Category Archives: Games

Back to the Stacks

I’ve switched from my novel to doing a bit of work on the Stack based RPG this week. If I’ve not mentioned this before, this is a RPG that utilizes Warhammer style careers but stacked in a related series. The plan is to give bonuses to those players who go through a stack without jumping to a different one, but leave it viable for those who want to jump around to get a more diverse set of skills and abilities.

This week’s work has me fleshing out the system mechanics and working up various lists. Lists of talents and abilities, lists of spells, and a list of skills.
Skills have always been a sticking point when designing. Do I want to have a skill for all conceivable player actions? This leaves me with a long list, the majority of which will never see any apprecable play, let alone do more than give some characters a smattering of flavoring. It doesn’t advance the playability of the game or the character. On the other hand, I could aim for haivng a majority and let the GM and Players do some clean up if they find something I’ve missed? That gets rid of a certail level of customazation I know that some GMs and Players really enjoy having.

It also leaves them with an additional task when creating a character.

With either choice, I’m often stuck on this part of the game for weeks going back and forth.

So I’m trying to do it different with this game.

Last night, I had the idea that the careers have inherent, but litmited, skills and/or abilities (whatever you want to call them) which are directly related to what the career is named. That is if your character starts life as a Baker, then obviously, they’ve had some training and expreience baking goods. In making this a rule, both the player and the GM can safely make the assumption that if anything baking related suddenly becomes important to the story, then this character has the capacity to deal with it. How well they can deal is where dice come into play.

This cuts me free from having to stick in a dozen or more of the more function style of skills. At the same time, it also keeps the sorts of custmozation and character flavor options in there, should the Player or the GM want to go that route.

Which is good. I like that I can keep the skill list short-ish. It means that players are going to have a better chance at doing things, more often because their characters will have the skills to do so.

But then there are the meta-skills.

Perception, awareness, search, and their brethern. Where do they fit in?

Anymore, it’s something of a rite for players to expect, once a session to miss some detail or clue because of a botched test of one of those listed above. It is disheartening and frustrating when it becomes apparent that this was curcial in order to get through the rest of the session.

That player part of me wants to eliminate those failure points. Move to something like the Gumshoe system which gives the characters all of the clues and then uses their skills to put the links between them together. It’s a nice solution which keeps the players invovled in the story and less involved in statistics and dice.

“But,” the GM in me interrupts, “what if the situation calls for the players to be distracted at a crucial clue gathering moment? Or if the GM feels they need to work for a clue to the plot? What then?”

In those situations a skill check certainly feels more appropriate but this doesn’t get us past the underlying dilemma — the use of randomness to advance the plot, rather than using character action to do the same. I’m not saying that randomness isn’t a part of RPG patterns, but I have become suspcious when it’s used for plot.

More thinking is needed before I come to a decision.

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Alternative character creation

From the first time I was introduced to the career concept in Warhammer Fantasy I found myself attracted to the simplicity, flexibility, and the power to really customize a character to my liking. But I have experienced several other systems in the mean time, all of which do something different very well. So I started musing what one might make when combining several different character creation system. And thus, the Character Stack was born.

The idea of a stack is bit of a cross breeding of L5R’s ranks and of WFRP’s careers. Stacks have three or four careers in them. Each career emphasizes a different set of abilities and skills that are unique to that particular career as well as a set of stat increases that are unique to the stack. Each career gives you a number of options to move on. You can stay inside the stack or move to a different stack. In staying inside the stack, you get the next set of stat bonuses (after buying your way through the new career). Go to a new stack, get a different set of skills and stat bonuses based on the theme of that stack.

Stacks are themed. Thief, Knight, Apprentice (wizard or priest), Scholar, Noble, Peasant, Streets, etc. Careers inside the stack are all tied to the theme and share many of the skills and abilities across the careers present. For instance, the Thief stack could have careers like Cutpurse, House Breaker, Smuggler, and Rogue. It’s easy to see where the skills all apply to the different careers. Now for a different view, you have the Peasant stack.  In that one, I could put careers like Servant, Valet, and Messenger. Here the ties between the careers are not as obvious, but if you think about how one gains trust inside a household, then it should become more obvious.

