Thursday, January 24, 2013

Similarities with Dragon Age

As I play through Dragon Age, I keep finding parallels between it and Weeds Among Stone, my first novel. My wife asked me if they stole my ideas, which really has two answers. First, Weeds Among Stone began in 2008 and didn't see publication until 2010. Bioware would have had to steal from me before I had finished my draft in order to be successful. So no, no stealing. Likewise, there was no Dragon Age before late 2009 for me to steal from, and I did not actually play the game until this year. So, no stealing.

The second issue in stealing is that I was already stealing from many other sources, usually shamelessly. So for me to get too uppity would be hypocrisy at its best. I paged through many bits of history to assemble the novel. Can someone steal from someone who stole?

So, if there’s no cross-stealing going on, then what’s happening? I contend that we are both taking our construction materials from a common pile and using common techniques. Naturally, we come up with similar results, and I take this synchronicity as a huge compliment to myself. This means that my self-published work is coming up to the same standards as a professionally created work. That is COOL. I worked hard to bring my writing up to professional standard, and this tells me that I’m close, if not there.

I would like to say that I’m original with magic, but the simple truth is that I either stole magic outright from traditional societies, or just glossed over the whole mechanism. I made a decision early on that magic would be non-systematical. Any understanding of magic in one area did not inform you at all about magic in another.

Where my novels might seem original is my focus of magic in the everyday, especially where magic does not seem like magic. I stole these things, too. The Ironmongers are a good example of this phenomena. The Ironmongers make steel by a puddling process. To the Ironmonger guild, there is no difference between this process and magic. If you do the proper rituals and the correct actions at the correct time, you get steel. Impiety or uncleanliness can easily ruin the batch. The steel process is a gift of knowledge from a god, the Iron Duke, and learning this knowledge is exactly the same as advancing in a mystery religion, down to paying for the privilege of knowing more. They are one part Masons, and one part technology.

The one place where Endhaven really does diverge from everyone and everything is in the nature of the dream world or the spirit realm. Call it what you will, mine is like no other, and not my accident. I kept coming up with a “standard modern” dream world and I didn't like it. In the end, I decided to model the dream world on 1940’s America cities, as that is the kind of heaven that a dwarf would dream of. What dwarf wouldn't like a world of steel and non-stop industry?  That gave me an under-used construction pile to steal from, and as far as I know, no one else has developed fantasy in the same way. I can’t even think of anyone coming close, but I’m sure that you can.

The great advantage of pulling from 1940’s America is that I am very familiar with it, having first hand familiarity with its physical artifacts, yet I am also greatly ignorant of it. That collision of fact and information helps get me that dream feel, where some aspects are incredibly specific, yet others are quite glossed over.

The only other area where I seem to be original, or at least not-redundant, is that my primary characters each prefer nonviolence as a means to an end. I can’t think of any other fantasy where this is a major theme in the work. That really ought to be the focus of this post. I think that non-violence is a huge achievement, but I really don't know what to do with it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Certainty and Uncertainty in RPGs

What part does uncertainty play in an RPG?

We’ll start with defining what a game is. My definition of a game is “certainty intersected with uncertainty, and by navigating that, achieve a goal.” Whether this is the best definition of a game can be debated by the peanut gallery ad nausea. However, it is useful enough for me, and I’m the one writing this article.

What can we extrapolate from this definition?

  • Certainty is needed for structure, or at least a definition of “win”.
  • Certainty should be emphasized at many disconnected points.
  • Uncertainty should be emphasized at those disconnected points.

Using Monopoly as an example, we have certainties and uncertainties. The rules, the property costs, the board, and even the players involved are all certainties. The dice rolls and chance cards introduce uncertainty, but there’s more uncertainties than that. We also have uncertainties introduced when other players take their turns, and uncertainties introduced when players trade properties. You can not predict the outcome of these actions.

In modern D&D, your character is certain as the player fully controls the character creation choices, but the future of that character is uncertain. In no possible way can you guess the character’s future adventures. Meanwhile, each player runs the same character almost every game, but you can not predict the actions that the player will decide. You can predict that battles will happen, but you can not predict when, where, and against what.

Does uncertainty have a quality? I think that it does. So what makes GOOD uncertainty and what makes BAD uncertainty? For that matter, what makes GOOD certainty and BAD certainty? I have to believe that if you pick correctly, you wind up with something compelling, but if you pick wrong, you wind up with something capricious or mechanical.

I liken certainty to chains and uncertainty to broadness.

