[Playtest] Death takes a holiday: The hills are Alive… with the sounds of vengeance!

The second playtest had six players, which really changes the dynamic of the game.

There are more dead people than there are French people...Collapse )
Overall, I'm happy with how the game went, and would like to play again some time. Still needs more playtesting and there's still some design work to be done to get everything working right. But it's off to a good start.

[Death Takes a Holiday] first playtest

Last night Ross and I playtested a game I've been working on, called "Death Takes a Holiday". Parts of it worked really well, while other parts still need some work. The biggest problem was that the game felt a bit meandering and without clear focus. It also felt to me like the game would work much better in campaign mode than it does as a one-shot, since it kept spinning off interesting side stories and ideas.

The full storyCollapse )

I'll have to give some thought into how to move forward from here. Maybe playtest a few more times under different circumstances before changing things much. There's a lot that I do like, though, and I'd like to see the game work properly.

(no subject)

Over on Story Games, there's a thread about writing RPGs in 5 minutes. This is one of the games I wrote for that.

Wide Stance

This is a game for four players*. You will collectively tell the story of a prominent conservative politician, who is also a closeted homosexual.

The first player is Lies. He tells everyone what the politician's political party's positions are on political issues, particularly those involving gay rights.

Once he has spoken, the second player, the Public Persona, speaks, describing his candidate's positions, and how those relate to the party's (more moderate/more extreme). Narrate the politician giving a public speech.

Then the third player speaks, acting as Damned Lies. Damned Lies describes the politicians secret urgings and actions behind closed doors to fulfill these actions. These urges and actions always run counter to the party's positions, the Persona's statements, or both.

Then the fourth player is Statistics, who tells us how opinions polls and the American people react to the politician's public acts. More extreme/bigoted political positions are rewarded, while more moderate ones punished.

Then you go back to the first player (Lies), and repeat the process. Repeat until the Damned Lies's actions are so extreme that he is exposed, or until the Statistics is so satisfied that the politician is elected King Forever.

*(After writing it, I considered that possibly the game would work better with an odd number of players, so that everyone gets to try out every role.)

QR codes and the larp

Someone online asked for some detail on how QR codes were used in Amber's birthday larp. I thought that I might record that information here as well. So this is a description and evaluation of how we used some two-dimensional barcodes and a free smartphone app to simulate unusual senses and Doctor Who's sonic screwdriver.

For my wife's 30th birthday party, we had a Doctor Who inspired larp. She got to play our Doctor stand-in. You can see the full suite of materials made for the game over here, if you're interested.

We only have two smartphones in our group (a third phone and its owner unexpectedly showed up at the last minute, but character sheets were already being passed out, so he didn't get to use his in the game). This meant that the larp had to have a limited number of people with access to the special senses. My wife's PC got one phone so that it could act like her sonic screwdriver. I debated for a while whether the other should go to our other timelord standin character or to the ancient evil alien PC, finally siding with the latter.

We used QR codes in a couple of ways. Every meaningful prop in the game had an attached to it that could be scanned. This scanning tended to give additional information about one of the plots or mysteries. For example, scanning the Quantum Flux Doorway revealed that it was a dimensional portal generator, not a device for teleporting between two terrestrial locations like the company was saying. Scanning the scientific test's data revealed that two immaterial beings passed through the portal they created. Some of this information could be gathered by other PCs in other ways: A supergenius alien could quickly skim the financial records to determine that the company was hugely in debt to a mysterious investor. But a normal human spending a few minutes and consulting a GM could get the same information.

On a similar note, one PC had a sixth sense for unusual electromagnetic phenomena. This manifested by each name badge and item card having a code letter on it like so: [B]. If the letter was a vowel, some weird energy patterns surrounded that entity. If a consonant, it meant that the subject was totally mundane. This is sort of like a low-fidelity, low-tech equivalent of the QR codes I stole from some MIT Assassin's Guild larpers. It also gave a second bandwidth worth of information: that information couldn't be encoded as more QR codes without it being accessible to my wife's PC. But simply having the letter visible to all but the meaning only apparent to one PC meant that that character got special information useful to he alone.