Career exits would also have some thematic tie to the career. I could see House Breaker and Smuggler getting an exit of Fence (from say, the Underworld stack) while Cutpurse and Rogue could have Vagabond (from the Streets stack).

I can imagine if such a character system was implemented, I would want to employee an buy system with some minor tweaks. As already mentioned, the stat bonuses would only come from the stack and would apply _after_ having bought through the career’s skills and abilities. Off the top of my head, I think skills would cost 50xp and could be purchased indefinitely, but have an increased cost each time. So the first repurchase would cost 100xp, the next 150 xp, the third repurchase would then cost 200 xp, etc. which makes it self-limiting. Each additional purchase would provide a 5% increase bonus to the roll.

If a character has a given skill from a previous career, they don’t have to purchase it again to pass the career, but they can if the player wants to.

Abilities are one time buys costing 100 xp each. I imagine abilities coupled very tightly to the career and stack themes and are along the lines of feats and class abilities from 3.x ed d&d or paizo’s pathfinder.

I can also see where changing stacks would cost experience. Maybe 100xp since the character is changing its emphasis. Staying inside the same stack is free. There might be a provision to jump to an unrelated career for 200 xp considering that a character’s story might change completely during the course of play.

Stack bonuses — it all depends on the system underlying this character system, but this is where characters would receive their stat increases. Each time a career is completed, the character gets the stat increase (and possibly a new ability or power — thinking of wizards, druids and priests here). The point being staying inside a given stack would give a more focused stat increase the longer the character stays inside it. The converse is that jumping from stack to stack, while not getting the same size of stat increases gives them a more rounded/diverse set of increases to the character.

Sticking with the Thief example from before. First stat increases would be to dex/agility, intelligence, fellowship/charisma, and combat — the next would be another increase to dex/agility, combat, and an initial health increase. Here they might also get a bonus to hiding or a backstabbing ability. The third again increases dex/agility, fell/char, some dodge ability or bonus thereto (again depends on the underlying combat resolution system), some bonus to lying/quick talking.

Ran out of idea for the fourth career, but I think you get the idea.

Also to make sure I’ve said it, jumping from stack to stack, you only get the first bonus from the new stack.

But this is just the “Basic” stacks — There is more than enough room to also do “Advanced” stacks which give a greater set of stats and abilities while putting less emphasis on skills (which was the point of the Basic stacks).

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That which cannot be removed

Dungeons and Dragons has endured a number iterations over the years, and yet there are things which have remained exactly the same. With 5th edition now looming I am left wondering if there are any parts which will be able to survive the changes this time.

The one big thing which hasn’t changed is the stat stack. The big six are known for the comprehensive and familiar description. Likewise, the range of those numbers and the fact that 1  or 0 is the bad end of the spectrum and 18 and over is the good end. Classic base character archetypes — Fighter, Thief, Priest, and Wizard. Levels, experience points, hit points, Vancian magic, and saving throws.

So what if WotC were to mess with that list? What if the big six were replaced with something else? Or if you suddenly had stats measuring from 1 to 10 on each of those? Would it still be D&D?

Don’t misunderstand. D&D is as much a brand as it is a system but which built which?

I am almost willing to argue that the system made the brand what it is. When one says D&D you get a certain image in your mind that encompasses a specific experience which includes some of those things I mentioned before. They may vary slightly — anyone else remember the saving throws of “Bend Bars / Lift Gates” or that strength could have a percentage rider if you rolled up a 18 at character creation?

It certainly wasn’t the same D&D from before, but it was still D&D. The big six were still present, hit points and movement still mattered.

But the twist is this. Even without the big six or hit points or Vancian magic, you could make a decent dungeon crawl based game. With the D&D brand, it suddenly becomes a D&D game. WotC has already done this to a certain extent with both some of their D&D board games, but also with Gamma World.

