Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Setting Playability

Game playability is a vital concept which most current game designers understand and practice. Unfortunately, Most focus on system playability - making the systems easy to understand, appropriate for the game and setting, and flexible enough to cover anticipated play. This is a laudable goal, and one not always a goal to the previous generation of designer. A different goal, and one I see met far less frequently, is Setting Playability.

Settings designed without keeping the goal of Setting Playability in mind can fall into what I call End Traps. End Traps are where the concepts behind the setting are pushed to a logical conclusion and become metastable. The settings cannot be affected by the PCs in any meaningful way. This frustrates groups who may like the setting otherwise. Settings need to be dynamic - stable enough to last, but not so stable as to be eternally unchanging.

Another potential trap is Setting Paralysis, where the setting is so different in every way from anything the group has seen before that GMs and players are mentally stunned - they have no handle to grasp, nothing familiar to ease their way into the setting. It's always good to have some familiar bits as well as some far out stuff in a setting. That way those unfamiliar with the basic tropes can have an opening into the setting.

Of course a huge problem with established setting is Setting Buy-in. This is where there is so much to learn about in order to get going that it all becomes more like work than play. This one is difficult to get around, because older setting just accumulate cruft. Even settings which are new to games may have been around a long while as TV shows or books. The difficult trick is to find the right balance between Too Much Information for newbies and Not Enough Information for existing fans.

Just some thoughts


Monday, August 30, 2010

Some Relicts and Randomness

I am running a StarCluster 3 game on Thursday nights with Tim Kirk (Silverlion), his wife, and John, both of whom comment here on this blog. Last Thursday we created our company, a combination of the A-Team, Leverage, and Burn Notice. We also created our Sector - the play area. We each took three stars and created systems for them.

My three systems were Honeybee, Toddler, and Caliban. We created the systems randomly, like the sector, with the tables in the game.

The Honeybee System

What I liked about the Honeybee System was Queen Bee, the big gas giant, which was populated by hundreds of millions of mostly Vantor living in the clouds. Yet it was not a State, but only an Affiliate. What occurs to me is that it is probably a fractured rather than a unified, society - unable to solidify into a world government necessary to become a State. Another bit I liked was Caesar. Caesar is normally uninhabitable, but has a single, large inhabited feature. There are a lot of possibilities for this, but what intrigued me was an oasys on a desert planet, one area with enough water to support life.

The Toddler System

The most interesting thing about the Toddler system to me is the two space stations. One is inhabited, with 10s of millions of mostly Humans. The other is uninhabited, strangely. I posited that the people of the habitat outgrew the old station and built a new one. It has drifted, derelict, into the trailing trojan point of the world Barrelhouse. There is also a large asteroid in the leading trojan, Kabinda, inhabited by millions of humans, but at a Tech level of 5 - Steam technology. This was, I determined, a rock hollowed out by the robot brain of a Diaspora ship from earth. Something had gone wrong with the passengers, and their culture had collapsed. The robot brain of the ship, doing its best to find them a home, had heated the asteroid and filled it with breathable gasses, creating a safe place for the broken society, after seeding the interior, it let the people out into their new home, where slowly they had built up a new, more stable society. As TL 5 is the minimum tech level allowing contact, the asteroid has probably only recently been contacted.

The Chandrasekar System

The most intriguing thing about the Chandrasekar System is the concourse of four inhabited moons orbiting the gas giant Einstein. The intricate social dance of these varied worlds - one independent, one Diasporan community, and two SaVaHuTa - all States and Colonizers, must be fascinating. I'd love to look at the development of their interdependence.

Random creation forces us to come up with non-standard solutions to the problems they present. Why is one station uninhabited? Why are these steam-tech humans living on a big asteroid? What possible combination of strange coincidences must have happened here to create this anomaly? This is why I love random generation - it forces me to think out of the box.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Metaskills and Edges

In StarCluster 2E, and carryed forward in no other game I ever designed, I introduced a concept called metaskills. Metaskills were an attempt to create a class of skills which could modify other skills when used in conjunction. For example Design (Metaskill) + Engineering (Skill) would be designing ship's drives and power, While Design + Electronics would design gadgets, and Design + Construction would design houses and other structures. Nifty idea, no? No. it was complicated to use - they boosted the Skill Check in an awkward way - and most people could never figure out how or when to use them. I bulled it through the playtesters' confusion, convinced it would work. I learned my lesson, and never used them again.

