Blog

Randomized Game Design – Game One Part One

So now that we’ve covered the basics and the mechanics of randomizing a tabletop roleplaying game’s design, let’s get on with an actual example.

Using the rolling technique as described in this post, I came up with the below elements. Each element is listed with its prioritization, and then I detail a bit about how and what I deciphered.

Engagement

Bear in mind the below rolls were just to serve as a surprise, a guide, and a launch point for me. They’re meant to inspire and give me some ideas, not define every detail of how the game works. Engagement is very important to the nature and “feel” of the game.

  1. Sensation: High
  2. Fantasy: Low
  3. Narrative: Mid
  4. Challenge: High
  5. Fellowship: Mid
  6. Discovery: Low
  7. Expression: Mid
  8. Submission: Low

Starting off we can immediately see the core engagement themes of the game are Sensation and Challenge. Right away, we’re confronted with a type of game that I’m wholly unfamiliar and uncomfortable with making (if I were to design a game by choice, I’d make both of those elements a low priority).

I’m going to interpret a high Sensation focus as meaning the game’s narrative and actions are keenly tied into the characters’ senses. In other words, their physical (or metaphysical) senses will be very important to the gameplay and to the story that they make together.

A high amount of Challenge means that the system should reward system mastery, it should reward the players for figuring out challenges and obstacles in game. Closer to something in which the game is antagonistic toward the players, and they’re going to have to try to figure out, or suffer narrative (or even player) consequences.

My immediate thought is that the character(s) have to rely on their senses and work their way out of some highly dangerous predicament. People trapped in a black cave. A robot coming to life with no knowledge of its sensors. Let’s see what else we pulled together.

Authorities

Let’s see how we balance the authority and the control of the fiction in this highly sensory, highly challenging game.

  1. Spotlight: Shared between GM and players
  2. Rules:  GM controlled
  3. Character Control: GM controlled (Huh?!)
  4. Fiction: Shared by both
  5. Scenes: Player controlled
  6. NPCs: Controlled by both

The single most aberrant thing we see here is that the character control is supposed to be wholly within the domain of the GM. Now, you might be thinking, “Aha, Ben’s idea is breaking! Certainly he’ll re-roll or something…” But, nope. Let’s make it work. So, how would that work?

The way that I an interpreting this is that there is one “player character” and many “Game Masters.” This isn’t that dissimilar from games like Everyone is John, however in this game I’m imagining that these roles are permanent. One player, the traditional “GM,” would get to control the one player character. Every other player at the table gets to be some kind of GM role.

Players also control the scene cadence, which reinforces the notion that there are multiple players (who are acting like traditional GMs) and one player who gets to control pretty much everything else about their character.

We’ll interpret more later, let’s figure out this game’s complexity.

Complexity

Remember, the game’s complexity is how much mental attention and effort is required. Let’s take a look:

  1. Setting or Situation: High
  2. Character Stats: Low
  3. Relationships: High
  4. Long play: Low
  5. Novelty: Mid
  6. Participants: High

Okay, so we have an immediately challenging or complex situation (this reinforces the theme of some amnesiac waking up in a black cave or something), favoring a large number of players and few number of sessions. This is starting to develop as a party game in my mind, something which allows for a randomly high amount of people to just pop in and play.

Making Sense of Things

In summary, we’ve got a game that’s meant to be short, allows for a high number of players, has a single main protagonist controlled by one player while the other players describe the environment and the challenges. It can’t be too weird or novel, and it can’t be too complicated on the character front.

So, what kind of monstrosity must we forge?

My first thought is that there is a single, primary character, who has to navigate their way out of a terribly dangerous and hideous situation. They’ll need to hone in on their senses, and through that attention to detail they can overcome the considerable challenge. Without such attention, they’ll fail.

A group of other players are there to challenge the primary character. Fiasco and Everyone is John are immediate and obvious sources of inspiration, however I think this is a uniquely distinct feel. Expanding further, I think that each of the players – the scene describers – would actually only be able to describe things in one, specific sense.

For example, you’d have one player who could describe things by Sight, one by Sound, one by Touch, and so forth. Perhaps players would take turns, or there would be some element of internal competition (again, a la EiJ.)

