Game Design: The Dreaded Roll and Move… Sort of

Some mechanics are considered weak, redundant, or just plain bad by most gamers, and leading the march of this sorry band is roll and move.

Roll and move does what it says on the tin. It’s simple, unsophisticated, and when I was a toddler it was great. Snakes and Ladders was fab when I spent most of my time trying to eat the pieces and couldn’t devote much effort to more sophisticated notions. But things have mostly moved on. Today I only rarely ingest gaming pieces, and I’m with the horde when it comes to militating against such agency-denying rules as roll-and-move. At least, as a general thing. But are they inherently bad? I’d say not.

1024px-Snakes_and_Ladders.jpg

A 19th century Indian Snakes and Ladders board from Wikimedia. I especially like the 7-headed horse at the top right. Sadly extinct now. 

Blast ’Em actually uses a sort of roll and move, and if I explain my thinking, perhaps you’ll see that even such outdated nonsense can sometimes be put to interesting use.

Blast ’Em has three kinds of movement. The first is called a step, and this is a freeform move of up to 2”. It is included in all other actions (including the movement ones) as a free extra, so you can always do a little positioning to hug that cover tighter, or just step around the corner, out of sight. It’s very easy to remember as you can always do it alongside any other action. No exceptions. Two inches doesn’t sound like much, but on a battlefield strewn with cover and line of sight blocking terrain, it can be critical. Indoors it gets even better. Also note that the Step can be taken either before the main action or after it, lending it even more flexibility.

The second type is a Sneaky Move. The third is a Fast Move, or Run. Both use the character’s Speed stat to determine a type of dice to roll. Sneaky Moves use 1 of those dice to generate a distance in inches; Fast rolls 3. I’ll ignore the other (important) differences between these movement types for now.

Using the character’s stat to give a range of variance means that overall, speedier characters go slightly further. Makes sense. Rolling more dice for a bigger average distance when you run rather than sneak also makes sense. But why roll dice at all? Can’t we safely assume that a given character could cover the ground between A and B in pretty much the same time every time they tried?

The randomness of the movement dice isn’t so much about the rate of movement of the character as about their sense of timing. In reality, the average variance in Speed is unlikely to be much. What the roll really reflects is part of the complex and rapidly changing environment of the skirmish and, especially, how alert the enemy are at that moment. Have they spotted the moving character quickly enough to react to them?

This could have been done as some form of alertness test for the enemy characters, but they’ve already been allocated chits and that covers some of the same ground. Also, by making it a roll by the active player, it raises the tension of the action and feels like they’re taking more than the dice into their hands when they decide to go for broke across that gap. The player has much of the same information as the character would: they know where the enemy are, and whether they’re distracted with other things or hunkered down waiting for them to make the dash. They can guess the distance to safety and calculate the risk of their move. Then they can choose whether to take it or not.

Obviously, the player and character are not in the same circumstance in most respects, but by giving them similar things to weigh up, the game can bring up a sliver of the same tension and excitement.

And that’s a good thing!

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World-Building: A Vast Zooniverse

As Douglas Adams tells us in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Science Fiction backgrounds often involve a fair chunk of this space stuff, but quite how much varies a lot. Some stories take place entirely on one planet or spaceship; others roam between the stars in great treks across the galaxy. There is no better or worse approach, just what suits the tale you need to tell.

Technology is the great limiter here. Technology and time. Technology because you aren’t going to travel between stars in a single lifespan unless you can either move very quickly or avoid dying for unnatural ages. Time here is a modifier, and lots of it will excuse poorer technology by letting you colonise the universe with generation ships and the like. Note that we never need to bother with the details or even the plausibility of our chosen tech if we don’t want to. Hard SF generally wants to know how things work and keep things credible, sure, but even there it’s guesswork. If hard SF authors really knew how to build warp engines, they’d be collecting Nobel prizes instead of writing stories.

For folk who want to write grand Space Operas, small-scale character pieces, or make games of any sort, the details of how the technology works can be skipped lightly over in the most cursory of fashions. Often, it’s enough just to say that the spaceships have warp engines (or whatever). The characters can move among the stars as they choose. Nuff said. Get on with the story/game/whatever.

