Every game you play is a toolbox of mechanisms that you can use. When you play a game, you learn how that game works, and you learn how things like that can work. You build a repertoire of mechanics, a library, a toolbox. With that in mind, let’s look at a game and take it apart, to see what systems it has in place we have to work with.
This is a bit of a tease of a subject, because if you’ve ever heard me explaining games in general, there’s this phrase I’m fond of using: A Game is a Machine to Make Stories. Not tell stories, to make stories. Every game you play gives you a story, and you may not think it’s a great story or not, but you will always walk away from a game with a story. Since stories are one of the fundamental things that change how people think, it seems to me that this is a pretty powerful tool to put out there!
Plus, there’s the question of What’s a non-RPG game? Consider if you will Assassins Creed II – a game that exists in the Ubisfot mould of A Big Open Thing You Just Do Stuff In. In this game you’re explicitly rewarded for behaving the ways the game tells you Ezio Auditore does; when you match with his memories of an event, for example. You are, simply put, trying to be as much like Ezio as you can. Is that a RPG?
Most folk will say no, and I’ll happily concede that, because ‘RPG’ is a bit of a nebulous term. So for the purpose of this conversation, what I’m going to do is try to define what people might mean – generally – by the term ‘RPG.’
An RPG for this purpose is a table-top game where the game primarily gives you the tools to create characters and scenarios for a human to mediate. That’s a rough outline, but it’ll do; because we know what we really mean is stuff like Dungeons & Dragons or Blades in the Dark or Breakfast Cult.
With that in mind, let’s talk real quick about three simple, small examples of Storytelling Techniques in non-RPG Tabletop Games.
The Missing Parent
If you’ve heard me talk about Betrayal At The House On The Hill, you know I’ve had this metaphor well-prepared; in a lot of ways, Betrayal is like an absentee parent. For a portion of the game, it sits around silently, letting you entertain yourself – and then someone trips some meter, some amazing thing happens and suddenly, the game presents you with this bounty of mechanics and storytelling and two different books you need to check through, and look in the box, this one scenario has special cat counters look!
I have problems with how it’s executed and how it makes the first part of the game dull, but this tool system is really good, if hard to implement. In the case of Betrayal, it gives you a set of possible semi-random dials that determine what a thing might do, and then the game makes sure that every thing the game might do is cool, and interesting, and stands apart.
This is a great device, a good mechanic, and you should steal it except, here’s the problem: This is hugely effort intensive and it will eat you alive if you don’t keep it contained. Simple fact: Storytelling like this gives you dozens of slots to fill and you can’t make any of them too similar. In this way that opening dull half of a game is a big value for this game; it gives you enough time to forget the exact way the other versions of the game are, and it slows you down enough that you won’t rush to find two identical or similar game modes easily.
The mechanism in summary is randomised set of variables determine a huge number of tailored possible scenarios. The problem with it is it takes a huge amount of effort to make interesting.
The Obtuse Expander
Next up we have the Dead of Winter Crossroads system. Here the system is in summary: At the start of your turn, another player draws a card from a deck, and that card has on it a trigger condition for the event to happen. Could be as simple as ‘visited the Mall’ and can be much more sophisticated.
The Crossroads system is really nice: particularly because a human interpreter, in secret, keeps track of the info, and the fact the system is being deliberately obscure means you can have it do weird things – like it can actually ask you to search for cards in the deck to set up secondary events, or it can lead to you referencing another deck altogether, or it might even do nothing, leaving a player sometimes eerily afraid of a thing that doesn’t do anything. Plus, because each other player looks at a Crossroad card from time to time, they each learn the kinds of things that can happen but never be sure of what will happen.
Dig this system. It is also effort intense, but not nearly as effort-intense as the brutal weight of the Betrayal book.
The Golden Child
Inevitably, this was going to come up; The Legacy model of games. Legacy games are great, because they let the game have a story arc by dint of adding mechanisms or removing them, transforming the experience of how you play this game. You can’t access that city any more because it is Lost, for example.
