Monthly Archives: November 2012

GMotW: Fallout: New Vegas and teamwork.

New Vegas box art“Having a companion adds specific bonuses for each character, such as increases to the effectiveness of healing items, or stat increases . These bonuses are only in effect while that character is with you, and go away as soon as you dismiss them from your party.”

From page 15 of the manual for Fallout: New Vegas.

The Courier, protagonist in the Mojave Wastes, is different from his/her (for the sake of brevity, I’m going to make the Courier female, because that’s how I played the game) precursors in the earlier Fallout games in any number of ways. She’s not a Vault Dweller–no evidence that she’d ever seen the inside of one before the game began. She’s not a Chosen One–despite the role she plays in defining the Mohave, she got to where she was by stumbling across something bigger than she was by accident and just being too darn stubborn to die. And she’s not, not, not a Lone Wanderer, as the mechanic above indicates.

Having companions has been a staple of the series since, rumor has it, about ten minutes before the first one was shipped, when someone realized that, oh crap, this game is basically impossible if you didn’t spec for small weapons, maybe we should add a dude who’s good at shooting things and willing to tag along into incredibly deadly situations for a pittance, stick him in the first town, and just hope nobody randomly encounters a swarm of radroaches on the way there. NOT THAT I’M BITTER ABOUT THAT OR ANYTHING.

Anyway. While the integration of the companions was improved, narratively and mechanically, in part two, and kept about on par despite the genre shift in 3, I’d say it wasn’t until NV that I really felt that companions were a part of the game. Storylines and sidequests for everyone. An interface that made interacting with companions quick and intuitive. Reasonably effective stealth options if that’s your bailiwick. And the rule above: effects which are only in place when the character is by your side. If the doctor is with you, healing items are better; if the alcoholic is with you, booze is better; if the repairman is with you, all your weapons are better, and so on, and so forth… each potential companion has a perk attached to him or her or it which allows you some benefit if, and only if, the companion is by your side.

Mechanically I like this because, hey, it makes companion choice much more interesting than simply picking whomever has the best stats or the prettiest sprite and heading on your way. It affects how you play. But that’s not all it does. It makes companions something more than mobile turrets and loot-carriers. It makes them feel like active participants in the adventuring process.

I know, I know, practically speaking all that Arcade Gannon does (besides shoot dudes and spout sarcasm) is bathe me in a passive aura which makes stim-packs 25% more effective, I know this. But, at the risk of being a dude who uses the word “immersive” with a straight face, one can also make treat it as if what he’s doing is suggesting that I inject the thing in THIS vein, and not in THAT artery, for maximum effectiveness. Rex is sniffing and barking at interesting things. ED-E is tapping directly into my PIP-boy’s radar. They’re doing something, even if that’s not coming through directly on screen, to make them more than merely glorified pack mules.

(I wish, sometimes, that more had been done in this… perhaps the ED-E augmented radar could have a slightly different UI to signify that it has been hacked into, and perhaps Boone’s sniper-vision could be accompanied by a few clips of him whispering “Hostile at 12:00, 150 yards back,” and the like. Complexities that add nothing mechanical, but increase that connection between the rule and the story.)

Adding more story, more dialogue, and more personality to NPCs… that can only do so much. Real people accomplish things. Real people are useful. Sometimes, adding more mechanical interaction makes things more narratively compelling, and that’s a neat fact indeed.


GMotW: The Quiet Year and staying quiet.

The other day I was lucky enough to play a game of The Quiet Year at the Story Games Seattle meet-up. It is… interesting, and I mean that in both the sense that it does neat and unusual things AND in the sense that there’s a part of me which is reluctant to go ahead and say “good,” “bad,” or “mediocre,” because whatever I pick will require a whole hell of a lot of explanation. And I’m not here to be a reviewer (notwithstanding the times when I do just that, obviously). No, I’m here chat about game mechanics.

Since The Quiet Year isn’t actually out as of this writing, I don’t own it, so rather than citing a paraphrase of a memory of a rule, I’m going to quote Joe McDaldno’s brief example of play.

The Quiet Year logo“Nobody is allowed to talk about this decision or utter protest at this point, because it isn’t their turn and this isn’t a discussion. They do have the option of taking a Contempt [token], though…”

The Quiet Year is a game about drawing a map, specifically the map of a small community which has survived in a post-apocalyptic environment. You draw the important structures, you draw important figures, you draw terrain and animals and objects and weapons and weather and radiation and music and omens… some you draw literally, much you draw metaphorically, but every turn (which represents one week in this quiet year between the departure of the Jackals and the arrival of the Frost Shepherds) something is going to go on that map.

The map, then, is the central vector of communication, because the players aren’t people; they are the community on the page. Not heads of it, not members of it, but the thing itself… I’ve heard the players described as modes of thought within the community, which works as long as we don’t start to interpret that as factions within the community, which doesn’t. It’s very strange for folks used to playing an individual, who is free to discuss what their best tactical options are at any moment.

