Progression of progression, level 2

Having laid the groundwork in the previous post, we can finally do some analysis. 

Value?

Remember the formula: Value = Challenge * Reward. We’ve covered Challenge and Reward, now it’s Value’s turn. Value is in the eye of the beholder – it depends entirely on the individual how challenging slaying the beholder was, or how much said individual wanted the beholder’s eyes. And as Value is subjective, game designers employ every trick they can think of to convince the players they’re getting the best possible Value by playing the game. This can mean making the game a great experience – no one sets out to make a bad game, after all; but it also means stuffing games full of progression systems.

They’d be crazy not to do so. Progression systems work, creating perception of Value out of thin air. And there’s nothing wrong with progression in principle, it’s just another tool of game design. But you may have noticed some of the Challenges and Rewards discussed in the first part were not as meaningful as others. While still challenging or rewarding in their own way, they lack substance. They have no connection to the game itself, no purpose for being there other than to be there. To use a dietary analogy, they’ve replaced nutritional content with spoonfuls of sugar. When both Rewards and Challenges in a game are nothing but sugar, the Value they create is addictively tasty, but not actually nuorishing. It’s a perversion of the very concept, leading to a cognitive dissonance. Our monkey brains tell us an achivement for killing a thousand orcs is an incredibly important thing. They also tell us it’s a meaningless tick mark you earn for hours of unenjoyable grinding.

Some have compared such games to a Skinner box: pull a lever, get a reward (xp, loot, unlocks, whatever), ad infinitum. While the comparison is apt, the games are actually much more insidious. It’s not just a piece of carrot that you’re getting, to be enjoyed today and forgotten tomorrow. You’re getting carrot #458/9999. You already have all the previous carrots you got. One day, if you pull the lever long enough, you’ll own them all. And even the trash-tier carrots you get have their use, you’ll disenchant them and get yourself the god-tier UberCarrot5000. You’re not just enjoying this one transient piece of reward. You’re progressing towards the End Game.

Having put hundreds of hours into a game, having earned all this progress, we’re held hostage by the sunk cost fallacy, another essential component of progression systems which can overpower the cognitive dissonance. Yes, the game has long since stopped being enjoyable, and yes, the “progress” is a load of rubbish. But if you stop now, you’re going to lose all this Valuable rubbbish. And you’re a smart person, you didn’t waste all this time. You invested it. Fun? What’s that?

Kinds of Fun

Ok, that wasn’t entirely fair, there are different ways to have fun, and even the most hollow games offer something to their players. Mark LeBlanc had identified 8 kinds of fun in his paper on the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics approach to game design. The list is not meant to be exhaustive:

  1. Sensation – game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy – game as make-believe
  3. Narrative – game as unfolding story
  4. Challenge – game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship – game as social framework
  6. Discovery – game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression – game as soap box
  8. Submission – game as mindless pastime

Any game features a mixture of several kinds of fun. Of these, Submission is an obvious fit for some of what we’ve been discussing: zone out, put up a Youtube video on the second monitor, and go kill some orcs. I would like, however, to expand this list with two more kinds of fun that are leveraged by progression systems. First one is Completion – game as a check list. Catch them all, collect all the moons, get all the achievements. For this kind of fun to be present, there needs to be a finite list of things to get. The second is Anticipation – game as a carrot on a stick. It’s a strange, deferred kind of fun. You will be amazing – one day. That day the game will end. Keep moving forward, keep levelling up, keep finding better loot. Your gun has reached its max level? Don’t actually use it, time to level another one. Or “prestige” it, and do it all over again.

Gamification of Gaming

Remember when gamification was going to change our mundane lives? Transforming everything from work to working out, from chores to learning by turning everything into a game. Reward the desired behavior with points, badges, levels; encourage competition and one-upmanship, where appropriate; watch people fall over themselves to do the things they hated. Basically, take the lessons learned from decades of game design and apply the same motivations to real world. The idea is no doubt still out there, though it seems to have lost some steam. Instead it doubled back, and, like a scorpion stinging itself, went back into the gaming industry.

Take the principles which make people like the activity they enjoy even more. Refine them on activities people hate. Reapply them to activites people enjoy. A good game is hard to make, gamification will make anything enjoyable. And if gamification requires compromising the game itself, that’s a sacrifice too many game developers are willing to make.

From energy and timers of mobile and facebook games, to daily quests of MMOs and now AAA titles, they all do the same thing. XP bars, levels, unlocks. Keep playing. Don’t miss out. Keep investing your time. Submit. You’re being rewarded. Login streak. Submit. Level up. Achivement unlocked. Submit. Fun is coming. Submit. Submit.

Ahem. Where were we?

Monetization of Gaming

Games may be art, but game publishing is a business. Artists pull the game in whatever direction their art takes them, while business tries to maximize profits. Every game exists somewhere between the two, a compromise resulting in a product players get to enjoy. Technical capabilites have shifted significantly over the years, and games have followed suit, drawn by business’ incentives.

It starts with arcade games. They are tough, but don’t rely on randomness to determine success – it’s possible to master them through trial and error (and lots of coins). There is no permanent progression as it is not technically possible. There is only progression of skill. Whether endless games you play for a high score, or more structured games you play to beat, they don’t sell you the game itself, but attempts at winning it.

Then computers and consoles come to homes without a coin teleportation technology. There is no longer an incentive to make games fiendishly difficult as there is no way for players to pay for extra attempts. The game itself becomes the product. Once the player bought it, they can do whatever they want with it – cheat codes are a popular “feature”.

Eventually, Internet and credit cards offer a way to pay the game publisher after a game is already bought. The ramifications would take a while to be fully felt. MUDs and later MMOs appear. They charge a subscription fee to cover the ongoing cost of running servers. And once you start charging a subscription fee, you want players to keep paying it. Drawn out progression systems become the norm. Time played is the product.

