drops to zero, his madness transcends his mind and takes root in his flesh, and he is trasformed into a Nightmare.”

This week, let’s consider horror, with one of the world’s finest horror-style RPGs, from the fine folks at Evil Hat: Don’t Rest Your Head. In this game, the players are insomniacs wandering through the Mad City, an impossible place of living nightmares that only the Awake can see. The Mad City is a bad place, populated as it is by horrors which want to render all sorts of harm unto the nice people who wander in: implacable clockwork officers and prophetic newsboys and wax soldiers and all that rot. Scary stuff, to be sure, but that’s what the scary is really about. Oh no.

The Scary in DRYH is internal and very much tied into the mechanics of the game; you want to accomplish things, you roll a pool of dice. Discipline is your base, then exhaustion, then madness. The more you roll, the greater your odds of victory, but the more problematic that victory might be: when exhaustion dominates, you get more exhausted, until such a point as you crash and sleep for days, unable to defend yourself. When madness dominates you flip out or freak out, and eventually snap, a process that costs you one of your baseline discipline dice.

And, if you do that enough, you become a nightmare.

Don’t Rest Your Head works as a horror game because there is an ever-present threat, tied directly into the mechanics of the game: even when you succeed, you risk pushing yourself closer to a major failure. That’s great! What’s better is that this is a tension pulling in multiple directions… on the short term, straight up failing in an objective. On the middling term, passing out and probably dying. But on the long term, oh man: becoming the monster. It sells the particular nature of this Mad City more so than a threat of death might be; anyone can be fatigued until they croak, but only those in a living nightmare risk turning into a Nightmare. Moreover, it makes Madness as a game resource, and the use of Madness Talents and the risk of Fight or Fight responses much more vibrant: if all I had to worry about when rolling Madness was getting crazy and wanting to punch dudes, I’ll roll madness all the time. But no, there’s a long term worry, longer term than even getting killed by passing out (you might crash after as few as four unfortunate rolls, but it takes about a dozen to devolve into a Nightmare, not that you should ever hit either one of these points quite so quickly).

Plus, it’s a classic. There are a lot of ways to die in the horror genre, but there’s nothing quite so classic and pervasive as the “you are turned into the monster” which permeates all kinds of classic spooksters: vampires, zombies, werewolves, certain kinds of alien, possessing demons and ghosts, lots of magic-users, and, here, nightmares made flesh. It speaks to something deep inside us, the fear of losing our sense of self which is somehow worse than merely losing our life, and it is a threat which always hangs over the heads of the folks running pell-mell through the Mad City, thinking that they can go a little crazy to get what they need but aware that it pushes them a hair closer to being that which they are running from.

Found Footage

I’ve been working on a pair of projects of late. One I’ve mentioned here: the Guild of Steamfitters (among other potential names), my stuff-oriented steampunk traditional RPG. That’s going alright; I’ve had a handful of useful playtests, but it’s a big affair with a number of systems and won’t be anything like Done for a while.

The OTHER has been a secret project, less because I like an air of mystery and more because I’m super-lazy with regards to self-documentation. Ha-hah, yes. But it’s reached an impressive point of near-finish so I figure I should mention it!

It’s called Found Footage, and the currently-finished portions of it are available here, for the main rules document, and here, for the oracles/playsets/whatever you want to call them. Note, if you decide to pursue those links, that the rules document isn’t particularly well-organized at the moment, though it is complete (there’s a summary outline at the end which should make things a little more clear); it’s a horror-themed story-game, so I thought it best to have it available to the world prior to Halloween because, you know… spoooooooky!

As the title implies, it’s a game about recreating the particular narrative format of found-footage horror movies; see the Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Grave Encounters, and a whole mess of others. You use a deck of cards to determine character relationships, and more importantly, determine what horrors are going to get caught on tape, and more importantly still, determine which characters are going to be killed horribly before the credits roll. That, uh, that’s going to be most of the characters, to be honest; you go in with like a 10% chance of survival if I’m mathing right. Slim, but not entirely without hope!

