Strategy for 2016

Another year draws to a close, and Kannagara still isn’t finished. On the bright side, I didn’t run a Kickstarter for it. On the down side, I would have liked to be a lot farther along than I am at the moment. Writing a significantly different kind of roleplaying game turned out to be quite hard and a lot of work; who would have thought it?

Still, I have made some progress this year; quite substantial progress, in fact. I have a basic set of mechanics that seem to work quite well, and have an obvious way to incorporate facts about Shinto into the game. It’s now a matter of writing the material so that there is enough to play with, and getting people to try it again. I think this version will work better than the last one, but only a playtest will tell. So I need to get it to that point.

With that in mind, I have been considering a change in strategy. Actually, this is something I’ve been considering on and off for a long time. The problem is that I am designing a new kind of game about material that is almost completely unfamiliar to my target audience. Even people who know a lot about Japan tend to know relatively little about Shinto, and the details of rituals and matsuri that are important in Kannagara are a mystery to the overwhelming majority of Japanese people. I periodically wonder whether trying to do both of these at once is too ambitious. That is, it might be better to use a different setting, one more accessible to English-speaking gamers, to get used to the mechanics, and then write Kannagara.

If I did that, the setting would be completely invented, because part of the problem is working out how to fit real-world things into the game system in a respectful and informative way. With a completely made-up setting, I don’t need to worry about that. What’s more, there’s a game that I’ve wanted to play for years, decades, in fact. That is the “School of Magic” game. I think this goes back, ultimately, to reading A Wizard of Earthsea when I was about ten years old; in specific game terms it goes back to reading The Principalities of Glantri in my teens. The thing about the game that I want to play is that it is about learning magic and discovering magic, not about killing monsters in the tunnels under the school. I have yet to find a rule system that supports this. GURPS will let me create the characters, but does not really support the game, not even with the supplement on schools that came out recently.

The mechanics I have written for Kannagara would support that game. I could make up the magic system and the school system to work well with them, and “School of Magic” is a sufficiently well known trope that I would expect the game to be accessible to many gamers.

Eventually, I definitely want to write both games, because they are both games that I have wanted to play for years. The question is which to write first. I haven’t decided yet, and I will keep moving Kannagara forward until I decide definitively to work on the other one, but I may switch tack early next year.

Harae

Today, I have had time to work on the game, and it felt very productive. I did two main things.

First, I tweaked the mechanics in an attempt to deal with the problem of near-redundant statistics I noted a few weeks ago. I think this approach will work, and make the rules significantly simpler, but I need to let it sit for a while and come back to it.

Second, I started working on actual content for the game. I have started by working on the mechanics for harae. I have a good way to fit harae into the game: in order to perform a matsuri while they have kegare, the personae must perform a full harae. This fits with Shinto practice, but also means that there is a solid game reason for the activity. If the personae have no kegare, then the harae will be a purely formal part of the matsuri, background colour with no game mechanics. If, on the other hand, they do have kegare, then the harae serves a clear game-mechanical role, which is important.

Because harae is a ritual, there are two stages. First, the personae must create or discover the ritual, and next they must perform it. Today, I was working on the rules for creation. Part of this was entirely generic, within the ruleset, and that was a good thing, because this is the very first part I have written to be generic. I got the feeling that it is going to work, and that things are going to fit together. This is a very good thing, although that sort of feeling can, alas, be wrong.

The other part was more specific, incorporating aspects of real-world harae rituals into the game. And it was easy. There is an obvious place for them, with in-game meaning so that they are more than just colour. I started plugging them in, and this is the sort of mechanical fiddling that I enjoy doing. I do need to work on how to fit them in somewhere else as well, but this is a very good start. I think I need to include more detail than my first write-up has, but that’s something for second drafts.

Once the rules for creation are done, I think the rules for discovery will be very simple, because they will be essentially the same. In the game, it doesn’t matter whether the personae get something by creating it or discovering it, after all. They would use different abilities, and there will be conditions on discovery that do not apply to creation, but fundamentally they will be extremely similar.

Performance will be different, but it offers potential as the other place in which I can include real-world elements with game effects. I still need to work on that, but I hope that I will be able to do that next week.

