Monster Mash

Working on a game with a couple of friends. It’s about making monsters with punnet squares! Here’s a few pictures from our most recent playtest. I’ll have the rules up soon.

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Balance, my oldest foe.

So, first, an announcement. I’m going to start posting playtestable games in various stages to this site. Play them, tell me what you think. If they make it to publishing, you’ll get playtest credit.

Now let’s talk about balance.

Balance is something most games need. It’s also something most people who play a game complain about one way or the other. The problem with balance, is that when you’re designing a game, you need to decide HOW to balance it. Games where balance is essential, especially multiplayer games, that contain any kind of challenge need to ride the line between a perfectly even gameplay and giving the players intensely disparate choices.

For an example of this, let’s design a competitive fps. We start with two players, one gun, and a room for them to shoot each other in. This game is boring. So lets add a second gun. But what does it do, and how do we make it fair? If it’s roughly equivalent in utility to the first gun, we can just give the player one of each, but then the players are still the same all the time,  so lets let them choose which one they want at game start or on respawn. But what if one gun is better? Well, let’s make it harder to get then. Let’s put some cover in the map, and then put the nice gun in an area out in the open. It’s nice to have, but it’s dangerous to get too.

You see how this can get out of hand? If you want an interesting competitive game, you need to have multiple viable strategies and you can’t have any of them be drastically better or worse than the others, or it’s just wasted effort. But what if you want your game to be fun and don’t care that much about balance? Well, suddenly, the challenge is more about finding interesting and fun gameplay mechanics. Let’s talk about the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer. For those unfamiliar, it’s a third person shooting game where the players must work together to survive waves of enemies. It is also a game in which there are around a hundred different playable classes of varying utility which can be unlocked. Some of these classes are very good, some of them are not, and some of them are only good if played by a skilled player. But, the point of this game wasn’t to make a venue for people to test their skills, it was to create a fun environment in which to play with your friends, and careful consideration was given to accommodating a huge number of playstyles. Want to hide behind a wall and send flamethrower drones out to do your fighting for you? Done. Want to smash monsters with a hammer because you don’t believe in this “shooting” thing everyone seems to like? Done. Want to take the two largest guns you can find and fire them until they overheat so badly your hands burn off? Done and done.

As a callback to my posts on role’s and class systems, balance can be a tricky thing in terms of cooperative games. But the decision you have to make there is how many different playstyles do you want to cater to, and how much do you want to have them rely on each other. In D&D, a Wizard is powerful, but the “balance” is that if a Dread Knight gets up in your grill, you’re a dead man without a Fighter to stop the charge and a Cleric to keep him on his feet.

So the questions to remember are how fair do I want the game to be and how fun do I want the game to be? Because you can do both if you try really, really hard, but you probably don’t need to be perfect on both.

You win some, you lose some

Ok, there’s something I want to make clear, as I feel like it has been falling out of favor.

Loss is story.

As a player, it’s natural to want to win. People play games for an myriad of reasons, but I think it’s safe to say that a large amount of people play games to win them. But the thing is, the difference between a game and a puzzle is that you can lose a game. A puzzle, for instance a sudoku or a jigsaw puzzle, you can sit in front of and systematically try every possible solution until you finally succeed. Given enough time and effort there is no way to lose a puzzle. Not so with games. Games tend to require a player to compete, either with other players or with the game itself, and it is possible to reach a section of a game you cannot beat without getting  better at the game.

The problem, in my mind, comes from turning a game into a puzzle. Using an example from my own life, I’m guilty of this with regards to the Fire Emblem games. For the unfamiliar, it is a turn based strategy game series chock full of swords, sorcery, and interesting characters. Fire Emblem has a number of interesting facets, but the two that are of interest for this discussion are the support conversations, that unlock additional story and dialogue between units, and the fact that units who are eliminated from a battle are permanently removed from the game. Together, this could make for interesting and poignant story, as characters develop interpersonal relationships and have to deal with the tragedies of war. The problem arises with the trivial ease with which a level can be restarted if things go wrong, to the point where it is more a matter of dedication and patience to beat the game rather than skill. When you can try any action an infinite number of times, the statistics that determine success lose all meaning.

Loss is meaningless if it can be immediately reverted.

This philosophy is already prevalent in most pen and paper role playing games, but it occasionally gets subverted. Let’s look at D&D. In, say, 3.5 D&D, if a character is killed after a certain level, it is actually more likely for them to come back than not. Once the players have access to high level divine spells, they will not stay dead. They just won’t, unless their enemies go significantly out of their way to make it so, either by disintegrating every part of every party member, or killing everyone who might eventually raise them, or any equally outlandish solution.  Once a player knows for sure that if they die they’ll come back the next day, what is death but a nap, occasionally paired with XP loss? It serves a story’s tension to have some measure of chance for failure, It serves a character’s humanity to have some fear for their own mortality. Life or Death engagements have little meaning when Death is just time out. By the same token, the story itself should be able to survive the death of a character. I’m not saying there should be no means of reviving a character, if it serves the story you are all telling, but there’s a difference between finding the right horn of the fabled blue minotaur to trade to the queen of the fairies to get her to fulfill the death oath sworn between her court and the father of the PC and going to see Jim’s brother, who’s a decently high level cleric of Pelor and will probably even spot us the gold if we tell him the quest is epic enough.

