ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

They Have Perspective

I just sent out the sneak peek of my next game as a reward for the fine folks who backed Kingdom at the Perspective level. If you’re a Perspective backer and you didn’t get the link, let me know.

I usually play my cards pretty close to the vest when it comes to projects I’m working on, so this was a bit of a departure for me. It was actually one of the harder things I’ve written in a while.

And no, I’m not going to reveal any of the details — it wouldn’t be a very special special preview if I blabbed. If you missed the Kickstarter, you’ll have to wait to hear about codename “That Game I Talked About In the Perspective Reward”. Yep, need to work on that codename‚Ķ

Pride Goeth

If I made a war game I would definitely give armies a stat for Pride.

Pride isn’t the same as morale. Pride is a blessing and a curse. Winning increases your Pride and Pride lets you do bold things but it also limits your options. Pride won’t let you back down. Pride won’t let you retreat when you probably should. Pride can’t resist the urge to attack and show your enemy that you are superior.

Pride makes you order Pickett to charge an entrenched enemy who holds the high ground. Pride makes the flower of French chivalry charge into a hail of arrows. Pride makes you throw more and more troops at Stalingrad. Pride makes you push deeper into India when you should probably just sit back and rest at one of your many Alexandrias.

As a game balance mechanic Pride could be lovely. Every victory you won would come with its own built-in cost. Your own successes could turn the tide against you. You could even design scenarios to start with a substantial advantage in troops or disposition but be hamstrung by your overreaching Pride.

Musashi

The important thing in strategy is to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions.

–A Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi

Flip it and you’ve got a game design maxim: make rules that block useless actions but do not block useful actions. Structure and rules can create order and set a baseline for good contributions but the danger is going too far and suppressing creative gold.

What happens if you do block the magic? Players will be annoyed. Or they will ignore your rules and do what they want. Often both.

Design craves to predict play but creative play is inherently unpredictable. It’s an uncomfortable situation.

Suppressing Useful Actions

The important thing in strategy is to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions.

A Book of Five Rings (The Fire Book), Miyamoto Musashi

The diametric opposite of role-playing game design. Informatively so.

Game design acid test: if your rules block ideas the players want and you don’t have an excellent reason for it, you’ve got a design problem. Players will work around it, because players are smart and adaptive, but now they’re fighting your game. Design fail.

And then you say “But you wrote Microscope?!? It restricts player contributions all the time! And I had a great idea I couldn’t use!” And I say yes, it gives huge creative power to different people at different times for very specific and fruitful reasons. Your restriction is another player’s field day.

Crisscrossing Players and Plots and Not Losing Your Mind

After West Marches I ran a long-term superhero game, New Century City. Unlike West Marches it followed the more traditional “the GM creates a situation and the players have fun with it” model, which was fitting because superhero games are one of the most reactive genres you can play: villains hatch schemes, heroes react to stop them and re-establish the status quo.

Also unlike West Marches, the game was plot-heavy. Absolutely thick with plot. There was a big, over-arching thread that ran through the whole thing (Worlds In Collision), a bunch of individual threads that were part of that main arc (Queen of the Jungle, Emerald of Aktios, I am Maximus) as well as assorted unrelated adventure arcs (the lives and deaths of Dr. Null, the Echelon conspiracy). Then there were individual “rise & fall” character arcs for NPCs (Can we cure the Man-Beast? Is Nighthawk a villain or an undercover hero?). And then on top of all that, there were multiple personal threads for every player character (Captain Danger’s relationship with her sister, Moon Man finding out what really happened to him in those missing decades in space, the secret origin of the Eclipse, the dating life of the Eclipse, and so on, and so on).

In keeping with the comic book style, I wanted every session to be a self-contained episode with it’s own arc, complete with an episode title announced at the start of the game. So if you played any one game, it would be a complete adventure (or part of a few session mini-series at most). No bridging sessions, no filler sessions.

But coming right off of West Marches we had a big pool of great players. We wanted to keep playing with everyone, but ten people at the table is way too crowded for anything close to meaningful roleplaying. So again I opted for the mixed roster method: we’d float a date and see who could play, keeping each game at about 3-5 players.

We rarely had the same combination of players at two sessions in a row, which was great for the stand-alone episode part but a potential nightmare for plot threads. Each player is only seeing a fraction of the sessions, so how do you make sure what they’re seeing makes any sense? You say, “surprise! Nighthawk is really a good guy after all” and the players at this session look at you and say, “uh, who’s Nighthawk?” because they’ve never been in a game with him before, or they missed the last bit that set up this bit. Oops.

