With Blinders…; The System Stands Alone.

This post relates directly to the previous post. I am not going to tell you why; I'd build you a rifle but not shoot for you, I will build you a fire but I will not cook for you; I will present you this analogy but not explain it to you.

So, building on the last post and also going directly from the Meta-Chanics post, I'm going to start this 1-of-2 post, about testing pure systems.

So, when you're playtesting you need to know what it is you're testing. If you're saying "System" then more likely than not you are deluding yourself, for you are testing the Game as a whole. I believe much can be learnt from testing the system on its own.

So how does one test the system on its own? First, one cuts off all mentions of colour and background. The three Aspects become Three Aspects that cover A, B and C, or even just three Aspects. This is easy, and allows you to see what directions it could go on once the colour is peeled off, which happens with most games after a while anyway.

Then, you take away all mentions of how the game should be played, the "Meta-Chanics", you don't tell players if they should go cooperatively or competitively, you let their own nature take them where it will.

This is the way to see what the System encourages, rather than what you encourage. If you want your design goals and what the system actually encourages, rather than what it encourages once you point it in the "right" direction, then you have to see what the System does.

The System and not the Game.

And you could see it as a way of me agreeing with Troy, Setting does matter. Though I look at it from another angle.

Game Theory and RPGs; Logic Vs. Reality.

People, please share your thoughts regarding my writing, because I can see we have at least a couple of readers.

In games and businesses we have Game Theory, which to some degree dictates the way people operate. You’d think they’d operate by common logic, but they do not.

Note that I know some tidbits of Game Theory, but not too much. I have several books, including University MBA level on the subject, but did not peruse them too deeply, so take what I write with a grain of salt, well, a bigger one than usual.

So some examples:
We have two people who will never meet again, have this opportunity be repeated or met before: One of them gets $100 and can offer the other participant as much of it as he wants, should the other particiant accept, they both take the money, should he decline they both leave empty-handed.
Common sense would decree that even if you’re given $0.01 you’d accept, because it’s better than going away empty-handed.
Yet, this is not the way things go.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma:
So you have two prisoners(A, B) who got caught after committing a crime, and are questioned simultanously in seperate rooms: If both tell on their friend they each serve 2 years, if neither talks they both get 6 months inside. If one talks and the other doesn’t, the one who talked will go free and the silent one will get to spend 10 years in jail.
By logic, both should remain silent, mathematically, each ‘acting agent’ should speak.

So now let’s look at two RPGs with mechanics one can look at from the Game Theory angle, both have a mechanic with the same name: Trust. The games are the Mountain Witch and Conspiracy of Shadows.

In Conspiracy of Shadows there’s a communal pool called Trust. When you do something for the benefit of the group you put a die in it, when you could do something for the group but don’t, remove a die from it. You can take dice from the pool and use them.
So long everyone is acting all cooperatively it’s all cool. Once someone starts pissing in the pool, aka, acting against the interests of the party, I forsee players taking dice out as fast as possible, in order to not let more dice go to waste.

In the Mountain Witch each pair of characters have a Trust score for one another(the game is influenced by Reservoir Dogs), the higher you trust someone, the more he can use your help to get things done, to help everyone get to the top of the Mountain. Once things get a little hairy as people’s secrets and secret goals get exposed though, the Trust you have for someone can be used against you.
So do you give someone high Trust in order to help everyone at a possible of self-risk or don’t Trust and then you may not even finish the quest?

I am not going to tell you what to do with it, just wanted to get something out there for you to think about.

And if you don’t see how this relates to Competitive games, then shame on you.

Cranium Rats – Meta-Chanics.

This is a post which is not re-posted from my LiveJournal, hard as that may be to imagine.

I did not post this on my game, the Meta-Chanics section because I believe in a "Double-Blinders" test of the system, but fuck it, we could have that later. I'll explain this concept later in two posts or so, expect it by the end of the week.