QR codes were also used on every PC's character sheet, for a tricorder-like medical scan. If you scanned the code on the PC, it told you if they were human, alien or a human with unusual brain patterns (insanity or possession being the culprits there). When making the PCs, I realized that I had to change the wording on the text a little bit each time, so that the QR code looked different to the naked eye. If I just copied and pasted the same text for each of the three possibilities, then you could glance at a sheet and see that two of them matched and one was different. So each scan had to be personalized to the PC just enough that the QR code looked different each time.

The medical scan could have been made more important or relevant, or expanded in different ways. For this game, there were only three important states, but you could build an entire larp around a doctor diagnosing patients using QR codes.

The last way QR codes were used was for locked doors. Three offices int he building were initially locked. Each locked door had a sign indicating which key was needed to enter. Each sign also had a QR code on it. If you scanned the QR code, then the text said the door was open and you could enter. Thus, our Time Lord's sonic screwdriver actually unlocked doors, just as it should.

One PC, Mr. Smithee had the key to his office, but the other two offices were locked. Dr. Kerensky had accidentally lost her keys, while The Clockmaker had stolen Mr. Manciple's keys.

The locked rooms had a few effects on the game: it helped pacing by cutting off certain areas of the game initially and placing an obstacle in Manciple's way. It spurred on interactions between PCs: Manciple and Kerensky asked around if anyone had seen their keys, Spelvin learned some of Manciple's secrets, and my wife's PC offered to give access to the locked rooms to certain PCs in exchange for their cooperation. Finally, it helped reinforce the idea of barcode scanner as sonic screwdriver, which reinforced the feel of my wife being The Doctor. Which was the whole point of the game.

Ironically, Mr. Manciple had a barcode scanner, which I later realized invalidated his being locked out of his office. But I don't know that he ever learned that the scanner could unlock doors. If I ran the game again, I might give the scanner to someone other than Manciple, Or eliminate the missing key matter anyway.

In practice, things worked very well. Much as I hoped they would. Occasionally, it would take some wiggling and effort to get a QR code to scan properly. But that worked well for a larp setting: it meant that the player had to scan surreptitiously or explain what they were doing. And it meant that some scans were quick and easy and others were difficult to get a bead on, which seems sort of fitting for The Doctor scanning something.

Sometimes the players were in too much of a hurry to read carefully the text a QR code gave them. My wife scanned and read the same Test Data code several times, but never noticed the part where it clearly states "Two immaterial aliens beings came through the portal to our world". But that's more her problem than it is a flaw in the system.

Making even moderate text started to get unwieldy. More than a sentence or two and you start to get pretty big QR codes. Bigger codes are harder to scan. And the scanner software that came on my Android phone has a weird scrolling function if the text is too long. But this was a surmountable problem. For one thing, it meant that I had to be more concise than It normally would be.

So the QR codes did exactly as I hoped that they would. They added a nice component to the larp, and provided secret information to some PCs while still letting the other players acting as normal. Best of all, it was easy to implement an required no GM intervention in game. I just had to use an existing website and a program that came free with my phone, and it worked like a charm.

First Move advantage

First move advantage is a well-known phenomenon in boardgaming circles. In some games, acting first gives you an advantage which can range from very small to quite substantial. In chess, White goes first and in tournament play White wins about 52-55% of the time. On the smaller end, there is a statistically tiny advantage to going second out of four players in Settlers of Catan, but the difference won't be felt unless you rigourously examine thousands of games. Trying to eliminate or account for first move advantage is a major problem for boardgame designers. If the first move advantage is too large or obvious, no one will want to play as second player.

Some other games have second mover advantage, or last mover advantage, or other advantages given depending on the tactics of the game and how it is structured. The real time boardgame Icehouse, for example, has noticeable advantages for acting first or quickly, but also big advantages to the person with the last remaining pieces to use. The interplay of first mover advantage and last mover advantage is part of what makes Icehouse's play strategic and interesting.