It is a little annoying that my other work, the work that actually pays, is having a busy period right now, because I think I’ve just got Kannagara out of initial development, and into the stage where I can seriously get on with writing it.

Core Mechanics

Today, I think I completed the rules framework for the game. It is nothing like the rules I described earlier on this blog, but it all hangs together nicely, and will, I think, support the sort of game that I want to design.

I actually have a track record of designing in this way. First, I do a lot of work on a particular design, putting in a lot of detail and making it quite usable. Then I throw it away completely, and start again from scratch. I did this on my PhD dissertation, where I wrote one 80,000-word dissertation every year, and had no words in common between the first and the last. I don’t think I even had ideas in common, other than the topic of the dissertation. I also did it a couple of times for sub-systems of Ars Magica 5th Edition, and I’ve done it for other gaming things I’ve written. I think I have to conclude that this is just the way I work. I’m not sure that I’d recommend it to anyone else, however. First, you should try working styles that don’t involve chucking months’ worth of work away.

I’ve also realised how much more I have to do. If we compare to Ars Magica, the current state of the rules is as if I had the core rules for Ars Magica, for Abilities, Arts, and Laboratory work, but did not yet have the Ability list, Arts list, spells chapter, or much of the Laboratory chapter. Of course, the background chapters don’t exist yet either. If we compare it to writing a setting for Pathfinder, I’m currently some way before the point at which you start work, because I don’t have any character classes yet. (There are not going to be character classes in Kannagara, but I’m missing the equivalent things.)

The remaining work should, however, be the sort of rule tinkering that I really enjoy. As long as this set of rules don’t fall apart under pressure as well, things should start moving forward nicely. I do have a fair bit of confidence in the rules this time, though, because they worked in the simple playtest, and they can easily incorporate a whole bunch of things that I really wanted to include, but couldn’t see a way to handle before. I might even be able to work effectively with smaller chunks of time.

Of course, the progress here depends on time available. Designing Kannagara does not immediately pay, so it has to cede priority to things that do. In addition, last week I took the week off because my local jinja had asked me to write them an English pamphlet, and that had also been pushed back by other commitments for far too long. However, I thought that this was a reasonable trade-off; both activities are about presenting Shinto in English, and the pamphlet for the jinja will have a more immediate impact than Kannagara. The leaflet is basically done, now, so that should not be a distraction any more.

I’m really hoping that the next few weeks will be calm, and allow me time to work on this.

“Playtest” Results

This blog has been quiet for a bit, because development of Kannagara has been on hiatus while various life things happened. However, they’re over now, and I’ve moved this game to a higher priority. Today, I ran the first mini-playtest of the new version.

In a sense, it wasn’t a real playtest, because I was the only player. Because Kannagara is designed to have no gamemaster, it ought to work perfectly well for solo play, which means that I can do preliminary testing by myself. It will still need proper testing with other people, of course. However, to do that, I would need rules and content that was written up to be fully understandable by other people, with explanations of what is going on.

At the moment, I don’t have that. I do have a full set of rules, and I wrote up all the content I needed to run a single “situation”, the Kannagara equivalent of an encounter. (“Encounter” is a bad name for them in Kannagara, because in most cases the personae do not encounter anyone or anything.) Then I ran through it.

It worked.

There were plenty of minor moments of tension when rolling dice, and some of the mechanics worked well. Then there was a good section of making meaningful choices, and a climactic moment of tension (when I rolled very well. I win!). I think the basic mechanics are sound, finally.

That’s not to say that they are perfect, because I noticed a few flaws. One was to do with the consequences, and I think it will be fairly straightforward to fix. The others may take a bit more effort.

The biggest was that the first part of the situation did not, in the end, involve any meaningful choices. In part, that was because of the solo-player set up; with multiple players, it would make sense for particular personae to take particular actions, which would add a bit more choice. However, even there, the choices would mostly be obvious given the persona’s game statistics, so while it would distinguish the personae, it would not give each individual player meaningful choices to make.
I think I may be able to combine a fix for the absence of choices with a fix for the problem with the consequences. Let me explain the structure of a situation in general terms.

