Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Uncertainty In Games: Randomness

One of the most important uncertainties for role playing games is randomness. That might seem obvious, but randomness is only one of the eleven sources of uncertainties that we'll talk about in this series.

Randomness plays a key character: fate. It is generally used as an action resolution device, steering the story in one direction or another. The trick here is that it plays an impartial judge on the lives of the characters. If left purely to the players, who are generally rooting for their characters to succeed, the stories that are produced from the game may not have that classic rollercoaster of emotions that really make for memorable experiences. Instead, characters live and die by the unswayable third party of random.

There are two very distinct types of randomness: bias and unbiased. Each has a powerful effect on the style of game that is played. Bias random is where one outcome is simply "better" than another. For example, swinging a sword in combat can either hit or miss. A hit, obviously, is better than a miss. If one character hits, and another misses, but they've both spent the same resources (i.e. an action), and randomness was bias towards the character that hit. Unbiased random, on the other hand, is something that adds chaos to both sides of an equation, giving opportunity for either side to "deal with it better", rather than favoring one outcome or the other.

Bias random is usually shunned in "higher level" circles of game design. If used as an element of uncertainty in say, a strategy game, players can get annoyed that the random is favoring their opponents, regardless of who has the better strategy. Unbias random, on the other hand, is used to introduce variety and replay-ability into a game, making it the preferred choice for those styles of games.

Don't write off bias random completely though. One of the biggest early inspirations of gaming is gambling. When we as humans let go control of the game and roll a die or spin a wheel, we get a large shot of dopamine as we wait for the outcome. That moment is what RPGs are about. That moment is when we get to know whether our hero lives or dies.

Yes, RPGs are founded on bias random. But it's also not as biased as you might think. One of the best twists in gaming I think comes from the fact that the mechanics are bias between characters, but not between players. No roll is necessarily good or bad for the players of an RPG. After all, they are there to find out what happens, good or bad. You can't have a roller coaster without going down sometimes, and that's exactly what the randomness gives us.

This I think is where RPG combat usually falls short. A big complaint of combat is that it's completely random, and usually not influenced by strategy all that much. Some games do away with it completely, focusing on character relationships and/or world exploration. Perhaps we need to take a lesson out of the strategy game's design book, and realize that if combat is presented as a very different kind of game, it also needs different kinds of rules. Perhaps also, however, games need to realize that combat, just like everything in RPGs, is a resolution system best left up to fate.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Uncertainty In Games: A Mini-Series

The unknown, unsolved, and unpredictable nature of games is exactly what makes them intriguing. As soon as you know that tic-tac-toe or Candy Land are deterministic activities, they lose all sense of engagement. Uncertainty, therefor, is the key factor in making an activity, a game.

In his carefully thought out book, Uncertainty in Games, Greg Costikyan lays out eleven unique sources of uncertainty that actually apply to all forms of entertainment, not just "games", suggesting that it is the unknown nature of something that makes it "fun". Everything from a good book to the most complicated of MMORPGs has some unpredictable behavior that we the consumer interact with to find enjoyment.

Through the next twelve blog posts, I will explore each of these sources of uncertainty, and comment on how they apply the tabletop role playing games. It is my hope that through this exploration I can narrow in on exact aspects of our hobby, the ones that really make it tick, so that we can all better understand how they contribute to the tabletop experience.

If you are interested in board games, video games, puzzles, or really just how movies and books also have the same "uncertainty" as some games, I highly encourage you to pick up Uncertainty in Games!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Power 19 for Hostargo (12-19)

This is the last stretch for answering the power 19 for Hostargo. I've made a post specifically for the big three, and have answered 4-11 on this post. The finish line is in sight!

12) Do characters advance in the game? How?

Yes, characters advance by spending XP, which is earned by completing story objectives. XP can be spent on gaining new skills & abilities, or upgrading current skills & abilities. Hostargo is designed to be more horizontal in advancement than vertical, but I've found that there are a lot of fun in upgrading your favorite abilities and plenty of design space to do that without just increasing the "raw numbers".