It’s usually best to decide early on what works for your world (and I use “world” here to mean the whole universe, not a single planet). That saves you having to build great chunks late on or wasting your time with unnecessary work at the start.

For Blast ’Em!, we’re not talking about a lot of space as a percentage of what’s in the observable universe. However, from the viewpoint of you or me it’s still vast. How to deal with it all? The answer is partly discussed in Mind The Gap and What Not To Tell. However, there are other ways to help with the problem.

My intention is to fit all manner of aliens and planets into the game, which means that I need a lot of room. Blast ’Em! is not hard SF, it’s much more Space Opera-ish, in the manner of the games I mentioned before: countless planets and a star-spanning empire controlling them. But this is just a starting point and the very broadest of brushes. Unlike many, this Empire is neither evil nor entirely benign: it’s just the government of the day and they sit in the background doing the usual stupid stuff that governments do. For most people, on a daily scale, they’re not the main driver of events. Doubtless, tomsonn will tell me how dull that is, and if that were all there was to it then I might be inclined to agree. The interesting stuff is all smaller scale. However, that’s not what I wanted to talk about today or how you solve the problem of creating so much. I want to mention random tables.

The canvas for Blast ’Em! is so broad that I’ve no ability, intent, or expectation of ever filling it up in detail. I can go on forever describing new aliens and planets and never reach the end. Also, the universe is not a static thing and won’t wait for me to catch up. This is a good thing.

In order to deal with this scope, I’m planning to do what you have to. This is detail a small number of places and races to set stories in and act as characters within them and fudge the rest. However, this fudging will also come with a DIY section, and this is where the random tables come in. This is the clever bit: you don’t create the detail, you give the audience the tools to do it themselves. These tables will let you create your own worlds and creatures if you don’t want to wait for me to do it all.

Random tables and D100 silliness was always one of the most entertaining parts of (some of) the old games, and something I think would be sorely missed if it was left out. I feel that this encouragement of the audience’s creativity was very much more common and important in the old school games, and I rather miss it in most modern offerings where everything is done for you. Of course, I’m secretly glad stuff is done for me as I’m as lazy as the next triffid, but I still fondly remember many a happy hour rolling up characters, planets, and aliens so I’m determined to pass that fun along.

And finally, in the spirit of keeping the vibe and tweaking the odd detail, expect to see a bit of that sort of D100 playfulness during play too. Back in the day, these random tables tended to be used before games or after them rather than during, but it felt like too much of an opportunity to pass up.

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Illustration: Chicken Scratches

Over the last few weeks I’ve been getting back into drawing. Unsurprisingly, this plan, like all others, has needed modifying when it confronted reality. In this case, it’s the digital aspect. I thought that I’d be able to focus mostly on that, and there are good theoretical reasons to do so. However, two things have modified my approach.

The first thing is that I’ve swapped in the Old Skool Skirmish project, and it just doesn’t feel appropriate to do those illustrations digitally. Not to start with, anyway.

Secondly, I simply don’t enjoy making digital art as much as using traditional media. It’s just less fun. There are also some marks I can make and visual results I can get traditionally that I can’t find a way to do digitally. The opposite is also true, and working digitally has some really big upsides. There is definitely merit in being able to do both, and I think that I’ll eventually settle on a process which flits between them as needed for each project. For the moment, as I’m mostly working on the retro vibes of Blast ’Em!, I’ll be working traditionally.

As I haven’t done this for ages and have no idea where half my old kit is, it’s also been a nice excuse to buy some shiny new art stuff. Mostly this has been pens, as you can see.

Black and white

A variety of pens for drawing in black, white, and grey. 

I did get myself some water-based coloured pens too. Back in the day, I rather took to the American idea of “water media” rather than thinking of watercolours, inks, gouache, watercolour pencils, acrylics, etc as separate ways of working (how they’re usually taught). Thinking of them all as water media and combining them in the same pictures gives you all sorts of intriguing options. These pens looked like being another entry to that stable of water-based tools. I never got on half so well with oil-based paints or alcohol-based inks. Not sure why. Either way, I’m going with my strengths, so it’s back into the water for me J

Colour

All the colours of the rainbow and a few extra to boot. 