The brand in those cases is more important than the actual system that it’s been applied to. It’s not that something new has been made with the old, but that the old system was dumped all together.

So I think that nothing is going to be off limits for the designers. Everything, including the old sacred cows mentioned above, is up for the metaphorical slaughter. With this Legend & Lore column by Monte, I think it indicates with the “you play what you want to play” line there are a number of changes in stock for us old timers. We are going to be surprised, very surprised, to see what has been done with D&D when 5th edition gets published.

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How Wizards can get this Geek back

Wizard of the Coast announced they wanted to hear from the gaming community while designing 5th Ed. Which is great, but seems to miss the point. As far as many are concerned, WotC’s slip-ups and bungling of 4th Ed is reason enough to never look again. While it is tempting to be that sort of grognard, I think the company and designers deserve to know what it would take to get me to come back around.

First, the things that WotC did wrong

The PDF debacle

The digital world is here and now. Pretending otherwise isn’t helping anyone. Taking away the ebooks and pdfs did absolutely nothing to deter or prevent people from having a digital copy. All it did was take away legit sales. All it did was alienate people. All it did was create a PR nightmare that continues to this day.

Bad communication and inconsistent messages

What was the plan with 4th and why did it get changed so frequently? What was supposed to be the core books and which were optional? What was the difference between Essentials and the Red Box? And how were those different from the core? And what was the bloody point to it all?

If something changes this needs to communicated. If something advertised is impacted, this needs to be communicated. If something gets cancelled, this needs to be communicated. And the reason needed to be communicated, too. Hiding behind press releases and allowing rumors to get started never helps maintain a brand, let alone the goodwill of the gaming community.

Lack of support

It’s great that they went back and converted many of their settings but what else was done with them? Nothing! Where was Dungeon with the latest installment of an ongoing campaign? Where was the weekly “encounter” example? Where was free intro adventure to said setting? Where was Dragon with the interesting twist on play or class?

And in conjunction with my previous point of communication, it seems to me like there should have been a greater effort to make players aware of some of these things (if they existed, which I’m not sure that they did).

Subpar products

How much errata did they release? How many times did they forget to include necessary mechanics in their books? Nothing is as frustrating as finding that the part you’ve just spent three days searching for never made it into the final product.

Cards, minis, tokens, decks. AKA: Extras

These are distractions even when they’re the central mechanic of play. Remember that all of this started with pencil and notebook paper. Add some standard dice and that is all you should ever need to play. Anything less and you have broken RPGs. Substitutions do not apply. Additions, maybe, but they have to be optional and cheap enough to buy for everybody.

Even Fantasy Flight had to relent and give players straight up books with the card info in them in order to keep selling their version of WFRP. The point being we of the RPG world don’t like being forced into buying extras to keep playing. If we wanted to do that, we’d be playing Magic (and some of us still are). Keep with making the books the sole point of information to play.

What they need to do

Convince me there’s a vision

A D&D that’s all things to all players already exists. It’s called GURPS. If I want to play that, I know how to find it. And while I am fan of Monte Cook’s work, I already have the most recent revision of his best. There needs to be something new, something different, something cool about this next version of D&D.

The thing is, no company gets customers automatically. The execs of many may think they do, going so far as to see these people as an inevitability. But that’s not how it works. You have to earn your customers and their loyalty. Nothing stands out more in this line of thought than Gabe Newel’s recent comments about Steam and his business.

He is spot on about how the media companies are killing themselves by worrying over control instead of delivering the goods to people for a price they want to pay.

The same has to happen to the culture of Hasbro and WotC. They have to let go of the control ideology and embrace an more open paradigm.

Which translates into support, support, support

They need to step up the support of digital world. That means pdfs, ebooks, and the web. Yes, people will send these to their friends. Yes, they will be on torrents. And guess what? This will happen anyways. If Hasbro/WotC wants any chance to stay relevant, they must ignore the inevitable and provide a product that people will pay for.