I think we’ve come up with a pretty cool and unique concept. That’s the easy part, now we’ve gotta figure out how to make the thing, and what the gameplay will reinforce it.

I’ll start with the preliminary mechanics in the next post. Stay tuned.

Randomized Game Design – Getting Started

So I had an unreasonably odd idea about creating a game using randomized elements. That, in and of itself, isn’t that unusual (Game Chef is one of many examples, which you should go and participate in if you’re not already). However, what is unusual, I think, is that I’ll be randomizing nearly the entirety of the game’s design goals and engagement structures.

Fortunately, illustrious game designer Jason Pitre created the RPG Design Overview Sheet, an incredibly helpful document that guides a potential designer through the questions and process of getting those initial design goals down on paper. This is what I’ll be using to steer my efforts. Sometimes, such simple guidance and codification is all you need to make a great game. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to prove.

The point behind randomizing the game’s design elements is that even I’ll be surprised by the outcome. I can’t “discover” the design goals of a game I’m already working on to illustrate a point. No, I’ve got to actually make a thing that reflects the stuff that I rolled.

The Randomized Elements

I encourage you to explore and use the Overview Sheet yourself, but I’ll cover the basics of what, exactly, I’ll be rolling for and what those pieces mean. Bear in mind that the overview sheet, and the listed definitions for each, are there only to serve as a launching point or for inspiration. In other words, hold onto their definitions very lightly, and feel free to let go wherever you need to (I certainly did).

Engagement

What kind of fun or engagement does the game try to create? What is the psychological or emotional or mental benefit that the players receive while playing the game? There are eight types of engagement as listed on Jason’s sheet:

  1. Sensation: game as sense pleasure
  2. Fantasy: game as make-believe or escapism
  3. Narrative: game as an unfolding story
  4. Challenge: game as an obstacle course
  5. Fellowship: game as a social exercise or framework
  6. Discovery: game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression: game as a soap box, or as philosophy
  8. Submission: game as low buy-in, low involvement

Authorities

Who gets to control the spotlight, who has authority to change the fiction, who makes decisions? There are six forms of authority:

  1. Who’s responsible for the spotlight?
  2. Who controls and arbitrates the rules?
  3. Who controls the player characters?
  4. Who determines the truth in the fiction?
  5. Who starts, frames, and concludes scenes?
  6. Who creates and portrays NPCs?

Complexity

What parts of the game require mental attention, effort, and learning? How many of the rules should cover this particular aspect of the game? Again, there are six items on the complexity list:

  1. Situation: the setting and the situation the characters find themselves in
  2. Character: the number of character stats and traits
  3. Relationships: the number of relationships tracked
  4. Length of play: the number of potential sessions in one “game”
  5. Novelty: new or unorthodox mechanics (or, how well experienced RPG players will be able to pick it up and play with little explanation)
  6. Participants: the number of players and/or characters

How it works

Using the three main structures and their subsequent elements as described above, I simply went down each list and rolled a d3 for every element. A three was a high value, two was average, and one was low. This value places either priority into that element, or assigns responsibility between the GM and player split.

For engagement, a low value meant that it wasn’t a priority to the game’s design or play, while a high value meant that it was the focus of the game.

For authority, a low value meant solely under the control of the GM, while a high value meant strictly in the grasp of the players.

For complexity, a low value meant that it was easy to master, while a high value meant that it was complex or difficult.

After I rolled for each of the 20 elements (eight from engagement, six each from authority and complexity), I figured out where the game’s priorities and focuses resided. After that, I’d have to sort of read the tea leaves and discern what the game was about, and what was important to its design.

In the next post, I’ll detail the specifics of my first attempt and the nebulous game concept that grew out of it.

Hunt the Wicked Layout Nears Completion

I just sent the last bits of text from the backer submissions to Phillip for layout. The process for Hunt the Wicked is a little different than a lot of games out there, and I think that it is one of the reasons I’m able to produce polished content so quickly. Namely, the fact that I allow artwork and layout to be done simultaneously and in parallel, rather than waiting for one to finish before the other.