The following is more or less the way Mechanics work in Cranium Rats. Since this blog is about Competitive Games, specifically CSI Games, and Cranium Rats is one such game(and because it's mine the one who will show quite prominently as an example) I thought I'd show it.
Let me note that much could be considered as "Added weight", unlike Capes which to me feels like The Wheel of Time or The Lord of the Rings – Constructed. The world/game was constructed in advance, and then things were added to it. I go the other way, where you create the world as characters experience it, so much was created by "urge" and "instinct".

Here goes:
First, why this is NOT in the playtest file:
I want to see if the mechanics actually work as intended, IE, whether the meta-chanic goals are reached. If I tell people why things operate as they do and what they should operate as it’d become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which I’m very much against. I even think each game needs playtesting of its mechanics alone – where the playtesters get no background bits at all but just have the system and we see what they reach.

Tokens exist to support the Narrative. In a way they are also a tool for you to “Mark” other players as Tony explains in Capes. What people spend their Tokens on is what they care about, which gives you more information regarding them.
Note that at the first session the Enlightened begins with 8 Tokens, 5 for session and 3 for the three initial Flood Scenes that culminate character generation; this is so he could set the general background and feel of the game during the first round or two, by narrating both the scenes up to conflicts and their results, or by giving people Goals.
Tokens belong to the players, and since each player plays across three characters he needs to choose where to spend his effort, given that those who spread themselves are less likely to win in any location. Players will likely concentrate on their Rat and Dirt since they exert more direct influence there, and will use Tokens for Water as intended, when they want to advance that character’s story, which they are already pretty much in control of.
Tokens are finite, generation of Tokens is not that easy, at least not for players. When players spend Tokens they usually go to the Enlightened, and when he spends them they usually disappear. Using Tokens to exert mechanical influence “Removes” Tokens, using them to exert story influence gives them to someone else, who may end up using them against you. This would make players hoard their tokens, thus the “Use them or lose them” bit, which stops them from sitting on their asses passively, which leads us to our next point:
Game Length is helped along by Tokens and thus fulfills the movie/TV episode feel I want the game play to have! If you have a Medium session it’ll be followed by another Medium one, where people have Tokens, use them, resolve Goals, use Tokens. When you have a Short session it should be followed by a Long session and then another Short session; At the end of a short session players are left with unused Tokens so they will scramble to set them up in the only way they can “keep” them: they will set up new Goals for themselves. The next session should be long, so that players would use up all of their given Tokens, would have to resolve their Goals for more Tokens and then use them as well. The next session should be short as well to let players set new Goals.
The Enlightened “opposes” the Aspects’ selfishness, thus the conditions when he gains new Tokens.

Die Reservoir is there to let the players exert direct control over things. The reason the Die Reservoir limit and where it starts when you go up/down is set is to combat Death Spirals. If the higher you go the less likely you are to be able to exert influence, and that’s crap, I don’t want that.
I used “Sweet in the middle” in order to get people to haul ass and do things. You want to control the character in a scene (You do, you can’t gain Marks, go up and eventually win otherwise), then you need to use dice in Biddings. But in order to gain Dice anew you must participate in Conflicts, and win them.
The “Sweet in the middle” makes you want to use your Dice, because otherwise when you win you give the other players Tokens, which you’d really rather not. If you use them and lose, you are in risk of going down since you lose a die when you lose a Conflict.
Those who participate can use dice from Die Reservoir in conflicts on a 1-for-1 basis, those outside it need to pay 2-for-1, giving more importance to Tokens and showing that if you’re not on it, then you have a harder time exerting influence, propelling you to be “on it”.

