Creative Actions

So, how do we go about describing the actions that characters take while trying to come up with ideas?  The first step is to think about the talents and abilities that characters will have scores in. We’re going to want different ones from most role-playing games, because our emphasis is different, and we probably don’t want a talent for creativity, because it would end up being too central. Everyone would want it to be as high as possible.

The talents should be general, so that they can be used for ideas in any field. The abilities, on the other hand, should be quite specific. A really creative classical composer might have some advantage when it comes to dreaming up the concept for a novel, but not that much of one. Again, to make any progress here we are going to need to be specific, so let’s go back to the artistic example.

A potential first talent is Empathy, the ability to understand the emotions and motivations of others. This is obviously important when trying to improve the Resonance of an idea; if you don’t understand what people feel, it will be harder to create an idea that inspires emotions. Another benefit is that it can clearly be applied to other fields. If I extend the game towards interactions with people (which I would like to do; creating most things requires interacting with others), this talent will be very useful.

Next, let’s think about how we might increase the Transparency of an idea. Part of this, at least, is the ability to put the elements of an idea together in a pattern that can quickly be realised in a concrete work of art. We could call this Synthesis, the ability to put diverse elements together in a new way. This is a talent that also has broad application. It’s clear how it could be used in creating scientific theories, for example, and also in solving mysteries.

That leaves the Originality. Here, it might actually be a good idea to just call the talent Creativity. It only applies to one aspect of coming up with ideas, so players are unlikely to over-emphasise it. It’s also obviously applicable to other fields and other stages of creating something.

At this point, each talent is linked to one of the three statistics of an idea. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as we are careful about the way the abilities apply. It helps players to understand what the talents actually do, which can be quite important. As long as, in the final game, they are useful for multiple activities, I don’t think a bit of matching up here is a large problem.

So, what about the abilities? Here, I think it’s best to talk about the general structure of the abilities, rather than about specific examples, as the goal is to have different abilities for every genre of artistic production. (In the game, the genres would be defined by having their own abilities, neatly resolving an issue that’s quite difficult in the real world.)

A first ability is knowledge of previously existing works in the field. (Creating an entirely new genre is something that the rules should, ultimately, cover, but it’s also something that should be a bit more difficult than just creating a work of art in a genre that doesn’t exist yet.) This would, logically, work with all three talents. It is easier to be original if you know a field well, because you have a broader sense of possibilities, and, obviously, a knowledge of the field means that you know how certain ideas have been realised, which helps with Transparency. Finally, it gives you knowledge of a range of emotionally effective elements, so it should also help Resonance.

However, this is a bad idea. It means that you only need one ability to come up with an idea, which means that there’s no point having any other abilities. Structurally, it would be better to have three abilities, each of which can apply to two of the idea statistics. That way, each character needs two of the abilities, but can choose which two, and also choose which aspect of creating ideas to be best at. This allows for differences between characters, which is important if there’s going to be a group.

The pairs are Originality and Resonance, Originality and Transparency, and Resonance and Transparency. Simple knowledge of existing work in the field is best applied to Resonance and Transparency, since the connections are most direct in those cases.

Originality and Resonance is, perhaps, best linked to knowledge of what you are trying to portray. If you are trying to write a novel about Chinese peasants, knowing a lot about Chinese peasants will make it easier for you to find new things to say, and to find things to say that will inspire people to feel the way you want. Obviously, this won’t work for art forms that don’t have content of this sort, like purely abstract painting. However, that’s a relatively small section of art, so we can, if necessary, come up with a different ability there.

What about Originality and Transparency? Again, we want to make this specific to the project, not an ability that you can always use. This one is a bit difficult, since the two obvious options have already been used. However, we can narrow things down a bit.

We’re still at the stage of coming up with the idea, so it’s a bit hard to see what it can be, and still be specific, if it isn’t knowledge of something. Making it knowledge is also consistent with the others, which is a good thing. So, knowledge of what?

It needs to both suggest new things to say, and ways to say them. That suggests that knowledge of a related genre will be suitable. If you are trying to write a Serious Literary Novel, then knowledge of Romance, Science Fiction, or Epic Fantasy would help. These other genres may contain ideas that haven’t yet been applied in the genre you are working with, thus helping Originality, while also providing worked examples of how to apply those ideas, thus helping Transparency. This won’t be a unique ability, and it does mean that if you know two related genres well, you can produce anything in either. However, given the incidental knowledge you would gain by studying both genres, that’s not unconvincing.

So, the talents and abilities for increasing the statistics of an artistic idea are Empathy, Synthesis, and Creativity, while the abilities are knowledge of the genre, of the subject matter, and of a related genre.