With In Harm's Way: Wild Blue, I came up with another concept - Edges. Edges are bonuses which would apply to any skill test when the matching condition was in effect. For example, the Edge Split Second - favored by fighter pilots - would be in effect whenever absolutely precise timing was critical. This worked nicely, and I've incorporated Edges into many games since, including In Harm's Way: StarCluster and StarCluster 3.

A couple of days ago, I realized what should be apparent by my juxtaposition of these two concepts - Edges are Metaskills.

Conceptually, they are both ways to treat a broad competence combined with narrower skills. If you are good at designing things, you will be better at designing electronic gadgets than someone with equal Electronics skills and no design training. Metaskills were just awkward to use, and badly named. Edges are simpler to comprehend - it's plain, standard English to say someone has an edge in a particular circumstance, whereas metaskill is a made up word - and simpler to execute - Edges are a straight Small Bonus, whereas Metaskill application needed a formula.

So now I am going to revisit SC 3's Skills and Edges with this in mind. I have a feeling there will be some changes!


Monday, August 23, 2010

Saturday's Game

Had our first full-on playtest of StarNova Sunday. By that I mean creating characters intended for StarNova and playing exclusively with it, rather than swapping it in on the fly to test it out. It was a hellova good game! StarNova is both extremely gritty and explosively high powered, due to the exploding 6. My players loved it, ranking it just behind StarPerc and on a par with StarPool in their favorite mechanics! Their closest comparison was to Pendragon, where life can be tenuous and death fast. My players do not care at all for StarKarma, the randomless mechanic, BTW, though they all say it works fine. They just prefer some random action - any random action.

Their characters are fun! Most are performers of some type who work in acts in the Casino - an extremely dumb exotic dancer (stripper) named Candi, a stage magician named the Great Marvello and his equally gifted assistant, and a knife thrower/actor/dancer. There's also the scions of the Castella Family - the grandson of the Don, Fabrizzio, who has led the life of a playboy, but now must shoulder the burden of running the family now that his father is dead, his half-sister, daughter of the ex-playboy's father and his father's lifelong mistress who was killed with him, and the ex-playboy's driver-bodyguard. The young man is intelligent, but utterly untrained for this, and his most trusted companions are not the made men around his father, but the lounge acts from the Casino. The first session was extraordinarily funny, and wonderfully in character for all. The group find out that his father and mistress were murdered, most likely by a member of the family, which only serves to drive them closer together.

The Casino is on an "island" - a chunk of rock floating in the Necklace, a breathable gas torus (a la Niven's Smoke Ring) around a neutron star, with an artificial River - created by gravitic technology - endlessly writhing through the torus. These chunks of rock, covered with vegitation, orbit the neutron star and many are inhabited. This island is fairly small. Many are huge. I have painted a view of the island:


Friday, August 20, 2010

StarCluster 3 - Playtest Status Report

I just sent out Beta version 3 of StarCluster 3. It adds a number of new things, fixes some small problem areas in chargen, clarifies some things better, and includes the beginnings of the Developers Support for the Developer's Edition. I still have to word the license and add some more stuff in the Developer's Notes. Aside from that, fixing the Index is the biggest task left before proofing.

I'm still planning on releasing SC 3 at the end of September/Beginning of October. Barring some catastrophe, I should be able to make that deadline.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Echolocator Implant

An Implant for StarCluster 3.

Lifestyle: Rich
Time Cost: 1 month - to get used to the slight unavoidable delay in data capture and image processing, which initially causes dizziness.
TL: 9

Benefits: Passively, the Echolocator allows personal navigation in complete darkness by mapping the surroundings by tracking sonic echoes off of surfaces. The sensor data is processed into a three dimenional model, with the resulting construct fed into the optic nerves and processed by the visual centers of the brain. In this mode, the construct is dim and ghostly, pulsing with transient sound, with only the most solid objects - stone, metal, and the like - reflecting images with any solidity. The Passive mode range is 3 meters. In Active mode, the ultrasonic emitter sends out a regular pinging pulse, rendering the surroundings with far greater detail. The denser the substance of the object, the more solid they appear in either mode. the Active mode range is 10 meters. People tend to look like ghosts, even in Active mode, though in that mode they are rendered in much greater detail, and without irregular pulsing. In Active mode, if the forehead is placed in direct contact with solid surfaces, it is possible to detect voids and differing meterials placed within the surface within one meter. The field of view mimics the visual field of view of the person, but placed slightly higher.

