Monday, July 25, 2016

Evaluating the new Power Framework

Cool ideas bro, but does it work?

Many RPGs that I enjoyed in my youth, I came to notice over time, are plagued by what I liked to call the "Cool Idea! Syndrome."  The writer needed to fill out a book full of cool powers, and they needed to inspire their audience, so they wrote neat ideas into their books.  What they didn't do was write a working system into their game.  It was enough that they had neat ideas, and they seemed to have stopped there.  The result were that some cool powers completely changed the game, or even wrecked it, while others seemed to do nothing at all.  We'd have arguments at the table, and the games would shortly end up shelved while we turned to more robust games (like GURPS!).

A good system is cohesive and builds interesting gameplay.  Players respond to incentives and they'll see that there's an inherent goal in your gameplay (Psi-Wars, imitating GURPS Action, has the goal of "Accomplish the mission"), and a variety of ways to get there (Stealth, direct combat, good social interaction), as well as a variety of possible stumbling blocks/challenges that could stop you from getting there if you can't beat them (while, ideally, keeping even failing gameplay interesting).  It does this by providing a clear ruleset that creates interesting interactions.  Raph Koster argues (if I may attempt to paraphrase an entire book) that "fun" in a game essentially boils down to experiencing unexpected emergence coming out of this clear-and-simple ruleset, and the feedback loop of learning to master that ruleset and its emergent behavior.

A good system should provide you with those things.  I could write an entire series on building gameplay (and someday I will), but you can already get a pretty good idea of what it looks like by reading Dungeon Fantastic or David Sirlin's game design articles or Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, etc.  Dungeon Fantastic touches on what I'm sort of talking about in this post on "plugging holes".

"Plugging Holes" examines some of the underlying implications of the framework created by the DF rules and how to deal with them regarding a particular goal (survival, in this case).  For example, a character needs to survive being attacked by a goblin with a spear, but he also needs to deal with death curses from a lich.  These require substantially different things, so different that players are often better off specializing in their particular niche and protecting one another.

But those niches aren't inherent to GURPS.  Kromm put them there, deliberately, with his design of Dungeon Fantasy, which Peter is exploring in his Dungeon Fantastic articles.  One reason people love "Kewl Powerz" is not just because it lets them be awesome, but because those cool powers create a framework for gameplay (Said differently, cool powers let players be awesome in a specific context.  You need both the cool powers and the cool context for it to work)When we create our own powerset, we're creating a similar framework full of dangers and strategies and interactions that the players can interact with and explore.  Ideally, we create one that promotes gameplay that fits our genre and design goals.

The question I pose to you is this: Does this design succeed at doing that?  Does it promote a world full of mystical claptrap that borders on fantasy, while also allowing high-octane gunfights and spy-vs-spy action?  For added tension, realize that Star Wars itself often fails at this particular dichotomy (gunslingers and spies are practically a joke in the prequels, almost completely overshadowed by mysticism and the fantasy elements).

Do we have a working framework, or do we have a pile of cool ideas?

Assessing Communion

Normally, this would be the point at which I'd build some templates, create some characters, and write some overwrought playtest that checks all the ins and outs, because the best way to know something is to see it in action, to walk a mile in its shoes, but I don't think that's going to work just yet.  First of all, powers substantially change Action, adding an entire layer to the system.  Adding Communion over Psi, while fitting for a Star Wars knock-off, means we have two layers of powers to work with.  Second, powers themselves are very flexible.  While Star Wars treats "I have powers" as the Jedi schtick, because we chose to use Psionic Powers we don't have that luxury.  A Telepath has a completely different strategy than an Electrokinetic.  We need to come to grips with not only how powers impacts our setting, but what sort of empowered characters that we want!

So I want to start simpler.  I just want to run through some mental experiments, more akin to what I did when I rewrote the spaceship combat system (twice).  I playtested, yes, but I also tinkered behind the scenes on the implication of what I had done.  That's what I want to do here too.

We'll do it in steps.  First, we'll discuss the intent of the design.  Then we'll look at whether the system fulfills that intent, but comparing the baseline with what our design does.  Then we'll look at some strategies that might arise out of it and speculate on some character design points.

