Stream of Consciousness Game Design: SUPER SHOWDOWN

So most RPGs kind of focus on players playing one character at a time. But most comics these days are ensemble affairs, where half a hundred guys criss-cross continuity in continuity-shattering events. About time we simulated that. And thus: SUPER SHOWDOWN (with a foreword by Ilan Muskat)

Foreword by Sexy Game Designer Ilan Muskat:

I’m ruggedly handsome, but I don’t have any design credits. I’d better design some games in time to write a foreword for your next one! – Ilan

Chargen:

Everyone makes up a team of superheroes. The team can be just one person (The Hulk, Spidey) or a big team of guys (The Avengers, the X-Men). Say no more than six characters each though. Each hero in your team is represented by a single die: a d4, d6, d8, d10 or a d12. The smaller the dice, the less subtle you are. Someone who just pours out power like Cyclops would be a d4, someone who has a lot of little tricks and is hard to pin down, like Nightcrawler, is a d12. The number of dice represents endurance, how much you can bring that power to bear. Cyclops might have like 4d4 because his visor gets knocked off all the time, but the Hulk might be 20d4. Write down on a piece of paper (A4 or foolscap in size) who is in your team and which die represents them. So you might have something like this:

Iron Fist (4)d10
Power Man (10)d4

Put the die for each character next to that character. Just one! That die itself is a stand in for that character. IMPORTANT: each player should use dice all of one colour, different to colours/designs used by others at the table.

Come up with a name and an ethos and a niche for your team. Eg Heroes For Hire: They are mercenaries on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
Event-Gen

Now take all the dice from all the players and throw them from one of the table so they roll hard across the whole thing. Any dice that end up on your piece of paper are in your comic during this event. You may claim one character of your team that didn’t end up on anyone’s sheet back onto your sheet as well, but you could totally get a whole new team. So why is Daredevil and the Wasp in Heroes For Hire? That’s what you have to figure out. Meanwhile the guy who came up with the Avengers has to figure out why Power Man is working with Herbie in Stark Tower.

Villain-Gen

Two options here:

1) Hero v Hero. All heroes not on pieces of paper have gone rogue. Divide them equally and randomly among the players. The team possessed by the player to your left is who your team will be fighting this issue.

2) Hero and Villains unite. Everyone makes up a small rogues gallery for their team using the rules above (at least one fewer villains than they have heroes). Then everyone draws a line down the middle of their paper. Then all the villain dice are rolled again, across the table. Any villains on the left side of your sheet have teamed up with the heroes for this story. You get to decide why! Ask the people who invented the villains for tips. Villains not on paper become the enemy of your team using the method above: collect them up, divide them equally and randomly between players, fight the villains on your left.

In this case, heroes in the first big roll that don’t land on anyone’s sheet are Not Appearing In This Story. The same goes for villains on the right side of your paper. Maybe they’ll be killed in a big fight. Maybe they’ve been captured. Maybe they’re off in their own storyline having a Secret War or Annihilation or somesuch. Put them aside for the NEXT event!

IMPORTANT: for a good, balanced game, you want about equal numbers of heroes and villains, so when you roll the dice, try to make sure the area covered by everyone’s pieces of paper is about half the area where the dice will fly.
Combat:

“Villains” (aka the guy on your left) always roll their dice first, and announces some kind of scheme to destroy the world. Then heroes roll to respond. Here, both you roll all your dice for that character ie, roll ten d4s for Power Man. Or roll one d4 ten times and note the results.

Compare all your dice to all their dice.

Matched results: If one of your results exactly equals a villain dice, that’s confrontation! KATHOOM! POW! The die you matched with yours is knocked out of play! Yours isn’t!

Villain dice lower than yours: You get in their way somehow, but don’t slow them down. They don’t do evil. Nobody loses a die. The battle looked awesome though!

Villain die is HIGHER than yours: Choose: either you get beaten up (lose a die) or something bad happens. The evil plan takes shape. Aunt May marries Dr Octopus. Dr Doom kills a puppy. Something like that.

Flexible villains are more likely to succeed but generally don’t do quite as much damage. Abomination with his chunk of d4s hardly ever rolls higher but when he does he totals a city block, kills hundreds. Mystique (1d12) gets the better of heroes all the time but just runs off and does more planny plans stuff, or sleeps with Wolverine or whatnot.