Of course, right now there aren’t as many options as there will be down the line; you’ll note in that second link that there’s but one location (the Woods), one monster (the Stalker) and one crew (the Documentary crew). Unacceptable in the long term, but fine right now. Adding another pair of locations (the suburbs and the abandoned hospital come to mind) and pair of crew-types (student filmmakers and TV pilot crew, maybe) will help, but really I need more monsters.

I’m keeping them vague, because the players should be creating the monster as they go, but monster types definitely lend the monster a bit of character. The Stalker has a lot of options for directly interacting with people, comparatively less for sending minions at them and having them go mad, and even less for letting the environment take them out (stalkers are too up close and personal for that jazz). In the near future I’d also like to assemble a Hoard archetype which is weak on direct action but strong on environmental damage from starvation and infection and whatnot, a Mastermind archetype which runs minions first, and a Cosmic Force archetype which, needless to say, brings madness in its wake.

And that’s just the beginning, because oracles/playsets/whatever are the gift that keeps on giving. Beast-type, alien-type, demon-type, other more specific monsters.

It’s untested as of right now, but I’m feeling confident. I’m hoping to get a game together sometime soon, but if not, I’ll still keep it here in case you want to try it as a stranger on the Internet. If so, let me know how it works!

GMotW: The Electoral College

1960 cover
“Players should now claim the state seals for every state where they have state support cubes. At this point, players may total up their electoral votes (displayed on the backs of the state seals) and determine the winner.”

I’m feeling a bit political. Just a bit. So I’m looking at a rule from Z-Man Games’s absolutely delightful 1960: The Making of the President. It’s a game about a close run for the US presidency that puts players in the shoes of Kennedy and Nixon. And it’s a rule which you can see in a slightly less “gamey” form in no less a document than the constitution of the United States, good ol’ Amendment XII:

“The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed.”

… that is to say, my game mechanic of the week is the Electoral College system.

“But wait,” you (theoretically) say, “The Electoral College isn’t a game! It’s how we elect the dang old president here in the dang old USA!”

To which I say… oh isn’t it? Of course it’s a game mechanic, and you can see this by looking at how interesting it makes 1960, which is, incidentally, a terrifically fun bit of political strategics that I’m not allowed to play with my wife anymore because I always win (it’s okay, I’ve never beaten her at Dominion, so we’re pretty even). It allows you to view states as strategic tools and compare them effectively; Michigan is twice as important as Tennessee  but roughly half as important as New York. If you have a lock on Texas, I can’t equal that out quickly, but if I’ve got enough momentum in the West I can grab all four corners and that’ll be pretty close. If it’s down to the wire, maybe we’ll both fly to California and throw campaign points at one another because nothing else can change fast enough to make a difference. The Electoral College allows Kennedy and Nixon’s players to create varied strategies regarding how they approach the map; this is what lets the game be about more than drawing cards that make you look good and pumping time into issues and advertising. The most basic choice is between pumping your efforts into the big three–NY, CA, and TX–and defending them from attack, or spreading the love around to the other 47 which get you significantly fewer votes per campaign point spent, but can’t be taken away so quickly, but there are any number of variations to try; focus on one quadrant of the map, keep your best cards hidden until debate season and then sweep the big states, throw everything you’ve got into endorsements and then just keep your opponent as deadlocked as possible, so on and so forth.

It’s a neat system, and it’s fantastically gameable. Just like in real life.

“But wait,” you (theoretically) say (again), “In real life there are no contests over New York or California or Texas anymore. That’s not how campaigns have been run for the past two decades or so!”

True, I say. That’s when we go off on a long talk about metagaming. You know, the game about the game… the reason that tiers exist in fighting-type games: there are methods for working with Meta Knight that allow him to outpace Kirby in every way possible, such that competitive players don’t play Kirby anymore. To say nothing of Ganon, who nobody wants to play as. Metagames, the reason you can write a book about chess that’s longer than, like, ten pages.

Metagaming is the reason one can look at an element of the game, for instance the entire state of Washington, and acknowledge that it is, by and large, irrelevant. Oh, it’s got points, and if you can snag them that’s good, but there’s no impetus to do so as anything but a half-hearted side-action when you’ve got campaigning energy to spare and you’ve already locked in California.