We still haven’t addressed the question of how you describe what your character is doing, although assigning talents and abilities does help with that. Trying to come up with an idea is basically a matter of sitting around and thinking about it, which has the potential to become this game’s equivalent of “I swing at it”.

Since the abilities involved at this point are knowledges of some sort, a good way to describe the action would be to say what bit of the knowledge you are drawing on, and use the applicable talent to say how you are doing so. So, for example, you might say “I try to think of cases in Epic Fantasy where the main character is shown betraying his ideals, without becoming a villain”, in an attempt to increase the Transparency of an idea. As with descriptions of the results, this should give bonus dice: 1 for a simple description like the example, and 2 or 3 for a more exciting description.

It might also be appropriate to add something like the combat manoeuvres you find in other games, but I think we’re too early in development to look at that sort of complication just yet. I need to make sure I have a properly functioning framework before I start adding bells and whistles.

Another reason for not looking at complications yet is that I’ve still not talked about the actions appropriate for reducing difficulties or increasing dice pools. Those will be the topics of the next two posts.

Pretending to be Creative

There is a fundamental problem with the roleplaying aspect of the rules for coming up with an idea. That is, in order to describe it, you have to come up with an idea. There is no way around this, but I think there are two approaches that can mitigate it. First, in pre-written scenarios, the author can provide a default description of the idea, possibly differing for differing levels of success. This requires creativity, but so does the rest of writing a scenario.

Second, we can be generous with what we allow players. Any description that does not break suspension of disbelief should be allowed, and should be allowed to be as good as the dice say it is. It might not look like a timeless work of genius to the players, but “a portrait of a mildly good-looking woman, half-smiling”, or “a play about a prince dithering over how, and whether, to avenge his murdered father” also don’t sound particularly brilliant, but they are the concepts of the Mona Lisa and Hamlet, at the level of description we can expect in a game.

In fact, I think we should hand out bonus dice for the pool for descriptions. Coming up with your own rather than relying on the default one should be worth 1 die, at least, with 2 or 3 dice for descriptions that actually impress the other players or GM. In keeping with the philosophy that says that the mechanics should tell you what’s important, they should tell you that describing what your character does is important.

However, the game should still provide more support for the role-playing, by the way it describes the statistics and rolls. For this, I need an example.

Let’s take artistic creation, for any medium. (The issues that depend on the medium are questions for the next stage, that of putting the idea into effect.)

The three statistics of the idea are Originality, Resonance, and Transparency.

Originality is the most self-explanatory. It measures how different the idea is from ones that have come before, and whether it looks derivative. For game purposes, we’ll ignore the risk of parallel creation, at least for now.

Resonance is the emotional impact that the idea has. The characters get to choose what kind of emotions the idea evokes; this statistic just measures how well it does so.

Transparency, finally, is a measure of the ease of converting the idea into a finished work of art. If an idea has low transparency, it is not at all clear how to actually make it work. On the other hand, with a high-transparency idea, you can quickly see how to do it. My choices of metaphor there should also make the origin of the statistic name obvious.

Simply naming the statistics creates an important support for role-playing. Players can now say “I come up with a way to inspire deep indignation at slavery, through images of children being sold away from their mothers” when they successfully increase the Resonance of an idea.

For Originality, it’s obviously hard to describe something completely original, but you can say things like “I find a new way to set up the situation of selling a mother’s children so that it does not seem hackneyed”. A large part of the reason for having the statistics is so that players can, effectively, say “I am creative and original, making a powerful work of art”, without actually having to do it. Thus, we want players to be able say what aspects of their work are original, without needing to give an original description.

Transparency would, obviously, have to be described in terms of the intended medium, for example by saying “I come up with a variation on the sale of the children that immediately suggests a natural composition for a painting of the scene”.

If we put all of these together, at the end of the process the players can say “We have a concept for a picture, which depicts the sale of a slave’s children to a different owner. This depiction emphasises elements that have not been prominent before, so it is a fresh look at the idea, and it inspires indignation against slavery (rather than pity, for example). What’s more, the concept for the picture almost tells you what the composition of the picture should be”.

Obviously, that’s not enough to actually paint the picture in the real world; it’s not a concept for a work of art. On the other hand, it certainly tells you enough about the concept for it to be possible to describe both it and the resulting art work in play, and to have viewers react to it in a way that should seem plausible. The latter is what we need for the game.

The examples given would also, I think, be worth 1 bonus die each. They don’t have much in the way of content that might impress the other players. If the starting brief were broad enough, the first one, the idea of selling children away from their mothers, might be worth 2 dice. It is a powerful image, and it could plausibly do what it is said to do.