The primary benefit of this is, of course, less turnaround time to get the final product finished. The drawbacks (which I think can be largely mitigated with some careful planning and execution) are primarily two fold:

  1. Compromised layout “flow”
  2. Final aesthetic feels incomplete or disconnected

The flow of the text and artwork is important – and something that is pretty easy to screw up if you don’t know what you’re doing. Thankfully I have Phillip Gessert to help me out with that – and he definitely knows what he’s doing. The biggest issues you see with broken layout in RPGs is either too much (or not enough) white space, and art that doesn’t match with the content.

There’s no way around it – customizing your art to fit a specific space, and a specific piece of content is the best way to go. It is also extremely time consuming, and honestly I think there are diminishing returns if you do a few things. Namely, use somewhat uniform art sizes and aspect ratios that can be plugged in nearly anywhere, err on the side of “too much” white space (far fewer issues with too much than not enough), and encourage a lot of natural page breaks around headers and sections.

Once you get the first layout pass down, you’ll have a bunch of gaps where art can (and often should) fill. I trust Phillip enough to decide where these gaps should go, and he does it as he goes along paying special attention to the amount of words per page and section, where the next page break is going to go, and how the whole thing looks both in spread and single page view.

While that process is going on, I’m directing Winston and my other artists to create specific pieces – but with enough flexibility in their content so that they are largely relevant in an entire chapter or section. For example, the majority of the game’s artwork is focused on cool pictures of Bounty Hunters. Is this somewhat generic picture of an unrelated Hunter as perfectly fitting as a customized piece that relates to the content on the page? No. But, we can usually get pretty close and cut our development time in half (or less).

I figure out based on the budget how many pieces of art that will be (at least roughly), and give that number to Phillip so he can incorporate that many intentional gaps into his layout. Then, by the time the layout is finished, most of the art is finished, and I go through and assign each piece to a spot that I think fits both the content and the aesthetic / layout of the page. Phillip drops them in, and that’s pretty dang close to your final product.

As of right now (12/14/2015), Phillip is putting the finishing touches on the artless layout, and I’m waiting for a few more pieces from Winston. Once I receive the layout with the numbered gaps, I’ll start matching art as Winston finishes up. This process usually only takes a couple of days, but it really just depends on the art production speed and if any corrections to layout / art have to be made.

All of this is to say that we’re still on schedule for a February (or maybe even earlier) release. Thanks again!

Belly of the Beast Meta Tasks

I had a section in Hunt the Wicked I had tentatively called Session Tasks. These were Tasks on a larger scale and scope than a typical scene or Long Task, and I have fought with them through playtesting and rewrites over the last year or so. In short, Josh found them to be lacking in polish and needing a rewrite – and after careful consideration I decided to cut them from the final version of the game.

That leads me to their next iteration – Meta Tasks. As I continue to work on and refine Belly of the Beast, I’d like to introduce these Meta Tasks and have them playtested through the remaining of the pre-launch beta. Essentially, they work like this:

A Meta Task is an overarching Task that connects and combines the characters’ narrative actions contained within Scenes, as well as the overall narrative and impact from NPCs and factions within the setting. The GM would create and establish these Meta Tasks the same as a regular Task – with a Difficulty, Severity, and Threshold, as well as establish the nature of their complications, consequences, and ramifications of their complete failure.

Additionally, each Meta Task would have a count-down or “if, then” type of structure. This would create some pressure on the characters, and give the GM a pre-determined outline to guide and funnel the campaign’s narrative.

For a simple example, imagine a Meta Task called War of the Valley. In this, there are a number of factions (including the PCs’ party) that have a vested interest in the tide of the war. The characters are opposed to the Reavers, who are trying to destroy several strongholds in the valley and take over the territory as their own.

The GM gives the War (the Meta Task) a Difficulty 3 / Severity 4 / Threshold 1. There would be a number of major Scenes (battles, raids, that sort of thing) that could have a maximum of 2 success dealt to the Task. If they had a complete victory in one of these Scenes, their 2 success would be subtracted by 1 from the Threshold, and then lower the existing Difficulty to 2.

If the party instead had a partial victory and only dealt 1 success, the Threshold would prevent any Difficulty being lowered and the War / Meta Task would still be ongoing. This Threshold – which represents the tactical skill of their commander – could be removed if the commander was assassinated or captured, and future successes would no longer be subtracted by its Threshold.

