Monday, June 11, 2012

Yeah, I'm a Rules Guy

I'm a process guy. Even says that if you click my bio "process-oriented" - I speak words like repeatable, RACI, CMMI, ISO without batting an eye. So I find the discussion of "Rules vs. Rulings" interesting, because it is something that I fight with every day in my job, people going "Why do we have to define how we do it, we just do it!"

Much of this has kicked off with a post by Monte Cook, discussing how, in his mind it is better to give the GM the power to adjudicate within a broad context is the ideal. A friend of mine from college has frequently been on a kick of giving the GM more flexibility to adjudicate within the system, that the GM should have the ability to decide how things end.

Me? Not so much. I want a tighter, more robust rules set. Perhaps this makes me an immature gamer; so be it. I prefer to think about it as "What do I want to spend my time at the table doing - think what the most fair resolution is, while trying to maintain what I did last time and why OR doing what I actually enjoy.

And I can understand the preference for a rulings-based system. It moves a lot of the effort from the system designers to the GMs, where it can be tailored to the table that they are sitting at. Unfortunately, with what I have seen in my workplaces, depending on a strong project manager works wonderfully until that project manager goes away, and then there's nothing. Or what happens if the project manager has a bad day?

So why my preference for rules over rulings? Rules give everyone the same explicit understanding for how something is supposed to work. No, not everything can be codified into a rules set, but there should be some three major items that a system should try to codify:

  1. How does a conflict start?
  2. How does a conflict resolve?
  3. How do we know when a conflict ends?

All rules/rulings should be to answer those three questions. My preference is just to have more done on the front end and not the back end. Why?

Because I'm mortal. I have my good days and my bad days. Because I can be very good at thinking on my feet and tying someone up in verbal knots.

But I don't want it to be my social abilities to whine, persuade, and convince the GM whether my character succeeds, I want my character's skills to be put to the test. I've quoted it before and I'll quote it again, "You can let the dice decide or let the GM decided, this goes for any type of resolution from social mechanics to hitting with a sword to finding a trap." And I just prefer to let the dice decide how the resolution of conflict goes.

Admittedly, that doesn't actually STOP anything from being dependent on the rulings or rules; because you could still have dice based resolution. The only question is where do you want the determinations to be made, on the front end, and codified within the text the rules, or left to the back end for each table to decide?

Frankly, I like knowing what I'm supposed to be doing before I get to the point where I need to make a decision.

Friday, June 8, 2012

What Makes Tactical Combat, Well, Tactical?

What makes a system's combat system tactical (or really any part of the system)? In short, choices and options make a system tactical, where you have to make decisions on what you do.

Well that was simple. Shortest blog post every by me. I'm done.

... ... ... ...

No, that's not really the end of my thoughts.

In my experience, the five W's (Who, What, When, Where, and Why) can provide the factors that make combat interesting - the more of those questions you get to ask in a combat, the more interesting the combat will be for me.

To discuss in more depth, and totally out of order:

Where - Where is probably the most basic of the tactical choices. Where do you stand, do you get cover, do you move to melee, do you stand beside the fighter. This is something that the gridded (i.e., played on a map with a grip) and war games (such as Warhammer) do extremely well. You can even keep it vague, such as zones from Fate, the positioning system from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition (which if I remember correctly, as a close, distant, really far rating system) and each has its pluses and minuses, balancing speed of combat and number of options given.

Personally, I think the best balance becomes one of "zones" where you can divide the space up into logical chunks.

What (and How) - What you do is the other key choice. If there is only one "right" action to take, no matter what the circumstances are, then that's tactically boring. A lot of systems, such as new World of Darkness system, use this because the play is not supposed to be about the tactical system, I read someone describing the system as a "murder system" because it isn't tactical play per se, but about murdering someone. This is something that 4th Edition D&D did extremely well - giving lots of options to all of the classes for what they could do with each action - be it an at will, an encounter, or a daily power. Personally, for me, it made the fighter systemically interesting to play, because I had options beyond "roll basic attack to act". Fate, my current game that I'm running, only gives a few basic options of Attack, Defend, Maneuver, and Move; but maneuver covers a wide range of activities so I'm not hugely concerned with it (which reminds me, I need to do more with maneuvers in my next Dresden Game).

The How is just a variable to the what you do - all out attack or cautious attack. Not much else to say on that factor.

When - When as a tactical choice was introduced to me, in depth, with Exalted 2nd Edition and the Battle Wheel. Many of the key choices in that game were not positioning on a map (because distances and locations were generally easy to change), but the position on the battle wheel/initiative chart. I've talked about initiative a little bit ago, so I won't go too far into the weeds with this one.

Who - Who is an interesting one. It can be "who attacks" such as with war gaming, and deciding who needs to do what, when (oh wait that ties into the others). It can also be Who is attacked - do you kill the mage first, or the fighter, wipe out the mooks, or just go after the boss? This requires there to be options on who you attack - which is why I enjoy minion rules, because I don't want every major fight to be a single major BBEG against the party, instead I want there to be multiple opponents and options on the table to provide choices for the players to decide on.

Why - Why is a hard one for me to look at within the tactical combat. Some systems, such as Smallville, try to force the issue by removing standard attributes, but replacing with motivating figures. Anyone out there have thoughts on a good "why" tactical system?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Stake Setting and Deadliness

Random idea - as inspired by Honor+Intrigue and a thread on RPG.Net regarding the deadliness of systems, also probably some Dogs in the Vineyard as well, from what I recall.

Basically, everything comes down to the fact that, for me as a GM, killing a player's character isn't particularly interesting. If I want to kill a PC, it is going to happen. Unless they do their best not to engage with the world and plot, and then there's still always the "random mail bomb" if the game is modern, or "rocks fall, everybody dies". So what's the point?

Now, if I can get the players to the point of choosing to risk death, of making an active, positive affirmation that "this is worth dying for", then THAT I find most interesting.

What if the stake setting was based on how much the players were willing to risk and make it a decision that could be made. Basically, the design would consider of three tracks for the level of risk you were willing to accept - loss of your goal (Defeat), loss of your health (Injury), loss of your life (Death) - I quickly sketched out a diagram (Note: I'm NOT a graphic designer, or all that visual a person when it comes to graphics, so my apologies).

Basically, the plan would be for the players to choose how much they are willing to risk if they end up starting to lose. At first, all they are risking is the loss of their goals (usually stop the bad guy at this point); however, if they want to push, they are risking injury, and finally, if it is important enough to them, they are risking death to succeed.

Possible problems I see with this - first, by leaving it in the players' hands, they may never get to kill/defeat the bad guy unless the players start losing. Of course, I could just have the same track for serious opponents who have the will to stick in the fight (which would make for a great demarcation for how tough the opposition is - lightweight minions are only willing to risk defeat, lieutenants are generally only willing to risk up to injury for their goals, and the true evil overlords are willing to risk their life to achieve something great.

A second problem is that this is a very narrative defeat - it requires the players and GM to come up with an answer as to how the defeat (of either side) emerges.

The third major problem that I see relates to the first - if the players are already losing, why should they bother to raise the stakes? Things are already going against them, so there needs to be some sort of mechanic that allows them some sort of bonus to success.

Benefits - I think the key is that it allows for results other than total defeat, loss, and destruction of a side in a conflict. Many games make it hard to retreat, so players learn to not bother, and GMs come up with more and more odd ways for leaders to escape death.  Everyone may still need to come up with some explanation - but at least if everyone accepts the rules, they know this is going to be the end result. (See Problem #2)