October 30, 2010

Hook, Line, and Sinker (Part 1)

Today, I talk about running the game, specifically, making memorable encounters, adventures, and campaigns in any system. My trick? Use narrative tools to plan your game: hook them with a believable goal, taunt them with them, drawing them deeper into trouble and excitement, then when the moment is right, explode with the final confrontation, and let them have what it is they want.

As has been oft quoted by GM resources again and again, you always need a hook.  I've seen plenty of hooks in my experiences playing and GMing, and they don't all appeal to different people.

Hook 1: Greed

This is probably the most common in combat games. Greed is present any time the players do something for gear, cash, or experience. That drive for more can be a useful tool, and for players who have this motivation, abuse it mercilessly. Offer extra rewards, cooler gear, or bigger experience rewards. (I'll talk about my thoughts on experience points and character advancement in a later blog.)

Hook 2: Revenge

This one is another very common motivation I've seen in players. They love tracking people who get the better of them, be it in combat, a deal, or other challenge. This is a tricky one to use on purpose, but if the players ever get the short end of the stick, expect them to go back for the rest of it.

Hook 3: Glory

This one is less common, but I've seen it enough to include it here. This is absolutely a pure story reward: getting 'in' with the king, being given a medal, anything of the sort. Giving the players a chance to do something foolhardy, risky, and above all important to the setting will set this hook.

Hook 4: Knowledge

This is probably the least common hook in some games. Players want to know more: who stole the ruby? Who left that note? What's beyond those mountains? Driven by a desire to find out what twist lay hidden beyond that next turn drives them to getting into places no one else has gone, and getting into trouble no one new existed.

Just about every hook you can think of will be one of these four, and, if you hadn't noticed yet, they all tie back to a desire for more. Greed drives everything. The biggest probably is getting your players involved. Most hooks beyond greed require some player-GM interaction: ask your players what their CHARACTER wants.

Each player has, in their head, an idea of who their character is; take advantage of it. Be formal if you have to, but really, just talk. Listen to your players, pay attention to why they do things. Unlike book characters, players are often talking out loud about why they want something.

Once you have these goals, whatever they are, short, medium, or long, you can put it in your plans somehow. Each encounter or conflict you present your players should lead them to one of these goals, and the more intricately you can combine them, the better.  If your group has a goal to save a kingdom, but there's an opportunity for one of the players to reach one of their goals in another direction, you have some drama built into the situation. Decisions are the thing that makes a game interesting, opportunity costs have a much more powerful effect on the players than a failed die roll. This is how you use hooks to drive a campaign.

For adventures, it’s much simpler, as your players have already told you their goal. The hook is going to be one of the above, but it’s going to be very short term, something they can get to at the end of the story arc. Maybe it’s the current McGuffin, drawing them to the end with Greed. Make the final encounter with a foe who had once bested them, focusing them with Revenge. Maybe Glory drives them after an enemy that has been tormenting the local lands. Sometimes, even important bits of Knowledge can drive an adventure.

For encounter level design it’s even easier, though you’ll gain points with your players if the goal changes a bit. If the only thing they want is to kill the goblins to get to the door it will get old fast. Give them another goal occasionally. Ambush them to draw them in with Revenge. Throw in a renowned foe to get them to act for Glory. Or maybe let it slip that one of their foes knows something they need to know and see how Knowledge drives them.

Hooks are awesome things, and without them, you won’t have players interested enough to have memorable games. How about you, readers, did I miss any hooks? Do you have any examples of the above hooks in play? Comment below! (Sign in with a Gmail account and you can avoid that nasty anonymous tag!)

Find Part 2 Here

October 24, 2010

Taking Heat

The mechanic in discussion today is 'hit points.' Some people like them, some people hate them, and some people really don't care.  I assume if you're still reading, you have an opinion on them, and it's probably a strong one.  So time for me to lose the last of my readers this week:

I think it depends.