But communities aren’t really about discussion, tactics, or logic. Communities are about things just happening; decisions are made without anybody being consulted and everyone either runs with it or gets pissed. If you’ve lived with more than one roommate in your life, you’ve experienced this writ small: “Why’s the dish soap under the sink? Is that where we’re keeping it now? Okay, whatever.”

Obviously, the decisions faced in this quiet year are more important, but the same idea is present: decisions get made that we can’t all agree on, and the game keeps throwing decision points at us. A stranger comes to town, do we invite him in, lock him out, or send him running? If we were the heads of state we could have a conversation and a vote, but we are NOT. We’re a community too small and struggling to have a meaningful government, so we deal with people doing whatever they think best: the guys at the gate let him in. The more paranoid folks in the tower are pissed. Tension is generated. The source of that tension: the guys at the gate did something without consulting the guys in the tower.

In real life this makes perfect sense for any number of practical reasons. In the game, we need to force the issue: thus, we cannot, must not, do not consult one another. No commentary, no objections, no nothing. Not because we’re dicking one another over, no, but because in a real society, practical considerations prevent it. I just bought dish soap, it has to go somewhere, and everyone else is at work, so I’ll stick it under the sink for now. I sure as hell didn’t mean it as a political statement! But it is, because even though we can’t discuss every little topic, we are constantly affecting one another.

Everything goes on the map, but there’s no discussion about it. We all affect one another, but we can’t talk about how. All we can do is take a Contempt token, which is a visual representation of “Hey, now there’s some tension and grumbling in the community about what just happened,” or hold a discussion. The latter seems like an ideal option until you realize that A) it happens after the event of the week, which means its good for airing of greivances and long-term strategy but not any sort of “what now” conversation, and B) it prevents us from discovering anything or starting any project this week. Both of which make sense when you remember that, hey… we’re a society. We’re not three to five folks at a table, we’re three to five hundred in a compound, and we don’t have the infrastructure to put “Proposition 1: Guys, can we just keep the dish soap out on the sink?” on the ballot.

Limited, codified communication to force players to be something other than human? That’s super, super interesting.


Conference!

Anyone planning on attending 2013’s Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Associations conference? Just me, then?

Well if you DO attend, be sure to look for me, because I’ll be presenting “‘War…War Can Change’: The Developing Role of Idealism in the Fallout Series” at some point. Exciting!


GMotW: Team Fortress 2 and the difficulty curve.

“Each class has a unique set of weapons at their disposal occupying weapon slots 1, 2, and 3 (often referred to as primary, secondary, and melee, respectively)… The choices players make in choosing weapons and items constitutes their loadout.”

Courtesy of the Team Fortress 2 wiki, let’s talk about Team Fortress 2.

I don’t, as a rule, like first-person shooters or online multiplayer games. I do like TF2. Somehow, it works in a way that, say, the various Halos never did for me. Part of this is because the Team Fortress games were early pioneers in the field of spawning players with all the weapons they are going to get. The importance of this, I think, cannot be overstated, and is doubtless a part of why the game is as popular as it is.

Nobody wants to do something that they are bad at. When faced with a task you are bad at, you either put it away (“ah, this sucks, forget it”) or attempt to be good (“no, screw YOU game, I’m gonna win!”). Most often you attempt the latter until stymied, at which point the fun-versus-effort dynamic shifts such that you switch to the former. In a competitive situation like, well, a multiplayer deathmatch, it’s a lot more difficult to undertake the sort of mechanical experimentation which allows you got get good, or even competent. Especially if you’re playing against the sorts of folks who know where the sniper rifle and rocket launcher spawn, so they go grab them right away, and you are lucky to get ten feet away from your base without your head or your self exploding. Bah, screw this game, I quit!

But no, TF2 eschews that. You want to be a dude with a rocket launcher, you are a dude with a rocket launcher: he is a Soldier, his name is Jane Doe, and he shoots ROCKETS from a point just above his right shoulder: what else do you need to know? You want to snipe, be a Sniper, you want to scout, be a Scout, et cetera, et cetera. While any competitive game (and anything you might call a game at all) has a learning curve, this flattens it tremendously, because becoming an effective member of the team is now less dependent on intuitively understanding where everything appears on the map, and more on recognizing what skills you possess and being ready to use them. Me, I’m bad at shooting, so I tend to stick with the Engineer or Pyro as needed.

