Friday, August 29, 2014

Breaking Down a Campaign Framework

I'm always creating page after page of RPG material, but I seldom follow through far enough to create something truly publishable.  I'm always getting requests for my notes, and I always have to demure because they're really little more than "What is necessary to run my specific game." In a few weeks, I hope to change that record and kick out the first bit of an actual GURPS campaign framework.

That pre-amble out of the way, allow me to make a few definitions.  What the hell is a GURPS campaign framework?  It's what I've decided to call books like GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, GURPS Action and GURPS Monster Hunters.  They provide everything you need to run a campaign except the specifics on plot, character and setting (but further provides guidelines on all three of those). Said differently, a campaign framework provides a distillation of the GURPS rules necessary for rapidly building characters, sessions and interesting gameplay for a particular genre.

This blog post will break-down what I think a campaign framework needs, but to do that, you must permit me one more definition, and to make that definition, I want to show you another definition: Philip K. Dick's definition of science fiction:

I will define science fiction, first, by saying what science fiction is not. It cannot be defined as 'a story set in the future,' [nor does it require] untra-advanced technology. It must have a fictitious world, a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society... that comes out of our world, the one we know:
This world must be different from the given one in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society…
There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation…so that as a result a new society is generated in the author's mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader's mind, the shock of dysrecognition.

[In] good science fiction, the conceptual dislocation---the new idea, in other words---must be truly new and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader…[so] it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification, ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader's mind so that that mind, like the author's, begins to create…. The very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create---and enjoy doing it, [experiencing] the joy of discovery of newness.
So, to be clear, Philip K. Dick doesn't think Star Wars is science fiction!  Does that mean that Mr. Dick is a... jerk?  No, I don't think so.  It doesn't mean his definition is wrong either.  It's not prescriptive so much as descriptive of what he's trying to do.  He's not being a snob, he's outlining a model that explains what he's shooting for.  "All models are wrong, some models are useful," as the saying goes.

With that in mind, I want to offer a definition of a role-playing game, not because I feel anything that falls outside of it is "not really roleplaying," but because it defines what I'm trying to create: A role-playing game is a confluence between the tension created by interesting mechanical gameplay and interesting narrative choices.  To unpack that: When people say they enjoy "fluff," they mean they enjoy the inspiration and complex choices created by an interesting narrative.  When people say they enjoy "crunch" they're describing their enjoyment of the complex choices created by interesting gameplay mechanics.  These two sides often argue, but I think they miss the point that RPGs are designed as the wonderful peanut-butter-and-chocolate mixture of rich narrative mixed with complex gameplay.

GURPS itself provides neither.  There is no GURPS setting and there is precious little GURPS gameplay (Nothing stops me, rules-as-written, from taking telepathy and ruining all the mysteries in a police procedural).  Rather, it provides us with the tools, the "design language" to create our own settings and gameplay (Nothing stops you, rules-as-written, from creating interesting consequences to the use of telepathy, and littering the world with dangerous psychics, anti-psychics, technological mind-shields, or drug-induced nightmarish "mind-traps." BOOM!  Interesting gameplay for a police procedural involving telepathy).  Many GURPS veterans have created rich campaigns all on their own.  But a campaign framework does a lot of that work for you.  You don't need one, but you're effectively creating your own, so why not build it out enough that anyone can use it?

A GURPS campaign framework defines the "fluff" of its campaign mostly in broad strokes.  The specific setting doesn't matter as much.  Monster Hunters works as well in Los Angeles as Cairo as the hills of Kentucky. But a campaign framework does depend on some setting conceits: Monster Hunters exists in a world where magic and monsters are real, monsters and magic works in a particular (and specific) way, and things like genetically engineered super-soldiers are real (though rare or secret).  Likewise, the specifics of characters are left to players and GM, but the framework outlines the details lightly.  Dungeon Fantasy has wizards, and wizards tend to have problems like being excommunicated or feared, while Knights tend not to have any actual, defined status, and so on.  Similarly, it doesn't really define the specifics of a plot, but you can infer what sort of plot you might have.  What a campaign framework mostly does is set up the premise.  Once the premise is established, then we can build gameplay.

And building gameplay is the primary focus of a campaign framework.  When I see people discussing these frameworks and building their own, they always start with templates.  This is a mistake.  Before you can build templates, you must understand niches.  Before you can understand niches, you must understand the pulse of gameplay.  The first framework book to write is always the second released: Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons; Action 2: Exploits; Monster Hunters 2: the Mission.