It depends heavily on the game and the overall feel the designers are going for.  Even among heavily complex games, there seems to be a solid divide.  Some like things rough and tough, one hit, you're gone.  Others, Dungeons and Dragons at the top of the list here, offer quite a bit of plot immunity.  I'll say I think I like the middle road the best.

I don't think you should die in a single hit.  It really sucks to run into a combat situation and having the dice come up just right to leave you totally unable to continue.  Some sort of plot armor needs to exist.

I do think you need to have some form of 'danger' at all points.  Threatening your ability to fight, or, even more extreme, to play at all, is a fairly good way to keep players invested in their characters.  I honestly think this is why combat with real death is so common in RPGs.

So, with these in mind, I'd set to the design possibilities on how to balance this concepts in ExoSquad, since I knew I wanted the tactical give and take common in D&D, but without the 'but he survived a dagger to the kidney!' complaints common to that system of HP.  I also needed to consider that in an era of firearms and heavy armor, you typically want a solid hit to be a kill, so anything that is actually a 'hit' needs to be near deadly.

Thinking about it, I considered reversing the process: instead of ticking health down, why not count up?  Then use something akin to a saving throw to determine if you go down. . .

So I begin tinkering with the number themselves.  If the weapons aren't necessarily hitting when you roll the dice, they have to be doing something meaningful.  Obviously, they're threatening the target.  So each weapon has a 'threat value' instead of damage.  As any fighter accumulates 'threat' their chance of being hit and downed increases.

From there, I had to decide a way to determine when the threat finally brought a combatant down.  In this case, I chose a dice roll based on current threat.  This meant that the roll got harder as the battle gets more hectic, and adds that frightening chance of being blown away by the first bullet.

I realized, though, that I needed a 'when' to roll.  Instead of making the roll after every attack, I have chosen to make it only at the end of the combatants turn, making one roll against current heat before passing the turn to another player.

Should it be every turn?  Or should there be a limit?  In this case, I think there should be a certain threshold before any combatant needs to start making rolls.  This means weaker combatants are likely to fall early, but tougher ones will go longer in the fight, but will almost certainly be more likely to be killed when they get in over their head.

And so I present the ideas behind Heat, the HP I'll be using in ExoSquad.  Each combatant will have a Threshold which determines their minimum Heat before they need to start making rolls against their Heat.  If they roll under their Heat, they are downed.  I'll discuss the mechanics regarding being downed in a later post, I promise.

So, folks, what do you think of the concept of Heat?  Is it a good middle ground?


In a future of terraformed colonies throughout the solar system, a war has begun.  Colonies in the Outer Planets are tired of being ruled by the bureaucracy of the Inner, a situation only exasperated by the slow speed of communication between them due to interference from the asteroid belt.  A war begins, pitting retrofitted space craft against each other, and eventually ground forces in planetary warfare.

In an effort to reduce the cost of life, the Inner Planets develop a new technology: anamorphic armor equipped with top of the line anti-armor and anti-personnel weaponry.  The first unit just arrived on a station in the Belt, and they've picked some of the best, brightest, and craziest pilots, soldiers, and civilian specialists to take them into battle.

Welcome to ExoSquad; one of these is yours.  Treat her well.

October 17, 2010

System Mastery: Plague Against Fun?

One thing I've noticed about so called 'old school' RPGs is that they liked punishing you for what you didn't know.  The most egrecious of these punishments was 'you didn't see the trap, you die.'  Even so, there was a more insidious punishment baked into those systems: system mastery.  Lack of knowledge of what made an effective character would cost you over the life time of the character.  In those olden dayes it wasn't so much of a problem as character mortality was fairly high and the average life of a character comparatively short.

Times change, though.  Level caps expand, character survivability rises, and focuses change.  That said, system mastery and its passive-aggressive punishment continues.  Some games, though, have started challenging it.  And I'm not talking low complexity RPGs like Dread, I mean things like Dungeons and Dragons.