After all dice are assigned, any dice left get rerolled, for act 2! Keep going until one side runs out of dice. If it’s the Heroes, the villains win, or at least conquer the heroes (but perhaps their plans to murder innocents is foiled, so it’s not bad. The heroes may teeechnically win, maybe retreating to their hide-outs all banged up – but villains aren’t punished. If the villains run out of dice first, they are totes foiled and all either killed or arrested (genre-permitting). If a character has no dice left for themselves, they don’t make it to round 2 or the end of the story. Decide what happened to them! Peeps with lots of dice hang around longer! But cost more to build (just work out what feels right for point buy, I trust you).

Of course, you can duck the hit and pass it on. The question is, how many times will they let Bad Things Happen to keep their dice around to go the distance?

If you’re getting hammered, ask for help from another team! CROSSOVER EVENT!  Problem is, if you do, then their villains come into play as well! Doh! Or, swap one of your characters for one of theirs! If you do this, you MUST invent a love story to explain why! (“Kittie Pride come and help Spiderman instead of Thor! Because THOR LOVES IRON MAN! and Iron Man is DRINKING AGAIN!”)

When you (and any of your buddies) have done your event, someone else does theirs! While Daredevil and Wasp were fighting Giant Man and Magneto, what were the X-Men doing? And why? When everyone’s done, retrieve the other dice and play with them, or start from scratch!

OPTIONAL RULE:

If at any time, a die falls on the floor, that character permanently dies or is massively depowered or something. CONTINUITY IS SHAKEN FOREVER! Everything else is resettable.

And that’s how you play the game.

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The Struggle or the Victory?

I was reminded today that we, as a culture, tend to do our goal-setting all wrong, because we focus on status, achievement and things which are static.

To explain, imagine achieving your goal is something great, which it should be! It fills you up with dopamine and that’s a great way to motivate you to get it, but also nice for your life. The only sensible way to live is to get as much dopamine as possible without killing someone. But if you pick a singular, static goal, you’re screwing yourself. You might choose “get married” or “write a book” or “finish/publish/sell a game”. They are all static, one-time things. Once in your life, you get to eat ice-cream. Yes, it’s a glorious big bowl, but then it’s gone. And your brain is used to wanting things. After all, you’ve spent years getting it to do things on the principle of wanting that ice-cream. So the moment you achieve the thing, it loses its shine. You either feel empty or lost, or you hunt for the next goal to put into your life. Sometimes it can get so bad that you dismiss your actual achievements: that book didn’t count, it was only genre fiction, it was only self-published, it was just a one-off fluke.

A much better idea is to set your goals around experiences. Not “get married” but “be married”. And the more specific the better, like “wake up every morning next to someone who makes me feel loved” (for example). Better than “write a book” is “spend each day making up stuff about fantasy people doing things”. Better than “finish a game” is “always be toying over some aspect of game design”. With goals like that, you get to eat ice-cream every single day. The dopamine is right there for the taking. Yes, goal setting can be useful (although, as mentioned previously, carrots and sticks don’t work) but it is always helpful to think about specific, long-lasting goals, so that you get to live the joy of achieving them every day.

That way you avoid the constant cycle of striving and needing, and you also avoid things like impostor syndrome. When you value “Being Person A”, you will of course feel weird and unchanged when you become person A and realize your life is exactly the same.  You can also avoid bad choices. If you want to “get married”, you might not care who you marry, which could really suck. If you discover you want to specifically “have lots of sex” rather than “have a girlfriend”, you can figure out perhaps alternative ways to achieve the former than just the latter, and discover ways easier and better suited to you. And so on.

There are lots of reasons why we’re addicted to the crappy style of goal-setting. One is evolutionary: get the meat or die is an important way to drive survival. Another is advertising, of course, which seeps into everything. And another, I fear, is story. Stories after all have very common structures, and one very common one of those is the pursuit. We meet a character who has a need. They get a goal which will provide that need. And we know the story ends (or climaxes) when they acquire it, or discover, in their pursuit that they no longer need it – but either way, the need is removed (and thus, ice-cream).

It’s quite taboo to suggest stories could be bad for us but if we accept that stories can change us, of course we must allow that they can change us for the worse. Especially these days when we are drowning in stories. A few hundred years ago tales were much less common and much less varied, and in our early days, when we evolved to work so well with stories we might have only had a few dozen tales of our gods and ancestors. Nowadays we drown in stories, flooding our entertainment-hungry minds with them every second from waking to sleeping, and bearing our story-totems on every item we own. And the most common stories are adventure and genre fiction, and its in those stories where physical, external goals are the most common.

We have become story-addicts, and our bodies no longer need them, and it’s infecting things too much. We turn our lives into stories, knowing that the struggle will end when we acquire the need or let go of the desire for it, but the truth is our stories never end, or rather they do but in a completely random and stupid and non-narrative way that leaves most audiences unsatisfied.

