Slime Octopi and Coral; I, Boardgamer.

So, much earlier we had on the blog Slime Octopi and Coral’s Power 19, now I’ve finally finished writing the game.

It is very under-polished, it is very rough, but it has some very nifty ideas. I’ve decided against making it a CSI Game and at present time it’s a board-game, with one simple modification needed to turn it into a CSI Game(namely, of adding narration once the Cards are flipped over, ala Agora or Dogs in the Vineyard).

This game is Call of Cthulhu meets Age of Empires. Character Generation has you answering questions and your traits being assigned based on that, like in Ogre Tactics: Knight of Lodis for the GBA. Each Slime Octopus is a Cthulhuoid entity that tries to win over the world, and on another side stands Humanity, played by another player. The game-play is rather simple, based on resource allocation, simultanous, handled by putting a seen amount of resources in unseen categories and flipping them over at once.

The game needs much more polish, a complete re-write, but it needs you people to give it a look first. It also has two pictures.

As always, you can head over to Cranium Rats Central to give it a look!

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Specific Blinders; Constraints; Isn’t it Getting Dark in Here?

So, here we are, still with the issue of blinders. Blinders are practical things, they help shape your design and play, and as such we give them still more space.

When you use Blinders in specific games they tend to call them “Constraints”, pointing out what you can do and what you cannot, the limits of the game. People pointed out games like Polaris or even Dogs in the Vineyard are akin to Board-Games compared to other RPGs. In other games you can play any sort of thing, or nearly, whereas in these games session length may be dictated, as well as what you play and how you play. It’s often questioned if they are RPGs at all.

Someone else mentioned the difference between Video and Board games and RPGs(much like Thomas Robertson does here, but it was earlier during the week, but specifically mentioned competitive games). In Video games anything you can do is wired into the game, if it’s not wired(coded) in, then you can’t do it. Board games where strategies that weren’t accounted for exist are considered ‘broken’ or require errata(can someone help me find said post?). RPGs that want to foster such a feel need to have every possibility accounted for or they’ll fail.

And this folks is why CSI Games have such a strong inclination to include Blinders/Constraints; the more options available to the players, and this being hybrid-RPG means the options are numerous, the less you can prepare for all of them, which in turn can lead to the system falling apart and people abusing it. The more Constraints you add the less situations you’ll have to deal with and the better you’ll be able to plan for what you are to deal with.

Over on The Forge I created two specific Blinders posts, using Cranium Rats as an example. Though they may have seemed like they were about CR, they weren’t, that was merely the example and the specific design question that related to them.

In the first post, “Codification of Session Length?”, I talk about the prospect of tying session length down mechanically, much like in Board Games with plays. When a certain parameter is met the game session ends and unless it is met the game continues on. RPGs and their kin fill a certain niche in the social zone, so it may not work just yet.

In the second post, “On Flags Alone?”, I coin the term “Tunnels” as opposed to “Flags”. Flags exist to attract attention to things the players want to cover, but in most games, nothing forces the players to focus on the Flags. So why are they there? I thought “System Matters”. The concept of “Tunnels” says that nothing but the Flags are addressed. As for “Emergant stories”, that can be solved by putting in a way to create new Tunnels during the gameplay.

Last, I’ll raise a new idea here, for you loyal readers, a third Constraint. The issue of “GM or Not?”. It seems that CSI Games are much like Board games in this regard, and that there is either no GM(Gnostigmata, Capes) or the “GM” isn’t really one and he’s a player with different capabilities and responsebilities(Threads and Cranium Rats).

This is an antithesis to some of the games who had Party Vs. GM, they weren’t CSI Games as you didn’t have an option of allying, you were given that you were cooperative within the party, very much a proto-CSI Games issue. In a CSI Game you need the competition to be nigh all-encompassing, and there isn’t room for “We” as much as “He and I, for now”. And so the issue of “GM or Not” takes rise, and the answer for most CSI Games will be “Not”, because if he’s there, he’s a Conflict stiffling and out-of entity.

Blindness without Blinders.

Well, this is the third in a series of posts, that originally was planned to host only two entries. These posts present practical theory(?), they give you concrete considerations when you play, design and especially playtest a game, specifically a CSI Game.

In the first post I pointed out why the system deserves its own playtesting, where you test the system rather than the game. We keep talking about "The system should push the feel/message of the game", but it could be a self-fullfilling prophecy if we do not check it on its own.