The chicken scratches of the title are me practicing making marks with the new pens. This is basic stuff, but absolutely vital if you’re going to make the marks you need when you need them. My rustiness betrays me here, so I’m keeping them to myself. It’s all simple enough to fix though. I just need to put in the hours to get my familiarity with them back. In the past I used to draw with technical pens. The new fineliners are a smooth replacement, and the brush pens are a joy to use. Looking forward to being able to do them justice.

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Game Design: A Load of Chit

When I started work on the Old Skool Skirmish (OSS) system, the main challenge was to make it feel like it belonged in the 80s. At the heart of my approach was to focus on old mechanics, and I soon discovered that a good old-fashioned chit draw worked really well for both the game and the feel. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, a chit draw is the process of taking chits (card tokens or counters) out of a cup or similar. Each chit that is drawn indicates where the artillery arrives, the site of a new event, or, in my case, helps to decide when individual warriors take actions. Chit draw describes the process rather than its effect, so it comes in a wide variety of implementations.

It’s a simple, low-tech approach to the common problem of how to create an interestingly unpredictable feeling and series of opportunities within a rapidly changing combat environment. It’s been used for decades, way before the 80s, and was a staple of designs by companies like Avalon Hill. I grew up using it, so it’s very familiar.

Chits can have anything on them, so it’s a very flexible mechanic and chit draws are different from both dice and card-driven processes. In my case the chits have mostly just got numbers on, though there are a few “wild card” and blank ones to spice things up. It’s also quite adaptable. In effect, the Bolt Action (and Gates of Antares) dice bag system is a chit draw that uses dice instead of card tokens. That’s managed to reinvent the chit draw and look modern and clever while it does so, and it’s proved very popular. Quite a different way of using it from OSS, even though both are variants of the same core idea.

As always when you choose a rule, you gain some features and lose elsewhere. In the case of the chit draw in OSS, you gain a great degree of flexibility, a load of tactical nuance and interesting decisions, and lots of ways in which you can interact to characterise weapons, individuals, and factions. Lots of excellent stuff.

The downside of chit draws is that they are viewed by some gamers as being a bit clunky and slow, and in my case it entails having counters on the playing area. I thought that both of these downsides added to the period feel, so I was more than happy to accept them. The more serious negative was that it was slower than some other options. However, as this was a direct result of the extra choice, it was hard to complain. Anyway, speed wasn’t a primary goal for OSS, and game design is about compromise. You can’t have everything.

The variant of the chit draw that I’ve used in OSS currently goes broadly like this:

Place the pool of 20 chits in a cup and mix thoroughly. At the start of a round, both players draw an equal number of chits from the cup, keeping their values secret. The players then distribute all their chits, placing 1 or more next to each of their miniatures.

When all chits have been placed, one player starts calling out numbers, starting with 12 and going down. When a number is called for which you have the matching chit, reveal it and take an action with the miniature it was allocated to. Continue till you get to 1 and act with that miniature.

It’s definitely old skool in feel, though not exactly like anything I’ve played before. There are a few caveats to the above version, plus wild card chits to interrupt the sequence, and blanks to bluff the opposition. This adds enough spice that you’ll be wrong-footed by clever opponents if you’re not sharp.

Most of the time you’re not using the whole pool of 20 chits, so knowing what you’ve got doesn’t give you perfect info on the other side. Outnumbered retinues naturally do a bit more to balance things out and keep the fights interesting down to the wire. It does let you make educated guesses though, and this informs your strategy and bluffs. Whether or where you feint, and how risky you want to be with the sequence you choose, is a big part of the game. Clever players can build in some contingency plans if they’ve got a wild chit or two, and perhaps even if they haven’t. There’s lots to think about, and the puzzle changes as the fight evolves. It’s not a challenge you can easily solve.

It’s a funny thing to play because it is so different from modern games which tend to value slickness of rules and speed of play over depth of tactical pondering and planning. It does introduce some intriguing subtleties that you can’t get in most other games, and I do rather like it.

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World-Building: Be Consistent

This is the first article of a several-part series on different aspects of a core world-building topic: consistency.

The basic message is very simple: your world must be internally consistent. Doesn’t matter if it’s science fiction or fantasy, and it makes no odds if it’s a novel, game, or opera. At all times, your world must be consistent to itself.