It is my firm belief that system mastery should make the game better, without a lack of system mastery making the game worse.  My primary example of bad is Dungeons and Dragons' toughness feat from the 3rd edition.  This feat was good in literally 1 combination of class and race.  It consituted a trap of the worst sort.  Now, a note from the developers, and Monte Cook has mentioned this himself, would have prevented this trap from being a trap.

Now, system mastery that makes a game better is like Go, or Chess.  Learning to play and playing an even opponent makes for a fun game.  But then you learn how to read two turns ahead, then three, and the game only gets more interesting as you begin to reason with the future you're realizing could come about from your actions.

So as I'm sitting down to work on my complex game (The unnamed mecha game) I'm realizing I need to make the choices as obvious as possible as I begin designing the choices each player needs to make.  Let the depth of the battle map take the mastery, I want to make character creation as easy as possible.

Another thing to help ease out of the system mastery problem is the 'retraining' that has been built in to some newer systems.  That ability to fix mistakes made during creation.  4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons has a good example of this, as you can switch out one feat, power, or skill training each level.  This prevents a conditional choice from being a permanent flaw on your character while your buddies get to enjoy their full abilities.

I'm considering taking retraining a step further, what if after every adventure/mission you can retrain your characters ability choices?

You tell me, readers: How much system mastery is too much?  And how much retraining is too flexible?

October 10, 2010

Where I Went Wrong

This week I want to discuss how I think I've failed on Velocity.  But what good does it do you, readers, if you've never seen Velocity?  So, here's the download for the primary play test: Mediafire.  It's unpolished, without art or even much flavor.  But it presents my system as I initially imagined it.

Now, Velocity reads as an easy entry, rules light game, which was one of the design goals.  It's also familiar to some RPG players, since it uses opposed rolls with a net success system.  It also tries to use the names of the mechanics to keep the play focused, I even worried about the fact that gamers have a bad habit of abbreviating anything that is too wordy. (Initiative, anyone?)  So that's the good, right?

Well, no.  I think in meeting my design goals I alienated the point of the game.  The game is intended to be white-knuckle racing, with every choice you make effecting the potential outcomes.  So, let me break it down:

Stat + Skill: I really like stat + skill systems.  But Velocity is meant to be fast, and having to count dice every time, plus whomever you're in conflict with, it just adds up to a lot of calculations over the course of a game.

Too Simple: One issue I have with Velocity as it stands is that it is in fact too simple.  You make a choice at character creation and choose whichever method you put your stock in at the beginning.  It's hardly realistic, and makes for some damn boring conflict.  Related, the equipment, for a game that is probably more about the equipment than the characters, is lacking.

Low Risk VS Reward: There's very little reason to push yourself in any category as the risk almost always outweighs the reward.  Part of me knows I was intending to increase the mechanical risk/reward system further down the development line, but I think it's important enough to focus on at the start.

So, the redesign coming, much more regulated RISK/REWARD, more complex decisions, and find a way to cut down on the counting game.  That makes design goals!  What do my readers think: are these desirable goals?  Let me know below!

Next week I'll expand on my thoughts on design goals and the need of a design bible.

October 3, 2010

Three's Company

One thing I've noticed in many roleplaying games is the number of people who are expected to be involved.  D&D is four to five.  World of Darkness encourages five.  Dread has rules to make the game harder if there are less than five.  Other games don't seem to have a set limit, but the idea of the 'group' has settled in on that number of five people around a table.

Why is this the magical number?  I know I'm always fighting to fill that last slot as a game master, or trying to pare my group down to fit it better.  Why not design a different way?  A game designed for 'dynamic duos' could be interesting, and with the right scaling, could easily accept the industry standard.

With two players, you only have to wait for two people before you're in the action again.  You have less chance of a player getting lost in the hustle and bustle you get so often in a five man group.  You also have the option to pull out a smaller game for a smaller group.

I may have to do this with Velocity.  While the idea of four man teams is cool; it's hard to figure out a way to make it make sense thematically without making some of the group sit out, which I won't do, or take forever resolving things.

So, what about you, readers, is three a company worth having?