Wednesday, March 31, 2010

True 20 Admiration

As a part of my halting and haphazard progress on Studio Manta and System X, I recently finished reading Blue Rose, a Green Ronin RPG that uses their True 20 game system. (I've carefully hidden some alliteration in the previous sentence. Can you find it?) I've been slowly reading through some old school games and contemporary games, as part of my effort to understand game design (why do we do what we do?), and that's how I encountered Blue Rose.

The True 20 System builds upon Jonathan Tweet's revisions to the venerable Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Which is to say, it embraces his axioms "rolling higher is better" and "all systems must work the same way." Personally, I don't agree with the direction, primarily because it's come to dominate the game design community. To me, all games after AD&D 3.5 look the same, even if they try not to (I even recall Warhammer 40K using the term "stack" in its rules, which shows you how wide ranging Tweet's influence has been). But there is an elegance to the True 20 system, which I immediately appreciated.

There are no numeric stats in True 20. The use of numeric attributes to define your character is as old as the hobby itself (which goes to show you the dominance of Gygax and Arneson). Every game defines a character by things like strength, dexterity, intelligence, or whatever nouns the designer chooses. Some games use three stats, others use 23, but they all use numbers to represent the physicality of the character. Which begs the question: why? Why are we so obsessed with how strong, fast, or smart a character is? But that's a subject for a later post. Anyway, True 20 eschews using whole numbers; it goes directly to the modifier. Players choose whether they have a +1 to Strength, or a +2 to Intelligence. The actual way in which the player chooses their modifiers is pretty simple, too. What I like, however, is the break with defining the character as Str. 13, Dex. 10, Int. 16. It's simple, elegant, and gets rid of a meaningless step (generating those numeric scores).

Similarly, I like the skill system. Every class has one or more favored skills, as well as "known skills." Favored skills are the skills on which the profession focuses; a thief might focus on Disable Device, for example. Known skills are those other skills the character simply knows, like riding a horse. A table provides you with the skill level for each skill type, based on level. So at first level, your character's favored skills are ranked at 4, and your known skills are all at 2. So once you decide the skills your character possesses, skill level is simply a function of level. No spending skill points. No rolling for number of skill ranks. Again, simple and elegant.

Finally, the game lacks hit points. Instead, all characters utilize a "wound track" ranging from perfectly fine to "dead." Damage becomes folded into the saving throw system, which makes perfectly good sense to me. I never understood why one type of damage was treated with hit points (getting whacked with a sword), and other kinds could be avoided with a saving throw (dragon fire). It seems so simple that it never even occurred to me to violate the hallowed sanctity of hit points. But now that True 20 does it, it makes perfect sense. When you get hit with an attack, the damage inflicted adds to a base saving throw value; you have to roll over this on 1d20 to avoid the damage. All attack forms have a modifier, so a longsword might cause +5 damage. If you fail the saving throw, your character checks off a box on the aforementioned wound track. So you would go from "healthy" to "wounded", with an attendant modifier being applied to all your dice rolls. What's really nice about this is that it jibes not only with the saving throw concept, it also harmonizes with the attribute system (turning what is normally a randomized whole number into a modifier). Nicely done.

I don't know if I'd agree with eliminating rolling damage, because I think gamers like to chuck dice and roll maximum damage. It's a lot more fun to yell "take that!" after rolling 16 points of damage on 2d8, than when you cause a mere +5 damage with your sword. And I'm not certain about eliminating hit points, because that's a key element driving a leveling system; gamers want to level up to get more hit points. Also, since all characters use the same wound track, there's little to distinguish between characters. It would be nice if there were some way to add additional levels to the wound track (like at level 5 you get two boxes at "wounded").

But hey! I respect True 20 for the decisions it makes. It takes on certain tropes in game design -- attributes, the concept of damage -- and doesn't look back. For what is basically your typical contemporary RPG (see above, paragraph 2, the "Tweetization of Gaming"), it's pretty sweet. Good job, Green Ronin!

(It's also got me thinking about doing away with the concept of attributes altogether, since we're taking on foundations of game design. Next up I want to look at Dragon Age, because it seems to do just that (what with its inclusion of a Magic stat, which I think points the way).)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Improvisational Cues

Today, I'm focusing mentally on the phrase "improvisational cues." One of the things I like about the Old School Movement (OSM) is its embrace of randomization in almost all aspects of the game. One of the great things about the Golden Age of gaming was its use of tables for everything. Monster encounters. Treasures. Dungeon design.

I would sit and create an adventure a few days before a game session, using those tables. If I was really busy, I would do it at the gaming table. What was great about it was that, being random, the game could take unpredictable turns. I might not think to introduce a dwarf with a cursed map leading to treasure, but the tables would suggest it, and it would take me off in wonderful directions. Because no one knew the map was cursed, and would lead to doom and false treasure.... And if the tables produced something wholly inappropriate, I could just ignore it.