Also, web tools. The character generator should be out front and ready to be used by any passing browser. Don’t make the gateway to your system sit behind a paywall or a log-in. Let players make thousands of characters for the hell of it. One or two might get turned into a sale. And that’s what the goal should be.

Anything else (GM tools, maps, etc) can sit behind a log-in. Freemium at the very least with a dollar or two for 48/72 hours of unlock of extra tools. Make the tools good enough, you can start selling week/month/year subscriptions as the word spreads. These need to be available at launch. No later unless you want to hear how this is just like the 4th Ed tools that never existed.

Support also means more than settings. It means having campaigns in those settings. Sourcebooks and gazetteers are nice, but nothing beats being able to point a player to a single source of everything needed for their game night. Getting set up is a chore and one that 4th attempted to solve. But that was solving for the wrong variable. The right one is having the story ready to go.

Even better would be to match what Paizo has done with Pathfinder and have a continuing, living, open campaign to draw the players. Pick one of your many properties. Start writing and have fun with it.

Acknowledging the past

I have no idea about the actual costs, but with the rise of the retroclones, it is obvious that there are players craving something of the old-school. And since there’s this gigantic back catalog there is absolutely no sense in not tapping it. In keeping with my first point, this also means digitizing it. Make it available and make it cheap. Suck it up, figure out the maze of royalties, and give your customers what they so obviously want.

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D&D thoughts

Yesterday Wizards of the Coast announced something which surprised almost nobody. That in 2013 we’re getting 5th Edition. What was interesting about the announcement was their seeking out input from players and fans of the ground breaking game series.

The question of the moment is will they actually listen to feedback on the playtest? And if they do, what will become of it?

I am doubtful that this will turn out the way most people expect it to. Not because the people behind the next edition are in any way closed minded about receiving feedback from the Internet. But because at the very least, the channel of information from the players in the wider Internet is going to be controlled to a degree befitting a corporation of Hasbro’s size and scope.

Because, and let us be honest here, the elephant in the room is Paizo. It is very hard to argue against the idea that we would not be looking at this announcement if it weren’t for the plucky upstart’s enormous and well earned success of the past couple of years. That WotC has announced that they are going to be following in their footsteps should have come as no surprise to anyone. It is smart of WotC to attempt to regain both the market and the hearts of players by doing exactly what Paizo did to gain them.

The fact that I think is being overlooked by this plan is that Paizo’s success came from two things which WotC does not have going for them. The first is the time at which Pathfinder was introduced. With the dissent of 4th edition in full swing and few retroclones to compete against, Paizo was incredibly well positioned to pull off a major coup. Which, as we can now see, it did. The second is Paizo’s size. Being as small as it is, Paizo is able to be dynamic and responsive to both the market and to the players.

The time for WotC to have struck is long since past. Market fragmentation, driven in part by a baffling series of confusing messages from the company in the last few years and in part by the removal of all previous versions of D&D from sales channels, is set. WotC is now in the unenviable position of being a owner of a brand which has inspired such loyalty as to actively drive more causal gamers away. Short of going back in time to prevent Paizo and the OGL from ever existing, they are now stuck with their subset of hardcore supporters and a harder sell to everyone else.

As for the dynamic and responsive presence, I don’t know. I feel like they don’t have it in themselves to win that fight. They can do whatever Hasbro let’s them get away with, but ultimately WotC and the designers don’t have the editorial or financial independence Paizo does. And they certainly don’t have the same trust of the gaming community they once held.

In some respects this pledge of openness reminds me of Blizzard and World of Warcraft. If you have ever spent time delving into their forums, specifically the beta forums, you will find any number of issues with the game brought up. Some big and many small. They have also gone out of their way to ask their community for feedback on classes several times now. And yet with all of this feedback, very little has ever made it through to the actual coders and designers to fix.

As explained more than a few times now by their community managers and CSRs who tend the forum, there isn’t a direct line to the devs. Nor was there ever intended to be one. At best the CSRs will gather up the biggest issues and most interesting posts to pass along to their superiors who, we guess, send them along to the appropriate triage teams and eventually to the devs.