Meanwhile in the real world of tabletop games, Magic: the Gathering takes over, spawning numerous less successful immitators. These Collectibe Card Games sell randomized booster packs. Their contents is unknown. It’s probably rubbish. But it could be amazing. The thrill of opening a pack is as much a product as the cards themselves. Crucially, the cards are a physical object, capable of being exchanged or sold on the secondary market.

But back to computer games. A subscription forces the player to ask themselves each month: is it worth it? For that matter, the initial price of the game poses the same question. Free-to-play Facebook and mobile games appear. They offer even more drawn-out progression systems, as well as limit the ability to actually play the game – actions take energy to accomplish, which replenishes every so often, or skip this abstraction entirely and count down real time in hours or days. These are extraneous, artificial challenges hiding the shallow gameplay.

While “hardcore” gamers quickly see through it and are turned off, these games aren’t meant for them. They aren’t games you play, per se, and they purposefully target those who would not normally call themselves gamers. And how do these free timewaster non-games make money? Why, they sell you the ability to avoid playing them. Their gameplay consists of gradual progression. Microtransactions let you skip it. The Challenge is time… or money. That’s the paradox of microtransactions: not playing the game is the product.

This is the most evil, ingenious twist on the ingenious concept that is progression. It was as inevitable as it was catastrophic. And it is sold as consumer choice! You can play the game for 4528 hours to unlock everything, or you can pay $2100. Choice is good, right? The proposition is as insulting as it is effective.

And then there are lootboxes. Remember the CCGs? They’ve grown up. Everything is a collectible card game now, everything comes in packs. Collectible and random, cards are a perfect metaphor for any and all progression elements. Lootboxes, yet another layer of the progression progression. Specifically, Wilson Lootboxes. By randomizing progression itself, games further inflate the Value they offer. It’s yet another trick our monkey brains fall for: the chance to get the best possible Reward out of a lootbox feels almost as important as actually getting it. We rarely know the actual probabilities of getting specific rewards, and are bad at handling probabilities anyway. You’re always just one lucky drop away. And once you do get it, you won’t have to grind the damned lootboxes anymore. The product is the thrill of not playing the game.

Money are Weird

Once money are a part of the in-game challenges, everything gets profoundly weird. So far, we’ve dealt with perceived Value. Money only has a perceived value as well, but its value has a lot more reference points. We know how much money are worth to us much better than we know how much a shiny weapon is worth to us. Or do we? If a particular reward takes 10 hours of gameplay to earn, a player can evaluate how much they actually want it. But offer the same reward for a few dollars as well, and they suddenly have to consider if it’s worth a cup of coffee. Except that’s not quite how the comparison ends up working out.

Because money are not a part of the game, they introduce a different dimension to the Value chart rather than replacing the Challenge axis. Which means that by earning the reward through gameplay, we feel its Value is that much greater – we “saved” the money we could have spent, and we got the reward to enjoy, too! And by buying the reward with money, we feel we don’t just get the item itself, we also saved the hours of gameplay. Whatever we choose, the Value we get is increased. All by placing a price tag on it.

Progression of Progression, level 3?

So there you have it: a line stretching all the way from the very first D&D to the prevalence of lootboxes in modern gaming, the evolution of progression systems from a simple desire to keep playing the same characters to the monstrous, exploitative, omnipresent scheme we have nowadays. What next? Progressions systems are not going away because human nature (read: monkey brains) isn’t going to change. The only thing we can do is be more mindful of what we play. Pause and think: what is the Value of the game you’re playing made of? Is there something beneath the mind tricks and the sugar? Are you actually having fun?

Progression of progression, level 1

This post will meander not just over tabletop RPGs you may have come to associate with this blog, but over computer and board games as well. This was always the intent behind it anyway – “ponderings on (all kinds of) games”. As this is an overview of the entirety of gaming, there’ll be plenty of generalizations. For every observation I make, you can no doubt find a counter example. Just assume appropriate caveats are applied. 

Sense of pride and accomplishment

The idea of earning your fun permeats some aspects of the gaming hobby. Some would say it’s the defining feature of computer games as a medium – you have to be good enough to even be allowed to access the entire game. You have to put the effort in, work hard as you play in order to deserve the rewards, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with them. This idea is an essential part of all progression systems, but is not limited to them. Where does it come from, how has it evolved over time, how does it work, and why does it seem like it’s been taken too far?

Progression operates on a separate layer from the actual game. There’s the game itself: an adventure, a dungeon, a match, a map. And as the result of playing it, you accumulate or unlock something, some reward, typically after the game is concluded. Gold or xp, in-world or out-of-world currency; new items; new characters; new maps. Progression is distinct from more organic changes to the game world as the result of choices made during the game, often present in RPGs, both tabletop and computer, though the line can get blurred. Opening a door with a key you found is an in-game accomplishment, a direct consequence of your actions. Killing a bunch of goblins so you can level up, put points into lockpicking, and open the door – out-of-game accomplishment, no causal in-game link. Grinding lockpicking in a system with direct skill progression to open the door – weeeell.

Most board and card games are self-contained, with one game having no bearing on the next. You play a match, someorene wins, you put the game away. Some card games, however, are meant to be played over a series of matches, tracking the score between them. These can be abstract points or actual money, e.g. bridge or poker. While superficially similar, I’d argue these do not feature “progression” as the individual matches or hands do not constitute the true game. They would not make for a satisfying experience on their own, partly due to the random nature of card draws meaning a single match is very dependent on luck, and only through a sequence of such matches an actual winner can be determined.

D&D is to blame, naturally

War games by the very nature of what they simulate would seem to be perfect for sequential games with some form of progression in between. A campaign, if you will. I was somewhat surprised to find (after a very superficial attempt at research) that the first book to formalize such a campaign, Wargaming Campaigns by Donald Featherstone, came out in 1970. Without a doubt campaigns were played before it, but we’re far outside the scope of the article as it is. Notably, Wargaming Campaigns dealt with such subjects as linked scenarios and attrition, and so likely didn’t have rewards for smart play, just an opportunity to lose fewer of your precious troops.