Drawbacks: Active Pinging can be heard by creatures with hearing rated 3 or higher. Non-dense objects and surfaces can appear transparent.

Description: An ultrasound emitter and sensor is placed in the middle of the forehead, replacing part of the skull. The device is interconnected to the optic nerves, allowing the construct to be perceived as if it were vision. The skin is replaced over the device, and it is normally invisible.



Monday, August 16, 2010

StarCluster 3 - IRC game #1

I started the first of my IRC StarCluster 3 games Sunday. It was a building session, deciding all kinds of things. The players decided they wanted to play in the StarCluster 2 Cluster, Gloria system, continuing our Glorianna-Warren war scenario from SC 2. They all are creating new characters, two each, who have no connection with our old characters. They created a Company called Delivery Services, based on Fiske in the Gloria system. Fiske is a neutral world, unaffiliated with -actually competing with - both Glorianna and Warren. Fiske was settled by a group with 19th century American Cultural Emulation, so we defined its Cultural Traits as Friendly 2, Corrupt 2, Can Do 2, and Freewheeling 1. We figured it should be a hotbed of spying, like Casablanca in WWII, or Berlin in the Cold War.

Delivery Services was, until recently, a delivery service, employing couriers to deliver important packages and papers. just recently, it was bought out by a group of investors. These people are intelligence operatives, and they have begun to change Delivery Services into an intelligence gathering outfit, retaining the old Courier service as a front. Players may choose one of three levels for their two characters:

Partner. These are the ex-ops who bought the company. They are skilled but for various reasons - being wanted for espionage, persona non grata, illegal immigration - are not going to go out on the actual op much. They control the company, its resources, and its operatives.

Op. These are the seasoned operatives brought in to the Company who are *not* Partners, and are intended for fieldwork.

Trainees. These are likely-looking couriers who are being trained as operatives, sometimes without their knowledge. Some of them are in on the change, and some aren't.

The company purchased the following assets:

A Warehouse. This is the home of the front company, the Courier service. It's got some offices, some repair facilities for vehicles, and a front counter for cutomers. The legit couriers work out of this warehouse.

Six Air Trucks. These are 5 ton grav vehicles, which can go into orbit or move packages anywhere on Fiske. Some of these have been tricked out for intelligence work.

Six Air Bikes. Also mainly for the couriers, these are for papers and small package delivery. Also grav vehicles, these can go to orbit, but being open, you would need a vacuum suit to do so. They are small, fast, and inconspicuous.

2 Local Sympathizers. These are locals working for the Warren and Gloriannan Embassies who have been bribed into passing things concerning Fiske along to the Company.

Common and Unclommon Legal Databases. This is to let them know the law so they can sidestep it. One of the PCs is a lawyer as well as a partner.

Secret Base. Located under the warehouse, and accessible only to those in the know and trusted by the company. The entrance is hidden, and won't show on scans, being made from Active Plasteel which looks solid.

Four Trainees. These are not the PCs, but may become PCs if needed. They are couriers being trained in intelligence techniques. Rookies.

Maintenance and Logistics. This eats up a ton of capital, but is necessary for both the front and the real Company to function.

Working Capital. The Company has 84 points in liquid capital to spend on emergency assistance (bribes), aquisition of humint talent (suborning people to work for them), and other needful expenditures.