In the first stage, the players generate their options. This involves dice. In the second stage, they use their options to set up the possible outcomes. Finally, they roll a die to see what the actual outcome is. This final die roll is the climactic moment of tension in the situation, and always will be; the rules guarantee a wide range of possible outcomes, while also guaranteeing that the outcome cannot stop the story moving forward.

Part of the problem with consequences is that the outcomes ended up too purely good or too purely bad. Mixtures are more interesting, from a gaming perspective. I didn’t end up with a bland middle possibility, which is good, and I don’t think that’s possible, but I’d still like more good at the bottom and more bad at the top. I think there is a change I can make to the generation of options that will have that effect. The next step in development will be to try to make that change work.

The Importance of Options

Oh dear, it’s been a couple of months since I updated this blog. I have continued working on the game, but I’ve also had to start editing the final book for Ars Magica, so I haven’t had quite as much time to work on Kannagara.

The problem I’ve been working on recently is the problem of offering choices to players. I am a firm believer in the principle that a choice is only a real choice in a game if it makes a mechanical difference. If something is just colour in the way that a player describes her persona, it is not really a choice that the player makes. This means that the rule system has to support a wide range of options.

Pathfinder is a good example of a game that offers lots of choices. There are all the classes, to start with, and then the choices of feat at each level. All of these choices make a game-mechanical difference. One could even argue that Pathfinder has too many choices. Similarly, in Ars Magica, magi can choose which Arts to emphasise, and those choices make the magi very different.

These are examples of choices that make the character different. Kannagara incorporated part of that by having different abilities for doing the central activities of the game (discovery, creation, and growth), but I wanted to add some more options, so that personae could take different approaches to the same ability. Overall, these approaches should be balanced, but each should have advantages in a particular situation. I think I have the framework for that, pending writing up and playtesting.

The framework goes like this. Each activity has two abilities. One determines how many times you can do something, and the other determines how effective each action is. The overall effectiveness of the activity is determined, effectively, by multiplying the two numbers together, so neither activity is better than the other, and, at this stage, the choice makes no mechanical difference. However, each environment limits both the number of times you can do something, and the effectiveness of each action. Normally, one of these limits is significantly higher than the other, but either can be higher. Obviously, if you have a high maximum effectiveness per action and a low number of actions, a persona who can take a small number of highly effective actions will do better. A persona who could, in theory, take a large number of less effective actions can only take a few of them, and so will get a lower total. The reverse is true if the situation allows a large number of actions, each of low effectiveness.

Personae can choose to favour one approach or the other independently for each activity, which means that there are a lot of options for a persona.

Another kind of choice is choice of action, and the environment provides that; the personae can use different abilities to resolve challenges.

Finally, there is choice of outcomes. As I mentioned way back near the beginning of working on this project, I want to set things up so that the actions of the personae change the context for the final decisions. I think I have a way to apply that to every major activity in the game, with the added advantage that it will be impossible for things to come to a halt because of failed dice rolls. However, I haven’t quite got that worked out enough to talk about on this blog yet.

Progress!

In the last week, I seem to have crossed a critical point with Kannagara. I now have a 6500 word draft of all the core mechanics, and I think they are both simple enough to be usable, and complex enough to support the sort of game I want to write. I don’t yet have anything I can share for playtesting, because the draft is too abstract. If we use Ars Magica as an example, the current draft says “You cast spells by adding a Technique and a Form together, then adding one Characteristic”, but it does not yet have a list of Techniques, Forms, or Characteristics.

(Obviously, that’s not at all how Kannagara mechanics work.)

The dice mechanic I mentioned earlier on this blog has gone, and so have most of the details of the proposed mechanics, but the basic thrust of the game is the same, and a lot of the concepts will be retained. The next step is to start preparing ability lists, and describing what they can do. This is also where I put concrete numbers on things.

While I was writing today, it struck me that these mechanics would also support the “School of Magic” campaign that I’ve tried to design in any number of systems, and never been able to do. I should really write Kannagara first, though.