You could also break it down a bit, saying what you were aiming for before rolling the dice to improve the quality of one bit of the idea, and then using the result to judge how much of what you wanted, you actually got.

Of course, I suspect that it would take a bit of practice before players became comfortable doing this quickly, but then it takes a bit of practice to get into any kind of role-playing, so it’s not to be expected that this would be any different. Using the default descriptions at first might well be a good idea, to give the players a handle on what they are supposed to come up with. That also suggests that we might not want to make the default descriptions in a scenario too creative, so that the players will feel that they can come up with ideas that measure up to them.

So far, we’ve been talking about describing the results of the characters’ actions. However, it would be good to be able to describe what they do, as well. That’s going to be the topic of the next post.

Paths to Ideas

The combination of three statistics for every idea and path dependence for the process should ensure that players have to make important in-character decisions, and that those decisions will make a difference. However, the results of the die rolls should also make a difference. The players should not be able to map out their whole strategy before they pick the dice up for the first time. After all, if we don’t have the unexpected, what’s the point of having randomisers?

So, let’s start with a very simple mechanic for the core. Roll something (to be determined later), and the result is the current score for the idea in one of the statistics. Half of that score is noted as the difficulty for each of the other two statistics. In order to improve either of the others, you must beat the difficulty with your die roll, and the quality becomes the amount by which you beat it.

An example will help. Let’s call the statistics A, B, and C. First, we roll for A, and get 10. A now has a quality of 10, while B and C both have difficulties of 5. Next, we roll for B, and get a 10 again. B now has a quality of 5, while A has a difficulty of 3 and C has a difficulty of 8. Finally, roll for C, getting another 10. C has a quality of 2, while A has a difficulty of 5 and B a difficulty of 7.

Obviously, the statistic you roll for first tends to have the highest quality. On the other hand, you might want to save your better scores for later, to ensure some quality for the other statistics. Already, we have the need to make significant decisions. Similarly, a surprisingly high roll for one statistic creates problems, because it makes the difficulty for the other statistics higher than expected.

This is a good start, I think, but there are only three rolls per idea, which is a bit limiting if there are four or more players. The choices are also a bit limited, and there’s nothing you can do about a low roll for one of the qualities. These problems both point in the same direction: more types of action.

At this point, I need to clarify what I mean by “path dependence”. There are two forms of this. In one, which we might call “weak path dependence”, the current state depends on the path you used to get there, but only the current state matters when taking further actions. In the alternative, “strong path dependence”, two situations with identical current states still vary in how they are influenced by further actions, depending on the details of the path. In a role-playing game, you want weak path dependence, because otherwise there is jut too much to keep track of. In fact, you can always recast strong path dependence as weak path dependence, by making more of the history part of the current state. The number of statistics that would be needed to do that is a measure of the complexity of the situation.

Although I do want path dependence, the only statistics I want to have for an idea that is being created are a quality and a difficulty for each statistic. This means that the additional actions I allow must act directly on those statistics.

The first thing to do is allow attempts to improve the quality of statistics that have already been generated. The obvious choice for the difficulty is sum of the difficulty of that statistic (there’s a naming problem that needs addressing here) and the quality. The simplest rule would be to add quality based on the amount by which the new roll exceeds that difficulty, but that would make it possible to simply re-roll the very first attempt. So, instead, let’s say that you only get to add half of the excess. Half of the increase in quality should be added to the difficulties of the other statistics, as before.

Going back to the example, C has a quality of 2 and a difficulty of 8. The difficulty is therefore 10, and if you roll a 13 you get to add 2 to C’s quality (3 divided by 2, rounded up), for a total quality of 4. You also add 1 to the difficulties of the other two statistics. Suppose you now want to boost B. It has a quality of 5, and now a difficulty of 8, so the difficulty for the roll is 13. If you now roll 17, B’s quality increases by 2, to 7, and the difficulties of A and C increase by 1 each. On the other hand, if you’d rolled that 17 first time round, when B had a difficulty of 5, B would have had a quality of 12.

Obviously, if this is the whole of the rule, it is only going to be useful if you roll low the first time round. That shouldn’t be ignored, as it gives you a chance to do something about an unlucky roll, but it’s not enough. I’ll come back to that in a moment, because there’s another complication to look at first.

The relatively high difficulties raise the question of what should happen when you fail to beat the difficulty. There should be some cost for failure, beyond time taken, to discourage repeated rolls in the hope of a really lucky result. Fortunately, there’s an easy option. If your roll result is less than the difficulty, the amount by which you missed is added to the difficulty for that statistic. You’ve started up a blind alley, and it’s going to be difficult to get back to a productive track.