Problem with Legacy games? Well there are lots, but it combines problems from the Crossroads games’ level of effort and production values, but it also runs the risk of being unrepeatable. Oh, I suppose if you wanted to combine the Betrayal model you could also make your board game incorporate dozens of permutations of this, so every time someone buys it they might not get the same model of the game’s legacy as the first one but good gracious what the heck are you thinking about.
Applying It For Yourself
With that in mind, here are my three pieces of advice if you want to do this as an indie developer:
- If you make a Legacy game, make it Print-And-Play. Let the pieces be destructable.
- If you make a Crossroads game, hire an Editor. You will need to make this bulletproof.
- If you make a Betrayal game, understand the need for the first arc of the game to be interesting.
Now that said, what about what I’ve done in this vein? Well, the closest I can think to a novel storytelling tool is the game Jiāngjú, which is meant to represent the close of a Hong Kong action movie, where everyone has a pair of finger-guns pointing at one another.
In Jiāngjú‘s largest mode, each player has a hidden role that gives them different values to other players. On the other hand, they know this gives them value to enemy teammates, too. In this case, players have to use their very limited time trying to express a vague idea about who they are to one another in a way that other players can get – while still not giving too much away to their enemies.
In essence, the way to play this form of the game is as if you’re recapping the plot of a long movie, yes-anding your friends as you try to avoid giving away too much of the wrong kind of information. This can mean arguing about who was truly someone’s best friend, trying to find out the edges of who you are, find the edges of what you can give away and not – within three moves of a gun.
I recently went back to some old content I made for 3.5 D&D and found myself considering that the flavour, the tone, the purpose were all sound –
A quick aside.
When I say the flavour, I mean the way the game objects are designed to represent things in the universe; a ranged attack that deals a decent chunk of damage and requires an action to refresh could be easily flavoured as a gun;
when I say the tone, I mean the kind of other things in the universe that are necessary for the thing to exist; guns don’t work in a setting without advanced metallurgy, for example, but they also don’t work in a setting where you want fights to be back-and-forth exchanges of force;
When I say purpose, I mean what mechanical end I want this object to fulfill in the world; this gun may work as a way to give players with less physical stats a meaningful ranged attack and to show this region as being more focused on distributable technology than on magical advancement
– but that without a lot of refamiliarising myself with the rules I could not say for sure how balanced they were, or were not, in a D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder game. I went back to read the Tome of Battle and Tome of Magic, two books I love but which have
Let’s say problems.
3.5 D&D was a game with a fantasy of balance. It had a lot of systems for creating ballparks, and if you bothered to explore all those ballparks you could wind up finding one where all your players could play together. You had to avoid the situation where one player was playing a totally different sport in a different field, but it wasn’t like you were being fundamentally reasonably by limiting sources. The whole problem of the CoDZilla (“Cleric Or Druid”) of 3.5 was that in the core book alone they were still totally broken and other sources only made them moreso.
There were other systems totally weirded up; like the Sunder mechanic was either useless or amazing, and its side effect of destroying treasure was either dreadful or meaningless. The trip and grapple systems could be pushed to breaking, the summoning system had its narrow holes, and every single expansion or splatbook you can find only adds either new options that are too weak to make any difference, or totally new broken things.
This is the conundrum of 3.5: Nothing is balanced, but things have gravity. Things suck together, and you can find a balancing point acreted around one general family of busted stuff. This is something I really found comforting about it in hindsight, but is also a trap: If players were not in a position, skill-wise, to pull towards those same common spots, if they were drawn towards other thematic thing, that player was set up to have a miserable time.
So what’s the solution?
My gut is to make it so the broken options are easy to get. To allow for elegant, simple power. Make the four-prestige class stack-em-ups a bother to get. Make small rules tweaks that keep those kind of complicated builds being total upgrades, but don’t try and push players away from the powerful toys that are cool.
Towards the last of my 3.5 days, the builds I looked for to make were, as an ideal, as few classes and prestige classes as possible; as a designer, if someone brought me a character splashing a single level of four or five classes on the way to a prestige class, I was left considering that the jankiness was a problem. When your build was full of different stuff that you picked up because there was no investment to do so, it meant your play experience slowed down (hang on, do I have a thing to do with that?), and it also meant the costs for joining a prestige class or taking a level in another class were too low.
