Saturday, 6 March 2021

In Love And War (part 1)

I have been watching princess principal and I have become inspired. Here's a loose skeleton for a game.

 A PbtA game about spies, and dangerous sapphic romance.

Each player character is a spy, is gay, and is in over her head.
A spy's Classification determines her capabilities, initial relationships to others, and ultimate loyalties.
Everybody is lesbians because it's my game and you can't stop me.

You have 3 sets of assets, each rated from -1 to +3. They rate how good you are at an area of spy work.
-Lies, for concealing yourself and hiding your intentions.
-Clues, for gathering information and understanding others.
-Weapons, for using force to get what you want.

You have 3 perils facing you, threats that can end your career if they rise too high.
-Heat, as you expose your identity and damage your cover.
-Suspicion, as your handlers come to trust you less.
-Pain, as you're physically hurt.
Each Peril starts at 0. When it reaches 5, it triggers a Crisis Move - a moment of truth where the accumulated peril threatens to overwhelm you.

Increasing Perils
Sometimes a move will tell you to increase a Peril.
There will also be moments in the fiction when it makes sense for a Peril to increase. Some examples:
-Backchat your handlers, and Suspicion will rise. 
-Let a civilian know too much about you, and Heat will rise.
-Get caught in an accident or similar danger, and Pain will rise.
When this happens, increase Peril by 1. 

Hooks represent how much emotional leverage you have over a fellow spy. You build up a pool of Hooks, and can spend them to do things.
A hook can be spent to:
-Give her +1 or -1 to a roll by or involving her. Spend after you see the result of the roll.
-Offer her Experience as a bribe to do something. If she does as you wish, you both get one Experience for it.

You rack up experience as you get pulled deeper into the spy world, representing what you're learning. You get experience whenever a move says so. Further, at the end of every mission each spy who took part is awarded 1-3 Experience depending on the danger and complexity of the mission. Every full five experience can be spent go get an Advance. An Advance can:
-Give you +1 to an Asset (can be take up to 3 times, no Asset can go above +3).
-Gain a new Special Move from any Classification (can be taken up to 3 times).
-Reduce one of anybody's Perils by 1 (as many times as you like).

Resolving Moves:
When a move is triggered, roll 2d6 plus the relevant asset. 6 or less is a bust, 7-9 is a shaky success, 10+ is a flawless success. 
Some moves roll with Hooks instead of an asset. Spend as many Hooks as you want on the person you're using it on, and roll 2d6 plus the number of hooks spent.
Moves are divided into three sorts: Field Moves and Intimate Moves. Field Moves are for on a mission and revolve around action and suspense. Intimate Moves are for interpersonal, emotional scenes and handle how your spies relate to each other.
Finally, Crisis Moves are triggered when a Peril reaches 5, determining your spy's ultimate fate. Crisis moves aren't tied to a specific asset: which one you roll with will depend on how you try to resolve it (if you reach out to another spy who can help you, roll with Hooks as normal). A crisis move should get a whole scene to resolve it after the current scene resolves: set the situation up, see how the spy in question handles the crisis, roll for the move, and then narrate the results.

Field Moves:

Escape Notice (lies)
Bust: You attract unwanted attention. Increase Heat by 1, and you've been spotted. You'll need to find another way out of this mess.
Shaky: Its touch and go. Pick one:
-You get away barely, but leave a dangerous clue behind. Increase Heat by 1, but you're safe for now.
-You're spotted. You'll need to find another way out of this mess.
Flawless: You remain nicely hidden, no complications. You get +1 to act from surprise or using cover as a result.

Assess the Situation (clues)
Bust: You fuck up badly in pursuit of answers. You may still ask a question and get an accurate answer; if you do pick an appropriate Peril and increase it by 1.
Shaky: You get something useful. Ask a question and get an accurate answer, and get +1 to your next roll to act on the answer.
Flawless: Things fall into place. Ask one of the questions, and get +1 to your next roll to act on the answer. You, and every spy you share the answer with, get one Experience.