The players are creating their characters this week. We have some wierd ones so far! An uplifted octopus, an escaped android Warrenese Second Wife, and a bioengineered human-wolf hybrid top the list. :D

I'm really looking forward to this! This game runs Sunday afternoons. IRC Game #2 will be running Thurday nights.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

StarCluster 3 - Commercial Development License

I've had some nice feedback from folks from various fora on my plans for SC 3 licensing. Here's some ideas put forward:

  • Tailor the Developer's Game Book to Developers
  • Supply some illos and discuss formatting so that the licensed stuff has the right "look"
  • Vet the licensees to ensure quality
  • Charge more for the license. The cost is too low
  • Tailor the licenses, giving some guidance to the licensees
  • As Bill said, "Nebuleon: StarCluster"

Tailoring the Developer's Book is a great idea. I'm first of all moving the Design Notes out of the standard book and into the Developer's Book. Design Notes in a game have always struck me as utterly useless. I did them for StarCluster 2, at the advice of a coupe of friends who happen to be game designers. I realize now that they were representing their own point of view, not that of the regular game group. I will be expanding the Notes as well, and channeling them towards Licensee use. I also will be explaining how to design a mechanic to fit the drop-in interface.

I have some extra illos that didn't make it into SC 3, along with some I could possibly do before the game is released. As the illustrator, I can't pass the buck on this one, and it's a matter of time. Nobody will want the layout specs. On my best days, I can aspire to ugly but clear. Any yahoo off the streets caould probably do better.

I can't both vet the Licensees and keep the cost low. I want to draw hobbyists and guys doing it for fun as well as more established types. I will also not be publishing this under my own game company - these will all be self published. I will be publishing my own supplements as well, so folks can rely on the quality they expect from Flying Mice Games. Anyone else's works they will have to take their chances.

Like I said before, I want anyone to be able to afford this license. If you came up with a cool idea for your own game group, why not publish it? You don't have to pay anything if you keep it non-commercial, but if you want to test the waters of ecommerce, you can do so without a huge investment. The more the merrier, because - as Stalin said, quantity has a quality all of its own.

Tailoring the license is a neat idea. I gave some boundaries of what I am looking for in my last post, and I should maybe expand on this.

As for Nebuleon: StarCluster, it would work just dandy. SC 3 is an Anything Machine for Science Fiction. Adapting existing settings for the game would be a matter of describing things in terms SC 3 understands. Nebuleon actually has a lot of commonality with StarCluster in the back story - refugee humans fleeing a catastrophe that has engulfed their lost homeworld and establishing themselves in a new place - so it would be a sweet fit.

Be back with more once I've thought all this through. Please keep coming up with comments! :D


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Opening StarCluster 3 Up for Development

In writing StarCluster 3, I have rolled almost everything that was a supplement in SC 2 into the main book - Robots, Aliens, Created Creatures, Vehicle Design, Spaceship Design, Weapon Design, Religion, Biotech, and more. So some of the playtesters who were familiar with SC 2 have asked me what I was planning on making available as support.

Thing is, I'm going through a big change in attitude with regard to supplements. I want to make SC 3 completely capable of standing alone, with only the core rulebook necessary. Towards the end of SC 2's effective lifetime, the core book alone would *not* give you the full StarCluster experience. When I recruited a new player for an online game, I sometimes sent half a dozen different gamebooks just so they could create a character will all options "on". That was a pain in the butt for me, let alone someone who wasn't the designer! The rules were scattered over a ton of optional materials, and it was hard to remember just where the relevant stuff was. I'm really happy with this aspect of SC 3 - you really do have everything you need.

So, supplements you need are out. Supplements you might want are in. Timesavers, or kickstarts to your imagination.

One fertile area would be pre-made sectors. Sets of connected star systems, areas you could adventure in. They would be set up so that you could connect them together as required, or use one as a base and expand it yourself, or tack one onto a self-created Cluster.

Systems and Worlds might also be available. Things like Glorianna and Chariot, which you could place anywhere in your own sectors.

Sets of pre-created ships, vehicles, and/or weapons would be cool too. Specialty items for specific purposes.

Expansions would also be cool, so long as they expand and not re-create. A Psionics book that gave some rare PSI skills, along with professions to obtain them. Books on Backwards (Tech Level 5-7) or Primitive (Tech Level 0-4) worlds with education, professions, equipment, and cultural overviews would rock, and are most probable to be forthcoming from us.

That leaves what you all will come up with.

What will be different is that I'm opening up the system and setting for development by others. Not only am I perfectly OK with non-commercial development, I'll be putting a commerical RPG development package containing SC 3 and a license to create and sell anything you like for SC 3 up for purchase, for $1 more than the standard DL. So, if I sell SC 3 in pdf for $12, as is very likely, for $13, you can get the SC 3 pdf and the license, with an official logo you can put on your product. All you have to do is register it after purchase. The only reason you need to register it is some people hide their names in pdf shopping, and without registering, I can't verify if you have a license or not.