On Player interaction:
The Marks work in a “One step forward, two steps back” kind of way. You need to win conflicts to go up, but if you lose, you lose them all. There is no benefit to having Marks less than your Ratio, so on you go, hoping your fellow players won’t screw you.
As shown in the Actual Play example, you can “Force” others to help you, because when a Trait goes to 0 it is the Highest Aspect that goes down, so he has vested interest in helping you not lose.
Aspect Ratios exist to make players form “alliances” or have vested interest. So you’re Rat, you may want Dirt or Water to be higher, depending on your preferred play-style.
There’s a double-helix tension going on here: Someone is getting too high, so the rest of you gang up on him to get him down. You get him down, but now he remembers you screwed him so he’s more like to be combative against you, across all characters.

On Currency flow:
Too many Dice results in others getting Tokens.
Too little Dice means a Flood Scene is going to occur, where the usage of resources is fast and furious, and The Enlightened gets a Token.
The higher you go, the more likely you’ll go over the Die Reservoir Limit, giving others more resources to stop you the higher you go. You may even be tempted to pour Tokens/Dice onto others to gain Tokens back.
The Free Dice in Flood Scenes means it’s most likely someone will have vested interest, seeing how he already has 50% of getting/retaining the dot if no one else bids. Note how when an Aspect Drops you first gain your full Die Reservoir, so you can bid the whole 6 dice; if you win it’s all good, you get your Dot back plus 6 dice. If you lose however, you lost a die and are very close to losing another!
Tokens result in Dice. Dice result in Tokens.
Dice can be used to gain control over story, instead of them being used to gain control over mechanics.
Tokens can be used to exert control over story, giving others the same right or letting them gain control over mechanics.

Advantages exist to help people be more invested.
Water narrates makes the Water player active, even though he plays a more passive role when it comes to the Aspects themselves.
Character win over Aspects is very rare, usually occurs in spite of what the players do, not because of, because it’s at the mercy of dice.

To recap, the mechanics are there to promote conflict, pacts and betrayals. They are there to encourage competition. Don't forget, the mechanics impose a "Win" condition, and once you have that, players will strive towards it.

CSI Game Criteria; On Figuring Out if you Fit.

So on the previous entry we’ve covered what a CSI Game is, now I’ll add the last entry needed in order to complete the CSI Game project scuffolding, after this post, the project could technically stand on its own.

This entry is about figuring out the “CSI Game” Rating of games, and figuring if your game fits into the criteria.
CSI Game Rating is based mostly on your intentions and their executions, with an added final weight given to subjective opinion on the quality of these paremeters and their integration. The rating goes from 0 to 10, with 0 being “Not a CSI Game” and 10 being “A CSI Game through and through”.

If any of the four individual ratings(Competitive, Interactive, Story and Game) get a score of 0, then the game is not a CSI Game, you may still continue to check the other criteria, to get its “Virtual CSI Game” rating.

1) Competitive: This is the Litmus test, most games will not have this criteria, this most distinguishing criteria, and will thus fail to register as a CSI Game.
Does the game create tension between players, does it intend to, does it succeed?
* Does the game push for Competition as one of its goals? If Yes, add 1 point.
* Does the game use mechanics that create, encourage, reward or in any other way illustrate Competition between the players? If Yes, add 1 point.
* How well do you think those mechanics work, on their own, and in order to accomplish the goal of fostering Competition? Add up to 1 point.

2) Interactive: Does the game foster interaction between players? Can you sit on your own and play without the game, or yourself being harmed?
* Does the game push for Interaction as one of its goals? If Yes, add 1 point.
* Does the game use mechanics that create, encourage, reward or in any other way illustrate Interaction between the players? If Yes, add 1 point.
* How well do you think those mechanics work, on their own, and in order to accomplish the goal of fostering Interaction? Add up to 0.5 points.

3) Story: Do you create a story as you play? Is the story part of what you’re actually playing for? Is Story just an after-thought?
* Does the game push for Story Creation/Telling as one of its goals? If Yes, add 1 point.
* Does the game use mechanics that create, encourage, reward or in any other way illustrate Story Generation? If Yes, add 1 point.
* How well do you think those mechanics work, on their own, and in order to accomplish the goal of creating a Story? Add up to 0.5 points.

