Monday, 16 February 2009

The Game I Thought I'd Never Write

Well, it was bound to happen. After working on games with relatively original concepts for so long I've finally given in and designed something where your fighter or wizard kills orcs for treasure, under the temporary name Underworld and Overworld. It took a while for me to decide what exactly I wanted out of this project, but I finally found the answer below.

What is this game?

There is nothing new or shocking in this game. It is intended to be a very simple base system for a GM and group of players wanting a game with deadly monsters, huge armies and characters that gain fame and become Kings. It is perfect for a group wanting to quickly have a fantasy adventure as there are very few rules to learn and the document is free.

From this foundation a GM can create their own monsters to break from the classic examples given, using them to populate a world straight out of his imagination. It could be as simple as a one-off dungeon crawl or it could be a full world with empires and warring gods. With this in mind the rules are intended to be as straightforward and open to modification as possible to aid creation of new content and keep the amount of calculating, memorising and paperwork at the game table down to a minimum.

The game is mostly inspired by my happy, younger memories of Fighting Fantasy books, playing Ultima Underworld and enjoying board games like Heroquest and Dungeon. 

You can see the game as it stands here.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Lessons Learned from Out of the Pit

In case you're not familiar, Out of the Pit is the Monster Manual equivalent for Fighting Fantasy. The series was mostly known as choose-your-own-adventure-style gamebooks such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon, but there was a short series of books branching out into a basic RPG system. I'm yet to get my hands on the other books in that series, but my lust for them is a separate topic.

Out of the Pit was probably the first thing resembling an RPG book I owned. I borrowed it from a friend shortly after getting into Warhammer Fantasy Battles and long before I delved into D&D. Back then, like so many of us at that age, I was mostly interested in reading about monsters and looking at pictures of them. Back then I didn't really give much thought to things like mechanics, random encounter tables or designing locations.

Years of RPG delving later what can this still greatly enjoyable book teach me about gaming?

Limitation Breeds Creativity - Part 1

I love this little mantra and can't recommend it enough. In this case I'm talking about how monsters are largely represented by just two stats, their Skill and Stamina, the majority falling between 5-9 in these scores. Monsters to 2 Damage as standard and those that do 1 or 3 instead will have it noted in their text. There's no talk of movement speeds, specific skills or perception abilities here (although Intelligence does get a mention). Mechanically it doesn't even seem to matter if the orc is carrying an axe, sword or spear. My initial childhood response to all this was bafflement, as surely there must be monsters that are pretty much mechanically identical. So what's the point of making them different?

But they were different. Every monster had at least two paragraphs talking about their behaviour, how they'd fight and often detailing a special rule. This is where a good GM will make the monsters shine. Slykks and Wild Hill men, for example, were almost identical in mechanics, only differing in Intelligence and the Wild Men having a missile attack. The real difference was that the Slykks were described as being unable to unite themselves because of their different colourings (gee, subtle commentary) and always fighting civil wars, as well as being ravaged by local predators such as giant leeches.

Wild Hill Men also had to deal with predators but instead of fighting each other they banded together for protection. Characters could easily find ways to get troublesome Slykks to work against each other or even earn the trust of one colour by presenting heads from another. Their proud leaders are also described as wearing luxuries stolen from humans. Seems like this is an enemy you could really cut a deal with and then get rid of later. Wild Hill Men don't seem like they'd be too easy to sway in this way and are described as being much less open to outsiders.

Look at the mechanically and thematically similar Neanderthal and the text says that they are easily amazed by real magic, something that wouldn't do much to impress Slykks or Wild Hill Men. When we have all these useful nugget do we really need to know the Slykk's Charisma score or their specific skills?

Limitation Breeds Creativity - Part 2

Now for a different point of view. I may have sounded as if I love monsters being mechanically identical, but I don't. I prefer it, in many ways, to D&D 3e style half-page stat blocks and lists of spell-like abilities. What I genuinely like is the concept behind 4e monsters. I'm talking about striving to make fighting Orcs feel very different to fighting Gnolls or Hobgoblins rather than making one of them hit more often, one of them hit harder and one of them take more hits to kill. This is something I can really get behind and is something I feel works really well with my previous point.