That is a textbook case of how you manage a number of players the size of which WotC is aiming to have. Why anyone would think that Hasbro and WotC would do their forums and feedback any different is…perhaps naive or possibly fooling themselves.

Do not misunderstand me. I think it would be wonderful to have Monte Cook hip deep in their forums and responding, personally, to every well thought out and worded post. Or to see a change or three initiated by some player’s insightful suggestion. I think that this and the other announcements we got yesterday are part of their overall marketing strategy.


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Sands of Mars update

Since I missed updating last week, I’m going to dive into some updates to the rules for the Martian colony game that’s being slowly worked on.

Spent part of today rethinking my rules for Sands of Mars. There were some parts I liked and some that felt clunky. On the clunky side, there wasn’t the meshing I wanted when it came to playing become action. There was plenty of action, but I felt that it wasn’t as complete as it could be. Something about what we were doing and what our goals were didn’t quite get there. This, I felt, affected how much fun we had. Therefore, I went and looked at what streamlining could be done as I reviewed my notes from the playtests.

I felt that it’s been long enough since I first put things together that going back to the beginning and reviewing my thought process was the place to start.

So, for successful habitation of Mars, humans need oxygen, food, water, and shelter

 

Shelter can consist of additional items, namely stuff that makes the shelter nice to live in. we now have electronics, appliances, and furniture.

To translate into game terms: Devices needed to generate O2, and H2O, and provide an environment for living, and an environment for growing. humans on a colony are going to want to communicate with each other and with the earth; therefore additional items are needed. some sort of satellite communication gear and terrestrial system to do the same. And to run it all, power generation. Change this up, it can be nuke plants or solar panels. 1 Nuke plant == 5 Solar Panels <– That may change. will have to play with it some more.

[this is about as far as i got last time, feels incomplete]

Okay, so the premise is that the players control robots which go about building these things; shelters, o2 generators, H2O generators, communication gear. each of those are comprised of smaller components, namely mechanisms generated by nanofactories.

The players search the map for places to put these items (stable locations), places to get materials to build the mechanisms.

Collapse minerals and iron into a single field. That’s the ticket. Add the third type as Soil that has to be moved. A nanofactory will move it from current location, if it’s not Stable to a location that is. That takes a certain number of turns. Once moved (some token will have to be used here) then a Farm can be built.

Get rid of everything but the designated Radio spot. Collapse it down, make it simpler and easy to put on a sector.

Stable — supports one structure on it
Soil — martian surface that can be easily converted into a arable earth
Minable — There are raw minerals close enough or in the surface that make this an excellent location for planting a nanofactory to produce material
Bedrock — Supports two regular structures on it or one tall structure (E.G. satellite uplink, Nuke Plant, or Radio Tower)
Non — while the surface is stable enough to traverse regularly, there is insufficient support under the surface for building.
Unstable — Player makes die roll when traversing, 1-3 nothing happens, 4 & 5 loses 1 action this turn, 6 turn ends
—-
Players can plant a nanofactory on an unstable or non region if it has soil or minable, but that factory will be destroyed in X turns due to the instability of the ground. There might even be room for a card that will allow for the temporary or permanent stabilization of a sector but at the cost of production.

How long would this new game last? 1 turn == 1 month, 12 turns == 1 year.
Each robot gets 4 actions per turn. Actions are Move, Probe, Start Nanofactory, Start Building

Nanofactories and Buildings are done the same way, utilizing a machine colony that the robots have tucked away inside of them. Each turn, the robots can produce enough new colony material to divide it once — starting a new building or a new nanofactory.