But for most board games, the designer wants to balance the sides and not immediately guarantee that the first player (or last player or whatever) wins automatically.

But the thing that occurred to me is this: what is bad for boardgame design can be good for roleplaying game design. When I'm designing an RPG, I don't necessarily want the sides to be equally likely to win. When my paladin goes down into the nest of orcs looking for treasure, I don't want a 50% chance of needing to roll up a new character. If I'm making a Star Wars game, I don't want there to be a 50% chance that Han Solo is killed by an average stormtrooper, or even by a nominally equally skilled bounty hunter. In general, the desired outcome is for play to be unbalanced in favor of the PCs. (It's also quite possible to deliberately engineer the game to be unbalanced against the PCs, if your game is a horror game or a tragedy.) So in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, a typical adventuring party fighting an equal level combat should rarely result in a Total Party Kill. In Dogs int he Vineyard, if all the PCs agree on a course of action, there's only a slim chance that the NPCs could oppose them. These imbalances are deliberate and function to help the games do their jobs.

First mover advantage is most likely to come up in a game where the system provides meaningful tactical choices. In 3rd and 4th ed D&D, there are a variety of tactical decisions a player makes each round of combat, and if the other side goes first they can limit or discourage certain courses of action. The advantage of going first is recognized as existing and thus characters can spend resources to boost their initiative scores in hope of going first. In Ganakagok, the conflict rules create a substantial last-mover advantage, so the going last is given as a reward for doing well on your initial roll (intermediate narration is a way of shifting around who goes last). I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure that there is a meaningful firs tmover advantage in the conflict rules for Dogs in the Vineyard, what with the moving dice around and picking what to raise with, what to see with, etc. In any game with a complicated tactical aspect to it, it would pay to see whether the first layer or the last tends to win conflicts and structure things accordingly.

It's also possible to have a first mover advantage even in relatively mechanics light games. If we all narrate in parts of the setting, but I get to do so first, then you are constrained by what I have already established. (There's a microfiction in the Nobilis 2nd ed book where Satan claims that everyone in the world gets exactly what they want. When asked why there is pain and suffering and eternal damnation in Hell, Satan responds "Perhaps I get to go first.") In Fiasco, if I start the first scene, I have some ability to focus events in one way or another. Later scenes can try plot twists and unexpected motivations or try flashbacks to before my first scene, but what we saw in my initial scene will still be true on some level. In A Penny For My Thoughts, the second person presenting a scenario has some advantage over the first, because they can take the first player's idea and build on it or they can totally reject it and make an alternative scenario. Ganakagok uses this fictional first mover effect quite effectively: Players are ordered based on the age of their PCs. Younger PCs will act first, and explore an unknown world and get into trouble. Older PCs will be more constrained in what they can introduce, because the world has already been fleshed out, and the older PCs will be drawn into the conflicts of the young folks. The differences in acting first or last reinforce how each character relates to the fictional setting, even though there are few to no mechanics in play (in this part of Ganakagok, anyway). It is also arguable that later rounds of narration have their own sort of advantage, since they have more fictional material to build on. But it is clear that narrating first has greater freedom than later narration, which is a unique sort of power. Who gets to narrate first has an effect on play that the designer can use to channel play one way or another.

So to sum up: What is a problem for boardgame design can be effectively used to structure a roleplaying game in the way a designer wants it to go. By providing the first move to the GM or to a player, the designer can influence (but not guarantee) the outcome of an interaction. First mover advantage is quite likely to show up any time that players make players are making tactical or strategic decisions. But it also occurs on a fictional level, where the first narrator has a different sort of power from later narrators. Careful use of the ordering in which players and GMs act in a roleplaying game can influence the final game's product.

Longshot Playtest Report

On Saturday, we got a chance to playtest my Game Chef game from this year, Longshot. It actually went surprisingly well. The game was a lot of fun, and the playtest showed me the places the game needs some fixing. So the game fulfilled both purposes of a playtest.