The bit that I’m having some trouble wrapping my head around is how Severity would come into play – and what (mechanically) that would mean for the characters. I’d essentially have to create a whole new “meta Severity” and “meta Consequences” scale that would impact the setting and narrative as a whole, rather than simply directly impacting the characters. All of my attempts thus far have been less than satisfactory.

Stay tuned for more as I continue to playtest and tweak the rules.

Hunt the Wicked Round One Revisions

Josh sent me the first iteration of the revised manuscript over the weekend, which had some 500 comments and notes attached. After a couple of days of going through everything with a fine-toothed comb, I slung it back his way to continue the polishing process.

The hope is that we can finish the final draft by next week (sometime around 11/11) so that I can get it to Phillip – my highly talented layout artist – only a little bit late. He’s so dang quick however that I’m not too worried about any delays, and we’ve made excellent headway in terms of art completion.

All in all, Hunt the Wicked is right on schedule, and I don’t foresee any major problems that would delay it any further than spring of next year. I’ve been receiving some great reviews and feedback from folks playing the alpha draft, so I’m positive that the game will come out even better and more enjoyable in the coming months.

Belly of the Beast Beta Complete

Belly of the Beast has had several successful playtest campaigns and a multitude of one-shots. Over the last few months I’ve written an additional 10k words, bringing the manuscript‘s total to just shy of 30k.

I intend to have BotB as one of my shortest Ethos Engine games in terms of word count. This sort of naturally evolved for three reasons:

  1. I actually prefer shorter games (both reading and writing)
  2. I’ve gotten better at explaining the Ethos Engine
  3. BotB is more focused than VoH or HtW

An added benefit of a smaller page count is that I can shift some of the expense from editing and layout into artwork – something that I feel has been a bit lacking in other EE games. I plan to heavily lean on Jeff Brown’s amazing setpieces to convey the theme and tone of the game, rather than zooming in on characters as I have in previous games.

Design additions

Since the original concept of BotB and its alpha, I’ve added a few more concrete rules and examples – chiefly rules around Hazards (essentially a combination between enemies and Tasks), and a slew of Random Tables for things like unique cultural traits, potential sources of scarcity, interesting things one can find in a haul, and similar GM-tools.

I’ve added in a few optional rules for handling Instinct Dice limits. One of the variants simply caps the number you can have in your pool at any point (encouraging players to spend them more frequently) and the other is that the characters automatically succumb to one of their Instincts once they hit their limit. This sort of nods to VoH’s stain mechanics, although is more forgiving.

The point of these is to drive action forward and to prevent characters from hoarding their Id – we want them to spend them and have a low quantity so that they go out and do more stuff in order to get more of them. That feedback loop is important, and often occurs naturally in play. The variants are there for groups and GMs that want to really highlight or exaggerate that loop, and to discourage over-cautiousness.

I’ve toyed with the idea of adding in complete rules for Factions and building strongholds, however I think that it kind of breaks with the theme. Characters are scavengers, they’re meant to exist in the narrow, grubby spaces between the rest of the Swallowed Society. And while factions can certainly play an impact (and have featured prominently in VoH and HtW) they aren’t directly influencing the actions or behavior of the characters in any particular way.

The nature of building a stronghold and leaving a permanent mark on the Belly kind of conflicts with the grim reality that the characters face – their lives are transient, their destinies are bleak, anything that they build now is likely to be ground down to muck in the next century. That kind of fatalism is interesting to me, and what drives the sort of recklessness I see in a lot of the players (and I believe would naturally exist in the Swallowed). I’d hate to input something that removed that emergent phenomenon.

Stay tuned and check out the draft here.

Hunt the Wicked is funded

Thank you!

Hunt the Wicked was successfully funded on Kickstarter – with 270 backers and a total of $4,373. We’ve begun development and are slightly ahead of schedule.

Joshua Yearsley’s first editing pass is slated to finish by 10/30, and it shouldn’t take me more than a week to turn around a rewritten manuscript. After that, Phillip Gessert will get the chapters for layout. We’re targeting an end of the year completion date for the pre-artwork draft, and the final document done and illustrated by February 2016.

Stay up to date on the Kickstarter page for the game’s progress!