Resort to Violence (weapons)
Bust: You're badly injured before you can escape. Increase your Pain by 1, and you fail to achieve what you wanted.
Shaky: It's close, and getting what you want will hurt. Pick one:
-You're forced to retreat, and don't achieve what you wanted.
-You get what you wanted but are injured in the process. Increase your Pain by 1.
Flawless: You get what you wanted, without any injury.

Rescue Her (hooks)
Bust: You fuck it up, and now you're in just as much peril as she was too. Pick an appropriate Peril and increase it by 1.
Shaky: You get her to safety without anything terrible happening.
Flawless: You get her to safety. Each of you gets a Hook on the other.

Intimate Moves:

Flirt (lies)
Bust: She sees what you're doing, and gets one Hook in you as a result.
Shaky: She's into it. She picks one or both:
-You each get a Hook on the other.
-She offers you something she thinks you want.
Flawless: She's really into it, it's a moment. She picks one or both:
-You each get two Hooks on the other.
-She offers you something she thinks you want.

Read Her (clues)
Bust: You push too much, and spook her. She gets a Hook in you.
Shaky: Ask her a question. If she answers honestly, she gets a Hook in you. If she evades, you get a Hook in her.
Flawless: Ask her a question. If she answers honestly, she gets a Hook in you. If she evades, you get a Hook in her. Either way, you get an Experience, and if you're happy with what you learned so does she.

Push Her Away (weapons)
Bust: It ain't working. She gets a Hook in you.
Shaky: Its painful. You each lose a Hook from each other. If she leaves, you each lose another hook from each other.
Flawless: It's too easy. If she stays, you get a Hook in her and she loses a Hook in you. If she leaves, she loses two Hooks in you.

Open Up (hooks)
Bust: This is awkward. You lose a Hook from her.
Shaky: Expose something about yourself to her, and she gets a Hook in you. If she accepts it you get a Hook in her, too.
Flawless. Expose something about yourself to her, and she gets a Hook in you and one Experience. If she accepts it, you get a Hook in her, too, and one Experience.

Crisis Moves

Heat: Exposed And Pursued 
Bust: You don't escape. Maybe you're taken prisoner, maybe you die unceremoniously. Either way, that's the end of the road.
Shaky: You're able to give them the slip, narrowly. Reduce your Heat to 4. 
Flawless: You wriggle out of the trap effortlessly. Reduce your Heat to 0.

Suspicion: Left In The Cold
Bust: Your agency considers you a liability to be dealt with. Maybe you get a bullet to the back of the head, maybe you're cut off and abandoned. Whatever the case is, you won't be seeing your companions again.
Shaky: You're on thin ice, but you placate your handlers for now. Reduce your Suspicion to 4. 
Flawless: Your name is cleared. Reduce your Heat to 0.

Pain: Bleeding Out
Bust: Well, this is it. At least you might get some last words in before you die, but it's game over for you.
Shaky: You pull through, just about, but are gravely wounded. Reduce your Pain to 4.
Flawless: You make a miraculous recovery. Reduce your Pain to 0.

That's part 1, the basic mechanics. Parts 2 and 3 will detail the different Classifications of spy, and tools for generating missions and events.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

What I consider good design

So, one thing that I've been considering recently is what a 'well designed game' even means to me.

I don't think "Is it fun" covers it. Basically any game can be fun if you play it with your friends and the chemistry works. I've had fun playing Pathfinder, because I was playing with my buddies and we were bouncing off each other, but that wasn't because of the game's design. We'd have had just as much of the same amount of fun with any other game, really.
And, conversely, plenty of really valuable experiences I've had with RPGs have hit me with darker emotions. Pain, grief, regret, fear... these can all produce intense emotions that make a game worth playing in my view.

So, what am I looking for?

After some thought, I figure I want a game to
create a specific emotional experience when I play it
and the better it does that, the more successfully it does that, the better I consider the design.
The specific emotional experience will obviously vary by game. OSR games create nervous tension like a survival horror game, Monsterhearts produces messy bitchy angst, Duneon Bitches gives you defiantly vulnerable hope. But I look at the experience the game tries to create, and if it does that, it's well designed.