"A game is a series of interesting choices"
-Sid Meier

To understand gameplay, you must pick a focus for that gameplay.  Said differently, when the dice come out, what are the players doing?  What sort of choices do the players make?  Good gameplay creates a series of interesting, interrelated choices that creates an emergent narrative that, ideally, emulates the sort of genre we're exploring.  A game meant to emulate a heroic shonen anime should have a variety of interesting tactical decisions that, when chosen in an optimal way, naturally result in explosive, emotion-laden power, tangled relationships and exceedingly dramatic and dynamic battles full of people flying around and blasting each other.  A game meant to emulate Game of Thrones should have interesting choices that result in betrayal and heroes bleeding out in gutters while cynical villains slip back into the shadows to win a morally-grey victory in an uncaring, medieval world.

The first step, then, is to focus on a mechanics mission statement.  What do the player characters do by default?  Kill monsters and take their stuff?  Conspire to hide magic from the world while advancing their own political and mystical power?  Seek out new life and new civilizations while boldly going where no man has gone before, followed by sleeping with new women and punching out new alien warlords?  Once you have that, the next step is to pull out additional detail in our gaming fractal.  Killing monsters and taking their stuff, obviously, involves at least two parts, the killing and the taking, and might infer a few more, like knowing which monsters to kill, or where to find the stuff.  After we pull out these elements, we can keep or discard as we please.  Taking a monster's stuff likely involves selling it, but most players don't associate mercantile skill or deep haggling mini-games as a serious element of Dungeon Fantasy, so we remove that.

Once we understand what our game is about, we can start building the actual nuts and bolts of gameplay.

Obstacles consist of four things: Dilemma, Choices, Consequences, and Rooting Interest.
-Robin Laws (Paraphrased)
Once we know where are gameplay is, we need to decide what it looks like.  Gameplay will generally consist of facing what Robin Laws, above, calls obstacles.  The most important elements are, to me, the last three, and starting with the last first: Rooting Interest means you must explain why the heroes care.  Dungeon Fantasy does this easily by pointing out, helpfully, that the monsters have stuff and you want stuff.  Moreover, the monsters are trying to kill you and most people are interested in not dying.  Games like GURPS Action have a harder time establishing rooting interest, and tend to require fluffier reasons for doing what they do.  Nonetheless, there should always be a benefit for success, or what some people in the biz call "Risk vs Reward."

“Failure is boring – the credible threat of failure is very exciting.”
-Amanda Lang

Next, we need our series of interesting choices.  This ties in with consequences.  There must be multiple ways to achieve one's goal, and they must all be equally interesting (this is what game designers mean by "game balance"), but that doesn't mean they must all be the same.  Different tactics should involve different risks and different, long-term consequences.  Those consequences can be short-term or long-term or both, and the consequences needed necessarily be negative.  Much of chess's gameplay choices turns on positioning: to capture your piece, I must move my piece to the captured piece's spot.  This fundamentally changes the board, and might expose my piece to counter attack, or open up the field for further attack against you.  D&D 4e and Gumshoe use resources, which means you can expend a great deal of power to defeat a threat now, at the cost of being unable to defeat another threat later on.  Call of Cthulhu allows magic at the cost of sanity, which means the use of game-winning powers will likely result in a permanent reduction of your hero's power.

Ideally, our choices involve several of the above, allowing the heroes to way the risks against the rewards and the potential fallout of a course of action, and those consequences shape future choices (This is the "sequence" that Sid Meier refers to).  This creates our emergent play.  As my D&D fighter rushes forward and lays down an area attack on several foes, this has the consequence that I'm no longer near the other PCs, but all of those enemies have been effectively "pinned" near mine, which keeps them from attacking my allies, but means they're highly likely at attack me, which might be dangerous to myself.  I've made a choice, and gained both rewards and consequences that will affect the next turn (My position, my expenditure of a resource).  The enemy will react to my new position and my new vulnerabilities differently, which means I may be swamped by enemies, or might have them scatter.  Then, I have a new set of choices that didn't exist before, limited by the fact that I've already expended some of my power (a condition that didn't exist before).