What happens, then, if you fail on the initial roll to generate a statistic? Obviously, the difficulty goes up, but I’d say that the statistic itself stays at 0, and thus you would still add the full amount by which a roll succeeded. This way, it is easy to track whether you have to halve your success total or not: if the statistic is over 0, you have to halve, while if it’s still 0, you don’t.

We still need additional actions. There are two obvious results that they can have. First, they can reduce the difficulty of a statistic. Second, they can provide additional dice to roll.

An action to reduce the difficulty of a statistic is rolled against that statistic’s difficulty. The amount by which it succeeds is subtracted from the difficulty of that statistic, but added to the difficulties of the others. I suspect it is probably best to do this without halving, to make it hard to just repeat this, cycling round the statistics, until all of the statistics are up around the maximum result of the dice you are rolling. This is something for playtest, however.

Actions that grant more dice are a bit harder to design, because granting as many dice as the level of success is obviously excessive. They should probably be a bit more specific, and grant one, two, or three dice. This will depend partly on the difficulty, but also on the resources that can be brought to bear.

The end point of this sequence comes when the characters (and players) decide that the idea is good enough. There will come a point when the characters cannot realistically expect to improve it, and there may come a point where the difficulties for all statistics are higher than they can roll, and the players will also know that, so even if there is no in-game time limit it can’t go on for ever.

I think this works as a first pass; a quick test has it doing the right sort of thing. The end result depends on the order in which you approach the statistics, but the situation at any point is entirely described by six numbers: the quality and difficulty of each statistic. One interesting feature is that it doesn’t require a GM; I suspect that won’t be sustainable for the game as a whole, but we’ll see.

However, this mechanical structure is still not a role-playing game. There’s no indication of what the rolls represent, and so no way to role-play what you are doing. That’s something to start discussing next time.

Rules for Creativity

So far, this has all been preliminaries. From this post, I want to start working out how to make creativity part of a game. It makes sense to start with what I think is the hardest problem: rules for coming up with ideas. If I can solve this problem, the rest should be relatively easy.

First, I think I do need rules for this. It’s supposed to be central to the game, so the mechanics should reflect that. One fundamental reason why they should reflect it is that it should be possible to play characters who are more creative than you are. Obviously, most role-players are so creative that this will rarely be necessary, but it’s good design to take account of the extreme cases. Another reason is that it’s quite likely that the game will be fantasy, so the player just won’t have enough background knowledge to come up with ideas that work in the context of the game setting.

The simplest rule would be roll something, and have the quality of the idea measured by how high the result is. However, I don’t think that’s a good mechanic, because there are no interesting choices for the player or character to make.

We can start to make it interesting by letting the player decide what to roll, but, by itself, that isn’t much help. Players should always choose to roll whatever they have the best rating in. There might be some interesting cases where the player has a large pool but a smaller number to keep for one option, and a smaller pool keeping a larger number for another, but even then the dice mechanics are such that keeping more dice is almost always better. In any case, given that players, quite sensibly, often put some effort into optimising their characters, there will be too many cases where one option has the largest pool and the largest number of dice to keep. (I need a term for “the number of dice to keep”, as well. Maybe one will come to me as I go along.)

At this point, it’s worth remembering that coming up with the idea is not the end of the process; the characters will then have to make the idea real, whatever that involves. The created idea should have game statistics that feed into that process.

So, as the first step, I’m going to give an idea multiple statistics. This also helps with the mechanics for coming up with the idea, because the different statistics can be in tension with each other. Methods and approaches that help one might harm another, so you might get bonuses and penalties to rolls depending on your choices.

The nature of the statistics will vary depending on the sort of idea you’re trying to create. For example, for an artistic concept “originality” is an important statistic, but it’s completely irrelevant to a scientific theory. On the other hand, the idea behind a scientific theory needs to be fruitful (I’ve done far too much history and philosophy of science to say “true”), but that doesn’t matter for art.

There is one obvious statistic that is generally applicable: the ease with which an idea can be realised. That even has an obvious application to the next stage of the game process, and is a good place to have the players and characters make trade-offs. They can go for a better idea that’s harder to implement, or one that’s easier to implement but not so good. I do this in real life all the time, frequently going for the easier idea because there’s a deadline looming, so it’s a decision that can be made in character.

One possibility would be to have two statistics, for quality and ease, but I think that’s still a bit too simple for something that’s supposed to be central to the game. I’d like to have at least two quality statistics, so that direct comparison of two ideas is not always easy. For art, originality would be one, and the other could be emotional impact. These are naturally in tension, because artworks that draw on lots of standard images tend to have more emotional impact than those that have to create audience involvement from nothing. For science, they might be fruitfulness and elegance. A rather complicated theory might be very fruitful (for example, the standard model of particle physics, or most theory in molecular biology), while an elegant theory often has limits in how much it can actually predict (string theory, or neutral theory in ecology, might be examples).