Chainmail, the progenitor of D&D, came out in 1971. While Gygax was likely aware of Wargaming Campaigns (an article by Gygax on fantasy battles had appeared in Featherstone’s Wargaming Newsletter in 1972), there were no progression rules in Chainmail. It was David Arneson’s modifications of Chainmail that introduced experience points and led to the creation of D&D.

The following quote from a Wired article gets to the heart of it: “There was another aspect of the game he wanted to tweak: the fact that it ended. Arneson’s group was having too much fun playing these specific roles to want to part with them after a single game. Outside of the individual games, Arneson created an experience system for characters. Your character would earn experience points based on their success from game to game. After a certain number of poins, a character would “level up.”

I’d argue, completely baselessly, that progression played a significant part in the popularity of D&D. It gave players a reason to play it again. Immersion in a magical world is great, playing out continued adventures of your very own characters is fantastic, but survive another adventure, and you’re likely to level up. That’s some dark magic right there, a lightning in a bottle. 40+ years later, the gaming industry has crawled into the bottle, having kicked the genie out of it. How’s that for a metaphor pileup?

It’s not just the numbers growing larger –  you could start the game at a higher level if you so wished, and it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. It’s the challenges you have to overcome to earn those numbers that give them value. The character sheet in your hands is not simply a cool character you made up, it’s the physical manifestation of weeks or even years of effort. To put it another way, Value = Challenge * Reward.

Challenge

“Challenge” in this equation is a very flexible term. It can be a test of skill: you’ve got to play well to progress. Can you beat the boss? Survive the dungeon? Finish the level? It can also involve risk, a threat to take the already earned progress away. Early RPGs were deadly, a single mistake could end your character’s life. Early computer games were deadly too, though that may have been driven by the desire of the arcade machines to suck coins out of players. Interestingly, games have mostly moved away from this type of challenge, respecting the players’ time (or afraid of scaring them off). Rogue-lite games are an obvious exception to this trend.

Challenge can also be tied to the time put in: the dreaded word, “grind”. Turns out, our monkey brains are bad at distinguishing between these types of challenges, they all contribute value to the rewards we earn. Game designers, bastards that they are, took notice. Note that creating a Challenge is not the only function that grinding serves, but it’s the function the article is focused on.

Grind, that is, repeated execution of a task, is an easy way to increase the perceived value of a reward and keep the players occupied. Grinding is all but impossible in tabletop RPGs due to their very nature: mindless repetition is not a desired state, so few GMs would entertain it, even if players were to try it. You can’t keep killing orcs in the same cave over and over, or jam the spacebar to advance your jump skill. Once transitioned to a computer bereft of common sense, though, a reward system such as xp can be hijacked by an enterprising player. Rules stay the same, but the way we interact with them changes.

Computer is happy to keep spawning orcs in a cave, or pokemon in tall grass (I think that’s how it works? Never actually played Pokemon). Players are happy to keep fighting them, as the rewards they get are, perversely, even more valuable to them. Game designers are happy to save on the effort it takes to provide unique and interesting challenges. Everyone wins. Right?

Meanwhile, consider idle games, e.g. one of the progenitors of the genre, Cookie Clicker, an inadvertent and rhetorically unsuccessful reductio ad absurdum of progression-driven gameplay. Most have barely any gameplay as such – the name of the genre should have been a hint. You earn currency to spend it on things that earn more currency, ad infinitum. There’s some optimization involved, choosing which upgrade to buy next, some shifts in capabilities which require changing up the strategy, but by and large, time spent playing is the main determinant of your success. And yet they can be incredibly addictive to a certain subset of gamers, a combination of low effort with the constant drip of rewards. The Challenge is days and weeks spent running the game, the stupidly large numbers you get are a meager Reward, yet their combination makes the perceived Value high enough to keep players coming back.

Reward

Access to the next level is a reward for beating the previous one. A powerful gun is a reward for finding it. A new ability is a reward for levelling up. All these enable the player to see something new, do something new or at least do the same thing better. Which means there’re limits to the amount of such Rewards. New content requires development time. New abilities are also limited by the design space of the game.

Fortunately for the game developers, Rewards can be just as flexible as Challenges. Vanity items are a reward: skins, titles, badges, anything you can show off, even in a single-player game. There are only so many hats you can possibly wear, yet players are compelled to collect them all. Which is another reward: collectibles. From Pokemon to pretty skins in any MMO to guns in Warframe, it’s not about the functionality of the item or even using it at all. Possession is its own reward, collecting them all is an achievement. That’s another dreaded word – “achievement”.

Do something challenging, get an achievement, feel good. Wikipedia says these can be traced back to 1982, when Activision would send out physical patches to those who got high scores in their games. Achievements can be seen as a dare: bet you can’t avoid killing anyone; bet you can’t beat the boss in two minutes; bet you can’t get both endings. These guide players to experience a game in a manner they may not have otherwise considered, offering more direction than just improving the score. They provide not only a Reward, but the Challenge needed to complete it as well. More rewards, more playtime, happier players.

Here, too, our monkey brains get fooled. Beating a boss in under two minutes is a challenge that tests player’s mastery of the game; getting an achievement for this feels rewarding. Killing 1000 orcs tests persistence at best, or simply happens after a while. Yet getting such an achievement also feels rewarding. And if you’ve already killed 950 orcs, it may be worth your while to go grind some more, to get a tick mark that does nothing the achievement. It’s another form of collectibles, completely divorced from both function and fiction of the game.

Achievements are not uniform: they can be rated by their difficulty, or even give you points. Relatively recently, these achievement points began to be used as a currency or a score, unlocking more rewards in the game, which gives them some substance.

Next time: Value and perversion thereof, kinds of fun, gamification and monetization of gaming.

Corruption in 13th Age

Corruption. Taint. Insanity. Mutation. Warping. The idea that some threats are so horrible, so alien, that dealing with them permanently changes the heroes is very compelling. It’s the cornerstone of Call of Cthulhu games. But whereas in CoC it is an inexorable march toward damnation, it was Heroes of Horror, an excellent D&D 3.5 book, that introduced the rules for taint that really gripped me. In it, taint was horrendous, but also a source of power. Heroes were still sliding towards damnation, but they were damn cool on their way there.