Ars Magica and Kannagara

Today, Atlas Games publicly announced my retirement as Ars Magica Line Editor. It doesn’t take effect until the end of this year, and it’s been planned for about three years, but the public announcement is an important step.

What does this have to do with Kannagara? Well, the reason I am retiring from Ars Magica is that I have finished doing what I want to do with the game. Kannagara is (part of) what I want to do with role-playing games, but cannot do with Ars Magica. Obviously, Shinto cannot really be shoe-horned into Mythic Europe. Actually, that would be a very bad idea, given the way that the metaphysics of the game world are set up. Further, the rule structures I want to try out in Kannagara do not fit with the existing rules of Ars Magica. It is, from all perspectives, better to create a new game.

That process is moving along. I think I do have the rules for discovery now, and I’m part of the way through the rules for growth. (I’d like to say “half way”, but the second half normally turns out to be much more work than the first half.) When those are done, I need to create rules for creation that fit with all the other rules. I have vague ideas for how that will work, but the devil is in the details. I have no idea how long it will take to put together.

Once I have a new structure for everything, I’ll start talking about things in a bit more detail here. I’ll also be trying to set up playtests.

Not Even Resting

Kannagara is not dead. It’s not even resting. It’s just all been happening behind the scenes.

I know I haven’t posted anything to this blog for a long time, but I have been working on the game, along the lines I outlined previously. This has proved difficult.

It took me a while to identify the big problem, but I think I finally have. The structure I was working on was insufficiently modular. That is, it was not possible to make changes to one part of a scenario without changing the rest of the scenario to match, and each part of a scenario depended intimately on all the others. That made it impossible to write anything on a unit smaller than a single scenario.

That would have been bad enough, but as Kannagara is supposed to support long term development and growth, a “single scenario” quickly turned into a whole campaign. Designing something that large, all at once, with new mechanics, proved too difficult. If I can’t do it, then it will be impossible for other people to write for the game, or to design their own home campaigns. That, obviously, is a very bad thing. I had to find a way to make the parts of the game more modular.

I think I have now cracked this problem, at least for investigation and discovery. I have a set of mechanics that looks simple to use, and that will allow me to drop in any number of different things to be discovered. It still covers searching for evidence, and putting that evidence together to make a theory, even if you have some evidence that doesn’t fit. I have a straightforward way to deal with evidence that doesn’t fit, rather than having to design in the interactions between every possible version of the game world. It doesn’t involve complex mathematics, and normal persona statistics should stay in the 1 to 5 range, with 6 and higher for really skilled individuals.

As I have got a set of mechanics together today, tomorrow’s job is going to be putting something in those mechanics, and that something ought to be the first part of the demonstration scenario. If it all works out, I’ll move on to the mechanics for creation, and for interacting with other characters. That should be relatively easy, because I need to keep the same basic mechanical structure for all parts of the game. This is important to keep it easy to play, but also to make it easier to write.

I know this post is a bit vague, but I’m only part way through putting the first bit together. If I make progress tomorrow, I may have something a bit more concrete to post in the next week or so, but as it has been about six months since I updated the development job, I really felt the need to post something. Is my plan to finish something playable this year still realistic? I think so, but I’m not confident yet.

Choose Your Success

A lot of roleplaying games take the possibility of failure to be a necessary element of the fun. If you know that your characters will survive, where is the tension, the anticipation? That is the argument, but it has always had an attendant problem. If a character dies permanently, that player has nothing to do in the game until she creates a new character. Thus, permanent character death is always a difficult issue, and providing possible failures in which all the characters survive is not easy.

In Kannagara, personae are very unlikely to die, because the game isn’t about those sorts of stories. However, I have been working on the basis that the personae must be able to fail. I’m now less sure about this, and I think I might change it. The change comes from thinking about my experience of line editing Ars Magica.

In Ars Magica, magi are extremely powerful wizards, even when they have just completed their training. It is hard to create opposition with a realistic chance of defeating them, whether in combat or in scheming. Magi are not just powerful, they are flexible, and they can be subtle as well as direct. This means that, in an Ars Magica scenario, the question is not usually whether the magi will be successful. Rather, it is how they will succeed. Different approaches have different consequences, and take the saga in different directions.