But then there’s games.

Now I know what you’re thinking: surely games are WORSE than stories. They also start and end, and there is a clear and stated victory condition! They couldn’t be worse!

Except games are much more than that, and are changing to bring these particular parts of themselves into the forefront. They are recognizing more and more that experience is better than achievement. And thus could be far better for us than stories.

For examples, we can turn to my game shelf, where there are countless examples because I don’t buy games unless losing them is as fun as winning, if not more so. I specifically select games where the play experience – the fun stuff you get to do on your turn – is not weighed down, and preferably is buoyed up by – trying to, or succeeding in winning. Sometimes, these things can be in opposition – you can ruin a good game of Once Upon A Time by trying to force the rules to your advantage, against their spirit. But perhaps the best example is Dominion, the first deck building game. I’m terrible at Dominion. I lose all the time. But I don’t care because I like what happens in the game. I love the thrill of acquiring a new card, slotting it into your deck and then seeing what happens when it comes out. I also, by the by, love the kinaesthetic pleasure of touching new cards, of shuffling decks, and of dealing hands.  The problem we have with Dominion is the game is just too short. Before you know it it’s over and the fun stops, even if you haven’t finished exploring your combos.

In video games it’s much more obvious: games you can beat can only be played once. The money is in the ongoing experience. That’s why MMOs are so recurrent, and why they can’t get away with making getting levels boring (no grind) or having nothing to do when you hit the level cap (there must be raids). The point is not to win, but to play.

So why not just play with a toy? It certainly is true that the gap between the two is blurring (look at Minecraft, for example, or the ship customisation in Star Citizen) as games more and more emphasize play over winning. But we still want game elements, because gaming adds something to the experience. It gives us goals to reach and rules to limit us which give shape and context to the experience. They give us little niggles of success. What is best in a game, I find, is the moment when you go “oh man, I was having so much fun I never noticed that I won”.

And that is in fact a perfect mirror for how goal setting can work. If you aim to write every day, you might one day look up and have a novel. If you walk every day, you might one day realize you’ve got fitter. That’s a really good way to live your life, and gaming is modelling it beautifully.

Now, I’m not saying that all stories are poison. We will always need and love stories, as ways to learn and teach and share. There are plenty of stories that invert the Magic Key story and tell us to think otherwise. Part of the escapism of escapist literature is their simplicity and focus on external matters. And indeed, there are plenty of stories that may be adopting the same model as games – dealing with running characters and worlds rather than individual episodic plots is far more common these days. And what Lost understood was that the numbers and other “clues” didn’t have to mean anything, what people liked was the ongoing mystery of seeing them – and then enjoying the flashbacks. (On the other hand, our addiction to the NEXT episode is not really helping).

But perhaps because games are more mechanical, or because of how much we lose ourselves in stories, we’re much more game-mechanic-literate than we are narrative-mechanic-literate. And game design is so nicely modular it is easy to put these things front and center. It’s easy to see that even if games aren’t inherently better at this (although I think they might be), they are more aware of how to do it, and it’s much easier to find games that do this, and build games around this.

Which leads me to once again suggest that games are the artform of the new century. And perhaps, this is the century where stories fade away and games run the whole coming millennia…

 

 

Language: The Game Mechanic You Don’t See

My favourite line in all literature comes from a poem of dubious source written in 1720, as a reply to an anonymous poem called the Tom O’Bedlam verse, which was once described as the greatest anonymous lyric in the English language. The reply is called Mad Maudlin’s Search and the line is:

My staff has murdered giants.

 

And I like it because it shows so perfectly the difference between writing and conveying information. And in one economical sentence, in just five words, we learn an enormous amount of information – information that is hidden on the surface but buried deep in the power of language.

Consider, first of all, the phrase “my staff”. Consider how what is not said is “I have a staff” or “a staff I own”. My staff tells us more than that. The staff is mine. That means other staffs exist. Also, I do not possess other staffs, or if I do, none of them rise to the level of significance to dominate my identity. There is one staff I call my own, and it is different from the staffs of others. They may have one or more staffs, but this is MY staff. We can infer, even, that others have staffs of their own, that are part of their identity.

There’s more. There’s the choice of the word “murdered”. Not killed, not slaughtered, not assassinated. Murdered is a brutal word and it also suggests both sin and criminal activity. The killing here is likely a crime and certainly not a good act. So now we know that killing giants is illegal and immoral. At least if done in a certain way. And I have done it multiple times in the past.