Since reading that book, corruption has been a staple in my D&D games, and the fight against it is one of the foundational concepts of my setting (and my as-yet unfinished novel set in it). Here, then, are my rules for corruption in 13th Age. I tried to capture the playfulness of the system, its unconventional uses of d20. While specific abilities presented utilize 13A concepts, the core mechanics can probably be ported to any other D&D game without any issue. Finally, this version of corruption is written with aberrations as its main source in mind. But it’s trivial to modify or extend it to demons, undead, or some other source of taint, too.


PCs have permanent corruption, which ranges from 0 to 20, and current corruption which starts off equal to the permanent corruption, can never go below it, but can go beyond 20. Unless desired otherwise, new characters start with 0 permanent corruption. 

Enemies and other threats that may cause corruption have a corruption rating: d6 for Adventurer-tier sources, d12 for Champion and d20 for Epic; one die for regular monsters, two for double-strength or Large monsters, and three for triple-strength or Huge monsters. Thus a Large Champion-tier monster would have a corruption rating of 2d12.

Whenever an effect causes a PC to risk corruption, they roll the corruption rating of the source of the effect. For each die higher than the PC’s current corruption they increase it by 1. Then, if rolling more than one die, add up all the dice rolled. If the sum is greater than their current corruption, increase it by 1 as well.

At the end of a full heal-up, current corruption becomes the new permanent corruption – heal it before that happens!

Corrupting Abilities

Following traits modify appropriate monsters or their abilities. They can be roughly broken into two categories: abilities that tempt PCs to risk corruption (always a choice), and abilities that hit you harder if you’re corrupted.

A Thing That Shouldn’t Be

(Apply to gibbering mouthers and the like – utterly aberrant)

To apply the escalation die to an attack against this creature, you must first risk corruption. Each. Time.

Insidious Violation

(Apply to attacks that inflict an effect with normal save, like mind flayer’s daze on mind blast)

Change the difficulty of the save to hard. Before making the save, a PC can choose to make the difficulty easy instead by risking corruption.

Maddening Visage

(Apply to boss-like monsters)

This creature gains a Fear Aura (no hp threshold), which can be ignored for a turn by risking corruption.

Unclean

(Apply to attacks that inflict a borderline unfair effect with a save. Give your boss a borderline unfair effect.)

Change the difficulty of the save to the target’s current corruption+.

Impossible Geometries

(Apply to attacks that are changed by the natural roll)

Change the natural roll trigger to “Natural roll equal or lower than the target’s corruption”.

Tainted Ground

(Environmental effect, think radioactive desert)

Spending an hour in this terrain causes a character to risk corruption. This check is repeated every 12 hours for as long as the character remains within the tainted ground. Corruption rating depends on the tier of the environment, and always uses 1 die.

Tear in Reality

(Environmental effect, an object on the battlefield: a ritual site, eldritch idol, etc)

Ending a turn nearby a tear in reality causes a character to risk corruption. Corruption rating depends on the tier of the source of corruption, and uses 1 die. Ending a turn engaged with the tear in reality (necessary to undo the ritual, study the eldritch idol, close the tear) increases the number of dice in the corruption rating to 2.

Effects of Corruption

Permanent corruption is broken up into several tiers:

0 – pure, good for you.

1-5 – mild corruption, cosmetic effects, can take corrupted feats.

6-11 – moderate corruption, this is really noticeable, but you get a free corrupted feat.

12-19 – severe corruption, really unpleasant effects. Have another corrupted feat as recompense.

20 – You’re an aberration now, time to make another character.

What are the actual effects of corruption? In a word, unsettling. Tentacles sprouting, eyes multiplying, transparent skin, shadow gaining a will of its own: all this and more. There are plenty of random mutation tables out there, and the boundary between gross and gross-yet-cool is very individual. You don’t want corruption to be so disgusting no one would ever wish to risk it. Damnation should be darkly alluring. All the mechanics have been written to tempt players into becoming corrupted, don’t let your description of its effects stop them. Work with the player to come up with a satisfactory description. It may be derived from the source of their corruption, or could manifest in entirely unexpected ways – corruption knows no rules (other than the ones written here).

Healing Corruption

Spend a recovery immediately after the scene where you became corrupted to reduce the current corruption by 1d4 points at the adventurer tier, 2d4 at the champion tier, and 3d4 at the epic tier, but never below the permanent corruption.

To reduce current corruption post factum, but before it becomes permanent, requires a costly ritual: material components cost 100gp if the target is Adventurer tier, 200gp if they are Champion, and 400gp if they are Epic. This ritual allows its target to heal current corruption as if they had just gained it. These components may not be readily available, however, especially in tainted ground.

Reducing permanent corruption is extremely hard, and likely requires a quest on its own.

Corrupted Feats

Regular feats, such as Reach Trick, can be reflavored to fit the corruption theme.

Whenever corrupted feats cause you to risk corruption, the corruption rating is determined by the tier of your corruption: d6 if it is mild, d12 if moderate, and d20 if severe; while the number of dice is equal to the number of times you’ve used this ability since the last full heal-up.

Forbidden Lore

You gain a new aberrant-related background, with 1 point in it if you have mild corruption, 2 if it is moderate and 4 if it is severe.

Unnatural Toughness

Risk corruption to gain temporary hit points equal to your current corruption.

Out of Sync with Reality

Once per round, risk corruption to roll a special save against any condition, even one you cannot normally save against. You succeed on this save if you roll less than or equal to your current corruption.

Vile Devastation

Risk corruption to increase the damage of your attack by your corruption. The target is probably corrupted as the result, too, not that you care. You monster.

New Regular Feats

These abilities could easily be granted by magic items, too. That’s probably a better idea if corruption is not the focus of your campaign.