We might also go for two ease statistics, but that will depend on what happens with the mechanics for realising the ideas. For now, I’ll assume that there’s only one.

This creates a pattern of two quality statistics and one (or possibly two) ease statistics. I think three or four statistics is enough for an idea; they are central to the game, but, at least at the moment, I think they are individual challenges, not continuing characters. Once this pattern is set, however, all types of idea have to follow it. The two quality statistics will differ depending on what kind of idea it is, and the ease statistics might, but the structure should be the same in every case. This is because using different mechanical structures makes a game hard to remember and use, particularly if you are using different structures for essentially the same task.

The astute reader may have noticed that we still don’t have mechanics for creating the ideas. We do, however, now have something for the mechanics to aim at. However, before the mechanics can be created, something else is necessary. There needs to be a reason why the players can’t just keep rolling until they get the result they want. Most role-playing games focus on combat, where this reason is obvious: your opponent is trying to kill you. However, it’s much less clear why you can’t just keep trying to come up with an idea.

One limit is time. It should take a certain amount of game time to make each roll, probably measured in days, and if there’s a time limit, that will effectively restrict the number of rolls allowed. However, I don’t want characters in this game to be restricted to freelancers with deadlines, so I need some other restrictions.

The other one that occurs to me is what is referred to as path dependence. The idea is that the result you get depends on the route you take to get there, and that taking actions in a different order would not get you to the same place. Thus, every decision the characters take effectively locks them into a particular path, for this idea, and they can’t backtrack.

There’s an aspect of psychology that is helpful here. Once you have started looking at a problem in a certain way, it’s difficult to start looking at it in a completely different way. Even if you start over from the beginning, your ideas are still influenced by the way you tackled things last time. Of course, some people are better at avoiding this influence than others, so we can have game statistics that determine how good you are at starting over. Still, it serves to make path dependence plausible.

Thanks to path dependence, players cannot simply repeat an action if they get a bad roll, even if they have unlimited time. Thus, bad rolls have an impact, and the decisions the players make about strategy have an impact.

So, the mechanics for coming up with ideas should be path dependent, take time, and aim at (at least) three statistics that describe the final idea. The next post will look at what those mechanics should actually be.

Dice Mechanics

The core of a role-playing game’s mechanics is the decision mechanic, what you do to decide whether an attempted action succeeds or fails. It’s certainly not the whole of the mechanics, but it’s a very important part, as the rest of the mechanics have to be designed to work with it. That means that it’s a good place to start the mechanical part of game design.

There are a lot of options for the decision mechanic, the most classic of which is “roll one or more dice, and try to get more or less than a certain number on the total”. There are lots of variants on dice rolling, and mechanical systems that use cards, coins, counters, even piles of sticks. I’ve been back and forth on this a lot of times while thinking about this game, but for the moment I’ve decided to go with a random resolution method, and to use dice.

I decided I wanted a random mechanic because some of the best moments in my role-playing experience have come from unexpected die rolls. Unexpected success and failure add a lot to the story. In addition, given the general concept of this game, unexpected failure is unlikely to mean character death and the end of the story. Using dice as randomisers is largely a matter of convenience, but convenience is important in a central mechanic. I don’t want the players to have to think about the mechanic; they should be thinking about the decisions their characters are making.

The mechanic I’ve chosen, at least for now, is the following:

Roll a certain number of d6s. Keep a certain number of them, and add up the scores of the dice you keep. Compare this total to a target difficulty. If your total equals or exceeds the difficulty, you succeed. If you don’t, you fail.

The mechanic is based on six-sided dice because those are the easiest to find. I don’t think that the advantages of dice with more sides, essentially a larger range of results, and so the possibility of finer-grained distinctions, outweigh the penalties to accessibility.

The main reason I like this mechanic is that it gives me three ways to change the probability of succeeding in a task, and the different interventions work differently.

First, you can change the difficulty. A higher number is harder, and although the complex probability curves this method produces make it difficult to say exactly how much harder a +3 makes a task, the direction is clear. I think this is a good place to make changes to reflect the objective difficulty of the task, rather than changes that depend on what the character is doing to approach it.

Second, you can change the number of dice kept. This changes the average result, but also changes the maximum and minimum. If you are keeping four dice, your result will be between four and twenty four. You can’t get twenty five or higher, and you can’t fail against a difficulty of 4 or less. This is a good way to reflect skill, a character’s learned abilities. As a character gets better, their best possible results improve sharply. Their worst performances also improve, but less sharply, as anyone can lose concentration for a moment. The average also improves, and performance gets more reliable; the more dice you add, the tighter the distribution around the average gets.

