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.

Designing Cloaks, Courts, & Gonnes

As I was reading rpg.net recently, there were several threads that were discussing the primary differences of rpgs and boardgames (in terms of their presentation). When a new player picks up a boardgame, they’re able to skim through the pamphlet in 10-20 minutes, get a good grip on the rules, sit down, and play a completely self-contained session. Accomplishing something similar in rpgs isn’t unheard of, but difficult. (Micro and nanogames are of course the exception, of which there are many great examples).

And let’s be honest, most rpg books – including my own – are great big tomes in the eyes of your average consumer.

As most of you know I work pretty quickly, and have a good team of fellow designers and experienced playtesters who are always willing to help me refine my multitude of ideas. So, I thought to myself, why not try my hand at making as short of a game as possible, while still feeling primarily “complete.” I’m no John Harper, and so designing a game from scratch to fit on a single page was out of the question. But, how short could I go?

CC&G’s Design Goals

  • As short as possible while still feeling “complete”
  • Focused primarily on “traditional” gaming – few if any strict narrative mechanics
  • As much information packed into a single roll as possible
  • As little math as possible
  • Room for expansion, scaling, “zooming,” and additional depth
  • Print-at-home friendly layout and design

First, I came up with the bones: the Ten Tier System. TTS is sort of an evolution from the Ethos Engine and is similar in a lot of ways. They’re both dice pools, they’re both roll-under/within your relevant skill range, they both allow the GM to set a variable difficulty, character are made in sort of the same way.

However, the Ten Tier System uses d10s instead of d6s, has 6 Skills instead of 8, and has 30 subskills that I call Specialties. Specialties are more focused areas of expertise within a Skill. For example, the Influence Skill has the Charm, Convince, Inspire, Intimidate, and Lie Specialties. The relationship between the Skills and the Specialties is pretty interesting too – your Skill determines how many dice you roll for your action, and your Specialty determines what number on the d10 is considered a success.

Yes, other systems have used this for years now, but I threw one extra twist in there to make it interesting: Effect. Now, the highest die that is counted as a success is used to determine your degree of success. This elegantly combines how many times you succeeded, and how much impact your success had on the situation. The higher your Specialty Rank, the more likely you’ll have a greater impact than someone worse than you.

Execution

I wanted to experiment with some different layout types, and since I wanted the game to be printer friendly, I went with a landscape 8.5×11″ format. Most homes in America use this paper layout and have reams of such paper handy, and even though I typically prefer to design single column layout games, I found the design constriction interesting.

It helped to keep my word count down, and the preliminary draft ended up being about 1700 words and only a few pages. As I posted it up around the net and had some of my colleagues take a look, I tweaked and shifted and added things until it grew to about 4000 words and a total of 10 pages (including the cover).

The three column, landscape format turned out quite nicely, and I’ve managed to find plenty of public domain artwork that reflects the period beautifully. Soon, after I’m comfortable with all of the final edits, I will send the manuscript over to Phillip Gessert for layout. He’ll make two versions – a pretty PDF version full of color and artwork, and a basic printer-friendly, black and white version.

I’ll keep everyone updated once I get closer to finalizing the document, but I anticipate we can get the full release done by early June 2015. Stay tuned!

Belly of the Beast RPG Alpha Complete

botb wide banner pngI’ve completed the alpha version of Belly of the Beast RPG (BotB). I have it out to my core group of playtesters (many of whom are still engaged with Hunt the Wicked polishing), but I suspect that I won’t be making too many changes to the overall structure.

Since BotB makes use of the Ethos Engine – the same mechanic as Vow of Honor and Hunt the Wicked – I’m quite comfortable with how the game plays. The major change is in the form of what I call the “ethos drive,” or whatever dice pool mechanism actually feeds gameplay. In VoH that was Honor, in HtW it is Motivations. In Belly of the Beast, Instincts drive the action.

After initial playtesting and preview-reads from others in the RPG design community, I’m quite confident and pleased with the way Instincts have turned out. Not only do they fit really well with the theme of BotB, but they also just work smoothly. Everybody knows when someone is being Fearful, or Violent, or Curious. It is one of those things that’s innate in all of us, and so it is much easier for the players and the GM to recognize (as opposed to comparing character actions to the somewhat subjective Tenets of Honor).