Nanofactorys produce only one thing now — materials — therefore end goals have to be changed up. But more than that — Building require a certain amount of material PER TURN to complete. (More cards in the deck that alter/enhance/detract from this function of the game)

Material (Mat for short) is a

Buildings — Shelter, O2 generator, H2O generator, Farm, Solar Panel, Satellite Comm, Nuke Plant, Radio Tower

Build times:

Shelter: 2 Turns :: 2 Mat/Turn to complete
O2 Gen: 2 Turns :: 1 Mat/Turn to complete
H2O Gen: 2 Turns :: 2 Mat/Turn to complete
Farm: 2 Turns :: 1 Mat/Turn to complete
Solar Panel: 1 Turn :: 3 Mat/Turn to complete
Satellite Com: 3 Turns :: 2 Mat/Turn to complete
Nuke Plant: 4 Turns :: 3 Mat/Turn to complete

Enhanced by ZemantaMake the Nuke plant optional and there we go. Materials have been reduced to a single resource, getting rid of something I felt was too complicated. Locations continue also be a resource, but this time, they’re generalized giving the players some freedom in planning but also giving me the ability to mess around with the game tiles and the distribution of usable sites across them. Some playtesting is needed now to see how well these ideas work and so I can get a feel for the number of items needed for a “win”.

Half Life 2 — A very late review

I didn’t want to play Half-Life 2 when it first came out. I found the demo to be an glorified tech demo, bland and predictable. On the other hand, Team Fortress 2 with its siren call of competitive and cooperative game play is something I’ve been meaning to check out. With a choice between the Orange Box (giving me many games for one low price) and purchasing TF2 solo (this was a couple of months back before it went free to play) I chose the more economic option and became a proud owner of HL2.

Simply put, Half-Life 2 tries hard to be an excellent game. It looks good, the controls are easy to use, and there is a lot of world-building to see. But that’s the problem. All I ever got to do was look at the world, I never got to explore it. The limitations artificially foisted are numerous and varied.

For one, there is the story. All by itself, it might have sufficed to be a short novel perhaps. But as part of an interactive medium, the story suffers in its inability to let the player be the hero. In giving no quarter, no choice to the player, the story of Half-Life 2 becomes a bland background. This is incredibly jarring since NPCs constantly say that the player will think of something and lead them to victory. But no thinking is required on behalf of the player. Just follow the primrose path laid before them. How then is the player motivated? There is absolutely no reason to save the world because there is nothing at stake. There are no worthwhile failure conditions. And it doesn’t matter what the player may want or do, the world will be saved because that is what the story says will happen. For as much choice Half-Life 2 gives the player, you might as well be playing a high-res version of pong.

Second, there is the actual game itself. Only at its very end, did Half-Life 2 resemble anything like an actual game. And that was more an homage to the old arcade Tron game.

Otherwise, Half-Life 2 is best described as a series of in-game cut scenes punctuated by an occasional puzzle or fight. This really makes it no different than any other FPS released in the last decade. Most of the puzzles and fights are very easy. But there are a rare few which jumps so far up the difficulty curve as to be completely separate from the rest of the game. And while this is a fantasy game dressed in the guise of science fiction, there are more than one puzzle or fight which defies the rules of their world. Almost every enemy could see through walls, there were enemies which never faltered in their aim, and enemies immune to all attacks.

I think that the designers of the game were not so interested in what the player can achieve but were far more engaged in celebrating their own creation. Like some four year old holding up their crayon art for praise, Half-Life 2 wants you to be impressed with itself and not the experience that it brings to you.

This attitude is endemic in the video game world. We hear that the game creators want to engage Players through story and consequences, but Half-Life 2 gives no control over either to the player. Where this discontinuity originates, I have no idea. All I can see is that there is no trust in the player to be the hero, there is no trust in the player to choose the righteous path. I am not asking for an AI game master to  improvise at the player’s whim, but something far simpler. To start, failure should be an option and it should not end the game. Right or left should be meaningful options. At the very least I should be able to chart out the plot as per Robin’s Law of good gamemastering and have it be a straight line.

Games like Half-Life 2 that attempt to dazzle to distract from their flatness do a disservice to all games.

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Play Test entry: Martian Sands

Friday nights is one of the regular game nights with friends Twiaz and Effulgent_Inara. They were nice enough to give Martian Sands a trial run. There were several good surprises and a lot of excellent feedback.