Indeed, in my latest design project I've strived to have monsters be limited to the very few stats and skills that they need and then have every one of them possess a special ability that gives them a unique feel. To me this is where the sweet-spot lies in a combat heavy game where you're going to fight lots of different types of opponent. Give me a few important numbers, a special ability and flavour text that tells me where this monster is found, why I'd want to fight it, who the monster will work with and how they behave.

And this very nicely foreshadows an upcoming post about my Fighting Fantasy inspired game. The game I never thought I'd write. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Lessons Learned from Teaching

Alright, quieten down and get in your usual seats. You two stop fighting, you three put your gum in the bin. Put that crossbow away.

After doing over a year of teacher training you start to notice similarities between learning theory and everything else in the world. Mostly this is down to having so much of it crammed into your brain but with game design and GMing there are genuine links!


I've seen the graph below crop up in both game design and learning theory but it makes a great, simple point. Between anxiety and boredom lies the optimal zone for a satisfying challenge. 

Simply put, if your players are bored either increase the challenges you're throwing at them or hinder their own abilities somehow (this one is trickier to pull off well...). If they seem overly stressed either give them an extra boost of power or lower the challenge slightly. Try to keep them in the zone of flow and remember individual failures are perfectly acceptable if they result in a more satisfying overall session.

Starter, Development, Plenary

These are the three ideal components to a lesson's structure and they can be easily ported across to a successful game session.

The starter is a short, usually fun task that has the main aim of engaging every single member of the class. Often they involve getting them to do something physical or loud, it wakes up their brains and reminds them all that they're in a class now and are here to do things

The development is the meat of the lesson and focuses on progressing the group's understanding of whatever the topic may be. 

The plenary is a recap of everything that's been covered in the lesson, cementing it in their minds.

Try using this structure for your next game. Hit them hard with something interesting as soon as they sit down. Combat is a great example for many games but most importantly this scene should engage every single character and give them all something to do.

After this you can progress the plot in the meat of the session, after that big start the players should be in the right mood to get some productive gaming going.

Finally, before you finish you should have the Plenary, where you wrap up everything covered in the development and close off the session, right? Not necessarily. I don't like to wrap everything up at the end of a session and I do love a good cliffhanger. However, the end of the session is a good time to summarise everything that's happened so far. This could happen out of game by quickly taking input from the players as you write bullet points for a session summary.

Cater to Different Types of Learner

A theory tells us that most people sway towards being either Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic learners that learn best by seeing/reading, hearing or moving/touching respectively (guess which one kids come out as more?). In any lesson plan you should cater to every one of these learning styles as much as possible. Activities can easily cater to two or three of these at once.

Uh oh, am I going to delve into the somewhat questionable GNS theory or threefold model or all that stuff? Thankfully just a very shallow dip. I do think that a good GM will use the ideas present in these theories to cater to players that might favour either plot-heavy sessions or a more "gamey" experience with more tactical choices and rolling of dice. The third group often identified are players that enjoy the simulation aspects of a system. This group can be satisfied either through the realism of the system itself or how the GM presents it. Even with a highly abstract system I believe a good GM can make the players believe they're interacting with a real-feeling world through consistency and quick thinking. 

Oh, and I really don't buy into the idea that a game has to focus on being either Gamist, Narrativist or Simulationist. But that's a topic for another day.

Get your class to do as much of your job for you as possible

Ask any teacher, this is a great piece of advice. Rather than having misbehaving pupils wash my car at break-time I'm talking more about the idea that if a lesson is going well the teacher will often look like they're not doing much at all while the pupils will be a buzz of activity. Ideally they'll be asking appropriate questions, answering the questions of other pupils, supporting each other in difficult tasks and challenging themselves with new ideas. If the teacher is talking a lot and asking a thousand questions that are getting one-word answers then it could be going better. 

This topic has arisen elsewhere so I'm going to knock out my points quickly.

  • Encourage your players to ask questions and make suggestions of their own rather than waiting for you to prompt them. Do this with rewards and praise. 
  • During character creation have each player create one or two NPCs concepts for characters that are linked to their character in some way. As well as this have each suggest a key location or two that are important to their character.
  • Consider giving the players full control of one or more NPCs. This also helps avoid the dreaded GMPC situation. 

Take out your homework planners. For next lesson I want you to consider how your own career or studies have given you surprising tips for GMing or game design. Put them in the comments box and the best suggestion will receive a house point.