Structurally, this has an important benefit for the game. It means that there are almost no choices, other than the players going on strike, that bring the game to a halt. The story always continues, and not always in ways that the players would have predicted.

How would this work in Kannagara? I haven’t worked out the details yet, but I don’t think I would reduce it to simply choosing the outcome you like best. Rather, there will be a basic success, which the personae can achieve without making any effort. This would come with problems for the future, such as strained relationships or missing items. Personae would be able to remove problems and add additional benefits, by using the abilities that they have. A certain group of personae might be unable to remove a particular problem, because none of them have the necessary abilities, but that is not a problem for the game. It just means that a future story will be about the personae dealing with that problem.

Since Kannagara has no GM, the players will also be describing the situations and the problems. The problems that come with a solution make good complications; something the personae do creates the possibility of an ongoing problem, and unless they resolve it, that problem is a lasting legacy of their actions. Nevertheless, the existence of a continuing issue in no way alters the fact that the personae have succeeded in resolving the primary problem.

This structure does mean that it matters what the primary problem of a scenario is. The primary problem has to be solved, while secondary problems might remain to cause the personae trouble in the future. This may be a feature, rather than a bug, in that it may make the game easier to play if every scenario defines a central problem, and each scenario ends when its problem has been solved. In the current introductory scenario, for example, the central problem would be “we are in a kamikakushi”, and the problem is solved when the personae get out.

As I continue to develop Kannagara, I will be looking at making success assured, but its consequences variable.

Evidence, For and Against

This week, I did make some more progress on theories and evidence; I now have specific content for what happens in the draft scenario, and half of it is written up. I can see that this mechanic will be good discipline for people writing for the game.

In Kannagara, theories will define the world. The default assumption will be that the personae come up with true theories, but there will be rules for having the personae get the wrong end of the stick. (If I can manage it, there will also be rules for leaving things open, but I think that might prove to be impossible to run.) When the personae are wrong, the players define the world negatively, and most likely also determine which theory is true. Most setting fluff will, therefore, be in the form of theories that the personae could form.

The mechanics for theories involve gathering evidence, and then creating the theory. The evidence consists of specific, concrete things that the personae observe, and they should generally gather quite a bit before they come up with a theory. This means that an important part of the write-up of any theory is the evidence that the personae have for it.

This is good discipline because it enforces “show, don’t tell”. In Kannagara, you cannot just write that somewhere looks haunted. You have to give the specific observable facts that make the personae think that it is haunted. Further, it means that, for any theory, you have to give some thought to how the personae could figure it out. There are rules for making the jump from evidence to theory, so you do not need to fill in every step, but you have to have at least an outline of the steps. This is something that is often overlooked in roleplaying writing; the author knows the secret, and so just considers what happens when the players discover it, rather than concentrating on how they discover it.

If course, in Kannagara the author does not decide which theory is true. The players do that, in play. It would be bad practice to assume that the players will always reach a consensus on what the truth should be, so the rules need to make a decision.

This comes in two stages. First, the players can choose which evidence they discover, and each player can choose to discover evidence favourable to her own theory, and problematic for the other theory. If the players do not agree about the best theory, this will lead to ambiguous and confusing evidence, which is a good thing; real life is like that sometimes, and if the evidence found in the game were always clear and unambiguous, it would impair suspension of disbelief.

The next stage is the creation of theories. Each theory needs enough evidence to support it; there is a minimum amount of support a theory must have. However, the persona creating the theory also needs to incorporate the evidence against the theory. Incorporating this evidence means that the theory contains elements to explain it away. This does not support the theory, but if the persona does not incorporate that evidence, it weakens her theory. The amount of evidence a persona can incorporate depends on her knowledge of the field, so a more skilled persona can deal with a lot of negative evidence while still creating a strong theory.

The truth, then, is the strongest theory of those that have the minimum level of support. The evidence has an influence on that, but a very good theoretician could overcome a lot of negative evidence, as long as she had at least some positive evidence for her position.

Sometimes, of course, theories are wrong. Getting the theory wrong will be a form of complication, but complications are shaping up to be an important part of the game that need their own post.