The cheap answer is to just let the players sort it out. Confused why that guy did that thing? Maybe you better chat with the other players if you want to keep up. While that was glorious in West Marches, where the whole theme was sandbox exploration, it seemed completely inappropriate in a character-centric game like this. The superheroes are the center of the story, the axis around which the plot wheel turns. Just hitting a player with plot X because I wanted to advance that plot and they happened to be there seemed aesthetically tragic.

So I took the harder approach: customizing every single session so it was lovingly hand-crafted to the characters that would be there. And advanced the plots. And made sense.

To keep track of all that, to understand the perspective of each character and figure out what plots they were involved in, I need a tool. I needed a plot grid.

Everything goes in the Plot Grid

The grid was a list of every important thing I wanted to put in the game: plots, events, episodes, characters, scenes, revelations, the works.

Every single item had its own line on the grid. Every revelation, every confrontation, every snippet that I thought needed to come out had its own line (Captain Danger’s sister has powers too! Felicity is really Cathy Grant!). Every thing that needed to come back in response to something that happened in the game had its own line (Maelstrom attacked those army choppers so the Feds are going to come after him, Captain Danger doesn’t know she has that thing in her jacket pocket). Every idea for a random situation, flashy encounter, or set piece had a line (Speed Demon tries to set a record for banks robbed in a day, a sorcerer transforms part of downtown to ancient Aegypt). It all went into the big hopper.

To the right I made columns for every single player character in the game (24+ characters). For each line I would mark the box to show how relevant each item was to that character, how important it was to have that character there when that thing happened.

Characters were marked essential if they had to be there (I can’t reveal the thing about Felicity being Cathy Grant without both Captain Danger and Guardian being there), or marked optional if they had some previous contact with this thread or had shown curiosity but weren’t required (Eclipse and the Shadow would be interested to find out the truth about Mr. Midnight’s background, but it’s only essential to Moon Man since their origins are secretly intertwined). For other characters that line was blank, meaning there was no special connection that character. Some lines had no marks at all, meaning they weren’t attached to anyone in particular, and I could use them whenever I wanted — a lot of generic “action” encounters were this way.

Now Build An Episode

So let’s say we’ve scheduled a game, and I’ve found out who can play and which of their characters they want to play. I take my big grid, and sort the lines so that all the items important to those particular characters will pop to the top. That’s my starting point for brainstorming what to put in the episode. I mix and match, see what goes together and what emerges. Ideally something jumps out as the main plot for the session: some items are big and clearly need to be the centerpiece of an episode, others are just supporting encounters or scenes (it was a personal rule that each episode had a strong core concept, not just a mix of “this week on…” but that’s just me).

Sometimes the unexpected combinations of characters led to surprising but cool plot cross-overs. I didn’t foresee Dr. Daedalus returning with Moon Man to ancient Atlantis because he was only peripherally attached to that thread, but because his player was available and others weren’t that’s what happened and it turned out to be a perfect match. If you asked the players they would probably guess I planned it.

It was also nice because I could be flexible and follow my whims. I could let threads simmer for ten, twenty games without being afraid that I would lose track of them. I didn’t have to keep the game on tight rails.

Side Effects: It’s All About Me

There’s a counter-intuitive side effect: the less you play, the more the game is about you when you do play.

Yes, crazy, I know. But if there’s a plot that requires you (and just about everyone in the superhero game had a background or origin plot — the genre demands it), then the less you play, the fewer opportunities there are to move that plot. So if you’re going to be in a game, I’m more likely to push that thread up the stack. Guardian is showing up for a game? Gotta move that “Trials of Torvok” plot while I have the chance! Dr. Daedalus is in? Time for the “Armor Wars.”

Suffice to say, players did not mind this one bit. The less frequent players got the spotlight, and the more frequent players didn’t mind because they already had the spotlight in a lot of games.

Information is addictive and columns are cheap

As the game went on I added more and more columns to track things like the scale of the adventure (saving the world, saving the city, back alley brawling) or the style of the game (investigation, slugfest, personal issues), so I could sort and scan and see what kinds of games we’d had, and even break down what kind of games each individual player had been in (yeah, Mike hadn’t played in the last six games, but I don’t necessary want the next game he plays in be just like the game he played two months ago).