Finally, you can change the number of dice rolled. This has no effect on the maximum or minimum, but moves the average. It can move the average a long way towards the maximum, if the number of dice rolled is significantly higher than the number kept. This is a good way to reflect natural talent, and things the character does to help with the task. A character still can’t do better than his best, but if he sets the situation up right, he is likely to perform quite close to his peak.

This means that training beats talent and preparation for one task. A character rolling and keeping two dice has an average result of seven, so can expect to beat a character keeping one die, no matter how many dice the latter has to roll. I like this result; talent should make a difference, but someone with basic training should not suddenly become able to beat masters just because of natural ability.

There is an obvious complication. To get the full benefit of these different ways of changing the numbers, they all need to be independent. That’s not a problem for the difficulty, but there is a potential problem for the number of dice rolled. What if it’s less than the number you are supposed to keep? If you just keep all of them, some of the benefit of skill is lost. If you roll at least as many as you are to keep, some of the benefit of talent is lost.

So, bearing in mind that the intent of the rules should be to make this a rare situation, I’m thinking about the following. When you have fewer dice to roll than keep, add enough dice to your rolling number (probably to be called your “pool”) so that it’s as many over the number you will keep as it used to be under. Then keep the worst dice you roll. So, if you have two dice to roll, and would keep three, you should roll four dice and keep the lowest three. If you have one die to roll and keep four, you should roll seven dice, and keep the lowest four.

This leaves the range as it should be for your level of ability, while biasing the average down. This feels like the right result to me, but the rule is a bit complicated. I think it might be harder to explain than it is to use in practice, but it’s something to watch in development.

The other thing to watch is the number of dice being rolled and kept. Adding numbers between one and six is not difficult, but if you’re rolling thirty dice and keeping fifteen, it’s going to take a while. I’m going to aim for no more than ten dice rolled or kept in most situations, but I don’t want an absolute limit. Again, this will be something to watch in development.

Finally, there is the possibility of exceptionally good or exceptionally bad results. There are obvious mechanics for this; if you keep all 1s, you get an exceptionally bad result, while you get an exceptionally good result if you have multiple 6s in your kept dice. It shouldn’t be “all 6s”, because that makes a exceptionally good result harder for characters who keep more dice. On the other hand, if you keep four dice, you have a better change of having two 6s. However, I’m not sure whether I want such a mechanic yet. It’s easy to add during development if I decide it would enhance the game, so for now I’ll just leave it as a possibility.

The Purpose of Mechanics

I wrote this post over the last week or so, and then a discussion of romance in role-playing games over at Gameplaywright moved on to this topic. Rather than repeat myself, I decided to put this post up a little early.

All role-playing games have mechanics, and I don’t think that this is a matter of blind adherence to tradition. I think that mechanics should serve an important function: they should make it easier to role-play.

This might seem obvious, but I think that mechanics at both extremes of rules-light and rules-heavy fail in this goal. For rules-heavy, the failing is obvious. The rules are so complex, and difficult to apply, that most of the playing time is spent working out the rules, rather than role-playing. The problem with rules-light may be less obvious, particularly if you are sensitive to the rules-heavy problem. However, if a system is too rules-light, the rules do not do anything to support the role-playing, and you might as well just make things up.

Obviously, just making things up, without the aid of rules, is not a bad thing. I’ve written two novels, and did not create any rules for them. It is, however, not easy. I enjoyed writing the novels, but it was hard work. A game should not be hard work; it’s supposed to be entertainment, not moral discipline. Therefore, a role-playing game should have rules that are detailed enough to make it easier to role-play.

One way they do this is by restricting the options available, and thus telling you what is important. This is something that I think rules should do; rules that let you do anything fail in this respect. Dungeons and Dragons is an excellent example of success: you are a warrior of some kind. You have a list of styles of warrior to choose from, and you know that the way you fight is what really matters.

On the other hand, rules can also help by suggesting options. If combat rules include rules for feinting, then players will consider having their characters feint. This is, I think, one of the big strengths of Ars Magica’s magic system; it suggests dozens upon dozens of things that magi can do with their magic.

However, the more options the rules suggest, the more complex they become. There is a serious risk of being too rules-heavy, and making it harder to get on with the role-playing. I think that the best way to avoid this problem is to make the decisions concerning the rules role-playing decisions. That is, the decisions that the character makes translate directly into decisions about the rules. This solves the problem because making the rules-related decisions is, then, roleplaying. You can even set it up so that the player and the character find out about the rules and the world at the same time, so that learning the rules is also a role-playing experience.

