Monday, January 31, 2011

Tools of Ignorance: A baseball RPG Released

Just to let you all know! It's done - alpha and beta testing, feedback loop, and final bits. Released as a pdf with print to follow. 53 pages of basebally goodness! If I sell a dozen copies, I will consider this a wild success. :D


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Friday, January 21, 2011

Focused or Not?

Focused games are fashionable, and when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I have no problem with focused games - Tools of Ignorance is focused, as are most of my In Harm's Way games - but big, sprawling games that cover everything have their place too, and they get little attention on the net. Why? Because it's hard to say what it is you are 'supposed to do' in the game, and that seems to be a common, though not universal, expectation lately.

In ToI, I can say "You play a troupe of professional baseball players, on the field and off." One sentence, high concept, elevator pitch stuff. If that's what you want to do, that's perfect. For In Harm's Way: Aces and Angels, I can say "You play fighter pilots on either side of the second world war." Badda-bing, badda-bam, badda-boom. This is totally cool with me!

The only problem is the expectation of a default mode of play gets transferred to non-focused - note I did *not* say "unfocused"! That has a very wrong connotation! - games where this is not only difficult to articulate, but does the entire game a disservice. For example, AD&D, according to this fashion, was 'all about' dungeon delving, killing things, and taking their stuff. Yet that doesn't at all get to the heart of what that game was about. I ran (A)D&D for twenty years, and I can count the number of proper dungeons we raided on one hand. We played it as a high stakes politico-religious game, almost entirely in the open air or in cities.

I'm not trying to say 'AD&D was all about the urban politics and religion' either. It isn't. The thing is that it was a game that was designed to be non-focused, malleable, customizable, like Traveller and many others. When you start talking about a default mode of play in a non-focused game, people get the wrong idea entirely. There are no assumptions in a non-focused game. The designer supports many kinds of play, and encourages the group to define what it is they want out of it. How? By trading detail for field of view, Depth for Scope.

This is a LAW OF NATURE. Given the same amount of data, increasing the field of view decreases the detail, and vice versa. When you look at it from far enough away, everything looks flat. Focused games zoom in on a narrow field, and because of that can show great detail. Non-focused games show a much larger area, and consequently lose detail. Every game is a compromise between depth of detail and scope. You can only increase one at the cost of the other - unless you increase the amount of data, and that increase is geometric, not linear.

Thus, giving a 'default mode of play' in a non-focused game is *wrong*. It encourages the group to think along certain lines and not others. This limits play without the compensation of greater detail. Expectations are likely not to be met, with dissatisfied players and a disgruntled GM. "We played it the default way, and it was bland."

So I have been refusing to name any sort of default play for my non-focused games. That is something that must be discovered in play, by you.


Monday, January 17, 2011

A New Review of StarCluster 3

Stormbringer has reviewed SC3 on his blog - here. It is an amazingly favorable review, and I am blown away by it. :D


Friday, January 14, 2011

Keeping the Group Level in the Design Loop

I've talked before about the three levels of games - Designer, Group, and Individual - and I want to bring this back into play. More and more, I see games that don't take the Group level into consideration in the design process. These games are deliberately hard to change - locked down so tight that modding and ruling is like defusing a bomb. This is joined at the hip with the RAW phenomenon - tha abdication of Group level play to the designer - and I believe it to be two aspects of the same thing. I've railed against blindly fetishizing RAW play before - see Gaming in the RAW - and now I'm going to rail against this other aspect.

Part of this I think comes from game books where the designers tell groups how to play the game. I'm not talking about rules here, but styles and methods of play. This gets people into thinking there is a right way and a wrong way to play a game. A lot of games these days are built around an assumed play style, and said play style is detailed in the designer's notes. Hell! I don't even like designer's notes! they are only of concern to designers, really! This fosters a fear that if you don't know the assumed play style, you can't play the game as the designer intended. Crud! That kind of thinking leaves me furious! This is a group level thing, people! Play the game the way you want to play it! You can think of wonderful things the designer never intended! In a thread on RPGNet, a fellow (Eurhetermec)said the following:

"I didn't really know what RPGs were when I first tried to run D&D - neither did any of the people I was playing with, and thus the first D&D adventure I wrote is extremely different from anything I've ever seen for D&D since - I mean, to me, owning just the PHB, DMG and FRA (no adventures, no Dungeon, no Dragon, no nothing), the Potion Miscibility table seemed as important a part of the game, as I dunno, monsters!

The adventure I wrote was large a sort of exploration of weird ruins and weird physics (most of which there were no rules for), inspired by fantasy in general, with a whole lengthy section where the PCs basically tested potions on flightless birds (and each other), no NPCs to talk to at all, and only one real fight.