In the second post I pointed out that who you play with has much impact on your play experience and playtesting. This is obvious, which is why I pointed out that "Who you play with" in this instance is either "people you know" or "people you don't know". And to answer Dave, these posts are about self-imposed Blinders, so the Either/Or are ok.

In this post I won't talk about Blinders, which are self imposed, but Blindness, an area that is beyond our control; our personalities. The last point was actually an example of this one, in a way. If you didn't understand what that post was about, well, it was that personality counts, especially when one makes a CSI Game.

I feel a bit lazy, so instead of just writing it, I'll repost a discussion I had with Mike Holmes and Thomas Robertson(TheSmerf) on #indierpgs, on 15/06/2006, this also shows you the other side's opinion:

[08:36] LordSmerf: So, Guy…
[08:36] Thunder_God: ::listens to Smerfy::
[08:36] LordSmerf: I find your most recent post to be mostly content-free.
[08:37] LordSmerf: I mean, you talk about the fact that you think Tony should play up the Conflict thing.
[08:37] LordSmerf: And you talk about the Sweet spot in the middle.
[08:37] LordSmerf: And you talk about Lose benefits.
[08:37] Thunder_God: You mean I have no coherent point?
[08:37] LordSmerf: But you just mention them.  I don't see any sort of discussion of why you'd use them or not, or anything like that.
[08:37] LordSmerf: So it seems to me, Guy.
[08:38] Thunder_God: The point of this entry is simple, and a very "D'oh" one.
[08:38] LordSmerf: Well, I missed it :)
[08:38] Thunder_God: It's that the personality of the designer has much effect on his game and design.
[08:39] LordSmerf: Ah…
[08:39] Mike_Holmes: Tony in this case being Tony LB?
[08:39] Thunder_God: Yes.
[08:39] Mike_Holmes: I agree in general, but extra so with Tony LB. :-)
[08:40] Thunder_God: Yes, that's one of the two reasons I picked him ;)
[08:40] Thunder_God: The other is, because Capes and Tony fit my model, IMO.
[08:40] Mike_Holmes: Makes sense
[08:41] Thunder_God: It especially fits Competitive games. I think most Competitive games are an outgrowth of personality, more than non-competitive designs, though that's my claim.
[08:42] Mike_Holmes: Interesting. I could make a case that non-competitive designs are reflective of very specific personalities that regard conflict as potentially damaging to creativity.
[08:43] Thunder_God: Mike, that's a possibility, but let us look at the following: If you follow the "standard philosophy" of your culture, it could be because you agree with it, or merely because you don't wish to confront it, or never thought of confronting it! Whereas the "heretics" have _chosen_ to follow another path, with less A or B, and only B.
[08:44] Mike_Holmes: So…competition is heretical in RPGs?
[08:44] Thunder_God: Smerfy, you'll note how often I mention personalities, I mention "Sweet in the middle" only in order to later mention "Losing Vs winning", which is an outgrowth of personality.
[08:44] Thunder_God: No Mike, it's just less common, not the default.
[08:44] Thunder_God: Thus me using quotation marks.
[08:45] Thunder_God: Those who ascribe to the default could actively agree or could passively not care, those who do not ascribe to default actively disagree.
[08:45] LordSmerf: Guy, you don't make it explicit that they're outgrowths of personality in your post.
[08:45] LordSmerf: I don't disagree with you, but you didn't say it.
[08:45] Mike_Holmes: Interesting…I think you may be right in terms of sheer number of games designed, but in terms of play, most RPG play is competitive, IMO.
[08:45] LordSmerf: Or if you did I missed it.
[08:46] Mike_Holmes: The vast majority of D&D play, for instance.
[08:46] Thunder_God: "However, look at Winning and Losing, which seem to show our personal philosophies, and how Tony may not be as Muy Macho as he claims(desires?) to be."
[08:46] Mike_Holmes: Heh
[08:46] Thunder_God: Mike, when I say Competitive DnD old-skool is only halfway there.
[08:46] Mike_Holmes: I think that Tony's designs are incoherent, yeah.
[08:46] Thunder_God: There's antagonism and competition between GM and players.
[08:46] Thunder_God: But the players work as a group.
[08:47] Thunder_God: I mean competitive like a board/card game, where it's free for all.
[08:47] Mike_Holmes: Players working as a group doesn't mean that they're not competing.
[08:47] Mike_Holmes: I think they very much do. And, yes, this leads to problems.
[08:47] Thunder_God: It also depends on house rules such as "killing blow" and so on.
[08:48] Mike_Holmes: I mentioned that recently, where "I kill him as he sleeps" becomes a very effective winning move.
[08:48] Thunder_God: Hm, well, I'm still talking about design, and set goals. Players play competitively because that's what people do in games, as you said, it leads to problems because the game does not facilitate "human nature".
[08:48] Thunder_God: Heh.
[08:48] Thunder_God: Stevil Van-Hostle kind of win ;) you won't see the Untouchtable Trio+1 pull it though.
[08:54] Thunder_God: I believe Cranium Rats's design, not in details, but overall is a reflection of my personality.
[08:54] Thunder_God: I think of my personality as a battering ram, so I created CR, and used a "gale" to get my goals down, sweeping through whatever I didn't like, ho ho.
[08:55] Mike_Holmes: Guy, I can see that. It's definitely philosophical in it's apparent output.
[08:56] Thunder_God: Mike, that's exactly what I didn't mean :: smiles:: Of course I meant its reflective of my personality, but I'm talking about the design process, where I batterred away anything that I didn't like, forcefully.
[08:57] Thunder_God: And yes, that does sound funny.
[08:58] Mike_Holmes: I see what you're saying, Guy, but it seems to me that it's affected both. Also, your comments about Tony's designs seem to focus on the output, no?