Once we've defined those choices, we can determine which traits interact with them and what general paths our choices tend to guide us along.  A combat character who tends to focus on strategies of survival and focusing enemy attention on him is following a "tank" strategy.  That's his core toolkit, the set of choices he intends to maximize.  A combat character who intends to focus on removing his opponents before they can remove him is following a "striker" or "sniper" strategy. From these strategies, we can start to derive our niches, and from those niches, we can derive our templates.  And from our templates, we can write a template book.

This works because we have determined what makes each core game mechanic interesting, and how these templates interface with them, and what traits matter and why.  Monster Hunters, for example, has two major gameplay arenas: Finding the monster and killing it.  Each template has alternate strategies for finding the monster, and each template has means by which to kill it, and these overlap.  The Crusader has just enough skill to find the monster, and then has overwhelming lethality with which to destroy the monster in a full, frontal assault.  The sage, on the other hand, prefers to linger in the research phase, trying to determine what the monster's weakness might be and use that against him.  Both can team up to allow specialization and magnification of one another's strengths, but this too creates new vulnerabilities, and doesn't address additional issues and potential consequences (Remaining hidden from both the world and the monsters you hunt is a vital part of monster hunting, and requires a different strategy).

Once we've built our core gameplay, all that remains is to make sure it's attached to the rooting interest of the players themselves.  Base motivations can work, but tying everything into a deeper narrative is what makes RPGs far more compelling than mere Monopoly, Parcheesi or Stratego.  But that's an article for another time.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What I learned studying up on Captain-and-Crew Space Opera

After Combat Medic had his fightin' thread about why the Federation of Star Trek is a terrible place, I was inspired to watch DS9 again (which actually addresses many of the issues raised), which led to me exploring other, similar series, like Farscape, Blake's 7 and so on.  Not just [I]watching[/I] them, but tearing them apart, reading the director's notes, playing games related to them, studying up on the lore behind them, trying to understand what makes them tick.

It's just a thing I do.  I have ADHD, I get obsessed with things.

Here are some things that popped out.

1. Star Trek spaceship design actually makes sense

The idea behind the goofy pod-and-saucer design actually makes a sort of sense.  The idea is that your radioactive drives are connected to the saucer, in which your crew resides so that it can provide power and thrust, but it remains far enough away that it doesn't irradiate them.

Of course, Star Trek ruins this by having its engineers just hanging out not 10 feet from the warp core, but hey, what's a realistic depiction of radiation against the chance to see a totally cool warp drive in the background.

(Similarly, the DS9 wheel makes sense if you want to generate artificial gravity.  Just spin-up the station.  But, of course, they have artificial gravity and it's pointed in the wrong direction, because... I don't know why).

2. The scale of the ships makes sense too

These ships are HUGE.  The Galaxy class ships of Star Trek would be SM+15 or so, and Romulan Warbirds are even bigger.  Moira from Farscape is similarly gigantic, despite the fact that they only ever show like 10 people as the crew.

Of course, a simple thought experiment shows why.  The ships are often described containing simply titanic amounts of energy and slinging them back and forth.  The sort of masses and energies required to actually create something like an Alcubierre drive, assuming its even possible, are pretty big.  And having the kind of energies in your shields necessary to stop antimatter missiles from simply vaporizing you instantly are likewise pretty titanic.  Furthermore, most of these civilization seems to have advanced manufacturing means [I]and[/I] have a vast scale.  They have access to the resources of asteroids, massive populations on a variety of worlds.  They are many magnitudes of order more productive than our civilization is.  If they put a fraction of that into military production, the result is going to be fleets far larger than we can currently deploy, with ships far larger than we'd even think about.

3. The writers don't really understand any of this

As I've already pointed out, it's like the writers glimpsed better sci-fi over the horizon, and ran around recreating a soap-opera set in a world that looks vaguely like the better sci-fi, and then added bits that they thought were fun, like wooshing ships and lasers that can disintegrate people, but never seem to disintegrate bulkheads.

4. Or maybe they do, but they don't think the audience will

The more I watch these, the more I see that they're about a few consistent themes.  The first is a sense of wonder.  We watch them to see the terrible, super-woofer trembling majesty of a black hole, or the awe-inspiring wonder of the rings of an alien world glittering through the rising sun.  We watch them to interact with strange aliens and stand in the cavernous maw of the ruins of a long-dead race.