The Goals of Psi-Wars

Let's return, just as a reminder, to our core activities of Psi-Wars.  Back in Iteration 1, I wrote:
Star Wars tells, roughly, three sorts of stories:
  • (Starship troopers) Military stories featuring soldiers fighting dramatic and often tragic planet-side battles.
  • (Ace pilots) Military stories featuring ace pilots in small space-fighters taking on much larger opponents in wildly kinetic fights.
  • (Agents of Terra) Espionage stories where a handful of agents need to either uncover a plot or enact a plot of their own to sabotage an enemy installation, rescue one of their own, or bring stolen plans back to base.
This was inspired by GURPS Space, and we've since moved on to GURPS Action, but let's see if we can get to the heart of it.

 An Action scenario has, as its goal, a the successful outcome of a predefined mission.  Action scenarios always have a mission, even if it isn't the mission we thought it was (For example, players might be hired to protect a guy who turns out to be treacherous, child-murdering scum, at which point "the mission" changes into "Assassinate this guy and get away clean.").  The goal matters, so unlike in a video-game-inspired DF game, we tend to approach the situation holistically.  Where a DF-inspired game might be primarily tactical (with gameplay focused on "How we kill these monsters here in this room"), Action is typically more strategic ("We'll only kill these goons in this room if it gets us closer to our goal. If bypassing them would get us closer to our goal, we can do that too).

Star-Wars, and Psi-Wars, works the same way.  Characters have a goal: Rescue the princess, destroy the Death Star, defeat the Empire.  How they achieve that goal is up to them.  They might rescue the princess by going in guns blazing, or they might do it by posing as stormtroopers with a prisoner.  They might defeat the Empire by blowing up their Death Star, or they might do it by seducing their top enforcer away to the Light Side of the Force.

The strategies and niches of Action tend to fall into the niches of action and spy movies.  The idea is largely to understand your goal, get to it, and then get out with a minimum amount of trouble.  The classic strategies are:
  • Violence (the Shooter, the Big Guy, the Fast Guy; or for Psi-Wars, the Commando or the Bounty Hunter)
  • Stealth (The Assassin or the Infiltrator; and the Spy and the Assassin in Psi-Wars)
  • Superior information and/or planning (The Investigator; and for Psi-Wars, the Officer and the Spy)
  • Social manipulation (The Faceman; and the Diplomat and Con-Artist for Psi-Wars)
  • Mobility (The Wheelman, the Traceur; and the Fighter Ace and Smuggler in Psi-Wars)
  • Technological Superiority (the Hacker and the Wirerat; and the Scavenger in Psi-Wars)
The challenges fit into the same large niches, in direct opposition to the heroic niches: the enemy can also deploy violence, can deploy detection systems, can hide its intent behind layers of deception, put itself in remote, hard to reach places, and use top-of-the-line equipment.  Action usually promotes symmetry except in one regard: It realistically has swathes of "normal" opposition, and a single layer of "heroic" opposition.  That is, there may be normal locks, or common thugs, or the computers aren't particularly noteworthy.  This both allows a particular character to shine and it makes reasonable sense.  But to keep things challenging, it usually adds some serious opposition, usually in the form of named NPCs, who stand in opposition to the heroes: Their beautiful-but-deadly sniper, their arrogant-and-condescending sysad, the cigarette-smoking hitman/cleaner who hides the sinister organization's actions behind a smokey web of lies.

The ideal action scenario creates a sort of strategic maze for the players to explore.  Perhaps we put our macguffin on an island fortress owned by a Middle Eastern tyrant with a personal army, out-dated equipment and a beautiful daughter who just wants off that terrible rock and loves to party.  How do the players tackle this?  Ideally not through set-pieces designed by the GM, but by trying to apply their preferred strategies in such a way as to get around it.  An infiltrator, a wirerat and a faceman would tackle it in a completely different manner than a shooter, an assassin and a demo-man.

The actual look and shape of our Macguffin, the reasons behind what we do and why, the locations, the people involved, don't actually matter, not for the purposes of the framework.  They absolutely matter when rubber meets the road, and we'll definitely discuss them in more detail later, but here and now, they're not that important.  So we can replace "island fortress" with "Asteroid base" and "Middle Eastern Tyrant" with "Alien Warlord" and outdated computers with "primitive, clunky machinery and outdated robots." The daughter can remain the same, but where she goes, what she looks like and what she thinks of as a good time will change.

As you can already see, Psi-Wars has all of this well in hand, which shows in the Playtests.  If you go back over the playtests, especially the Iteration 3 playtest, this is exactly how the game played out, though on a more tactical level (because our playtests have, thus far, been done in a bottle).  But we need Psionics and Communion to fit into the same framework.
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