I was happiest with having the base mechanics validated. The move & explore with players making the map as they played was easy to pick up on and use. We also went through the entire deck of hexes. So I have room to increase that number and give the players a variety of terrains to experience.

Here are a few shots from that night:

Starting set up
The starting set up
A few turns in
A few turns into the game

 

Final board
All sectors deployed

 

There was a few weaknesses explored. The environment deck needs some work, especially since it is predicated on a version of the rules not used since I first thought it up. These cards, which are like the Mythos cards in Arkham Horror, are used to tweak the game world and give the players an additional challenge. The problem we ran into was that the cards all did the same thing, taking away from the players’ action pool. There is a lot of room for these cards to work in and it should be relatively easy to come up with a broader set of alterations to game play. I’m thinking this may take a couple of weeks to messing around with it to have a solid set to go back with.

Another weakness was not having the buildings and resources distributed well. We found problem during the endgame, when we looked at the win conditions. According to the rules, we needed two more buildings than I had indicated on the sectors. To resolve it, we decided to build wherever was available. For me, this means I need to go back over all of the sectors and look at to distribute it better. It is going to involve some math to make sure I have the right balance. Ideally, the players should be able to screw themselves if they’re not paying attention but it shouldn’t be so hard to strategize, only spending a few minutes every turn to plan. This should take about a week of evenings to get balanced properly.

But the best part was being able to play out the entire set of sectors. According to my notes this happened in round seven, most of the way through the game. I was afraid that 52 cards was too many for players to get through. I was shown that it could be too few. This can be fixed with a few additions, but those may come later. I want each game to be different, not just in where or how the sectors get played, but in that the players are treated to new sights the first three or four times they play. There seem to be two directions to test here. The first would be to set a limit on how many sectors can be put out each turn. The other would be to add more sectors to the play deck. I’m leaning towards the latter. Something else to check on the playtest trail.

A few other design notes:

The hex sectors are split up into different groups. They are currently labeled A,B, and C. The original idea was to use these as part of the environment card. Some event only affecting the B sectors and things like that. However, Tiwaz pointed out that this was also a way an explorer might prioritize or categorize the explored area, each designation indicating some sort of availability of resources or building sites. This makes a lot of sense, so here a few ideas that have been bouncing around my head since then.

A — Highly desirable sectors. Most of them have the room and geologically stable ground to build multiple buildings and are home to several resources to take advantage of.

B — The second most desirable sectors, they share many of the same qualities as A sectors; Geological stability, and so forth, but do not have the same abundance of resources or building sites. Most B sectors allow for only one building to be constructed or for one resource to be utilized within its bounds.

C  sectors are hard to navigate due to difficult terrain. These sectors are primarily composed of drifting sands of unknown depths that have caused the robots to become stuck in sand pits. When exploring C sectors players need to roll to see if they become stuck and have to spend an extra action getting themselves unstuck.

D — These are unclassified sectors and often have anomalies associated with them. Anything can be found in a D sector, their contents are scattered and random. These are replaced with a special set of different sector cards when playing this game competitively.

With this sort of setup it becomes easier to adjust the difficulty of the game by adding in or removing certain sectors. But adding in that little complication can come later, after I’ve got the game in a stable, playable state.

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A bit of game commentary

For valentine’s day, I was gifted with Dead Space 2. It has been a fun trip so far, but I find myself getting tired of the story already. This is something which happens to me when playing video games a lot in the last few years. It’s not because the stories aren’t decently crafted or that the world created for the game doesn’t have depth or history. It’s because I can’t change it. I have no control over it. And given that these sorts of games are of the interactive sort, there is an expectation to have control over it.

That is a large part of why I continue to play traditional games, especially role playing games, in addition to video games. There is a level of input I can’t anywhere else. I may not have complete control over it, there are the GM and my fellow players, but together we are crafting it. Together. There isn’t any of that in video games these days despite the technological horsepower to do so.