Scifi Western and lots of dice mechanicsCollapse )

[Game Chef] Science Fiction western

I haven't mentioned it here, but I've been working on a game for this year's Game Chef roleplaying game design contest.

This year's ingredients include "Desert", "Edge", "Skin", "City" and "Journey". So everyone is making a game about nomads travelling a mythical desert or a weird dream city. Trying to avoid that, I decided to push for a different kind of desert altogether. and maybe a game that isn't about the journey itself so much as it is about where you find yourself at the end of the journey.

So the game is gonna be a science fiction western. Like Firefly or Trigun or Cowboy Bebop.

So you are an inhabitant of a dusty, desert like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. It's mankind's first colony beyond the solar system. And because no one ever got around that whole speed of light issue, that means that it takes years for news to travel from earth to the colony and even longer for people and supplies.

Today the sheriff (and leader of the colony) is found dead. When the deputy finds the body, he also discovers that the sheriff has been lying to the colony: Earth has stopped communicating with the colony, a long time ago. Complete radio silence from the whole planet, which suggests a nuclear war or catastrophe killed everybody there.

How will the colony survive its dwindling resources without Earth's resupply shipments? What will you do to survive?

You can follow the further discussion of the game if you're interested. I'm hoping to get the rest of it finalized and typed up over the next few days.

Player Intention and Emergent Play in Candyland

My thought of the moment is about how Candyland works as a game. This is because A) I do a lot of thinking about game design and B) I have a three year old daughter.

But the important thing here is that a game needs several things to be a functional game. Among those is player intentionality (that is, you can plan what you're doing and make a decision about play and impose your intentions onto the game state in some way).

Now, in Candyland as a game itself, you don't have any choices per se. You draw a card from a random deck, move that far, and let the other player take a turn. You can't take two cards or no cards. You can't take some penalty to draw the better of two cards. You have no game-level choices. So is this a proper game at all?

This is because you're an adult. When an adult sits down to play a game, they're already committed to play (generally). For the children the game is directed at, the actual decision making and intentionality lies at a meta level: do I sit and follow the rules, or leave the table to play with something else, or whine until my parents cheat in my favor? This is actually a meaningful choices that a child has to make. The actual decision making in Candyland occurs on the same level as the decision making in slot machine play: the real choice is whether or not to play. (Insert Wargames joke here.) Once that choice is made, it's all random.

Ideally, Candyland rewards the sitting at the table, following the rules, at least until the child is ready for a game with actual in-game decisions. But if the adults play their part poorly (and make no mistake: your role as adult is markedly different from the child's, even if this is never spelled out in the rules), then the child may learn that they can leave the game whenever they start to lose, or that Mommy will let her cheat to make sure Baby doesn't lose and start crying. Once again, there are meaningful choices for you the adult player, but they exist on a different level of abstraction than the colored squares and race game.

Department Nine Playtest Report

This last Saturday we had a playtest of Department Nine, my 2007 Game Chef game. I've playtested the original rules a few times in a form only slightly modified from the Game Chef version. They always worked, but the game never seemed to be firing on all cylinders. So this playtest had substantial revisions to the setup phase, core conflict and final ending parts. Which is to say "most of the game" had been heavily revised.

It worked really well, actually. Better than the House of Masks playtest went. We had a fun game, and I got some good user feedback and good ideas on how to move forward with the game.

mostly talking about mechanics instead of the very silly story that it madeCollapse )

House of Masks playtest

Last Friday we had the first proper playtest* of my 2008 Game Chef game, House of Masks. I had always intended to actually play the game, but I hate organizing events. So finally my wife set up an event and invited people over and such. (My wife and some other associates have been pushing for me actually publishing an rpg of some sort, which is why this finally occurred.)

(*It was apparently played once in Italy, but I have very little info on what happened there.)

Since the playtest happened, I've been meaning to write up my thoughts on what happened. Mostly I'm writing this up for my own memory, and so that I can think more about what happened. But if anyone has any interesting or useful advice, I'd be happy to hear it.

a mixed bag at bestCollapse )