Of course almost immediately thereafter I met a cousin of mine who had been playing for years, and wrote us a beautiful adventure and explained everything, but before that...

DAMMIT! That sounds freaking awesome! Something like that would never have entered my mind, and he ditched it to do what everyone else was doing! What a waste of divinely inspired creativity!

The only criterium for whether a game as played is good or bad is whether you had fun. I ran D&D for twenty years, and you could count the number of dungeons we ran through on the fingers of one hand. Designing a game around a certain default style makes that style preferred in peoples' minds. By refusing to do so, designers can bring the group back into the design loop. Designers - push what is rightfully the group's decisions back to the group! Let the group decide what it wants to do with your game! If you build it strong and flexible, everything will be fine!


Thursday, January 13, 2011


The Challenge mechanic is what makes ToI work so smoothly, but it's a tool I think could be used in a lot of RPGs. Challenges are the way base running and fielding works. A baserunner challenges the catcherʹs arm when trying to steal a base. A fielder challenges a hitter by trying for a spectacular catch on a hit. Players only have two challenges per game, so they need to pick and choose their challenges. Challenge a single in the third inning, and itʹs a waste. Challenge a homer in the ninth and you may not have enough to stop it. Otherwise, the result of the contest between a hitter and pitcher stands..

Say it's the late innings, one out, and there's a runner on third - a double play will end the inning, but if you can stop it, a run will score. A baserunner could Challenge that 6-4-3 double play, by taking out the second baseman and breaking up the relay, or by beating that relay out at first. If the runner from first is trying to take out the second baseman, he'd roll his Baserunning Advance check, while the second baseman rolls his Glove Ball-handling check. If the result is a tie or the second baseman wins, he gets the throw off before the runner slides into him. If the runner wins, the throw to first will be late or draw the fielder off the bag. The batter could also Challenge the relay by beating an Arm Accuracy Check from the second baseman with a Baserunning Advance check of his own.

Say there's a no-hitter going in the eighth inning, but the pitcher lets up a clean single to center. The center fielder can Challenge that single by beating the batter's batting check - which he just made vs the pitcher - with a Glove Ball-handling check. If he succeeds, he makes a circus catch and saves the no-no.

Challenges are an extremely flexible way to manage any situation where a result is establihed but a character will do anything to stop it. By limiting the number of Challenges allowed, you can prevent overuse. The characters can only Challenge things they really care deeply about.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Brief Note

The Lobsters vs Philadelphia baseball game I posted yesterday was run using Tools of Ignorance. Before I had been concerned about the lack of scoring, but that problem seems to be solved - witness the four homers and 6-5 score. :D

After the game, some of the player characters went out on the town to celebrate Chief's first Major League win, and had a riotously fun night. Chief, of course, is a kid, a rookie, and the other players were older guys - The Fixer, Stinky Pete, and the Stork. They told him outrageous stories, played practical and verbal jokes along with tons of put-downs, on each other, hit on the ladies, and we all laughed til our sides ached.

Anyway, the game seems to produce what feels like a real game. The ebbs and flows feel like baseball. Great plays, highlight reel at-bats, strategies, intimidations, and all the rest are all balled up in a participatory package. So far, I have been extremely pleased. The Challenge mechanic - the base of all fielding and running plays - works like a charm, and the limit of two challenges a game seems just right.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Tools of Ignorance - Maine vs Philadelphia Game 1

Tonight the reigning champions from Philadelphia came to Camden to play our beloved Lobsters. The Lobsters had started off the season in fine fashion, sweeping Minnesota, and taking two out of three from hapless Washington before the Massacre in Milwawkee, where the hometown nine were trounced in three out of four games. Thus the Lobsters were barely over .500 as the proud Philadelphians swaggered into town.

Starting for the visitors was right hander Cam Cambert, winner of 15 games last year, and already 2-0. The locals countered with Rocket Rodriguez. Rodriguez was pummeled in the top of the first, Snapper Collins drawing a one out walk, his first of three, and Hot Dog Dobbins absolutely crushing a hanging slider out over the plate to put the champs up 2-0. The spiders responded with a strange inning, sending eight men to the plate, but plating only Manny Lopez, who drew a one out walk, and leaving the bases loaded when Rocket struck out.

In the top of the second, Dumbo Carbo lead off with a double, and after Santana struck out, Bambi Barlow singled, and Cam Cambert K'ed, Smiley Parlance tripled them home into the gap. Snapper Collins drew his second walk, and things looked grim for the Lobsters, but Catcher Steady Eddie Tanner caught Collins leaning the wrong way on a pitch out, and the inning was over.