Overall this is heartening though: I don’t think I can make anything that’s too overpowered, especially ‘overpowered’ is a moving target.
Today, a healthy chunk of video watching people talk about their experiences playing games, found via Youtube random suggestion:
- Most of these complaints about games are about what this player experiences and how they prefer to experience games.
- Sam Healy’s complaints about Codenames point to one of Codenames’ strengths as a weakness: The game is largely intense, engaging, and quiet. It’s a communication game.
- The complaints about Citadels suggest that games can have truly terrible failure states, failure states so deep players can be left without any way to play at all.
- Even if the overreaction is comical, the frustration these things speak to is very real.
- Consider that Zee complains about Bloodborne having a very grim theme.
- Reiner Knizier’s huge library makes it possible he can have his weaknesses shown up. Iterate more you’ll see the problems you have as a designer.
- Seafall is such an elaborate experience people are really resistant to call it bad first-up, but with enough time to percolate, all the good memories of the game fade away.
- Mathy games are hard to love.
- Werewolf as a game requires everyone to be bought into it, to work; yet the game sells itself as inclusive to large groups with a player count sometimes into the sixties.
- This suggests there’s a base assumption the game has that lots of people want to play a game where they inherently can’t trust
- It also suggests an assumption that lots of people want to play a game with knockouts as solutions
- Almost all these complaints are exaggerated and gently so, but can be sorted into individual subjective preferences (such as the Bloodborne theme) and exacerbations of the game (such as Citadels being capable of leaving a player without a turn).
This past week I did an interview with a Brisbane researcher about game development and copyright. Her primary area of review was digital, videogames, where there’s a wealth of conflicting positions regarding the copyrighting of code.
We shared talk about Monopoly and its origin, or the way Scrabble iterated on earlier word games, we talked about the way game mechanics have already been tested in courts many times as uncopyrightable. This meant the court cases about BANG vs Samurai Sword, and permutations and reimplementations and so on, and then we were left with the question: Would you want to see more copyright in your field?
I don’t yet have a transcript of my answer so I can’t tell you what I said but I’ve been thinking about it. And I gotta say the idea of someone like Hasbro owning roll-and-move mortifies me. The notion that if a game company got in fast enough on a mechanic and everyone either had to pay royalties or suck eggs dizzies me.
At the same time, yesterday, I stood and saw a dozen people implementing a really interesting set of mechanics for their own little games, which I am so impressed by I’m keeping an eye out for, and it got me thinking about how nothing protects those developers from me being predatory. I mean, I don’t want to be a dick, but those ideas are rattling around in my head now. How long before I forget where they come from? How long before when I come around to look at a hole in a game and I see a way I can implement one of those ideas?
I don’t think I can stop myself and guarantee I’ll never use those ideas, just because as assiduous as I can be, I can’t say I won’t forget the source and either rediscover or implement the idea. It might be months or a year or two down the line, but it might be that they’ve sparked another idea in my head that will bubble up then. And then what?
The only real option here is to be conscientious, patient, and to try and encourage the people around you who are also creating, I think. You don’t really have the option to keep your ideas and concepts pure – or other people’s – and saving and preserving them. I think the only real solution to this can be communication, care, and a willingness to help one another… and recognise we can’t own mechanics.
Hah, hey, here’s hoping I get to this before it publishes. If I don’t, oh well, naked notes:
- Events need to be split into the game-enders, but also the actual events
- Pincher is too good
- Patches is too weak
- Crew are probably overpriced by a touch
- Facilities are probably overcosted and overcommon
- Facilites are not good redundant
- A-class ships need a check to make them nicer
- Taxes are too harsh
- Consider caps rather than levies
- There needs to be a crew tax to go with the others
- Taxes hitting highest value hit the player just after they’re paid
- Crew are too vital and people get attached
- Crew need a way to recover, like a transport ship
- The victory sets should be ‘missions’
- Consider more contracts
- Off-turn earning
- The nanoplex is literally pointless
- The world comes across well! Players could get a feel for it.
- Giving players ways to hurt the empire that are more satisfying is good
- Wrecks are good, and interesting.
- Intercepting in others’ turns is a good idea
- Maybe more contracts on events
What’s this mean? Well, you’ll have to keep an eye out for when Sector 86 launches in the coming months!