I had columns for all the major plot arcs, so I could mark which plot each item belonged to. I could track how long it had been (either in-game or real days) since a particular thread had moved. I could flag items as “important, do it soon!” or “maybe.”

As items got used, I put the episode number in the far left column: that thing had happened, so it was cemented in place. I’d change the boxes to checks to show which characters were in that episode, editing the description to reflect what actually happened, morphing my adventure seeds neatly into game records.

Run the Numbers

If you’re wondering how extensively this method was tested, or if you’re wondering if it was overkill, I used it for 119 New Century City games, with nine players running 24 different characters (after factoring out anyone who played fewer than ten games). There were an average of 3.4 players per game, plus GM. Yep, once again the average player only sees about a third of the games.

And no, I don’t think you have to run such a big game to make it worthwhile. It’s potentially a useful technique for any sized game.

Game Plugin: the Blame Game

Human beings crave cause and effect. When something goes wrong, we try to understand what happened so the same thing doesn’t happen again. It’s a good survival tactic.

Taken too far, it means we look for explanations for even the most random events. We don’t want to live in a universe where bad things happen for no reason, so we look for someone to be the reason.

We look for someone to blame.

The Blame Game plugin promotes tension and hostility between characters. You can use it for deadly serious “frag the lieutenant” military scenarios or something much more light and comical. Either way the structure promotes roleplaying because it forces you to forge opinions — bad opinions — about the other characters.

This system was originally developed for project hicks aka Nuke ‘Em From Orbit, now retired. We tried this mechanic and it was super-fun, if by super-fun you mean it got the characters at each others’ throats in minutes flat.

The Blame Game

A team runs on trust. What happens if you don’t trust your teammates? You don’t rely on them. You aren’t sure they’ll do their job, and if that could result in something that could screw you (and it always does) you’ll spend time worrying at what they are doing instead of doing _your_ job. That makes a breakdown in trust contagious: you don’t trust Sawyer, so you are glancing at his fire zone when you should be watching yours. Griff notices that you aren’t watching your zone when you should, so he stops trusting you and starts worrying about your zone too. Soon the whole thing goes to hell in a hand basket.

To rely on someone you have to trust both loyalty (“Cole would never leave me behind”) and competence (“Cole knows what he is doing, he can take care of the bugs on his end”). It doesn’t do any good to know a guy is a deadly fighting machine if he would leave you hanging out to dry to save his own skin, and your best friend since childhood will only keep you company while you’re getting eaten if he can’t figure out how to switch off the safety on his assault rifle.

When bad things happen to the team, each character is burdened with a certain amount of “blame” they must lay on someone to explain to themselves why things went wrong. The bugs got the drop on us, and I think Marcus should have been paying more attention to his zone so I lay my blame on him.

Blame can be rational and based on facts (Marcus wrecked the transport, so naturally you think he’s incompetent) or it can be totally irrational (you weren’t there when the bugs ate Luther, but Marcus wouldn’t shut up this morning about what a bad idea this mission was, so you think he jinxed it and got Luther killed). It’s totally up to the player.

Blame Is Personal — A person may be trusted differently by different people. You think Cole is a slacker, so you don’t trust him, but Sawyer thinks he’s fine. Even two people witnessing the same events may come to entirely differently conclusions of whether someone should be blamed.

Blame Is Belief — An imaginary problem does as much damage to trust as a real problem. If I think you aren’t watching your corner, it doesn’t matter how on the ball you really are, I stop trusting you. If I think you are hiding a cowardly streak or you’re about to lose it, it doesn’t matter if you would really lay down your life for me, I stop trusting you.

Acquiring Blame

When something goes wrong, each member of the team acquires an equal amount of blame they need to put on someone else. The worse things go, the more blame everyone gets:

everything goes according to plan — 0 blame
something goes wrong or someone gets hurt — 1 blame
someone gets killed — 2 blame
massive failure, catastrophic defeat, lots of deaths — 3 blame or more

You can scale these values up or down based on how quickly you want things to fall apart.

Laying Blame

Write down all the other characters’ names side by side on your sheet. When you blame someone you establish a new (worse) opinion of them — you distrust them more. For every point of blame, come up with a one or two word description of the person you are blaming, like “loser”, “slacker”, or “incompetent.” Write that description beneath the person’s name on your character sheet, putting each new description below the previous ones.

Each new description has to be worse than the previous one.

