Prep Time: Too little or too much?

September 21, 2006 at 5:30 pm (Game Design)

The first draft of Bloodlines is almost complete and I’ve printed it out into a binder to read, proofread, and just generally admire and revise.  I’ve realized something.  Something important, I think:

 A player can’t actually do anything with this book until he meets with his group.  In other words, the game has very little preparation required.  For some people, that’s a good thing.  For others, it’s a great thing.

Consider Dungeons & Dragons, the architypical Gamist game for most people.  Most of my players (including myself) spend from 20 minutes to an hour or two designing a character, exploring various options, tweaking various aspects, and generally interacting with the crunchiness of the mechanics.  In addition to characters, there’s new spell research to consider, new magical items, new monsters, and a host of ther aspects of the game that could be customized.  In addition to customizing though, there’s prparation: which monsters will you use?  What will encounters be like?  Which characters will be used?

 This has one major advantage:  A player has something to do as soon as he cracks open the book.  He can, effectively, start playing right away before he even meets with his group.  In fact, the more he does, the more that could potentially add to the experience later.  This goes for both players and GMs, novice or experienced.

Bloodlines doesn’t have that.   It relies too much on player-interaction for characters, themes, plots, and even setting.  Until the first session begins, the GM and players have no clue what the game’s going to be about or what’s going to be in it. 

A lot of Narrative games have this problem, but not all.

Consider Dogs in the Vineyard.  Prior to playing Dogs, there’s not a whole lot to do.  However, there’s still SOMETHING.  A player and GM (or just any two players) can get together to do the initiation.  Despite what the book says about group character-generation, there isn’t anything lost in that particular game if players generate their characters privately — it just makes them strangers when the game opens.  Since the game encourages conflict, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The GM, in turn, has the town to create and has rules for creating the basic Situation so he’s got fun stuff to prep.  So there’s stuff to do, at least, prior to playing. 

In Dogs, the preparation isn’t required (or even encouraged), but the option is there.  Many Narrative games don’t have this, including my Bloodlines game.  This is a problem.

If I ever want to sell a Narrative game, I want players and GMs to start interacting with it and getting a feel for the game right away.  If that means adding more Gamist elements or increasing the required preparation time, so be it. 


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The Balance of Color and Utility

September 19, 2006 at 6:44 pm (Game Design)

I realized something while I was drafting some of the skills for Bloodlines yesterday.  I have a certain type of skills called “Talents” that are basically supernatural skills that some characters possess.  One of those skills is Ghostwatch, which I had added as an afterthought because I thought the idea of seeing into the spirit world was cool even though I had no rules to back it up at the time.

 After several draftings, Ghostwatch is the best Talent Skill I have in the chapter.  It is useful, it is efficient, and loaded with just the right amount of “color” (or “flavor”) that I want for my Talent Skills.  All of my other Talent Skills which were designed to fill a particular niche or grant players certain options have little notes in the margin saying, “Needs more color.” 

I have come to realizing that color always, always, always must be designed before utility.  You can always add utility later, but it is next to impossible to add color onto game mechanics and still get comparable results to something with which you started with color and added utility. 

 It’s not enough to just come up with it either.  It has be written down.  Too much of my game has been written with the idea that I need to get the basic skeleton structure of the rules down first, and then add in the color which I have written in the synapses of my brain. No. No. No.  That can’t work.  I need to re-write those chapters from scratch.  Color first; no excuses.  It’s going to be harder for it, but I honestly believe the result will be a much better game. 

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Risk Analysis in Game Design

September 19, 2006 at 6:15 pm (Game Design)

Dice are an effective tool in game design, allowing you to give the players a multitude is decisions with an inherent risk factor.  Do I perform the action that requires a “4” or better, or the action that requires a “6” or better?

 If it wasn’t for dice, games would be broken down into simplistic decisions that would be the same for any given situation.  But now there’s risks to different decision – the risk of failure, the risk of consequences, etc. etc. 

 The assigning of risk is a great factor in game design and is so useful that it may lead many of us to make games that center completely around analyzing and deciding risks for particular situations.

 There’s a big problem with this.  The problem is that many players decide for themselves what level of risk they are comfortable with.  Once these decisions are made, there is no more risk analysis — risks have been pre-analyzed, often regardless of situation.  Some players prefer more risk than others, and no amount of altering the situation will compensate for this.  As game designers, we have to realize this and depend on other factors to offer different strategic preferences other than simple risk analysis and odds of success.

Also, where one player (or GM) opposes another, he may have a wide variety of actions available, and thus his strategy is unknown but if the player is likely to accept a general risk level and the game is built around risk decisions, then I have a rough idea what another player’s strategy wil be before he announces his actions.

There has to be more to differing strategies than target numbers, consequences, and risk analysis.  What other options and alternatives may be available will be explored in future posts on this blog.

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