But lets go into a bit more detail. How do games achieve this? How do we judge what they're doing?
Three ways come to mind:

1: Set expectations
2: Shape play 
3: Cover creative gaps

The better a game does these three things, the better it will create an experience, and the higher I rate it.
Let's go into each of these in a bit more detail.

Setting Expectations

This bit is all about communication. I open the book up, browse its fluff and mechanics and look at the art and graphic design, and I get inspired. It makes me picture what it's about, the feelings it wants to evoke, the themes it wants to explore.
This isn't just about the mechanics specifically. There's a reason so many RPG books start with a couple of pages of fiction to set the tone (or with several dozen, if they were made by white wolf). Same goes for visuals; The Stygian Library would feel totally different without Alec's art and Anxy's layout. It all serves to put you in a particular headspace when you go through the book.

A game doing this bit well has everybody come to the game already imagining what the game could be like. That image in their head will be strong, and will be similar. Everybody goes in on the same page.

Shaping Play

This is what most people think of when they talk about 'game design'. Things like how characters are designed, how events are resolved, and so on.
And this shit absolutely matters. Sure you can freeform things, or make every resolution mechanic up on the fly as you go, but that won't create the same experience. Game mechanics push and tug you in particular directions, the limit you in some ways and open up possibilities in others. 
Think of it this way: compare a fight in D&D 5e, and one in Dungeon Bitches. Even if you go in with the same starting fiction (the same location, characters, enemies, etc), the experience will be totally different, because the mechanics care about different things. In D&D, the fight is resolved round-by-round, its a chance to use various character tools, the consequences are (relatively trivial) physical injury and depletion of material resources, everybody gets to contribute about as much, and the PCs are pretty sure to win. The end result is empowering, tactically challenging - fights in 5e feel good. Compare to Dungeon Bitches. The fight is resolved with a single roll, only one PC's capabilities directly shape the results, the consequences might be emotional trauma or gruesome injury (both of them very hard to mitigate), and there is never a clean win. In DB, violence feels nasty and frightening, and characters respond to it far more seriously. 
This is a small example, but it applies to broad structures too. Who even are PCs? What capabilities of theirs matter? What tools do they use to influence the narrative? What rewards and disincentives shape their actions? All of these things will create a particular experience in play.
Like, here's a really simple example. The tension you get making a jenga-pull when you play Dread creates a feeling of mounting nervous anticipation that you wouldn't get if the game wasn't using Jenga as it's main mechanic.
This isn't just mechanics, either. The fiction matters. A setting without law enforcement plays very different to one with incredibly strict law enforcement, for example. That stuff shapes play, too. You'll have an easier time telling stories where PCs struggle with predatory instincts if - in the fiction - all your PCs are vampires.

Covering Creative Gaps

Its nice to imagine that we can simply draw on our infinite imaginations to create all the details and ideas we need for a good experience at the table, but that's just not true. There's going to be moments where nothing immediately comes to mind, or you would normally tend towards the generic. So, here, the game provides concrete examples, so when you might hesitate creatively, there's inspiration to fill that gap.
This might be the way a lot of PbtA moves offer specific options to pick between when they resolve. This might be the use of random tables (such as wandering monsters) in play. This might be pre-packaged character archetypes that clearly communicate the sorts of PCs you might play.
This is something a lot of design neglects. Vampire the Masquerade, for example, doesn't really provide much in the way of concrete examples to draw on. Want to run a feeding scene? The vessel, and how they're approached, has to come from the ST - there's no 'big list of vessels' you can pick one from for a side-scene where a PC feeds.

So that covers it, I think. I want the game to clearly communicate what it's about, for the procedures of play to nudge and push the game towards that experience, and for the game to pick up the slack where the participants might falter. If a game does all of these things, I can be pretty sure that I'll come away from it having had the emotional experience I was looking for. And that's a success.