 Just a note, Mike's point about play is certainly a good one, but this point is mostly about design and playtesting. And heck, why do we have CSI Games if not to remedy this lack in design?
So, do I need to explain this further?

Winning and Losing; Tony/Capes “vs.” Guy/Cranium Rats.

So, since I'm mucking about with L-Space these days, this post is actually influenced by the next post, which is yet unwritten, that post, and by proxy this one as well, will deal heavily with personalities and how they affect games. I'm going to mention Tony Lower-Basch quite a lot, he's the 'other' exemplar of CSI Games, he published Capes, a quite well known CSI Game, when the other CSI Game I'm going to make use of in our examples is obviously Cranium Rats, simply because I'm rather intimate with it, more than anyone else at this point. Tony and I also have such personalities that make it fun or at least interesting to bring them up(just look at the Muy Macho thread on Story-Games to see what I mean). I am going to contrast Capes and Cranium Rats, compare and mull over things, I will also speak of Winning and Losing and somewhat of how a Game is a personal outgrowth of its writer. Ready?

The following is a PM reply from Tony to myself, reposted with permission: 

"Quote from: Thunder_God

What elements of competition exist between the Players in Capes?

Well … there's the game, and pretty much every single one of its facets in whole and in part.  So, yeah, quite a bit actually.

Quote from: Thunder_God

What brought on this desire for competitive play?

'cuz I like beatin' on people."

Tony said the following on here on The Forge: "First thought:  What does the losing player get when the conflict resolves?  Do they get some sort of payout for the many tokens that they accumulated on their way to defeat?  That would make me more willing to take a chance:  either I'm close enough to close the gap (in which case I've got a lot of tokens, and the reward if I lose will rock) or I'm so far out of the running that it's a foregone conclusion, and I want my loser-tokens as quickly as possible."

He also said the following on Story-Games: "Or perhaps it's just a question of having a genre that gets a large number of people on the same page. Like, with Capes, I could basically say "superhero stories, like Spiderman and Superman" and people immediately had thoughts about what was important and how to do it. But with Misery Bubblegum the best I can say is "stories of misunderstanding and relationships, like Pride and Prejudice and Nine Princes in Amber" and people reasonably say "What? What do those two things have in common?" It doesn't give them the same confidence that they know what high-points need to be hit, and how to hit them."

 So now we have several quotes by Tony, which show us quite a bit about him, Capes and his Capes, and now we're going to address and contrast with these. Yay for us.

So there we have Tony, talking about how Capes is all about Conflicts, yet the promotional teaser is all about Super-Heroics. When Capes originally came out I didn't buy it because it was just another Super-hero game with the Click-and-Lock Gimmick to me. I didn't need just another superhero game. I recently bought Capes after getting the above PM from Tony, which showed me what the game was actually about was Conflict. See, that's one place where Tony and I differ, he sells his game as a Super-hero game, not espousing the conflict in promotion, where I don't pay much attention to colour in CR and focus almost entirely on the conflict.