4) Game: Is this a “Game”? “What is a game” is a hard thing to answer, the short answer is, “You know it when you see it”. Is this played as a fun activity, rather than as an effort whose goals are to tell a meaningful story, explore the concept of…
* Does the game actually act like a Game, with its goal being having fun and such as described above? If Yes, add 1 point.
* Does the game have a finite finishing point? If Yes, add 0.5 points.
* Does the game have a “Winner” once it ends? If Yes, add 0.5 points.

And now you too can channel the spirit of CSI Games folks. Now I want your help to steer me further.
Now, as I’ve asked on The Forge:
1) Do you “get” anything out of the current posts on CSI Games blog?
2) What kind of tools/topics do you wish were covered?

Also, we got mentioned.

CSI Games; A Definition.

First, tried to get a game of Cranium Rats going today, still no luck. Fate is conspiring against your faithful writer, who will keep fighting back, and will eventually win.

So, we keep talking about CSI Games, but we do not yet have a clear definition of what comprises a CSI Game. What we do have right now is what I said in my first post on the topic. To whit:

“..”CSI Games”, CSI being Competitive Story Interaction. These are RPGs(“What is an RPG?” is a question I will leave unanswered for now, hoping you know what I mean) where there is a story being generated, but the social interaction is competitive and even antagonistic in nature, rather than the “Cooperative” mode suggested and propagated throughout our hobby’s history. In a way, this is us going back to Board/War games, from which our hobby draws much of its history. I’d say that we’re growing in the opposite direction, rather than regressing.
What is Chainmail, Dungeon and Dragon’s Proto-form if not a Wargame to which one adds little acting? So CSI Games are in a very real way RPGs to which you add a Wargame mentality!”

So we’ll start with that as an introduction and continue to construct a definition, one that hopefully could be used as is, or as a basis in game-book introductions.

CSI Games.

C is for Competitive/Cooperative.
Most games under the umbrella of “Role-Playing Games”(RPGs) till now had been Cooperative in nature, the social interaction between players, players and Game Master(GM) and that of between player-characters had been Cooperative. This is the origin of or originated from the “party”. We’re all in this together.
This may also be a leading cause into the “You don’t win in RPGs” when explaining what you’re doing to an elder family member.
The other side of the coin is that which I am putting up as the main identifier of CSI Games, the Competitive side. Competition is something inherent to human interaction, inherent to the act of gaming. You find competition in Board, War and Card games, along in most sports(where you have competition between groups and cooperation inside them). I want the players to compete, whether for spotlight, victory, control, in-game resources, whatever. There need be a competitive element somewhere in the game.
It should be reflected in the mechanics as well, but that comes second.

S is for Story.
We’re here to tell a story, to hear a story or experience one’s wake. We’re not here to merely roll the dice or shuffle the cards. Unlike board-games and card-games, we have a story unfolding here. If we don’t, we’re dealing with something else.
Story often goes with Cooperative. The story-building part is a joint effort by all participants.

I is for Interaction/Isolation.
We’re playing a game with other people, you interact with them. You want to help them stop that other guy from winning, you’re talking to them and trying to stop them, that’s also interaction! You do not play in a void, you’re playing with people, interact with them.
Mechanics should have some way to represent and encourage interaction between the players.
Isolation has little place in this scheme, it’s mostly there as the other side of Interaction, where you’re “Snubbed” for game reasons, as others ally against you. Alternately, if you’re snubbed for out-of-game reasons, you’re unlikely to do well in game, or have fun.

Game is self-explanatory.
This is a game, it has winners. This is a game, it has rules. This is a game, it is an activity you do for fun. This is a game, one of the basic human activities, and you know one when you see it.