Video games find it harder to implement this idea, simply because a player who loses will restart, most of the time. That said, players have been trained to accept a win ending and a game loss, or at most a plethora of win endings based upon their morality choices. But what about basing the ending on their qualitative choices? The S.T,A.L.K.E.R. games embrace this idea to an extent, offering the player a number of epilogue scenes depicting the consequences of their actions, ones they may not have thought twice about. Fallout games also generally do this, although the game itself generally makes it clear which actions are choices that will effect the course of the game. The trick is to give the player choices during game play, and not show the effects until after the game is finished. A game wherein you fight the final battle and that decides whether you win or lose can have an epic finish, but a game in which the entire shape of the final battle is determined by the outcome of a hundred skirmishes you breezed through earlier is a game whose story the player has an impact on, and vice versa. It’s also a where the player will be incapable of simply skipping back a checkpoint and saving that one NPC who matters to the story.

It’s worth noting that this advice can easily be applied to traditional writing as well, as writers should not be afraid to kill characters, break objects, or destroy places that haven’t necessarily served their narrative purpose if it serves the story. It’s much more jarring to lose a character in the middle of his quest than once he’s finished all his relevant story functions.

So remember, plot armor is your enemy, and make your story strong enough to survive breaking.

What Makes a Game a Home

I want to take a minute and talk about the way mechanics influence the feel of a game.

The way a game plays mechanically affects the way a game feels emotionally. Hopefully that made sense, but if it didn’t, what I’m talking about should become clear pretty fast. Let’s discuss specifics and how you can change the mechanics of your game to make it feel different. To use the grittiest, most granular examples of this possible, I’m going to start talking about the various RPGs from fantasy flight we’ve seen in recent years, specifically Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, and Only War. If you’re familiar with these games or the Warhammer 40,000 universe, you shouldn’t have trouble following along, but stay tuned if you aren’t because this should be pretty easy to swallow

All four of the games I just mentioned run off the same core mechanics. You roll the same dice to shoot people with lasers, you have the same stats and skills, and you exist in the same universe. That said, they are all very different games. Dark Heresy is a game about being the most expendable possible pawn in a shadowy world of intrigue and corruption, as well as the core game of the series. Characters in this game start at the lowest point power wise of any of the games, and have the life expectancy of a cat in a blender. In fact, a lot of people play this game just for the messy and interesting way your characters will go the the great reroll in the sky. Next up we have Rogue Trader, a game about being interplanetary nicknack merchants and privateers in possession of a massive ship and thousands of loyal(?) crew. In Deathwatch, you’re super soldiers wearing armor better suited for starships than people and firing warcrimes at uncountable waves of gibbering alien monstrosities. And Only War treats you as a single cog in a massive warmachine weighted down with bureaucracy while you reach into an increasingly large number of piles of goo that used to be your best buddies faces.

Fluff aside though, how are these different games? Couldn’t you just buy one of them and use it to run all the others? Well, yes, clearly, but that’s not the point. The big difference, oddly enough, is the way NPC’s treat the character and the manner in which equipment is requisitioned. In Dark Heresy, the players are given a monthly wage, and are expected to live off of that and whatever they can beg buy or steal. The characters are often on their own for extended periods, and are expected to be able to survive autonomously, for the most part. This is represented both by the very specific monetary system, where every dollar counts, and in the predilection towards non combat skills and roles presented for character creation.

The opposite of this is Deathwatch. You are given a suite of bionics and implants, a suit of basically invulnerable armor, and the massive weapon of your choice when you create your character. There’s very little in the way of interpersonal skills as the most you’ll ever have to talk to an NPC is a well delivered one liner or a demand that they get the hell out of your way. If you want extra equipment, you ask nicely, and an army of municipal drones fall over themselves to bring it to you. This is a game that is all about murdering enemies. It even has a special suite of rules devoted both to how well your party’s supersoldier are working together and another explaining exactly how to kill hundreds of aliens in one round.

Then we have Rogue Trader. This game is very focused on the acquisition of filthy lucre, but in a nontraditional way, in that you’ll rarely have to fight a dragon for it. During character creation, the party collaborates to create the space ship on which they will be traveling. Note: Never, ever underestimate the positive effects on party cohesion of collaborating in the creation of something. Anyways, this gives the players a joint sense of ownership, a mutual interest in eachother, and access to a vast, VAST fortune and a massive cadre of loyal minions. It’s a big spaceship. You might imagine that having a massive fortune would make most equipment trivially easy to acquire, and you’d be right. The challenge in Rogue trader comes from keeping your ship alive and running in the vastness of space and acquiring even more filthy lucre to add to your vast fortune without getting shoved out an airlock.

And finally, Only War. I’d almost say Only War is a toned down version of Deathwatch, but that isn’t quite true. You start with a predetermined pack of items, to be sure, but instead of giving you everything you can ever need, the municipal drones hate your thieving, equipment losing, paperwork generating, needy, selfish guts and want you to die in whatever manner leaves your equipment intact so it can be put back in the storehouse with a minimal of fuss. Suddenly, interpersonal skills are important for things like convincing the commander you’ve always had this powerfist, or that your squad deserves to be one of the ones with armor instead of one of the ones providing ablative biological cover to the tanks. The focus is on the people, instead of the combat, and your party is even given a passel of NPCs to herd around, in the form of the remainder of their squad, who provide both mechanical benefits tot he party members they are assigned to as well as many intangibles, such as spotting sniper bullets with their faces.

So that was a long and unruly talk, but the point I was trying to make is that it’s important to think about more than just combat mechanics in your game. Where the PC’s gear comes from and how people treat them is just, if not more, important to making a game fun and deep than a well thought out system for shooting faces. A character with a support system, however inept or insular, feels very different to one floundering on their own.

So remember, the way characters interact without murder is just as important as the way they do with it.