I think Tony could benefit from putting a little bit more focus on what his game is made almost entirely of, and I know I should put more focus on colour/setting.

When it comes to mechanics, I advise people to think before putting in "Flavour of the Month" just because it's cool and it works. It should work for you, in your game, and as we will soon see, follow your personal philosophy of how a game should go.

Case in point, I took the "Sweet in the Middle" from Tony, where if you have too much or too little of a resource you're not that well off, but there's some optimal spot to be in. This creates another axis to make decisions on; once you reach the sweet spot, if you do nothing, then what good do you get? Also, if you have some mechanic that keeps pushing you to the edges then the struggle keeps going on. This mechanic is present in Capes in the form of Debt and was inserted into Cranium Rats in regards to Dice in your Die Reservoir.

However, look at Winning and Losing, which seem to show our personal philosophies, and how Tony may not be as Muy Macho as he claims(desires?) to be. Tony believes that if you "Lose" you should get some "Loser Benefit", where in Cranium Rats it's more "All or nothing"(though it's more like "Increment or nothing" with the need for multiple increments for "Much" and various "Much" for "All"). I understand where Tony comes from, but it doesn't strike my fancy. In Cranium Rats, if you lose, you lost an opportunity, resources and/or chances of victory(at least in the near future). In Capes, and it seems that it's his general design goal, you don't "Lose" when you lose a conflict; it depends on your goals. You may have wanted to lose in order to gain or get rid of specific resources, the only real way to "lose" in Capes is not to get the outcome you desired, if you "Lost" while you got your goal, then it's not really losing.

End-game is an issue tied to losing and winning, in the form of "Victory". Capes does not have end-game, whereas Cranium Rats does. Mike Mearls would say CR is not even an RPG based on that.

Maybe he's right. It's an CSI Game.

Finally, if this comes off as harsh and all sorts of baity, then it's because both Tony and I are Muy Macho, though I'm more of the Muy Bastard/Sadistic sub-variety, and because Tony acknowledges this is the way to get someone to get reactions.

Ok, that was crap, I post like this because that's how I write. You may have noticed by now. I posted this notice at the end because I want you getting all worked up while reading it, that gets the neurons rubbing!

…and Double Blinders; The Players Don’t(Stand Alone).

This post is a direct continuation of this post, unlike most posts which build indirectly on what has come before(Yes, reading this blog in order helps greatly). Seems like there'll also be a surprise third post in this series, though I'm unsure if it'll be next or one after, since the next two posts build on one another!

So, when playtesting it's important to test the mechanics on their own, to see how they work, rather than how your interpretation of them makes them work.

So, the players you play with will dictate a lot on how the game goes, you play the game, but so do they. When you play a game for fun you'd rather play a game with people you know, so you can gel as much as possible with them and collaborate to create a fun enviroment.
But what about when you play a competitive game, and especially when playtesting one?

I'll begin with several stories, taken directly from the First Post on this blog:
"..(In M:tG)Another instance was of me creating a deck specifically for multiplayer. But rather than have a deck which hurts multiple opponents to my benefit, I've created a deck based on "Fear Factor". The deck made use of Pestilence, a card which hurts all players and characters equally. I told the others so: "You don't attack me, I may or may not use it, you attack me, I use it and everyone, including you, suffers". It worked, no one wanted to lose, so no one attacked me, letting me watch with glee and mess with everyone as I saw fit. This was an especially good choice for me as I am often the "Strong Pick" and thus marked for execution early on, more on this later…

…Enter Settlers of Cattan, a classic if I ever saw one. I've first played Settlers of Cattan in a convention, where the three other players knew one another and I knew none. You may think that I had the disadvantage, that they will unite against the unknown, the outsider, and will only later turn against one another to finish business. That was not so.
People who know one another mark each other as "Strong" and "Weak", "Ally" or not. They assume that the opponent they know to be strong must be stronger than the unknown. So I used it to my advantage, as two of the friends united I offered an alliance to the last remaining player, and dumped him the moment I got what I wanted from him, trusting in my own capabilities. His friends later would not ally with him for he allied with me, leaving him alone, as I was, but much weaker.
Towards the end the other players noticed my burgeoning kingdom and decided to ally together in order to stop me. This was too little and far too late. Their pooled resources could not stop me…"

I believe you should play with people you know, whereas Dave Michael, author of Legends of Lanasia, believes otherwise. Dave, I'm inviting you here to explain in the comments why you believe you should play(test) (competitive?) games with people you don't know.