It is necessary to make the decisions fun, but very complex decisions can still be fun. Role-players spend hours creating characters, making lots of complex decisions, or designing spaceships or giant robots, or designing complex magical effects for their magi to create. This is fun and, if the character is also making those decisions, role-playing.

Now, in a game session it is necessary to ensure that the other players don’t spend ages sitting around waiting for one person to finish role-playing, but that is a different consideration.

By now it should be clear that I incline towards more complex rules, so the game that I design will probably, in the end, be quite complex. However, all the decisions should be fun, and should be role-playing decisions. Players should, as far as possible, not be making decisions that their characters cannot discuss.

There is a second aspect to mechanics. They determine what is important in the game-world. If there are no mechanics for something, it doesn’t matter that much. More precisely, it won’t matter that much in play. For some things, this is the right decision. In most settings, it’s a very good idea for skin colour to be nothing more than colour, and the same normally applies to which sex you are. Of course, that can lead to the situation mocked in The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, where players forget which sex their characters are. On the other hand, if something is only background colour, it doesn’t matter that much if you do forget. It’s just a bit embarrassing for the player.

However, if something is supposed to be important to the game, it should have mechanics attached, and those mechanics should be integrated with the things that the characters normally do.

One of the things to think about in game design, then, is which aspects of the world you want to make important to the game. You can’t make everything important, or the mechanics will be too cumbersome to be used. That means that you are also going to choose things that are not important. As an example, I strongly suspect that my game is going to have no rules for physical injury. The way I see the game now, injuries are going to be rare, and they can just be treated as background colour. I’ll also be astonished if I end up with any rules for combat. Conversely, I’ll probably need fairly detailed rules for coming up with ideas, as that’s likely to be central to the game.

This also has implications for the choices players are asked to make. Important choices should generally have game-mechanical effects. If you want the colour of clothes a character wears to be a major decision, it should have a mechanical impact. If you want the choice of weapon to be entirely a matter of colour, it shouldn’t. Most games, of course, do that the other way round. This also applies to choices made within the game.

Drawing all these points together, we can summarise my view of the purpose of mechanics as follows.

Game mechanics should make it easier to role-play by guiding players to make in-character decisions about issues that are important to the game world, and ensuring that it matters which choice the player (or character) makes.

This, of course, is only a general philosophy about game mechanics. A game needs actual mechanics, and that’s what I want to look at next.

Roleplaying Creativity

I’ve been working as a freelancer in the role-playing industry for a little under twenty years now, but I have never designed a whole game. That’s about the only thing I haven’t done, and it’s an oversight I’d like to correct. I plan to talk about the design here on my blog, in the hope that some people will be interested, and my goal is to have a playable draft by the end of this year. I don’t expect to have a draft I’m ready to show anyone else by that point, mind. That’s the draft that I will try to run, to find out whether it actually is playable. However, since I plan to talk about things in detail, anyone who has read these posts will have a pretty good idea of what’s in the draft.

As I do plan to talk about details, and leave comments open on the posts, I need to set the ground rules concerning intellectual property. I’d quite like there to be some discussion and sharing of ideas, and so the ideas are for sharing on both sides. There’s no copyright in ideas anyway, and I can’t imagine that anyone would want to try to implement all of my ideas in a game. However, I can hope that I might say something that someone else finds inspiring, even in the “no, doing it that way is a terrible idea” sense, and I’m fine with that. Similarly, if you post comments it’s because you’re happy with me taking your ideas and running with them. No legalese, because I’m in Japan, so the legalese would have to be in Japanese as well. (In addition, I suspect that legalese to cover this would be horrifyingly draconian.)

Enough boring preliminaries; let’s talk about the game. I want to design the role-playing game that I want to play, but that no-one has yet published, to the best of my knowledge.

I want to design a roleplaying game about creating things.

Roleplaying itself is a creative hobby. However, the characters we play are almost invariably destructive or, at best, conservative. Heroes in Dungeons & Dragons act primarily by fighting and killing enemies. Player characters in Shadowrun are career criminals who steal the creations of others at the behest of their paymasters. They frequently kill people and blow things up while performing these thefts. Player characters in Call of Cthulhu are trying to preserve their sanity and stop blasphemous horrors from destroying the world. Player characters in the World of Darkness typically are blasphemous horrors, and the games are supposed to be about their struggles with themselves as much as with the other blasphemous horrors surrounding them.