But that’s in 1960 again. In real life, the Electoral College metagame is so gosh darn locked in, neither Washington nor California matter, which is why, if you are politically minded, you’ve probably realized that the past six months of campaigning have been spent all but exclusively in trying to win over Ohio and, like, six other states out of fifty. Presidential Candidates focusing on a West-coast state? About as likely as chessmasters opening a game by moving their knight into the A or H column!

(This is incredibly unlikely. I looked it up.)

Now, this is about as political as I’m likely to get here, so let’s swing away from things that don’t work really well for management of a country and re-iterate how well they work in order to codify a facsimile of a country, because they do. They let you game, they let you metagame, and they let you scheme (which really makes you feel like Nixon), and it’s just a game so nobody really cares that Alaska is literally not worth campaigning in under any circumstances. Ain’t no cardboard Alaskans getting disenfranchised!

Bleh. Enough of that.

GMotW: Settlers of Catan.

Settlers of Catan cover

Settlers! Oh, a classic. Oh, THE classic. There are folks for whom tabletop gaming means Monopoly, and folks for whom it means Warhammer 40K, and folks for whom it means Fiasco, but if you get those three together around a big-ass hexagon I don’t doubt for a minute they can come together and have
a delightful time celebrating ruthless imperial expansionism.

Woo, take that indiginous peoples! We gon’ cop some resources!

Ahem. Settlers has a long history, a ton of expansions, an empire of its own, and a game mechanic of the week:

“If you roll a “7,” no one receives any resources.”

The whole point of Settlers of Catan is to get resources, so why am I excited about a rule telling me not to do so? Indeed, one which means that one roll out of six is going to mean that nothing gets produced, even though all I need is ONE. GODDAMN. SHEEP. in order to build this last settlement and nudge my way gently toward victory?

One of the defining features of Settlers, one which tends to get a little lost or muddled as expansions are added, is that its really a game about low stakes and narrow margins. It’s a game in which no player can be more than seven points ahead of another, and it’s not difficult or even really uncommon to steal the two-point Longest Road or Largest Army away from someone else; four points of swing in a game where every point matters is pretty nuts, you know. In my experience this often leads, especially with Longest Road, into an arms race, where whomever has the longest road is frantically trying to keep it going, at least until her opponent gives up or she maxes out on road segments.

Because the stakes are low, and the margins are slim. Two points is everything to a settler, and in the same way a good shepherd spends an entire afternoon searching for a single lost sheep, a good settler spends turn after turn after turn defending a her two points, ignoring the opportunities to build a settlement or cash in for a development card. The margins are that small.It’s easy to recognize a board where this has happened: the roads go nowhere. They drift off, well away from settlements, curcumnavigating the island, passing on two sides of the desert, nearly looping around themselves. There are only 75 places to even stick a road on this dang board, it’s not easy to make one go nowhere interesting, but man, when an arms race develops, you can tell. And why does this happen?

Because that four-point swing is DEATH. The game functions at its best when we are scrapping for every point, when we’re desperate for every resource, when we’re willing to overlook the fact that Orange is a self-serving conniving little bastard who only wants out wood so he can build a new settlement right where we want to put one, because dammit, dammit we NEED that ore or we’re never going to get a city to crawl out of the mud on this god-forsaken rock!

(Maybe your games of Catan don’t get as dramatic as mine do? Maybe you’re playing Settlers of Catan wrong?)

…which brings me back to rolling a seven. It does a lot; it moves the robber, it halves hands which have gotten too big, it lets the roller engage in a bit of petty theft, but most importantly it stops resources from being produced for one turn in six. It does a lot to ensure that resources are scarce, because if they weren’t scarce, I wouldn’t give a crap and a half about my longest road. I’d say that, well, two points suck to lose, but let’s just drop a road out to here and lay a settlement and quick-upgrade it into a city because I’ve got a MILLION resources to use or trade and now I’ve got two points back that ain’t nobody going to take away from me, and then I’d move on with my life.