In the bottom of the second, after Gecko Itagaki struck out - the first of three Ks for the rookie, who doesn't seem to know which end of the bat to hold - Cam Cambert suddenly could not find the plate, walking Big Roy James, Manny Lopez, and Walter Martinez with one out, bringing swaggering cleanup hitter Frankie "The Fixer" Rodriguez to the plate. and the Fixer didn't disappoint. He fixed the next pitch from Cambert into the right field stands for a grand salami, dancing around the basepaths to the tumultuous cheers of the crowd, sucking in every grandstanding moment. Lobsters took the lead 5-4.

Cambert and Rocket seemed to settle down after the second, and the next two innings went by quickly. Leading off the fifth, though, Rocket was rocked by Smiley Parlance, who took the Rocket downtown to tie the game at 5 all. That was enough for crusty Lobster manager Gaffer Kazakian, who yanked the rocket for rookie left-hander Chief Powell, who took up right where Rodriguez left off, walking Snapper Collins for the third time tonight, and grooving a double to Hot Dog Dobbins, with Collins chugging towards the plate full out. Lopez let off a rope from left field to the plate, nailing Collins for the first out. A good thing too, as Lobo Maquita, the Phil's third baseman, lashed a single to left right afterward, with Dobbins stopping at third, wary of Lopez' arm. Steady Eddie talked some sense into the boy, though, and the Chief K'ed Hunter and Carbo to end the inning.

In the bottom of the seventh, with Swede Svensen in to pitch for Cambert, The Fixer smashed another towering fly, this one into the bleachers to give the Lobsters a one run lead, 6-5. That was all they would need as Chief Powell finished the game, pitching five innings with no runs, five hits, and 6 Ks for his first win.

We were lucky, though. Cam Cambert pitched a much better game than the score would indicate. The control problems in the second inning were entirely smoothed out as the game went on. Rocket, on the other hand, looked very hittable. It's still way too early to panic, though, and a W is a W. See you there tomorrow at the Lobster Pot!


Friday, January 7, 2011

The Alchemical Marriage of System and Setting

There are four conditions which a designer must be aware of when putting system and setting together:

A: Many games do not require a new system. It's easy enough to adapt something else similar.

B: The vast majority of gamers do not like systemless settings books, because it means they have to go through the trouble of statting everything themselves, so why not just pick the novel or movie or whatever inspired them and go with it.

C: For any given setting there are at most a handful of systems which could work in an acceptable manner.

D: Most game systems are not license-able, or are expensive to license.

This four conditions lead to two results:

I: There are lot of clunky homemade systems out there that exist only to make the claim that the setting is a complete game. This is known as the "Technically Its Playable" Law.

II: There are a few freely or cheaply license-able systems with lots of third party setting support which doesn't always suit the strengths of the system, or which lie in the narrow band of "feel" which does. This is known as the "Everything Looks Like A Nail When The Only Tool You Have Is A Hammer" Law.

The system you choose effectively takes the place of the language you write in. By taking on a system, you become bound by the paradigms of that system, and must either bend your setting to fit the system, or bend the system to fit your setting.

If you take the first route, The Everything Looks Like A Nail effect takes hold and you get a certain sameness of flavor. If your setting requires only minor tweakage, all well and good - you have a satisfying setting for system X. If it requires major tweakage, you may end up with a complex gerrymander to express the setting concepts in a way the system can understand. The best fits are always settings which are intended for that particular system from the start, because the fundamental properties of the setting are naturally expressed in the language of the system.

By taking the second route, you have effectively created a new, divergent system with similarities to the base system, but differences which create new paradigms. If most of your setting fits into the base system, the differences are minor and can be picked up fairly easily. If most of your setting cannot be fit into the base system, then the divergence can be large enough that it is in effect an almost completely new system, whereupon you risk messing with the Technically It's Playable Law if you can't pull it off smoothly, and maybe you should have considered starting from scratch.

So it's always a good idea to thoroughly understand both the setting and the various options for systems, in order to assure the best fit and the least work. By a strange coincidence which isn't a coincidence, the people who can best understand fitting together systems and settings tend to be really good at creating their own systems. Which brings us back in a full, vicious circle.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Finishing up Outremer

Well, Tools of Ignorance is out in Beta Test, and will soon be available, so I'm working on Outremer again. I've added some typical Arabic/Persian creatures and taken out any specifically English ones left over from OHMAS. I've added the Kingdom of Armenia and the County of Tripoli, with the Emirate of Homs and Kingdom of Jerusalem left to do.

I finished the Djinn section, which was fun! I also need to hammer out the Association design section and the equipment section. The Paths, Quasi-Paths, and Player Options systems are done, but I need to go over the professions. I also need to write a section for the Military Orders - the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaler, Teutonic Knights, Knights of St. Lazarus, Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, Knights of St. Thomas of Acre, and Knights of St. Wenceslaus. After that - estimate the end of the month - and I will be releasing it for Beta test.