I think this will get to the meat of the gameplay quicker, and help to drive interesting characters. If you’re intrigued by the game’s premise, or simply want to reskin it and play around with the mechanics, you can read the current alpha draft of the rules here. I’ll keep the BotB landing page up to date, and try to expand as much information there as I can.

Site changes, pre-orders, and playtesting

So I updated my theme yesterday, and just on a whim checked to make sure everything was looking good and functioning properly – blank. I refreshed my page – blank. Went to a different page, and yeah, blank.

Not sure exactly what happened other than some kind of compatibility glitch between the updated version of Flat (my theme at the time) and the new iteration of WP. In quick, emergency-solution mode I just installed and reuploaded my site with the default Twenty Fifteen theme.

Honestly, after tinkering around with it, I like it. A lot. I’m probably just going to keep it like this, since I know that it will always be compatible with WP (its their proprietary theme after all), and it is incredibly user friendly. I’m not particularly into really flashy or aesthetically unique sites anyway, so the straight forward, kind of minimalist approach seems to gel fine.

Pre-orders

I’ve had a number of emails and comments and messages pop up from folks who are interested in pre-ordering Vow of Honor. I currently don’t have a way to do this yet, but I’m working on a solution. I just got some business stuff squared away today, as well as downloaded a bunch of site plugins to make my checkout and order process pretty slick. Hopefully that can be completed ASAP.

Keep an eye out here and on the KS page, as I’ll let everybody know once that is functional.

Playtesting

Some of you may know that I compulsively work on and write RPGs. It is actually pretty bad, I’ve written six games in as many months (yeah, really) and most of them I don’t even share publicly because they’re so rough or I’m dissatisfied with them for the moment.

However, there are two games (other than Vow of Honor) that I am satisfied with – Hunt the Wicked and Cornerstone. If you’re interested, check out the beta drafts linked on those pages, and then email me your thoughts and playtest feedback to playtest@bendutter.com.

I’d like to have a structured, more effective playtest system figured out for both of those games, but I simply don’t at the moment. If I think of a better implementation, I’ll let everyone know.

New Vow of Honor Art

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Murasada vs an Adabhuta, by Lee Che. Murasada is a grizzled Arbiter that has spent most of the fifty years of her life teaching young Arbiters how to properly handle demon filth and dishonorable cretins.

Vow of Honor Art Preview

arbiter nayakan vow of honor
Arbiter Nayakan, by Lee Che

I’m happy to display the first piece of completed artwork for Vow of Honor. The artist, Lee Che, is extremely talented and I’m happy we’re working together. Expect many more pieces to come, including a combat scene between an Arbiter and a monstrous adabhuta.

realmspring and reddit

Recently I posted a realmspring link to reddit.com/r/rpg, one of my favorite haunts (highly encouraged, if you’re into tabletop roleplaying games, by the way.) It was met with an extremely positive response: 75 upvotes, top of the “hot” list for several hours, over a dozen comments in the first two hours, over 400 pageviews on the realmspring site. Thinks were looking great.

Due to some encouragement from some of the commentors and folks PMing me, I decided to go ahead and create the /r/realmspring subreddit. This made me a bit nervous, but excited at the same time. I’d never created a subreddit before. It was pretty easy, although it looks very plain and drab at the moment (I see that there are editable CSS stylesheets though, so that’s cool.)

When I excitedly went back to update the fine folks on /r/rpg about the new subreddit, I posted a link to it within the original text of the post, as well as a comment. This triggered /r/rpg’s anti-spam filter, hiding my post.

I sent a PM to the moderators, but it took a grueling twelve hours for them to un-hide it. By that time, any steam I had made with that post was long gone, it was nearly to the bottom of the page, and got little action after that. Had I not triggered the anti spam filter? Who knows, maybe I would’ve gotten hundreds more views to my site that day.

Lesson learned: be careful with how you manage your success, and be aware of automated systems that can hamper your exposure. I’m glad folks enjoyed realmspring, I only wish more got to see it with that first post.

Have you had any experience with reddit? Do you use it to browse? Self-promote?