Pure Soul

When you heal corruption, roll d6s instead of d4s.

Azure Flame Halo

When you risk corruption, add the escalation die to your current corruption.

Nature’s Rage

Once per battle when you hit a creature with a corruption rating, you may add the corruption rating to the damage you deal.

Corruption is a Choice

This is crucial, the main thing I’ve learned from using corruption in one way or another for years. That’s what these rules were written to reinforce. Often, it is a desperate choice between survival and damnation. But that’s what makes it meaningful, an effective horror element in an otherwise heroic game. It’s a permanent, or at least very long-term, consequence of player choice. Take away the choice, though, and you may ruin your players’ characters. Not everyone wants to have tentacles coming out of their character’s eye sockets. But sometimes you have to damn yourself to save the world.

Götterdämmerung

You are great heroes, or even gods. Tonight you die.

Describe yourself and your greatest feat. Players on your left and right each name a power you have based on it. Name the third one.

Every player writes a prophecy of death. Be poetic. Draw one randomly. Accept it, reject it, rage against it, it is your doom.

Every player takes a token, called an omen.

Whatever you attempt, you succeed. To resolve a scene:

  1. For each of your powers used, take a d6.
  2. Each player starting with you can describe a different way in which the situation is like your doom and hand you one of their omens. If you agree, discard it and take a d20. Otherwise, keep it.
  3. Roll your dice. If any show ‘1’, or you take another omen, there are no nasty complications. Add 2 to the roll for each omen you have. If the total is 20 or greater, describe your death.
  4. Discard the dice.

Once dead, you have unlimited omens to give.

When you clash with other players, the greater total wins. Reroll ties.

This is your last tale. How do you end? Play until every character is dead.

Attached comment: d20s work great as omens, as long as you don’t get confused between them and dice to be rolled. Vaguely inspired by Don’t Rest Your Head and Mythender


This was my entry into the 200 Word RPG Challenge. While it didn’t get picked by the judges, I’m quite fond of it.

Originally, I wasn’t intending to participate. 200 word RPGs are a neat exercise, but hardly anyone, myself included, wishes to play them. Then I saw Grant Howitt’s MECHANICAL ORYX, which ended up being one of the three winners this year. It was brimming with flavor and had actual mechanics at the same time. It inspired me, and you can undoubtedly see traces of it in my game.

Götterdämmerung isn’t all it could have been. The character generation is bog-standard. The main/only game mechanic took up most of the wordcount, forcing me to discard the majority of the thematic fluff and all of the suggestions on what the game could be about or any kind of structure. 200 words is not a lot of words! Still, within those limits are doomed heroes, a reason for players to hasten the doom of others, massive risk taking, a choice to hasten your own doom to not ruin everything you hold dear, and an implied soundtrack by Amon Amarth. It’ll do.

Passages & Plunder – New Colonists

Version 0.92 is out! But first…

It’s been a bit over a month since I’ve put the game up for public playtesting. How is that going? Not great, to tell the truth.

I’ve shared the original post on a number of platforms – a couple of subreddits, Google+, a Facebook community, Twitter, BGG. Several people were kind enough to read the rules, or at least glance at them. Their feedback was quite positive. Looking at the click through numbers, 11 people at least looked at the print & play files. There’s 6 subscribers to the TTS mod on Steam, 2 of which are me and a friend I’ve playtested with previously. It’s unknown if any of them have actually played the game, but if they have, they haven’t told me.

This puts me in something of a bind. From what I’ve gathered, blind playtesting is essential. But getting people to try your 2-or-so-hours board game, on their own, after printing out a whole bunch of pages, is not easy. It would have undoubtedly helped if I had any kind of online presence in any of these communities or platforms, but I’m a lurker by nature. That’s the issue with treating the blog as a hobby: there’s no cutlivated audience here, either. I’d even come up with what I thought was a smart idea for an exchange playtest and review program*, but failed to find any takers as well. Maybe I just suck at selling “free” things to people.

While not a blind playtest, I did manage to play the game with two groups of people I didn’t know, found via meetup.com. Shout out to Jeff The Gamesplainer, who took immense delight in screwing over the colony.

Between his efforts, another player who found out she could get lots of points if a bunch of colonists died, and my own machinations, it was a quick game. Whenever I playtest P&P, I tend to stay relatively quiet, only reminding other players of potential dangers, not pushing my own agendas. I don’t want to be seen as the authority on the game, to skew the inevitably fatal results. Still, I find it interesting how I get sucked into the mentality of quietly grabbing points and hoping others will protect the colony. I know it’s a failing strategy, but do it anyway.

I’m gonna try and find other groups to test the game on. Other than that, I’ve signed up for the Sydney Protospiel event happening in July (haven’t heard back from them yet). July is far away, though, and it feels like I’m spinning my wheels. I’m not sure what to actually do next, how to contact publishers. The ones I’ve found accepting submissions so far weren’t looking for a game like P&P. I’ve been writing these design diaries, mostly for myself, to stay motivated. Barely anyone reads them: I haven’t posted the link anywhere other than my personal accounts, as I doubt they’ll be of much use to anyone not already interested in my game. I will publicise this post, though, this is probably an experience other designers have faced or will face.

Passages & Plunder 0.92 update

As mentioned in the previous post, sponsors are now randomized. After a few games, it became apparent that keeping track of 4 sponsors’ agendas at once was a bit much. To that end, there are now only 3 sponsors per game, out of a total of 8. In addition, rules now encourage players to volunteer to track one sponsor of their choice. We’ll see how this plays out.

Expedition decks have been updated to remove iconic reminders of sponsors, as sponsor icons are no longer tied to sponsors themselves – you can still play with old decks just fine as long as you ignore those bits.

I’ve removed 4 of the calamities (Green Mists Rising, Heat Wave, Iron-Eating Locusts, Chanting in Darkness) that formed a mini cycle – reducing a specific skill for each colonist for a turn. I like their theme, but their mechanics just made playing harder, not more interesting. That’s the only change to the calamities deck.