Now, this is very different from the behaviour of the individuals within that world being identical or them all having the same opinion (we’ll come to that in part 2), so don’t get muddled. I mean the world itself: the laws of physics and so on. These can be different from the ones in our world if you really want them to be. Changing stuff will make it hard to foresee all of the knock-on effects, but it is possible to do. For example, the science fiction novel On by Adam Roberts is based in a world where gravity runs in a different direction to the norm. Messing with this fundamental law makes a huge change to the way this world works, but that’s fine. What matters is internal consistency within the world, and he applies that with rigour. Once you get your head round this basic oddness it makes perfect sense, and the rest follows logically.

In your world, you are likely to choose to keep the laws of physics as they are in the real one where possible. This is certainly the simplest approach, and often messing with them is unnecessary. However, fantasy and science fiction genres pretty much compel you to dabble in the unreal, and this is where you need to be watchful.

Luckily, you can rely on humans. Humans are adaptable, and as most of your audience are likely to be humans you can rely on this to get away with all manner of odd situations and realities. Once they get over the initial shock of the unfamiliar, your audience will generally follow along with your fictional reality as long as it makes sense in its own terms: ie, it is internally consistent.

This gets to the why of it. Why do you need to be consistent? It’s about trust. With your fictional world you build a contract with your audience; you need them to trust you as you spin this tale. This is a layering process where you start with the basics, and what could be more basic than the laws of physics? Once they understand this then you can build on top and they will follow. If you change the ground rules every few paragraphs, then you make it very hard for them to move past this first step. Give them some solid ground to stand on, and no matter how odd it may be they will soon accept it – as long as it’s consistent. Then they can build on that to follow whatever your narrative might bring.

The only exception here is a surface inconsistency. You can present something which is apparently inconsistent, but here you want your audience to already trust you enough to know that it’s only apparently so. This technique is often the trigger for an investigation by the hero(es) or some other plot device. Why is this thing not what it should be? The implication here is that the world would naturally be consistent without someone or something (usually the narrative’s Big Bad) messing with it, and when the audience understand what is messing with it the answer will reveal that the world is indeed consistent.

So, your world must be internally consistent. If something you present to your audience is inconsistent with the world you have built then it had better be only apparently inconsistent and you have very good (and internally consistent) reasons for it hiding behind the curtain. A curtain that you will probably want to eventually pull back for your audience.

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Illustration: Blasted Art

Earlier, I said I was after a specific style of art for Blast ’Em! What I have in mind is the loose and sketchy sort of black and white, pen and ink illustrations that were common in the early 80s. These often looked like, and sometimes were, the product of getting aspiring rather than professional artists (often the publisher’s mates) to bash out a few pics quickly for a six-pack of beer. I even had a couple published myself in some of the multitude of fanzines that were commonplace at the time. Probably awful. Best forgotten.

I’ve always been attracted to the energy that you often find in sketchbooks, and which is often techniqued out of the final version. Of course, polished work has its place too, and for another project that’s what I’ll be after. For this Old Skool look though, I want that informal energy, coupled with the practicalities of the mono linework (to reduce the print costs – made sound financial sense at the time).

These days, this style is less in vogue (and printing in full colour is easy and relatively inexpensive). It does, however, still surface once a year in the month of Inktober. Perhaps the best example of this style in modern terms is the excellent Mr Ian McQue. He is, in fact, far more polished and professional than he should be to fit this profile, but he just feels right for this, so I’m going with him as an example.

Ian McQue 1.jpg

A random page from one of Mr McQue’s sketchbooks, dragged kicking and screaming off Twitter, I think. As you can see, he has a lovely loose and whimsical style.

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The cover of one of his books, as it says. He’s got 4 different volumes of sketches and other art for sale on his site (along with prints and some originals) – a fact I didn’t realise till I had a rummage today for the link. Happy I did so as I’ve now been able to order all 4.

You might ask why I’ve not gone with showing you the original art. Good question. There are several reasons, not least of which is that I can’t lay my hands on the originals today. I’ll see if I can find them before next Saturday. Oh, OK then. The internet provides…

Laserburn  cover.jpg

Cover of the rulebook. This is quite a nice, dark copy. The vagaries of the cheap (often short run) printing available at the time meant that some are much more washed out than others. 