However, this is not the sort of character I really want to play. I want to play characters who create things, whether institutions, items, or ideas, and then see their creations have an impact on the world. These character concepts are not well-supported by any of the games I’ve come across, all of which are mainly concerned with other activities. The game I know that does it best is Ars Magica. Part of the reason for that is that I’ve been writing for or managing Ars Magica for about 18 years now (my first published work was for it), and I’ve been doing my best to encourage it in that direction. However, even in Ars Magica, creation takes place in the downtime between sessions. I want to play a game where it’s the main focus.

I’ve been poking at this idea for several years, and it’s not trivial to make it work. However, I don’t think it’s impossible, so I anticipate that a lot of the posts I make about the game will be concerned with design elements that address this problem. That does mean that I don’t plan to get into the details in this post.

Since I am designing the game I want to play, marketability is not a concern. On the other hand, this is a game I want to play, so playability most certainly is a concern. I am going to ignore the central question of marketing: Why should anyone want to play this game? I want to play this game, and that’s enough for me. However, I am going to pay a lot of attention to what could be called the central question of game design: Given that someone wants to play the game, can they? That breaks down into a number of smaller questions, of which I can list several off the top of my head. Is it comprehensible? Do the rules actually support the activities the game aims to depict? Can the rules be used in actual play, without taking forever? (I think it was Ryan Dancey who described D&D as “thirty minutes of excitement packed into four hours”; I gather that the fourth edition has made significant progress with this problem.) Do the written materials make it possible to play the game — are they complete? Can an ordinary human being remember the relevant rules?

In short, I wouldn’t be bothered by a review that said that great game design was wasted on a boring concept. Actually, I’d be pleased with a review like that; I already know that some people won’t find the concept interesting, and one of them might well review the game.

There is another, less important, reason for writing a game with this concept. I am a little uncomfortable with games where you are expect to pretend to undertake unethical actions. This shouldn’t be overstated; I like Shadowrun, in which, as noted above, you play professional criminals, most of whom commit murder. On the other hand, I really wouldn’t want to introduce my daughter to, well, just about any role-playing game on the market today. Certainly not Dungeons and Dragons, let alone the World of Darkness. I think they’re both good games, and I’ve written for both of them, but I think they should both have a “mature audiences only” warning. The World of Darkness does, of course.

So, that’s another reason I want to write a game about creation. I want a game where I can write, on the front page, a disclaimer that looks like this:

This game is a work of fiction. However, if you wish to imitate your character, and claim the game as your inspiration, please go ahead. It will make the world a better place.

In the end, this may be the same reason as the first one. I don’t really want to play characters who go around killing things, so games based on that make me uncomfortable. Since no-one else is writing the game I want to play, I have to do it myself.

The real work will start in the next post.

Gamers Help Haiti

It is unlikely that anyone reading this blog is both interested and does not already know, but just in case I will mention it.

DriveThruRPG is running an appeal to help Haiti. If you donate $20, which all goes to Doctors Without Borders, you get over 100 PDF gaming products, worth well over $1000. This offer will run until January 31st.

You don’t get to choose which products you get, so some are probably rubbish, and others will be of no interest, but if there isn’t at least $20 worth in that bundle, I’d be astonished. There are at least three games that I wanted to look at (Chronica Feudalis, Three Sixteen, and Serenity), plus piles of other things that look interesting enough to take a peek at now I’ve got them free. It was popular enough to crash their servers on the first day, although they have sorted that out now.

Right now, the total raised is over $95,000, so it looks likely that they’ll break $100,000. This is something that I found very easy to support.

Complete Adventurer

This is another Dungeons and Dragons book, containing new classes, prestige classes, feats, skills, equipment, and spells. The book is aimed at characters who have lots of skills, so primarily rogues, with a few sidelights on rangers, bards, and, slightly oddly, druids. It does its job well.

The scout, which is a base class, is essentially what the ranger should have been; a wilderness-oriented version of the rogue. It would make much more sense for the scout to be in the Player’s Handbook and the ranger to be in this one, but that’s not the way the game developed historically. The scout also looks to be well-designed; it does, at least, look like an appealing class to me.

Among the prestige classes, the tempest, which makes two-weapon fighting a wholly viable option, and the daggerspell mage and shaper stood out for me. The latter two classes are based around spellcasters who fight with two daggers, and seem to do a good job of making an interesting and stylish concept viable in mechanical terms.

The other sections might not have grabbed me, but there’s plenty of solid material there, and I can see the feats, items, and spells getting plenty of use in games. In fact, some of the spells looked like they could be very useful to certain sorts of characters, but I would need to think rather harder than I plan to in the immediate future to work out exactly what their impact would be.

Reading this book, however, confirmed my opinion of D&D, as stated before. It’s just not quite what I want out of an RPG. Close, but not quite there. I really am going to have to write my own.