You can find the print & play files here, and the Tabletop Simulator mod here. The rulebook is here. If you do give it a try, please let me know, and respond to the questionnaire in this post.

Passages & Plunder – Underworldbuilding

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a (somewhat retroactive) design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

As this blog will readily attest, I play a lot of roleplaying games. And I like some roleplaying in my board games, too. It’s no surprise I’ve made a game about dungeoncrawl management with very subtle allusions to D&D that encourages players to talk to one another. Not only that, it encourages players to sometimes do so from the in-world perspective. The very first thing players have to do as they set up the game is come up with the name for their colony – this determines the first player. There’s a space on the central board to write it down, and ideally in the final published version there’ll be a gloss “panel” there fit for an erasable marker. Furthermore, whenever players do something that would earn them the favor of one of the sponsors, they’re supposed to loudly proclaim they did it in the sponsor’s name.

Beyond the prescribed in-character moments, there’re the actual interactions players have with one another. The most common ones are arguing about who should be helping the colony, or why what you did was actually not that bad. These are mechanical concepts being discussed: how many colonists you’ve spent on the colony last turn, how protected the colony is, how likely an attack is. Still, some amount of in-character banter sneaks in. The trick, I think, is in having simple mechanics and evocative setting.

The social deduction genre is a great example of the former. Take Resistance, or its (IMO) superior version Secret Hitler, or Sheriff of Nottingham. The actual mechanics are trivial. You are either a fascist or you’re not. You either have contraband, or you don’t. And yet players frequently argue about not just the mechanical bits, but the story of the game as well. “You say there’re only apples in the bag, where’d you get them? It’s not apple season.” (In-character accusations of fascism are somewhat rarer, I’ll admit.) When we’re not too busy calculating the probabilities and figuring out the next move, we naturally pay more attention to the flavor. Which is not to say you’re doing it wrong if you’ve never bothered with the (paper-thin) flavor, of course. It all depends on the group.

While P&P is more complex than these games, I did try to keep the actual gameplay simple. You only have a few options at a time, a few colonists to send out each turn. And everything you do, absolutely everything, is visibly either selfish or cooperative, or both. So any time someone is being selfish, it is obvious. And therefore open to challenge by the other players. Why did you do this? In-character spin comes naturally at this point. Another major element is the mayor. Not just the first player, it’s a moving spotlight that grants extra powers and extra scrutiny to those it highlights. I’ve even witnessed newly minted mayors do a little speech, promising how their rule will be better for everyone.

And then there’s the setting. There’s no detailed backstory. No lore as such. Fantasy settings are a dime a dozen, and a board game is hardly the place to develop another one. Instead, there are evocative (I hope) bits and pieces scattered throughout. There’re the diary entries below each calamity. Had to come up with lots of different ways of saying “it’s dark and spooky” for those, lots of different kinds of darkness. Not everyone reads the flavor text, but it’s nice to have it there. Then there are the titles of all the cards, and some day the art. You meet Giant Furry Slugs in the Underworld. Empress Elect can be one of your sponsors. They provoke questions. Tiny lights in a dark cave, that your imagination composes into a picture more terrifying than whatever I could describe in detail. More entertaining, I mean. Certainly.

Finally, I tried to tell a story with the mechanics of individual cards. Take Dragon’s Lair, for instance. When there are multiple Task block present on a card, you can choose which one to do. So in order to plunder the dragon’s lair, you can either fight lots; or investigate a bit, but increase menace in the process. Kill the dragon, or just steal its treasure and piss it off.

The end result, I hope, is a game that enables you, every now and then, to create a memorable story. Likely about yelling at your friends.

Passages & Plunder – Vision (or lack thereof)

Because it’s dark in the Underworld, you see. Or maybe you don’t.

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a (somewhat retroactive) design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

There’s a certain way the game has played out within several groups of people I’d tried it on. The first game starts nice and cooperative as everyone’s learning how the mechanics work, then, about half way through, players realise they don’t have to be the ones to contribute to the colony’s wellbeing, so long as someone does. One person goes selfish. Seeing them gain points off the back of their labor, others go fully selfish, too. If someone holds out and tries to keep the colony alive, the selfish players win easily. Otherwise the colony is overcome in a couple of turns and everyone loses. Either way, afterwards the losers will explain, in great detail, why it’s my fault they lost. They didn’t have a reason to cooperate, they say. I can’t help but grin.

In the second game, people are selfish from the start. It’s a quick game. Eventually, gradually, an understanding comes. You have to find a balance between selfishness and cooperation. And to do that you have to talk. You have to convince your fellow players that what you’re doing is for everyone’s good. Or at least that you promise to help out on the next turn. Talking is easily half the game, that’s it’s purpose. That’s why it requires at least 3 players, to allow for these bald-faced lies and accusations.

There is, theoretically, an even deeper level of strategy. P&P is somewhat unique in that players can choose to end the game by evacuating at any point. But doing so early results in a crapshoot – someone will have grabbed more points than others, but will that be you? No, a better way is to let the game run for longer. To sneak ahead on favor with sponsors. If a player visibly gets ahead too much, others will become selfish, too, putting the burden of maintaining the colony on the nominally successful player. The player ahead still hopes to win, so they make sure everyone survives. The players behind hope to catch up. It’s a catch-up mechanism without any actual mechanics.

The longer the game goes, the more favors players will accumulate. The more uncertainty in the outcome there will be. The more willing everyone will be to help out, secretly thinking they are the ones who’s going to win. If everyone thinks they’re losing, the colony will be overrun. Therefore the aforementioned deeper level of strategy is to convince others they’re doing well. To let them catch up on points. To manage the group. To talk.

This is my hope for the game. My vision. This is why I’ve resisted putting in rewards for cooperative behavior – something playtesters always thought was missing. No, in my eyes, the reward for helping the colony is being able to say you did so. There is no “good standing” track. If you can convince others you’ve been useful it doesn’t matter if you actually have been.