How's that sound?


Monday, August 9, 2010

StarCluster 3 - Another Playtest Session

We had another playtest session Saturday, this time using the StarKarma diceless mechanics. We used the Doctors Without Orbits gang we had used before, finishing up the same scenario. It confirmed 2 things - that the diceless mechanics worked very well, with one small hitch, and that my group hates diceless. They like their dice, and that's that. The semi-diceless nature of StarRisk didn't bother them at all - they could always *choose* to roll, and they *liked* that choice - but not having dice at all frustrated them. It wasn't that there were no surprises, as the mechanics state that Target Numbers are kept secret, and points allocated are revealed simultaneously.

The hitch concerned Masteries, and how they work. James - of course - found the fatal flaw. James is the character who is guaranteed to push something logically until it falls over, which means he's invaluable for playtesting. The Mastery rule stated what when the character had a Mastery of a non-combat skill, if at first the skill check failed, the character could know the Target Number for a follow on attempt. James pointed out that, logically, a Master should allocate no points for the first attempt, thus revealing the TN for a second attempt for free. Thus I made a ruling that Masters have only one attempt for non-combat skills, but that they know the TN right away. This will be incorporated into the StarKarma rules.

We are not only moving to another resolution mechanic for our next session, but an entirely new group of characters, as the Doctors solved their problem, and identified the mysterious disease that was killing the uplifts. I have been reading Bedrock Games' Crime Network: Cosa Nostra, and really liking it, and my group immediately wanted to play it. I had to rule that out - we need to finish our playtesting for SC 3 - so instead they decided our next Company would be an Oceans Eleven style caper group. They wanted to be criminals, and that is perfectly within the Company rules. Any and all of the types of company can be Criminally Funded.

So, onwards and upwards!


Friday, August 6, 2010

StarCluster 3 - Dealing with Feedback and the Playtest Process

This is one of my favorite parts of being a game designer, and a part I hate as well. The hate part is easy. I finished the game, so now I have to wait until the feedback is in before I put it on sale, and I hate waiting. I'm very patient, but that doesn't mean I like it. Luckily, the fun part more than compensates! :D

I'm getting feedback from a horde of playtesters, some of whom are very familiar with my games, others who have never heard of my games before, some old hands, and some neophytes. A cross section of people, which is just great! The proportion of playtesters actually giving me feedback is much higher than usual - more than half as opposed to about one in four to five.

The part I love is making the game better. This process knocks off the rough edges. I don't read a game rulebook from front to back. To me it's a reference work, a thing to be consulted in any order as needed. Ufortunately, that shows up in my writing. I write in order of interest - as I get interested in some aspect, I write it. One of the hardest things for me is putting the stuff in order, because most people read a game book like they would a non-fiction book or novel, and that requires a different mode of thinking for me. Playtest feedback *really* helps on putting things in the right order.

A problem for any game writer is determining how much explanation is enough - when you're the guy who designed the thing, you understand the core concepts in a way someone coming in cold just can't. It's really difficult to look at what you have written with fresh eyes, divorced from your personal ideosyncracies and prejudices. This is why a Beta phase of testing - that is blind testing by outsiders, using only the book - is absolutely essential, and cannot be replaced by any amount of Alpha - or inside - testing. Alpha testing tests the rules, but Beta testing tests the explanation of the rules.

Another thing that happens is sometimes when you are designing a game, you find a solution that works, and you go with it, not thinking about it after that. Sometimes Beta testers see this and can suggest a different and simpler way of approaching the solution. That is a pure and holy joy! When this happens, it makes my heart sing! A Beta tester for SC 3 noticed that I had people doing an unnecessary step is Chargen, and suggested I integrate two steps. Elegant! That was wonderful! :D

In this process, the beta tester supplies you with information two ways - both directly, as in "I found this bit and it's weird" or indirectly by asking weird questions that show they misunderstood something. That's when you have to keep your head as a designer. If they are asking these questions, then you need to look at that part and write it better. They are doing their job and finding problem bits. Now you need to do yours and fix them. I love this!