The way TF2 handles loadouts allows players to obtain new weapons and change them out between rounds as well, such that a Soldier will always fire a rocket launcher but he may fire one which does less damage but gives him health on a hit, or which is especially effective at knockback at the expense of ammo capacity, or whatever other tradeoffs seem compelling (and tradeoffs are great, that I cannot deny). Ignoring for a moment the hassle involved in obtaining these specialty weapons (although those with mechanical effects can all be purchased), this is another means by which players may allow themselves to be more easily drawn into the game. I go soldier when it makes sense for the objective, but I never go without my Black Box for the extra healing it provides. Likewise, I never Medic without the Vita-Saw which makes getting killed less painful, and never Pyro without the Backburner to improve my ambushes, because I know how I play and what I like and these are the weapons which appeal to me.

… that being said.

That being said, Team Fortress 2 is starting to approach Item Bloat. This is an interesting phenominon, in which the multiplicity of options which once made things easier for new and old players to play to their strengths is going to invert. While the class system will remain, hopefully, static, the ever-increasing supply of weapons with strange new effects mean that players A) cannot effectively recognize or predict what other players are capable of, and B) cannot easily identify which weapon from a large set will most effectively complement their abilities.

To some players, the bloat point has been reached. To others, the current choices are not overwhelming, and I am of the latter camp, but I have concerns for the future. Already the difficulty curve is rising based not on knowledge of the individual maps but of the plethora of effects… I might know exactly how to get the sniper rifle, but I don’t know what it means to be crit-boosted, marked for death, mad milked, jarated, bleeding, on fire, speed boosted, overhealed, or any of the other dozen-odd status effects which might apply to me or whomever I point a weapon at. Suddenly it takes more knowledge to effectively create a character than it does to play, which is sort of like presenting someone with a game of chess and watching it morph into D&D 4E (and if there is a better comparison point for game bloat than 4E, I cannot think of one).

What is the future for Team Fortress 2? More stuff, more stuff, and less interest each update until, ten years down the road, they stop making new equipment altogether although the servers will remain up for another decade. That’s my guess.

Oooh, depressing note. It’s still a mechanic I can get behind, I just wish they wouldn’t abuse it so.


Steamfitters updates

Hey y’all. Game Mechanic of the Week is getting pushed back to tomorrow, because I want to talk about my own game, and I’m not QUITE self-absorbed enough to make something from there my GMotW.

Last night was the final playtest of the Guild of Steamfitters for the next, oh, month or so. I haven’t talked about it much, but it has been an ongoing project (much thanks to Sterling and Irene for being my initial guinea pigs in this endeavor). Once a week we’d play, I’d collect a few opinions, tweak things a little, and then try again. Of course, the problem with tweaking is that there’s only so much you can do with a campaign when its ongoing; it’s one thing to adjust your heading and shift gears a little, it’s another to try and change the tires while the car is in motion.

And there are some tires that need to be changed, indeed. Crafting is operating really, really well in theory but, uh, less well in reality. Likewise, the system for taking injury needs some alteration, though much of that may be based on the fact that I would just sort of steal another game’s HP-analogue every week and see how it felt… I need a bit more dedicated time thinking about how I want it to work and how I can reach that goal. There are other issues as well, some small, some large, but all told sufficiently numerous that I want to spend some dedicated time in alterations, so that I can hit a fresh playtesting experience with new characters (even if they’re just old characters made with new rules).

Still, plenty is working right. That’s exciting. Both involved parties have had fun, enough that they kept coming back even though I had nothing to offer but dice and tea. In  day or so I’m gonna send them out a questionairre and ask them to grade me, but for the moment I’m still riding high on the off-the-cuff post-game comments (paraphrased to the best of my recollection):

  • “You have have a knock-out brawl with someone, or you can try to ninja your way past them, and both are about equally workable in terms of effectiveness.” Which is to say, there’s a lot of freedom in what one can do in a combat situation, although punching someone until he stops fighting back remains a valid option if that’s where your mind goes.
  • “I felt like I could make a character it was easy to get into.” Which is to say, there’s a lot of freedom in the character creation process. Which is especially exciting because that was tent-peg #1 in this process: let dudes play whats in their heads. It’s possible to lose that by getting too far into mechanics and balance and things like that.
  • “It feels like we were winning more often these last few sessions than the first few.” Which is to say… I’m not sure. I haven’t tweaked the basic mechanic over-much; it could be their taking advantage of advantages, or greater comfort with the system, but I’m thinking it might be something I’ve been doing: making failed rolls not mean “you don’t accomplish the task” but rather “you accomplish this and something bad happens”. If it made the heroes feel more heroic, then it’s worth codifying and putting in the rules for real.

A few other nice things were said, and a few other comments about items worth paying attention to, but this is what’s on my mind right now. Alright then; to editing. Time to polish this thing.

 


What’s this?

What’s this? What’s this? NaGa DeMon?

Oh my. Oh my. National Game Design Month. Interesting INDEED.