When you play with people you know who is a danger, you know why they are a danger, you know who will betray you.
I play Worms with my cousin against two computer enemies, we always agree to squish them first and only then turn on one another, but when that "Sweet Hit" calls, and since no one wants to get hit first we turn on one another, but we always know it'd come…

Sure, you don't fully test the system, but the system only builds example conflicts, situations for you to clash. There must be some conflict between the active agents in order for conflict to actually occur. This is often done by human nature, expectation and the need to prove oneself's as winner.

Sure, you know what others plan to do and what are their weak spots, but that doesn't mean you won't fall again, like Charlie Brown and the Football, or me and my cousin. You know the others' weak spots, but so do they know yours.

It is considered "Bad Sports" to bring outside occurances to the game, but let's be frank, much of the conflict inherent to competitive games actually comes from the friction between the players. Why create artificial conflict when there's real conflict to be drawn upon so easily?

You want to test the system, you don't want to create conflict between players. You want to test the game, you do not want to test the situation between players, just use it as a tool.
You have winners and losers, and those feelings add on to the next time you play.

I believe you should play competitive games with people you know.

Questioning Analysis of an Analytical Tool; “Huh?”; Descriptive Vs. Prescriptive

First, an apology. I should write the second part of the “With Blinders..” post but it will have to wait until Sunday instead.

So I’ve asked John Kirk to write his own Meta-Chanics for Cranium Rats before reading my own version which is up right here on this very blog.
He didn’t exactly do what I asked him to; he used the gauge diagrams in his RPG Design Pattern book to analyze the currency flow in Cranium Rats. I meant the Meta-Chanics to not only contain the “What” and “How” but the very important “Why”, like Water gaining Narration to keep that player invested and Advantage Dice put in in order to reward interaction with the in-game world.

So, he did that, and I’m once again reminded of questions I have regarding the usefulness of such a tool, which is used to analyze games such as mine(note that there will be a thread on Cranium Rats regarding this issue on The Forge soon, a link will be edited in at such time it is up).

So, first and foremost, and also the last, because it sums it all up: “Yes, cool, what do I do with it?”

So you have this nice document. If you are creating your games and you’re missing something you can peruse it in search for something to fit in a hole(differing XP, HP and so on systems and what they may be useful for), if your thought processes are arcane enough you can sketch a series of diagrams of “How” you want your game’s currency flow to look like and only later work on such minute details as what the rules actually are(if you can do it then I worry for you, and for all the rest of us too…).

Or you’re in my position, you have a game and you have it looked at through this scientific-looking method, and we’ll use Cranium Rats as an example. So what does it do for you?
Unlike Meta-Chanics as I suggested above it is descriptive, whereas Meta-Chanics are descriptive(to me, from me) but becomes(often against my will, as noted in the previous post and the one regarding Meta-Chanics) prescriptive once it gets into the hands of other players. The system may do X, but once people get it into their heads, often because of “Advice” chapters it does Y, they will claim it really is all about Y. Look at Exalted for a good example.
Well, it lets me see how many stages one needs to go through in order to accomplish something and how many fiddly bits may have to be accounted for. This is helpful if you need a visual help, less helpful otherwise.
You can also see where things are going and if there are “Currency Sink-Holes” or “Geysers” where Currency comes from/evaporates to unexpectedly. But again, this isn’t of much use if you already know what you are doing.

This tool is merely descriptive, it doesn’t lead to much after you already have something, where often it is my opinion that game designers need prescriptive tools to further their work and agenda.

How else can one use this tool?

If you want to see someone else’s thought on Methods(Scientific, Philosophical Vs. Artistic and more) from which one can also take Descriptive Vs. Prescriptive check out Chris Lehrich’s two Livejournal accounts: Account #1 and Account #2. I’m not going to link to specific entries as they are numerous and a short scroll-down will help you find them. Even entries about other topics are actually about this, so read everything.