There’s still more: there’s personification and metonymy. My staff has murdered. Poetically, this suggests I did the murder with my staff, but we cannot be sure of this. In a world with magic, did the staff do the murder unassisted? Did it contribute in some fashion? Or am I passing the buck? Or is there a history my staff and I do not share? Did someone in the past use my staff to murder giants, someone who is not me? There are so many questions. And here’s the point, none of these questions arrive if the sentence is written like this:

I possess a staff with which I have killed giants.

 

What’s the point? The point is often in game design we think language doesn’t matter, but it couldn’t matter more. Gary Gygax’s approach to sentences like this was to turn them into possessive mechanics. To create a place on a character sheet to list possessions and to create a mechanic of powered possessions that are more likely to kill giants. His solution was “Possessions: 1 Staff +1 (+3 against giants)”. That is a statement tells us a lot about things, too (giants exist, they need killing, people create weapons to help with this, my character has a reason to own such a thing). But it’s very different information than is created if, in say a game using Fate I create the Aspect “My staff has murdered giants”. It’s different from a game where you roll a backstory for you or your weapon and get “Killed a giant” and “Committed a crime” and decide to conflate the two. And even if you end up at the same place, the language is still reflective of hidden truths. You might forget the metonymy. You might not think that someone is coming to avenge or punish those murders. And you might not think to shout the phrase as a warning, because you forgot to give it cadence. “My staff has murdered giants” has cadence which suggests it is a battle cry or a threat. No matter how much information you put in, the poetry has power no information can provide. And to most people, this is invisible but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, effecting how you think, in very powerful ways.

This is why it matters a lot whether you call your stat Charisma or Comeliness, or, if you have both at once, which suggests something completely different. In English the idea of true synonyms, of meanings that are exactly the same is extremely rare, if not non-existent. Words mean slightly different things, and acquire different meanings through structuralist/post-structuralist identification. Strength means something different from Muscles, or from Power. And if I see the words Strength/Dexterity/Constitution in close proximity, I cannot help but think of Dungeons and Dragons, and that will effect how I play the game.

It happens in board games as well. There’s been some interesting discussion of the use of Slave cards in Bruno Cathala’s new game Five Tribes. Some suggest the word is unacceptable in the US and other places, where the legacy of slavery still cuts deep. Others believe it belongs because it suggests the realities of the Islamic empire and the 1001 Nights fiction the game evinces. Meanwhile a game like Puerto Rico uses “Colonists” to refer to workers filling the fields of Spanish-settled Caribbean islands – a less invective word, or a white washing of history? But there’s another, deeper question, and it has to do with how we read those words mentally, as opposed to culturally or politically. Do we think of slaves as more disposable than colonists? I believe we do and that means we will change how we use such mechanics. We will throw away our Slave cards with more abandon than we would our Colonist tokens (or even our Camels, because camels are cute). Even if the game makes Slave cards very valuable through numerical mechanics, language mechanics cannot be removed. They are still and always in play.

This is important to me because it’s important to how I design games. When writing about vampires for Warhammer, in any part of the text, whether discussing rules, setting or talking to the gamer directly, I used grandiloquent language, preferring French and Latin structures, all designed to suggest the undeniable attraction of the upper class and the finely-crafted. When writing about Skaven I chose harsh anglo-saxon words and words dripping with sharp vowels and harsh consonants, words soaked in onomatopoeia and dripping with imagery, so as to invoke the horror and disgust the skaven create. For the cold folk of Kislev, I used harsh, guttural language, clipped sounds of people with no time to talk. It’s a small thing but it matters. I have been rewarded recently, after running my Warhammer LARP again, with, during debriefing, people not explaining their character’s secrets but reading my text aloud, because the cadence and poetry used created a sense of setting and drama and character more than just true facts.

But boasting aside, it matters to game design so very much. As Robin Laws so rightly said “fluff ain’t so fluffy”, and this is one big reason why. Every word in the rulebook (and every number and every piece of art, and how they are laid out and presented) is telling you how to think about the game, how to learn it and how to play it. That’s not to say that designers should fuss over every single semi-colon, but they must be aware of language, especially when it comes to principle mechanics and how your players make identities, choose strategies and interact with the game space. A Slave card and a Colonist card will be treated differently. Adding Comeliness to your stat line shifts you into a game world where appearance is a vital social currency, and changing it to Appearance suggests a much wider variety in that currency than Comeliness does (Comeliness values beauty, standard attractiveness, the word Appearance implies a value on stern appearances, or frightening ones, or inspiring ones, or forceful ones).

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot (a metaphor that is suggestive of violence and soldiers and war fatigue and World War 1) by ignoring language, because your players surely will not.