Certainty is a chain. The longer that chain, the more powerful that chain. Once a player has a chain of certainty, he will use that certainty over and over to gain victory. The more effective that certainty, the more often that certainty will be used. Applied to often, and that leads to an increasingly rigid game where the most optimal paths lead to victory and all other paths, regardless of their other merits, get thrown aside.

On the other hand, make the chain of decisions too short and you never create meaningful decisions. Hair color, eye color, and favorite band add flavor to a character, but as these choices do not actually affect other mechanics, they wind up being meaningless. Only when decisions actually affect some other aspect of the game is the chain long enough.

So chains of certainty must be long enough to be meaningful and interact with other components of the game, but not so long as to be de regeur.

I measure uncertainty in broadness. The narrower the uncertainty, the easier it is to predict what will happen, making many game mechanics irrelevant. The broader the uncertainty, the less that the player understands the outcome of his actions, until finally, the player has no idea how to proceed as they can no longer imagine outcomes.

Uncertainty is best when the player understands the certainties on either side of the uncertainty, tempting the player an outcome that is worth risk.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Coloring an Adventure

Let’s go on a trite adventure!

Then again, let’s not and say we did.

It’s easy to color by the numbers and create fairly generic adventures. Not only is it easy, it’s natural. That’s just the way that the human brain works. Using default answers vastly simplifies our creative processes, enabling us to quickly create and to have our creations be understood. However, the penalty for that mechanism is trite and predictable creations.

The question to you, as an adventure creator, is how do you create a colorful adventure that does not feel trite, yet can be understood by your players?

Step back a little, and the answer turns out be quite simple. Identify your default answers, then change one or more of those answers.

Think of an adventure structure as a line drawing, like a coloring book. By habit, you color certain areas in certain ways. By changing the choices, you change the feel of the colored page. Your default answer for outside is blue skies, a yellow sun, and green trees. What happens if you change the sky color, and what does that imply? You could color the sky gray, giving an overcast feel, or color it black, implying night. With that, your entire interpretation of the scene changes even though your framework, those line drawings, remain exactly the same.

We can use this same technique for altering adventures.

For example, let’s say some great evil came to town and the characters must look for a rare object to defeat this evil. That’s fairly stock and trite. A little blatant evil is nice sometimes, but overused, the scenario gets rather monotonous. How else can we color that? Let’s change the villain. Instead of a villain, the hero’s mother is dying and he must quest for her cure. The structure of the adventure is still the same, yet feeling is so very different. The two scenarios don’t feel like the same adventure at all despite the fact that both consist of running about in search of a McGuffin..

How else can we vary the same scenario? Let’s call it the “there and back again” scenario. You go out, do something, come back, and everything is set right.

  • Your mentor is accused of a crime and wants you to find proof of his innocence. You must go to someplace and find the proof.
  • The princess has been kidnapped. Not only must you rescue her, but you must get her back alive through a terrible wilderness.
  • The king has recovered a terrible artifact. You must travel to somewhere secret and hide it away.
  • The prince is traveling to a friend’s wedding. Help him get there and back again safely.

Each feels different, will play out different, and will seem different to the players, yet underneath, they each have the same narrative structure. Only the bookends truly differ.

In the end, there aren’t that many adventure structures. I’m sure that they have industry names, but I don’t know them, so I’ll make up my own.

There and Back Again - Your standard Quest. You go “there” (to one or more “theres”), then eventually return back again.

Mission - Somebody tells you to do something. You don’t choose this type of adventure. You don’t even have an emotional attachment to the outcome. Yet, this is what you are doing. If the king is telling you to do something, it’s a mission.

Mystery - The adventure is structured around what you don’t know, and your work is uncovering what you don’t know.

Romance - Usually relegate to subplot status, romances are staples of the game. Romances exist more as plot hooks.

Simulationism - There’s lots more to do in a sandbox style adventure than the kill monsters and take their treasure. Simulationism has to do with all those things that don’t involve hitting enemies with pointy sticks but are still challenges. Packing food, surviving in the wilderness, and trying to buy a truly great pizza in Pioria are all part of simulationism.

Exploration - What’s out there? There’s no villain, or even a mystery, but finding out what is out there is often it’s own reward. Don’t underplay exploration. It’s one of the main axis of role-playing interest.

Eliminate the Scum - These are straightforward adventures where some evil is doing something terrible and you have cultural and legal carte blanche to do terrible things back to them. This typically involves killing bandits, pirates, raiding orcs, and wandering giants.

Horror - You are outgunned. The more that you know, the more that you want to run away. If you don’t slow down and think about what’s going on, you will die.

On the Lamb - Your job is to keep yourself free and eventually restore yourself to your station. Robin Hood is the classic example of this.