You know, I’m a dude who likes to take on projects more than I like to have projects, if that makes sense. It’s a nasty habit, and one I’m weaning myself off of. I’ve officially given up on NaNoWriMo, for instance, for a number of reasons (outlined here, on a Tumblr which I rarely update), though I am using November as a “focus month” for editing the novel discussed in said link. Plus I’ve got the Guild of Steamfitters on my plate. Plus I want to get some short story writing done before the year is out. Plus I should submit to the SW/Tex Pop Culture academic conference and don’t have a lot of time to create an abstract. PLUS I’d like to get Found Footage at least somewhat playtested and polished.

AND YET. And yet. Design, play, and talk about a game? Hell, that’s something I might well do by accident this month. It’s like being challenged to make and eat an omelet; there’s a good chance I was about to do it anyway, I just didn’t know that there was a challenge attached to it.

I honestly don’t know if I have a plan here, except in the sense that, yeah, there’s a half-formed idea burning in my head based on that last GMotW: a card-based space battle game mechanically centered around the allocation of energy and crewmen. And a modular ship design allowing for the trade and acquisition of new weapons. I have some keen, burning ideas about how that might work.

… I also have a lot on my plate. This is going to require some soul-searching and prioritizing.


GMotW: FTL and “I’m givin’ her all she’s got, Captain!”

FTL logo“Try to keep your vital systems fully powered. RIGHT CLICK to depower a system if you want to reroute its power!”

I’ve been pretty involved with FTL: Faster Than Light for this last week.

It’s pretty keen. For those of you not familiar, FTL, by Subset Games, is a Kickstarter darling that made about twenty times its funding goal because, I don’t know, I guess the world was just ready for a spaceship-management realtime roguelike-like. I don’t know. It’s keen, though; you run a little spaceship trying to go through eight increasingly hostile sectors of space, battling pirates, marauders, asteroid fields and other dangers, perpetually on the run from the rebel fleet which is ever-encroaching from behind you. Eventually you will find and defeat the rebel flagship or, most likely, die trying. The universe is a hostile place, you see… in the grim darkness of whatever year this is meant to take place, there is not a lot that’s not war.

The core of FTL, after all, is resource management. On the one hand you have the necessary and almost prosaic aspects: your Hull, which is HP that doesn’t heal itself, and your fuel which steadily drains as you jump from location to location. More interesting is when we get to resources that tug you in multiple directions: missiles are generally used in missile launchers, naturally, but also bombs which may have strange effects like starting fires or healing your crew. Drone parts let you use internal maintenance bots or external defense or attack drones. Scrap is currency, but it is also, essentially, XP you need to improve your ship. Crew… oh man. You need a pilot or the ship can’t go. You need crew to repair systems, you need them to man systems to make them more efficient, you need them to fight boarding parties, to be boarding parties, to take part in random events and maybe get killed. You need them for a million thing and you start with, like, four dudes, max. That’s enough to man every station with nobody to spare. Ha hah! DECISIONS!

And nowhere is this mad management panic more central than in the constant struggle to put power into your systems. And believe me, unless you go out of your way to pump scrap into your reactor and never, ever improve anything else, you are going to need to divert power on the fly: you’ll start with maybe eight units of energy and systems which can take at least ten. Between shields to absorb damage, engines to evade missiles, weapons to return fire you’ll eat up almost all the energy in your reactor, so you need to keep an eye on your oxygen level because if it drops too low folks start dying. Also, look at your crew’s health, because if it drops too low, well, they die. Either way you’ll need to power life support or medical, and where is that power going to come from, huh? Where?

In my case, usually engines, which means I immediately take missile to the shields, which breaks them, which lets me be raked by lasers, which kills me. So that’s a thing.

Anyway, what I particularly like about this is that sense of loss: in order to get the power I need elsewhere, I have to take it AWAY from something. There’s a physicality attached to this which wouldn’t be nearly as effective if, for instance, power was measured like a liquid, and overpowering one system dropped everything else fractionally. It’s one thing to know you’re reducing your effectiveness across the board, it’s another thing entirely to say “Guys, we’re going to need to activate the cloaking device so, uh, I’m going to turn off life support for a few minutes.” CLICK. The system turns grey, the O2 starts dropping, and now we’re on a timer. It makes the decision to reroute power that much more definite, and that much harder in those cases where, damn it, you need TWO more units in order to bring up your Glave Beam, and that means you’re going to have to drop a shield. Not “reduce the effectiveness of your shields by a given percentage,” buddy. TURN OFF one of your shields. Oooh, I get chills thinking about it, and the risk and resource management inherent in the process itself, and the particular power that depowering adds to it.

Obviously, attaching benefits to detriments is as old as the hills in RPGs of all stripes (e.g.: “Offensive stance: your blows hit harder, but your AC is reduced!”) but FTL’s power management is that taken to a greater level : you can’t even try to hit unless you stop trying to defend yourself. It’s combat stances by way of The Cold Equations, and I love it from one end of the galaxy to the next.