In addition, the party as a whole advances, based on which style of play they choose. But in the core of each, players will always gain access to new technology, magic, and connections that expand their repertoire of combat and roleplaying options.

13) How does character advancement reinforce what the game is about?

With each newly gained skill, ability, tech, magic, or connection, the players' toolset for solving problems grows. That increased complexity represents the chaos of Hostargo's rapidly expanding population and the opportunities the players will encounter within the city. In addition, the power gained from these new abilities helps the player characters stand out from the thousands of other people pouring in.

14) What sort of effect do you want the game to have on your players?

Excitement. Adrenaline. Victory.

The game aims to provide the players with the tools to succeed in a tense, action-packed world. It also aims to equip the GM with the crazy & cool scenarios that spark interesting conflict.

15) What areas of your game receive extra attention and color? Why?

Character creation gets a lot of color, because it's the first thing the players encounter. If they aren't invested in their characters, there's a lower chance that they'll become invested in the game world. Hostargo is not a game where we need to jump right in, so character creation is part of the experience.

Advancement gets extra color because that's what hooks players to keep playing. Each session should introduce some new element, some new experience the players haven't had. Eventually, this might get out of hand, but that's the idea! Only those who can control the chaos rise to the top in Hostargo.

Finally, action sequences get most of the color (over specific roleplaying or exploration scenes), because that's the best place to use the powerful tech, abilities, and magic they characters have equipped. It drives both excitement, risk, and victory.

16) What part of the game are you most excited about? Why?

I am most excited for the various special character abilities. I have designed them to fit a variety of play styles, so I hope everyone can get enjoyment from them. It has certainly been fun designing both straight "power" abilities (e.g. magnetic smash!) and the more complex, open, but creative abilities (e.g. mind hacking).

17) Where does your game take players that other games don't?

Hostargo has a unique set of magic and tech that is familiar, yes, but has never been packed all together into a tiny space, in a reasonable sized RPG packaged, with a clean ruleset and limitless adventure.

I'm walking a fine line between crunch, streamline, creativity, and tactical gameplay. Other games do one thing well, or offer a single, very fined tuned experience. Other toolboxes try to explore too much, be too generic, and often end up being too large.

I want Hostargo to be packed full of all the good stuff without having to be a system master to run it. I never follow the rules when running other games, and I wouldn't expect the players to do so here either. Instead, I want to enable them; let their imagination run a wild but grounded game.

18) What are your publishing goals?

The goal is to do a personal kickstarter. Just to say I did it. I want to gain some money to get art, get a professionally laid out book printed, and say that I contributed to the world of creativity. I want my foot in the door, but with a BANG of a game.

19) Who is your target audience?

The game is designed for people like me. There's no denying that. The closer in interest you are to my own, the more you'll like this game. Luckily for me, I have some fairly common interests:

People who like Magic: The Gathering will enjoy my ability design. It's grounded in rules, but open to creativity for those willing to find it.

People who like tactical games like Rainbow Six will enjoy the action economy system, and the freedom that such a simple system gives to the tactics of the game.

People who enjoy high-action video games like Overwatch will appreciate how combat both requires teamwork while also giving a bright spotlight to the character's actions. 

People who like a variety of RPGs, rather than just "old school" ones or just "indie" ones, will enjoy the variety and depth of Hostargo while also appreciating the streamlining. Sway too much in one direction and something about this game will annoy you for sure.

People who enjoy the "Wild Sorcerer" class in D&D will enjoy how anything can and will happen in Hostargo.

People who enjoy weird dice mechanics will like my roll-under system that still ends in excitement.

People who play to find out what happens will like Hostargo. Don't over-prep, but come prepared.

If I had to choose a demographic, it would be simply millennials, as that is the experience pool and paradigm perspective that I come from.