I’m sure that there are more stock types of adventures. As scenarios aren’t exclusive, you can get many adventures just by mixing up types. So between coloring, and by mixing up adventure types a bit, you can get quite a bit of variation in the game with almost no originality required on your part.

So if you combine there and back again, mystery, and mission, you could write the adventure: go to the enemy castle, find its secret entrance, and get the information back to your commander. Add in horror, and you realize in the middle of the adventure how dangerous it is. Add in realism, and the players could examine terrain maps to pick out likely locations for the secret tunnel.

There are other ways to mix things up as well. Most TV shows have an A plot and a B plot. Your game can have a B plot, too. Basically, a B plot is something that helps fill out your time and keeps the A plot from becoming overwhelming. You might be fighting orcs, for some trite reason, but you also know a general that wants maps of the area for his future campaign. He will pay a prize for any ruins that you find and document. So now your players have an excuse to search ruins along the way, some being more exciting than others.

That’s it. Simple, no? So now you have no excuse in creating a trite adventure.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Animal Spirit Allies 2

It’s time to come back to Animal Spirit Allies. I want to follow up with some new ideas.

One idea that unifies all animal spirit allies is that most animal are quadruped. That might not sound important, but just giving quadruped advantages to a melee character is a great help, especially if their allies are the big and heavy type.

In 3.X, we have a few traits that being a virtual quadruped would give:

Quadruped can carry more than people.
Quadruped have a bonus on many Strength checks because they have four legs.
Quadrupeds can eat a wider array of foods.

Those three items each add something back into our melee folks. First off, getting a strength check bonus is always good for our melee folks as they face increasingly difficult strength challenges as they level. Likewise, carrying more is also very good for them. Finally, the ability to eat a wider array of food is a great and continuous role-playing gag.

Now, let’s get into that crunch.

First, we have some common advantages to being a quadruped animal scattered around the books. Here are the ones that I found:

Low Light Vision
+4 Defense vs Bull Rush
+4 Defense vs Trip

Quadrupeds can carry heavier loads than characters can. From the SRD:

Instead of the multipliers given above, multiply the value corresponding to the creature’s Strength score from Table: Carrying Capacity by the appropriate modifier, as follows: Fine x1/4, Diminutive x1/2, Tiny x3/4, Small x1, Medium x1-1/2, Large x3, Huge x6, Gargantuan x12, Colossal x24.

That’s terrifically handy for a lower level party. Your fighter becomes even more of a pack mule than before. On the other hand, that is a point of derision. A class’s job should not be pack mule. Still, any advantage is an advantage.

Low Light Vision is great for humans and halflings.

The defenses against bull rush and trip are less good than they seem. I rarely see those two maneuvers used by DMs. So clearly we need animals spirit allies to add more if we are to increase fighter upward by one to two tiers.

Riffing off what animals can do, we can pull out some other interesting abilities that are useful to a character or a party. Do note that the abilities of an animal are not a directly template for your character bonuses. Rather, they are an inspiration for choosing those bonuses. Likewise, any special powers that a creature might have is also an inspiration.

Goat - You move across rough terrain with no penalty.
Boar - You take no penalties while disabled or dying.
Bear - Scent, +4 swim
Ape - Take 10 on climb checks. +4 bonus to climb.
Badger - +4 escape artist
Bison - Overrun
Cheeta - Move 2x your normal speed one round every ten minutes
Crocodile - Hold breath

Some abilities are strictly better than others, and some racial bonuses are strictly better than others. In my opinion, you should get a wide variety of +2 skill bonuses or one big +4 bonus.

Some abilities might be a little good for first or second level, but mostly they don’t matter. I have never seen anyone abuse Escape Artist, and can’t fathom how it could be abused even with skill stacking. The same is true of swimming and climbing. Scent and hold breath are the clear winners in terms of flexibility.

The problem with all these powers is that each of them is obviated by magic by mid-levels.

The one thing that won’t be superceded by magic is social status. An  animal spirit ally should make you a leader among your peers. Fighters should gain Fighter Level + 3 ranks in diplomacy and intimidate, but no more than Character Level + 3 ranks. (No gaming the system here.) In addition, a fighter may now substitute either his Str or Con for Cha when making Diplomacy or Intimidate checks.

Perhaps simpler, give the fighter 4 ranks per level and add Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Sense Motive to the class.

So an animal spirit ally turns the fighter into a good face. It doesn’t supercede a bard, but it certainly does well enough. Give the class a focus on Diplomacy at 5th or 7th level and you’re gold.

And guess what? I’m still not satisfied.