So we are left with CSI Game, or Competitive(/Cooperative) Story Interaction Games.
Isolation plays little part in this, and is mostly there as something to be avoided.
Competitive is what sets this apart from other games, so we’re paying it more heed. Cooperative is also there, but more as part of the Story or Interaction bits and less as an individual agent.

This is what a CSI Game is, if you disagree with me, or think of a better name or definition, this is the place to argue so.
If you think “CSI” is Geeky, this is where you get to voice your piece.

Regarding Crowd

This is an addendum to the previous post.

So, I got this PM on The Forge from John Kirk who’s working on Gnostigmata(he’s currently looking for playtesters), in response for me trying to get him to playtest Cranium Rats since as you can see from the last post we CSI Game designers are the most suited people to help one another:

“Guy, I’m sorry I’ve got to turn you down. It has taken me many months to convince my group to try out Gnostigmata. And, in fact, it has taken me a couple of years to warm them up to play-testing some new concepts for Legendary Quest. I truly wish they were more amenable to such things, so that I could offer to help other gamers try out their stuff, but it’s just not in the stars.I wish I knew why so many gamers are so reluctant to try out new things. :-/”

My reply to him was as follows:

“One last thing, the thing about CSI Games is that you should test them with card and board-gamers.As Ron said, it’s at all surprising RPers of mainstream are even willing to try narrative games. Need to branch out to non-RPers :)”Role-players tend to stick with what they know, RPGs, when Sorcerer came Ron directed it at those who did not have fun with what they did before, those outside of the “mainstream” of RPGs, it was a surprise to him that some of them(us) even took to it and tried to understand.

Now I think the same is happening with CSI Games, you have a better chance getting it playtested with card/board gamers than with role-players.

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CSI Games: So Why Bother?

I love it when other people do my work for me. So we have a question, “Why do we need someone to push forward the idea of “CSI Games”, a further subdivision of our hobby?”

The answer begins in this post where I outline what CSI Games are to begin with and how they differ from what is out there right now. Expect a more formal answer, one that people could(hopefully) put in their projects’ introduction, soon.

Then along come two people, Paul Czege and Sydney Freedberg and make my point for me:

Paul:
“..but I think the extended development time is more because my goals are outside the development tradition than anything else. I’m designing for Acts of Evil player characters as static antagonists, and NPCs that emerge from play as protagonists. And I’m trying to provoke creative and interesting antagonism from the players via competition amongst them..”

Sydney:
“Paul, that’s fascinating. (Plus it allows me to console myself, as I labor on the playtest-proven brokeness of the third set of core mechanics for apocalypse girl, that the reason this is so much harder than the two RPGs I designed in college and played with my friends is that I’m trying to do something radically new, even if it is essentially second-generation Capes).”

We have the methods for Simulationism, we have the methods for Narrativism(if only for a short while now), we do not yet possess the tools for Gamism, not in this hobby.
We know how to simulate reality, and in the books we pay for the engine. We know how to format a good narrative, and we charge for the experience. We are now working on the tools to construct constrained competition, and we will charge for the Game Experience.

We do not yet have what we need, we cannot simply say “Take Settlers of Cattan and narrate some story event for each turn”. We are starting anew, and we’re alone, or so it seems.
The experience of those who came before can only take us so far, and look at the net, look at The Forge, what are they if not tools/places to have people meet and help one another?

Those who work on CSI Games should playtest one another’s games. Those who work on CSI Games should help others push towards the CSI Game nature and goals from the board-game and Narrative ends.
If we won’t help one another, no one will. We currently have to work inordinately hard to playtest, since we do not have much to compare our work to.
We have to work inordinately hard to find playtesters, because people have a hard time wrapping their head about what we do.
Even if we ourselves won’t benefit from this meeting of minds now, hopefully things will be easier for the next generation.

Well, I guess that is my mission statement for the CSI Project, thoughts, notes, comments?

On another note, Cranium Rats V. 1.2 Beta is now live, and the game will progress no further till substansive contribution(playtesting) is made by outside parties.

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