And it seems to me that there's a swing back to that with the whole "sandbox" approach to console games. It's not so much about unpredictability, but about opening things up. About not knowing what's around the next corner. About being able to go anywhere and do anything. Now, unless you have thousands of hours to dedicate to designing your game setting, you can't create this level of detail on the fly without random tables. The designers of Grand Theft Auto have this kind of time; it's what they're getting paid for. The rest of us have to rely on something else. In the old days, that was random tables.

The group made a left instead of a right, and gone someplace you haven't detailed yet? No problem. Your favorite NPC got killed when you expected him to escape? No problem. In contemporary games, we'd be expected to either have already created that undiscovered country already, or somehow fudge things for the NPC to escape. It seems to me most contemporary games would benefit from some random tables. Imagine what Vampire: The Masquerade would be like with a Random Vampire Conflict Table.

What's really great about random tables is that it takes the GM out of his comfort zone. If all he's thinking about is ogres, because the group's in ogre territory in the badlands, and he gets a Xorn on a random table, then he has to think of a rationale that leads in a new direction. Maybe the Xorn is the proxy of a wizard whose made his new home in the badlands, and the Xorn are pushing the ogres out. The few travellers in the region have noticed these "super ogres" clustered around a particular hill. Perhaps the PCs could talk to the ogre chieftain about an alliance.... Hmmm, the campaign takes off in an unexpected, and interesting, direction.

So I love the random table. Which is why I'm thinking about improvisational cues.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bad Company 2

Battlefield: Bad Company was one of my favorite games. I played that game over an over, trying to unlock all the non-online achievements that I could. I was successful, too. It's the only game for which I've accomplished this goal. So it was with great expectations that I awaited the release of Bad Company 2.

While I am largely happy with the experience, I find myself similarly disappointed. Don't get me wrong, I love the game, its characters, and mechanics. The AI is crisp and intelligent. I highly recommend getting this game.


Bad Company 2 doesn't pick up where the last one left off. In the previous game, you spent much of your time trying to steal mercenary gold. We last see the members of Bad Company driving off with a truck load of stolen gold bars. The new story completely ignores this, as though it never happened. We simply pick up with Bravo Company on a mission to save the country. And this time, the conceit of stealing mercenary gold is dropped entirely. This is a shame, because it put the "bad" in Bad Company. You were elicitly stealing, which put paid to the idea that you were in a unit of misfits. There was a guilty pleasure in hunting around each level looking for gold bars. Now, all you do is blow up satellite communication stations for your achievement. Not exactly exciting stuff.

And speaking of the levels, I find them tiny compared to the giant, sandbox levels of the first game. I used to roam around every inch of each level, looking for the aforementioned gold bars. Along the way, I'd usually find a pocket of resistance I'd missed during the mission proper, and get to cause mayhem along the way. This also helped me unlock some of the other achievements, like the one for destroying houses. Rumbling around a massive level in a tank gleefully demolishing buildings was part of the original game's charm. Now, the levels are more focused on the objective. There's less wandering around, which I suppose makes sense since they eliminated the primary reason for wandering around -- the gold.

The game is also missing a lot of the fun toys of the first game. Where the heck are all the secondary weapons? Gone is the radio transmitter that allowed you to call down artillery strikes, and obliterate whole villages. Ditto the tool that let you repair your damaged vehicles and stay in the fight longer. (This last one hosed me pretty good on the one mission involving the tank). I understand that maybe people thought these tools were a bit over powered, or perhaps unnecessary in a shorter campaign. But I miss them. I feel like I'm playing an autistic version of the first game.

In the end, I think this game suffers from what afflicts most video games these days: they're geared more towards on-line play. Hey, that's great. On-line play is a great arena to exploit. I'm all for on-line play. However, I don't have an internet connection. And if I did, I don't think I'd get much milage out of on-line play. It would be nice if developers would devote equal disk space to both on-line and off-line play, rather than sacrificing one for the other.

I liked Bad Company 2, even though it's less "bad" and feels truncated. Perhaps they'll get it right with Bad Company 3.

Lack of Progress Report

I see by the old date stamp on the blog post that I haven't written anything about Studio Manta since January 8th. That's because I haven't done anything with Studio Manta since January 8th.

It's not that I've lost interest in the endeavor. It's just that I've run into a little snag. Since I haven't done any work in two months, I have no idea where I stand on the project. This would require me to read everything I've written so far, including my hand-written notes. This isn't really a good excuse, since one would think I would want to read my own writing.

Like all writers, I think, I'm a raging egomaniac. I like to read over my work, delighting in a turn of phrase or marvelling at my intellect. I also take a critical eye to my work, finding flaws that I should have caught, or thinking of better ways to express my thoughts than I had at the time of writing. I know some writers who never read their own material, believing it to be dead to them once its been written, or thinking it perfect as is. That's not me.

I have, however, run into a practical problem. I have a tiny little netbook upon which I compose. The screen is small, which is why I bought it -- for its portability. However, it's a bitch to read documents on. Which means I've got to find a printer and print out what I've got so far. This has proven to be a bit problematic.

Yet I need to read what I've got, in order to remember where I was, and figure out what needs to be done. I take that I'm becomming frustrated by my lack of progress as a good sign. It means I want to get back to work.

I haven't dropped the project.