You might start off with:

KELSO
thinks too much

After a few more bad encounters and laying more blame it might read:

KELSO
thinks too much
hesitates
unreliable
coward

If some missions go well and you start to trust Kelso a little more, you may erase “coward” and just think Kelso is unreliable.

Key point: you have to blame another player character on the team. You can’t pick an NPC or “the Brass.” Maybe you blame them too, but we’re not interested in that right now.

After an action sequence results in blame, play through these steps:

1) Each player gives a brief out-of-character summary of who they want to lay their blame on and why. They may base it on things that were already established to have happened during the action, or they can put forward details that they think fit. It may also be that a character just thinks something happened in a certain way. At this point no one should revise their plans based on what anyone else says. Don’t worry too much at this point about what actually did happen — that’ll get sorted out next.

2) Roleplay the interactions. Usually this involves insults, yelling, and recriminations. The flow of conversation and counter-accusations may lead players to change who they blame. There is no rule that your character has to openly say who you are blaming or why, but even sullen resentment should be played out somehow. More is better.

3) Final decision. Players may choose to revise who they want to blame based on the roleplaying scene, then everyone writes down their final blame. No negotiation or discussion at this point — just decide, write it down and then tell everyone what you wrote.

After an ambush goes bad and a trooper gets killed, everybody gets saddled with a point of Blame. Spruce’s player declares he’s blaming Wallace for not being alert, and Taylor’s player jumps on the bandwagon to blame Wallace too. Wallace’s player decides to blame Taylor for messing up the demolitions used in the fight, even though there was nothing rolled that indicated the demolitions were a problem — maybe it happened that way, maybe it didn’t. Truth is subjective.

Taylor: “Wallace man, you screwed up!”

Spruce: “Yeah, Wallace if you’d been watching your zone Sammy wouldn’t have gotten killed. Sammy! I’ll miss you buddy!”

Wallace: “I was watching my zone! It was Taylor who set off the mines too soon and screwed the ambush! They were all over us!”

Taylor: “Me? That detonator pack was fried! Spruce was supposed to check it this morning!”

Spruce: “That’s bullshit man! It was good when I checked it! You’re so full of crap!”

After roleplaying is over, Taylor changes his mind and blames Spruce (fucking slacker). Spruce also changes his mind and blames Taylor (the lying bastard). Wallace could still blame Taylor as he planned, but the roleplaying might sway him to blame Spruce instead.

Is any of this true? Did Spruce mess up prepping the demo packs? If it is not a detail that came out during the action we may not know.

What we do know is that if a player lays blame, they are saying their character believes that person is to blame for what happened, right or wrong.

“But my character would never do that!”

Other players may say your character did things that you don’t think your character would ever do. My character would never fall asleep on guard duty!

If that’s what you think, say so! Have your character call bullshit on them. Another player saying something happened doesn’t make it so. On the other hand when players make accusations that do fit your character, well maybe it really did happen that way. You can still deny everything (at least to start with), but maybe your protests ring a little hollow.

Unshakable Faith — Brothers In Arms

With all this talk about who you trust and who you rely on, it may seem strange that there are no rules for showing that you trust someone more than usual, like that blood brother you’ve served twelve tours with and who you’d lay down your life for in a heartbeat.

If you want to show you really, really trust someone and nothing can make you doubt them, just don’t lay any Blame on them. Go ahead. Even if they obviously screw up, just blame someone else.

So… what does it do?

The full rules included things like blaming yourself, suppressing blame and potentially cracking up over it, changing your mind and shifting blame to other people, heroic catharsis, Sarge keeping a lid on things, and so on, but this is this is all you need to use it in a game.

You’re probably also wondering, what mechanical effect does all this have? Do I get negatives if I team up with someone I distrust? What’s the deal?

And the answer is: zero mechanical effect. None. Which makes it a great plugin.

It works because the secret ingredient is human nature. If I sit across the table and discuss how my character thinks your character is a coward and liar, I am pretty likely to roleplay that way even if nothing in the rules makes me do it. Likewise if I call your character a clueless screw-up, you are likely to have your character take it personally. You are going to react to the insult.

I’m a big believer in non-binding game mechanics, meaning rules that trust the players have good intentions and will play well (or at least interestingly), rather than distrusting the players and mechanically forcing them to obey. Maybe I’m so sick of your guy that I leave him behind for the bugs to munch on when the chips are down. Or maybe I say screw it and throw myself into the fire to save him because I just can’t leave a brother-in-arms behind. It’s up to the players to play their characters.

Try it out. It’s a very short hop to total team breakdown.