Anyway, enough rambling for today. I am accumulating enough changes to warrant a third Beta document. Awesome! This game is gonna rock! :D


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why Abstraction Is Your Friend.

According to statistics kept by the NYPD between 1854 to 1979, 240 officers were killed in gunfights. Of those, 229, or 95.4%, were killed within 15 feet of the shooter, and 85.4% were within 6 feet. According to the FBI, nationally, between 1991 and 2000 50% of police officers killed were within 5 feet of their assailant, and 71% were within 10 feet. Most police - and civilian - gunfights are at very short range. This includes rural incidents as well as urban.

From the same source, the average hit percentage of NYPD cops from 1990 to 2000 varied between 10 and 20 percent. Remember, typical range is less than 15 feet. Also, as the Rate of Fire and magazine size of a weapon increases, hit probability decreases. The difference is noticible even between a revolver and a semi-automatic pistol, let alone with automatic fire.

The more military the combat, the lower the hit rate, even though soldiers are generally much better shots than policemen, and use much more accurate weapons. It's estimated that 50,000 rounds were expended in Vietnam for every (estimated) enemy dead. Now, that probably counts everything from target practice to sniping, but even giving generous allowances for this, that's a lot of shots.

So, clash, you ask, what's that got to do with the price of beans? If every shot were accounted for, the probability of a hit would be so low and combats would take so long that it'd be an excercize in futility, and boring as all hell. So in the StarCluster System, I abstracted all those probable misses fired off into a single (double with mastery) check with a decent chance of actually hitting once a minute. From my research, most firefights are over within 4-5 minutes. By making each round a minute, and allowing for long term tactics- even if abstract - a StarCluster firefight is usually over in 4-5 rounds. Like real life, there are far more wounded and incapacitated than dead in the end, like real life, you move around a lot and use cover, and like real life it's all over fast.

So abstraction can make things seem more real. Who'd a thunk it?


Monday, August 2, 2010

Armor - the Great Debate

Armor in StarCluster affects Chance. It always has, and it always will. I get flack every so often about this, and it has reared its ugly head again. Michael Scott and Randolph Allen are writing a StarCluster based Vampire game called Society of Night using the percentile variant, and in a phone conversation with Scotty yesterday, I found out he had been applying the percentage penalty which was supposed to be applied to Chance of Success (to hit in combat) to Quality of Success (damage in combat) - removing a percentage of the damage inflicted. When I informed him of the actual rules, he chuckled and said something about doing it the D&D way.

That is guaranteed to set me off on the Song and Dance! I never - ever - do anything just because that's the way something else did it, especially D&D. In fact, given my personal utterly burned out disinterest for anything D&D after running it for 20 years without a break, this decision was reached despite it being used in D&D.

I also did this - using armor this way - knowing it was intuitively wrong. Intuition says armor makes you take less damage. Thing is, the division into chance - AKA to hit in combat - and quality - AKA damage in combat - is not really there. it's just two aspects of a single thing. This division is a gaming distinction, a statistical abstraction. If your enemy's armor absorbs damage, you will be doing less damage over time. If you miss more often, you will be doing less damage over time. It's just a choice of presentation. A preference.

The design decision to put that diminution of damage into the chance roll is so the modifier can be pre-loaded, resulting in less calculation and handling, and quicker combat resolution. It is the choice I made, it works, and I'm happy with it. It irritates some people because it is intuitively wrong, but that doesn't mean it actually is wrong.

StarCluster is a heavily abstracted system. This is just one more example of that abstraction. When you are in a firefight in StarCluster, you are not just firing one or two bullets per minute. In every firefight, the vast majority of shots do not hit. In actuality, you are pumping off a hell of a lot of bullets which go flying around, not hitting anything important. In the system, I abstracted out the majority which aren't going to hit, and focused only on those few which have a decent chance of hitting. Rather than tracking every maneuver and establishing a precise modifier for it, I dumped all the maneuvering into an abstraction of trading points. This is a design decision to enhance other aspects of play.

I have made this point what seems like a million times since I released StarCluster 1E eight years ago. Some people are fine with it, some people don't like it but accept it, and some people refuse to accept it. After 8 years I just shrug and move on. You can't please all the people.