But no. I can’t count on resources coming up. I have to hold on to every point I got with a desperate, manic fervor. I have to roll the dice with my heart in my throat knowing that even in the mid-to-late game, when I’ve got settlements on nearly every number and can count on getting something for my trouble most of the time, there’s a one-in-six chance that I’m going to suffer the heartbreak of a seven, and I’ll need to stretch my meager hand a little more if I want to scrape together another desperately-needed point.

GMotW: Dominions & Discard Piles

“A player places cards he Buys or otherwise acquires during the game on his Discard pile unless he is specifically directed to place them elsewhere.”

Oh yes, Dominion (and by extension, Donald X. Vaccarino), how I love you. Enough to make you a Game Mechanic of the Week.

I’m not willing to say that Dominion is the best board or card game on the market right now, but I sure as heck am willing to put the idea in your head, and I’m definitely willing to suggest that if you haven’t played Dominion or any of its expansions, then you should make plans right the heck now. Or just scoot over here and play an online edition. Go on. I’ll still be here when you get back.

The conceit of the game is that you are a lord with, well, a dominion, and you spend your turn acquiring funds, and useful buildings and workers to make it run, and the ever-important huge plots of land. Everything is represented by a card, and your deck of three estates and seven copper coins will swell to bursting in a handful of turns, as you get more and more great STUFF. It’s fantastic, its wonderful, and it creates this wonderful balancing act: money boosts your buying power, action cards let you do useful things, and land is what gives you victory points. It all gets shoved together in one deck, though; you can’t choose what you draw, and you draw a new hand every turn. In this way, it’s a great impression of being a feudal lord: you make the best use of the resources you have at this moment, and try to engineer what resources you will have in the future to benefit you, and don’t let your greed for land distract you from the fact that land is actually a drain, taking up valuable space.

One of most clever ways this is enforced is by preventing you from using the stuff that you have. When you buy a card, it gets thrown on the discard pile, and doesn’t enter your hand until you’ve gone through your entire deck, at which point you reshuffle the discards, knowing that whatever useful item you have acquired will show up at some point, but never being able to tell when exactly that point might be. Doing this strips away your ability to do any short-term planning; you can deal with what’s in your hand right now, and you can set up possibilities down the road, but the next turn is always going to be a mystery for you. More to the point, the cards you acquire aren’t useful immediately, mitigating the possibility for a player who draws a decent hand to suddenly steamroll over everyone else by buying up All the Cards.

It’s also a lovely testament to the power of exception-based gameplay. The rules to Dominion are ridiculously simple: play an Action card, Buy one card, then Clean up your area of the table. A, B, C. The fun comes in the Action cards, which let you do things like getting an extra Buy, or an extra action, or a free coin to spend, or trash a card, or draw some more cards, or gain a free card, or… you get the idea. You get to do some fun stuff, which works, without becoming convoluted and terrible, because the basic rules as written are so simple and specific. Just from this one, I can see a half dozen different ways an Action card might twist it:

Add a card right to your hand for possible immediate use.

Put a card on top of your deck, ready for next turn.

Put a card on the bottom of your deck (which fluctuates wildly in how useful it is).

Put a card on your deck and then shuffle the deck; it’s coming but you don’t know quite when.

Put a card in your discard, then shuffle the discard pile right back into the deck.

Put a card next to your deck. On any following turn, discard a card from your hand to pick it up.

… and more, ever more esoteric variations, each of which alters the playing field by messing with this one simple rule, because, like all of the rules of Dominion, it’s made to be broken by the action cards. OBVIOUSLY having a bureaucrat on hand means you can guarantee some money on the short term; he shifts cash for you! Obviously having a trading post means you can get some money immediately; it’s where money comes in! Obviously a chancellor can let you discard your entire deck; he, uh, uh, makes things flow more efficiently while he’s there such that the items you acquire aren’t going to lie fallow for some time. Something like that; there’s a thematic layer there which the mechanics supplement. It’s lovely.

That said, I don’t think I’ve ever won a game of Dominion against my wife, which is why I don’t know when if ever I’ll be playing it again.