Dead Space 2 has a wonderful atmosphere, a huge environment to explore and plenty to make you jump and shiver. Set in a orbiting space station cum megalopolis the designers went out of their way to make sure many details of humanity’s occupation are present in the game. The detritus and triumphs of life are everywhere. This was a vital place, something that was alive at one point. And that’s half of the horror. That world is now dying. The dead are littered everywhere and what is alive is attempting to kill you.

Which brings up my frustration with the game. Despite this expansive environment to explore, there is only one path through it. The avatar you’re given on this journey is wearing a space suit. It has rockets located in the legs. He is supposed to be an engineer. Yet your options for travel are severely constrained. See those boxes in your path? Forget about climbing over them! Go through this apartment that you can’t see anything in. Oh, your target is at the top floor of this open space? Forget about scaling the walls or using those rockets to get you up there. Follow this convoluted maze of elevators, rooms, and crawlspaces through the walls instead. Think there might be some way in from the outside? Think again! Blasting out the windows and letting the decompression take you away just ends the game.

Don’t think is argued from ignorance. I know that some of those elevators are stand-ins for load screens. That there is only so much RAM for textures and whatnot to be stuffed in. I know these things. This does not forgive the designers for having planned so singular a story experience that giving the player the ability to find their own way to the objective didn’t seem to have been considered. Part of the exploration of the game must also be the exploration of the possibilities of the game. Having only one path means you have only one possibility. And that is boring.

Speaking of which, I ended playing last night not because I was satisfied with my progress but because I got bored with it. Having traversed my way from a hospital to space-train to hypermall and finally into the belly of a corrupt church I found myself forced into set piece after set piece — achieving nothing and progressing neither the story nor the path. My avatar finally killed by yet another new monstrosity I had no taste to continue. I didn’t care to because there was nothing left to care for and no other path to explore.

I think video game designers need to go back and get some remedial GM training or pick up some of Robin Laws‘ work. If pick-a-path books can give me different ways of reaching the ending, why can’t video games?

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Gaming Needs a Critical Langauge

In the most general sense, Gaming needs to have a Critical Language. Not just for board games, but some theory to encompass all of it. RPGs, Video Games, and everything in between. Gaming has become complex, intricate, and more and more reliant on psychology that simple analysis is no longer sufficient. Genre categorization has become less useful thanks to the blending and mutations that have happened in the last few years. Classic and iconic forms have become so deeply embedded into games as to become unrecognizable to most eyes.

Gaming and Games deserve more. A deeper understanding of the whole. A way to communicate to both the player and designer where what part went right or wrong and how. In saying this, you confront the central problem of any such endeavor; Where does one begin?

Gaming is a complex social activity which stands directly next to story-telling and like it, is probably one of the most basic forms of human interaction. Through games friends and families bond. Through games societies and cultures are expressed and challenged. In board games we find depths of strategy and maps of imaginary worlds to explore. Through RPGs we find the ability to explore our own psychologies and the safety to see if there’s not something else we’d like to be. But mostly we do such things because they’re supposed to be fun. We want some entertainment and respite from our everyday lives.

In this, I think we hit upon the first question that has to be satisfied in any analysis of a game: Was it fun to play?

That’s only the beginning. There is so much more to explore.

Part of having a good critical framework is that it gives you different ways to look at the subject. This means having meaningful categories which help in clarifying and inform about said subject. With games and gaming there are a thousand ways to examine them.  There are games which which rely on cards, ones which rely on dice, some that do both, and many which use neither. Games can use no random elements, games can use only random elements. What is meaningful in all of those differences? Which ones are useful?

And that’s only for a small subset of gaming. Video games are a different sort of game. Those games don’t always necessitate the same sort of interactions and have an entirely different basis of control. Likewise, RPGs have their own conventions and genres which require a separate analysis. None of this gets us any closer to the goal, however.

This leaves me with the impression that whatever happens, creating a critical theory, language, and framework is going to take a good amount of time and no small amount of effort. It is not a small thing, this.

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