At the same time, the second theme is humanity.  This allows us to relate to events going on.  The being that stands gaping up at those ancient ruins is a fellow much like you and me, not some robot, not some engineered being with an incomprehensible intellect, not some mobile sapient fungus.  But someone like you or me. Similarly, the aliens he meets look remarkably human not just because of a limited budget, but so we can fall in love with their men or their women, so we can punch their warlord in the jaw, so we can relate to their politics.  The point is to make a story that a 20th century (Captain-and-crew stuff seems very grounded in the 20th, rather than 21st century) person (especially an American.  Even Farscape, despite being Australian, seems primarily aimed at Americans) can easily relate to.  This goes further: Most of the drama of the story, when it isn't being driven by the Science Mystery Of The Week, is mostly a human drama.  It's people falling in love or falling in hate, or circling around one another in rivalry or misplaced distrust or what have you.

There's substantial tension between these two points.  The more realistically you depict the wonder, the more wondrous you make it, but the harder it is for the average person to understand that wonder.  But the more understandable you make it, the more mundane it becomes.  Balancing on this knife's edge is one of the things that creates many of the peculiarities of the genre, and when you slip off to one side or the other, that's where you lose audience members.  Seems an unforgiving genre.

4. It doesn't seem to have made a lasting cultural impact

If I dig through sci-fi art on Deviat Art or elsewhere, what I mostly find are lots of battlesuits, lots of power armor, lots of robots, lots of cyborgs, lots of skimpily dressed alien-chicks [I]or[/I] creepy bug-aliens.  I see lots of Star Wars, lots of 40k, lots of generic cyberpunk or military sci-fi.  I see lots of long, "rod"-style spaceships.  I see very little that seems inspired by Star Trek or other Captain-and-crew sci-fi. When people create something similar, it seems more retro "This is what I imagine sci-fi looked like in the 50s" rather than some re-imagined version of a captain-and-crew genre.

To be clear, for me, the defining tropes are: relatively mundane humans wearing jumpsuits with funny/simplistic designs, wielding rayguns, who explore worlds populated by humans-in-rubber-suit aliens, while their primary focus of tension is usually on controlling the ship itself.  That is, it would play like the Artemis Bridge Simulator or FTL, rather than like Mass Effect or Halo.

I can find some artwork inspired directly by star trek, but rarely do they depict new characters (unless, weirdly, they are furries). I almost never see "I'm trying to do something like star trek, only different," though I see tons of Deus Ex knock-offs, or Shadowrun knock-offs, or Starship Trooper knock-offs, or Aliens knock-offs.

It didn't used to be that way, I think.  Perhaps Captain-and-Crews cultural cachet has faded and we're drifting more towards planetary romance and space spy-and-mercenary action.  Star Trek is increasingly depicted in a "retro" fashion.  It's out of date.  Old fashioned.

5. Finding that balance and that cultural interest makes Captain-and-crew gaming hard

Players have a mind of their own.  They won't conveniently forget the Solution Of The Week when you have your back turned.  If you let them phaser through a solid wall one session, they'll demand to know why they can't phaser through all walls.

The solution seems to either run it as a genre-based game, or to get onto that knife's edge the same way the original writers did.  In the first case, you run it like a Supers game, or use a system like Marvel Heroic or Fate or Drama System, and the reason you can't use the Science Solution Of the Weak is that it's not an Aspect this week, or you don't have the drama points, or it's bad form.  This is about emulating the genre, then, about creating an accurate depiction of what writers do.

The other would be to find some way to allow enough wonder and consistency into the game without it destroying the player's ability to relate.  You still have to introduce some arbitrary elements (what Ultra-tech calls "Safe tech,") like, "We have robots, but they're dumb, and you don't have Power Armor" and "Only the cyborg race has cybernetics.  Nobody else does because reasons" and so on.  If can't really play down the destructiveness of the weaponry without giving the heroes a consistent reason they're not being instantly blown away (like "You all have modulate force fields, here's how they work).

Fortunately, these arbitrary decisions do allow for the building of some interesting gameplay.  Players need to be willing to buy into space elves and bumpy-forehead aliens who all, amazingly, speak English (and laugh at jokes in English because, apparently, translator microbes are [I]that good[/I]) and ships that swoosh through space rather than float silently through an endless void.  But I expect anyone who gets into such a game knows what they're getting into.  Decrying the inaccuracy of the xenobiology while x-beams are scattering off your conformal force screen and you're using a dermal regenerator on your fallen buddy seems... misplaced.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...