But. But, but, but. This does mean that the first game or three can result in frustration, until players understand how the seemingly simple game is supposed to work. And that’s dangerous. It’s too easy to have a “meh” experience with a game and never put it on the table again. To combat this, I try to emphasize the nature of the game in the rules. Some sponsors favoring cooperative behavior is as much of a compromise as I’m currently willing to entertain, though. Vision, or lack thereof.

Variable sponsors

Enough with the retrospective, though. The last several playtests I ran focused on fine-tuning the new addition, the sponsors. While doing so it became apparent how much they shape the game. Players significantly change their behavior to gain their favor and advance their agendas – it would be a useless feature otherwise. So what if the sponsors were variable, drawn from a deck? That’d non-trivially vary up playthroughs. Right now, sponsors cover the basic actions required to run the colony: scouting, supplying, and defending. Removing any one of these sponsors could result in hobbling the colony – but maybe that’s alright, too. The current set can still be a recommended setup for the first game.

Current sponsors

Adding extra sponsors would allow me to do some bonkers things that didn’t fit into the “core” set, e.g. a sponsor whose favor is gained when another player wants you to gain it, and whose agenda is advanced when all the players agree it should be advanced (both probably limited to 1/turn).

The main concern I have is the amount of effort it’ll take to balance these extra sponsors and their combinations – it took some effort to get the first 4 right. Still, that’s what playtesting is for. I’ll try this change myself before putting it out there.

Another issue is technical. Right now, sponsor symbols are tied to their nature. If there were, for instance, 8 sponsors to choose from, though, it’d be something of an overkill to have 20+ favor tokens of each, only using 4 at a time. I guess generic sponsor emblems will have to do, with players assigning them during set up.

Passages & Plunder – Safety of the Surface

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

The basics of colony management and Underworld exploration worked from the start. They’ve been refined a lot, different approaches tried and discarded, sure, but they worked. The ending didn’t. It’s a game where only one person can win, and with an open score there was no doubt as to who was winning. Which almost inevitably meant everyone else would not contribute to surviving, instead focusing on getting as many points as possible. While it was the intended behavior, it meant the games would end in everyone’s defeat. Lose due to score, by helping someone else win, or lose together due to the colony being overrun – not a great choice. The problem, I realised, was in players knowing who was ahead.

I’d considered obfuscating the score. What if the plundered resources (printed on expedition cards) sent to the Surface were not tallied on the track, but kept in a pile, to be counted at the end? But that would turn the game into a giant memorization exercise. And besides, there isn’t a lot variance in the amount of resources on each expedition, just knowing the number of cards in the pile would tell you enough. This didn’t seem worthwhile.

The approach I had actually tried was to have secret objectives revealed at the end of the game. “Gain 2 points for each dead colonist”, “Gain 3 points for each building”, that sort of thing. It was… okay. Along with identities that gave bonus points for specific actions (“Priest: gain 1 point each time you donate a card to the warehouse”), it also addressed another issue: single path to victory. If all that matters in the end is the score, and the score is gained by completing expeditions and nothing else, everyone behaves the same way. Moreover, it doesn’t matter how we get to the end, what state the colony is. Only the score matters.

With goals and identities, things got better. Goals introduced some uncertainty and a bit of long-term strategy. Identities varied turn-to-turn tactics. But it was 2 extra decks, 2 extra cards each player would get. It was extra bits, not an extra system. And I like systems. It didn’t feel right.

Enter Sponsors. Sponsors are an amalgamation of both goals and identities. Flavor-wise, they are the powerful organizations that are paying for the colony and expecting a return on their investment. Each sponsor has an action that earns their favor (donating a card to the warehouse earns you the favor of the Empress), and an event that advances their agenda on a separate track (the Pledge gains points each time a colonist dies). You can see how the previous ideas have been folded into this one. In addition to specific events, each sponsor likes two out of four resources in the game, and selling them to the sponsor advances that sponsor’s agenda as well.

At the end of the game, players earn bonus points based on their relative standing with sponsors and the sponsors’ agenda score. Uncertainty comes from a simple rule: at the end of each turn, players take the favor tokens they earned that turn, and secretly choose only one to keep, discarding the rest for a point each.

Finally, a dynamic system. Have you invested heavily into a particular sponsor by choosing to keep their favors? Perhaps you’ll try and advance their agenda. Is another sponsor getting ahead? Now may be the time to do them a favor or two.

It took several games to get the numbers right. It also quickly became apparent that not enough favor tokens were entering the game, with players mostly ending the turn with only one. That failed the uncertainty requirement, so I added quests: every time a sponsor’s agenda advances past a certain point on the track, the mayor takes their favor token and places it on one of the expeditions, to be claimed by whoever completes it. If a sponsor is doing well, more people have a chance to get into their good graces. More dynamic, more system!

As sponsors are a new addition, I expect they’ll still undergo some change. For instance, right now it may in fact be better to go for the second place in each sponsor rather than vying for the first. I’m not sure if that’s the way I want it to be. More playtesting is required, clearly. And I may still add secret goals back into the game, now that they have sponsors as a foundation.

Passages & Plunder – Lost in the Dark

It’s been a while since I wrote here. It’s been much longer since I wrote about the game I was working on, Passages & Plunder. Years. The good news is that it’s close to being finished, and I’m opening it up for a public playtest. If that’s what you’re here for, skip to the State of the Game section, below. Otherwise, read the cautionary tale of how things can stall.

What is Passages & Plunder? The post linked above goes into some detail, but here’s the revelant bit: “…a game of exploration and greed. In it, players are in charge of a colony recently established in the newly discovered Underworld. Their task is to protect the colony, explore the dark tunnels and obtain as much treasure as they can. All the players lose if the colony gets overrun. But only the player who has brought back the most treasure will win!”

Almost Done

Ideas are easy. First 50% of the game can get cobbled together over a weekend. Then, through iteration and effort, you reach 80%. And then it gets really hard. I doubt this is a revelation to any game designer out there. I suspect that’s the stage where most projects that actually got started die.