Hey kids, it’s making time! Gunna put down some notes about looking at a big complicated pile of numbers. First up, here is a link to the twitter moment where I started on the process of making this game, which links at the end of each to the next one. And now.
Sometimes you’ll hit a point in a design where things won’t work so well and you’ll be at a crossroads for how to proceed. What you want to do then is exploratory design, where you try out hypothetical designs and see if you like the differences. Today, we’re going to look at the way this game’s going to fork.
The problem I encountered comes from the game’s current place as a cooperative worker placement game, and the space that takes up and then that led to the possibility of the game not being a tight little print-on-demand card game and anyway.
Hey, here are a pair of terms it took me way too long to really get comfortable explaining. When talking about printing cards or punches or… well, anything that gets cut, really, the idea of Cut and Bleed.
First, a diagram!
The outermost line is the cut line. You’ll find that the templates you work with are much bigger than that, they provide space outside the cut line. Then, the smaller line on the inside is the bleed line.
The nature of the Cut Line is that that’s literally it: it’s the line that the machines cut. That cut however, can’t guarantee it’s perfect every time, because we are dealing with physical objects that get moved around at speed. Sometimes things will be a little skewiff. Good machines have smaller chances of smaller skew, but it still happens.
The Bleed line took me a little longer to get. Basically, your bleed area is the area between the cut line and the bleed line, and that’s the area that the machine may drift what it prints. What this means is that if you put text outside of the bleed area, it runs the risk of, if a card gets printed skewed, being cut off the edge of the card.
That’s the simplest explanation for cut and bleed lines: Your cut line is the absolute outline of the card. Your bleed line is the region you should be using for anything detailed. If it falls in the region between the two it should be purely decorative, low-detail and inessential to the game’s play.
Time to time people will defend Monopoly, the game to me, and they’ll do it with the best of intentions. There’s a story there, a story that works really well and we want to stand up for it – the story of Elizabeth Magie, who created The Landlord’s Game, which was copied by Charles Darrow.
The line runs, more or less, that yes, Monopoly is bad, but it’s meant to be bad and there’s strength there. Elizabeth Magie’s game was meant to show the way that landlording concentrated wealth and moneyed classes eventually consumed one another in a monopoly, Ruining Everything. Monopoly, the derivative of this communalist game, is bad because it inherited this DNA, and that’s interesting.
Thing is, it doesn’t really change that Monopoly still has gameplay problems that aren’t really related to its message, sort of. And you’re presented then with a newer, interesting question about the intentions of the designers and the rules of the game.
Elizabeth Magie died in 1948. Monopoly was released in 1934 or so. Neither of those designers saw The Avengers, which came out in 2012. So it’s hard to really consider the intention of those designers when examining how their visions of monopoly related to the modern, recent takings of the game. And that’s part of the problem. We’re at a point where Monopoly is designed more as a brand than as a game.
This can make talking about the intention of the designer a little weird. Also the story, and knowing it, doesn’t make the play more fun or more interesting: It’s still Monopoly, it’s still grindy, it still relies on grinding out knockouts, and it still takes a long time to play, even with the speedier original play.
I’m not trying to bash Monopoly if you like it. The game is hugely successful, indicating that it might be good (though you also have the way business and marketing interact with one another to promote things that aren’t necessarily good). As a designer, there are even lessons to learn in what Monopoly does wrong. Heck, as a teacher, I really really wish fewer students used it as their starting point for what board games are like. Because what this game does best is occupy a place in everyone’s lives, be the first-stop brand everyone thinks of, fill shelf space over and over, get permutated versions every place they can…
like some kind of monopoly.
When I’m working on a game from the outset, being able to organise my thoughts on it is, uh, well, useful. I mean, c’mon, this seems a bit basic and I’m sorry for laying it out like this, but I find that if I can’t fill out this document, I probably am not ready to make the game*. For that, I use _plans, a naming convention I think I picked up from playing videogames in the 1990s and watching mod .ftps avidly.
Point is, _plans are a useful place to put down your starting ideas for a game when you need something formal you can share. I’m going to go on under the fold.