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.

I Was Right

A while ago, when writing about the Conan book I had read, I said “Oh my god, it’s Dungeons and Dragons.”

A week ago, Wired had an article about Gary Gygax, which included the sentence: “[Gygax] was a fan of the Conan the Barbarian books by Robert E. Howard and wanted to try to capture that sort of swashbuckling action in a war game.”

I also said “D&D is often described as “Tolkienesque”, but the basic narrative structure is not very much like Tokien at all.” The Wired article continues: “Interestingly, he loathed the major fantasy touchstone of the time, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. It was so dull. I mean, there was no action in it,” Gygax says. “I’d like to throttle Frodo.””

So yes, I’m just gloating about being perceptive. Mind you, I write these games for a living; I’d really better be perceptive about them.

Spell Compendium

Spell Compendium is a book for D&D 3.5. It does what it says on the cover: it’s a big collection of spells, from lots of previous D&D books, revised and updated to deal with problems found after publication. There are a lot of interesting ideas in it.

A couple of things struck me. The first, entirely internal to the game, was that druids got a fair number of useful attack spells at the same level as wizards and sorcerers. However, druids also get better attacks, better saves, better hit dice, and cool powers; their spells should be consistently weaker than those of wizards and sorcerers, or the game is unbalanced. This is most likely something that will be fully addressed in D&D 4; it would be rather difficult to do it retroactively for third edition.

The other is more general. D&D is very good at what it does. What it does is also pretty close to something I’m interested in seeing done, and done well. I really like a number of D&D settings, for example, and there are many things about the rules that I also like. However, it just misses being what I would really like to see, and does so on a fundamental level. I occasionally toy with revising the rules (with the Open Game License, you can do that for D&D 3), but the number of revisions it would need builds up and up, and I realise that I would be better off just writing another game. Of course, if I do that, I have to make it very different from D&D, or why bother?

So, D&D is rather irritating. It’s very close to something I would like to play, but not quite there. It’s close enough that I keep going back to it and fiddling with it, but far enough away that the fiddling never quite works. I have no doubt that I’ll continue fiddling with it for quite some time. After all, I enjoy myself while I’m doing that.

Oh yes, this book. If you want a big book of spells for D&D 3.5, this is the book for you. As far as I could tell, it does that job well.

Gary Gygax RIP

Gary Gygax has died.

Whether you know who he was depends on whether you’re a roleplayer. For everyone else: he’s one of the two people who created roleplaying games. Along with Dave Arneson, he wrote Dungeons and Dragons, back in 1974. He has, therefore, had more influence on my life, indirectly, than almost anyone else; not only was he responsible for the hobby I spent much of my youth on, he was also responsible for the industry in which I built a career.

I didn’t know him personally at all, but this is still a very sad event for me.