That’s where I was when I wrote the first post, all the way back in 2013. Major mechanics were in place. Cards were written. The game was fully playable, with almost no issues as such. But it didn’t click. There was something missing, or maybe something was getting in the way. It felt clunky at times, and plain at others. I kept refining it, but not fixing it. As frustration grew, enthusiasm vaned. Apathy set in.

I stopped trying to playtest iterated versions: it didn’t feel right to ask my friends to play a game I knew was flawed, still, just as it was the last few times we played it. I kept meaning to finish it. Just… Not right now. I’d come up with other projects. Other fantasies. Hell, I started writing a novel. And I swear I’ll finish it. Eventually.

And so weeks turned into months, and months into years. My room was still cluttered with printed out cards. I’d still occasionally pick them up and flip through them. It’d feel almost unreal, like someone else had made them.

Then I became unemployed. This was seemingly the perfect time to work on the game, or any other projects I had. Instead, I settled on the vicious cycle of feeling guilty about not working on any of them so procrastinating for days. Guilt, procrastination, more guilt. Depression. A snug little hole. But that’s not what this post is about.

Every now and then, I’d return to the game. And one day I had a breakthrough – I came up with the sponsors (I’ll ramble about what they do and why they were needed in an upcoming post). I wish I could offer any insight on how I got the idea. It’s been germinating for ages, I’d considered and rejected similar approaches before. But this one seemed to work. I poked and prodded at the idea, it changed, grew, but didn’t break. And maybe, just maybe, if the idea worked so would the game.

This reinvigorated me. I redid the card layout, moving them all under a different program, something I’d been meaning to do for a long while. I settled on Squib, which was good… But maybe not really meant to do what I needed. I can’t escape the feeling I did unnatural things to it, but I got the cards I wanted, and that’s what counts. I even wrote down the updated rules. An excrutiating task, to push the ideas, a cloud of associated concepts, into the limiting, binding words. Clear, unambiguous, but still humanly readable phrases. The rulebook is something I’ll have to keep working on, no doubt.

This was the time I got Tabletop Simulator on Steam, and turned the game into a mod for it, a relatively painless process. A couple of games later, I refined the sponsors to their current state, and made other adjustments. And finally, I was happy with the way the game played. This is where you come in.

State of the Game

It’s nearly done! I don’t anticipate any major changes or new systems being added. Some wording still no doubt requires tightening, some values still need tweaking. The rulebook definitely needs work. And as you’ll immediately notice, graphic design isn’t my forte. There’s no art, either. But it’s functional. Do let me know if something was hard to read or understand.

You can download the print-and-play files here, or find the Tabletop Simulator mod here. The rulebook is here. Go, play the game. Please! Your feedback will be very valuable. And, hopefully, you’ll enjoy the experience.

Print-and-play

You are in for a lot of cutting. A cutting board, a utility knife and a metal ruler are recommended. I ended up getting a paper guillotine for the multiple prototypes I went through, but that’s probably overkill for most. There’s multiple files in the dropbox directory, to make updating them easier. Print everything as-is, without fitting it to the page. The decks are made for double-sided printing, flip on the short edge. Except I’ve had issues with one of the printers I’ve used, resulting in a pretty significant offset of the card backs. Not critical, but not great either – maybe do a test page first.

TTS mod

Barebones but, again, functional. You’ll probably want to “lock” the region tiles once you’ve placed them, otherwise placing an expedition card (or any other card for that matter) in their middle would cause them to resize and stack. You’ll probably also want each player to draw a hidden zone to keep their favor tokens in.

Questionnaire

If nothing else, please let me know you’ve played the game. At the end of the day, that’s why I made it. But if you’ve got an extra minute or three, here are a few questions for you.

  1. The most important one: did you have fun? Would you play it again?
  2. Which version did you try, PnP or the TTS mod? Any technical difficulties?
  3. How did the game end? How many players did you have and how long did it take?
  4. Were the rules unclear at any point? What did you have to double-check in the rulebook? Did you have to interpret or house rule anything?
  5. What’s the one thing you liked best about it?
  6. What’s the one thing you hated most?

Boss Decay

We’ve all been there. You unleash an awesome boss monster on the party, expecting it to last good solid 5-6 rounds, only for it to suffer from premature evisceration. So what do you when your dracolich drops on round 3? You can leave the players unsatisfied, or cheat and pump up its hp, or use this one weird trick.

This idea only applies to D&D and D&D-like games. And it doesn’t mess with any of the math of the system, either!

Double the hit points of your boss. Decide how many rounds you want it to last, the aforementioned 5 or 6 is fairly standard. Divide the original hp by this number to find the boss’ decay, then round it to something easy to use. Finally, give the boss a trait: the first time it is hit in a round, it takes extra damage equal to the decay number. That’s it. 

So if you have, say, a Tarrasque with 1200 hp that you want to last at least 6 rounds (a setup with nice, round numbers), give it 2400 hp instead, with decay of 200. If the party is doing as well as you expect them to do, on round six all the extra hit points will be gone, and they will be facing the original 1200 hp Tarrasque, hopefully about to defeat it. If they have unleashed crazy synergies or maybe simply 5 crits in 3 rounds, they’ll kill it on round 5 or maybe 4 instead, the undecayed bonus hp acting as padding. Importantly, good tactics or plain luck will still have mattered.

Once the decay is done and all the bonus hp are gone, you’ll probably want to “switch off” the decay trait – everything is back to normal. Or maybe the boss turned out to be tougher than you thought, and the party actually needs the help decay provides to finish it off.

A possible tweak involves dividing the decay number by 2 or 3, and having the decay trait trigger corresponding number of times per round, but only once per player. This removes the emphasis from landing one attack each round, instead bringing it back to fighting the boss, though I don’t expect this to be an actual issue in play.

This idea is, in a way, a reverse of 13th Age’s escalation die. Whereas the ED guarantees the battle will eventually swing in PC’s favor, boss decay guarantees the swing will not be too abrupt.