Combat 3000 cover.jpg

Cover of the rulebook. Can’t find decent pics of the interior stuff of this or Laserburn. I’ll take some myself when I work out what I’ve done with them.  

However, as I said before, nostalgia is a funny thing, and this Old Skool vibe is about fitting with how I remember it, not necessarily how it was. And if we add a little polish along the way? Well that’s fine. It’s the feeling I’m most interested in. That was the core of the challenge, after all.

 

 

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Game Design: Challenge Yourself

As I mentioned on Monday, I’m swapping out Project Shuriken for the moment while I polish my drawing skills a bit more. The replacement is a tabletop SF skirmish game called Blast ’Em! This is the first outing of what I call my Old Skool Skirmish (OSS) system, and the genesis of that is what I’d like to talk about today.

One of the things that I often do for my own amusement is to set myself design challenges. These vary enormously in specifics, but all share the same core aims: to entertain me, and to make me a better designer while it does so.

OSS began life as a design exercise. I’d been picking up miniatures that I liked for ages without having anything to play with them. For me, gaming is the point of miniatures, so I knew I was buying them with a view to getting them on the table at some point, but with what I didn’t know. For personal preference and practicality, I knew it would be a skirmish game, and I’d start out with an SF setting because that’s what I was acquiring at the time. However, I didn’t really fancy using the games I already had.

At the same time, I was seeing a lot of stuff online about Oldhammer, and was pondering how you would go about being deliberately old fashioned. The combination seemed like an interesting one to play with, so I did.

It was easy enough to design old fashioned stuff back in old fashioned times, when you hadn’t encountered anything outside that. For me this meant that I could simply pick through my old notes and pull something out from back then (I’ve designed at least a dozen skirmish systems over the years). That wasn’t a challenge though. A proper puzzle was forgetting all the anachronistic ways I knew of doing things and using only period mechanics. Mind you, even that really just requires research and discipline. What would make it a real challenge would be to make it a fun game for a modern audience too. That, in turn, may require adding a sprinkle of modern details. The core would have to be distinctly old fashioned though for it to be a success (in my eyes), but I would allow a little leeway when it came to some of the details. In essence, this design challenge was about making something that had the right vibe.

Now if you know your obscure indie games, you’ll realise that there are already a bunch of different options out there which fit this bill. That’s not the point of a challenge though. Making my own would be much more fun.

The first stage was to define what I was trying to do. Challenges need rules so you can tell if you’ve actually completed them or not. For me, this idea had several requirements. The game needed to be an SF skirmish game that:

  • Captured the feeling of early 80s SF gaming. I’m thinking games like Laserburn, Combat 3000, and early Traveller.
  • Used no more than a dozen figures per side. Preferably playable with 4-6 minis each.
  • Encouraged RPG-like storytelling and strong characterisation of the individual warriors on each side. I want coherent reasons to fight and not (always) just “kill the enemy because they’re the enemy”. Some progression between fights would be nice too so that you could tell the ongoing stories of your heroes and villains.
  • Would allow any SF miniature I liked the look of to be statted up for play and included.

Now I’m ancient enough to have played Laserburn and whatnot at the time, and still have copies lying about. My research was more like trying to remember how they worked and rummaging through some old files. Nostalgia was part of the puzzle and it’s a funny thing. Importantly, it was my nostalgia, so would be different for everyone else. Like all nostalgia, it relies on the sloppiness of human memory and so is not entirely related to what actually happened. Essentially this meant that I’d know it when I felt it.

I won’t go into the details of the rules just yet as I’d like to get back to the idea of design challenges. Suffice to say that I’ve played some games and the core of Blast ’Em! works nicely and has the right feel. More another day.

Back to design challenges. Having done this for decades, I’ve settled on a couple of guiding principles when I set out on a new one. They might help you too.

Firstly, make it a formal thing. Write it down. This helps you to take it seriously and also helps to clarify it in your mind. At the end of the day it is a sort of contract with yourself. It’s not about pleasing other people. The aim is to enjoy yourself as you learn. If you happen to get a useful product out at the end, then that’s a lovely bonus. If not, then what I’ve found is that elements of old challenges have a habit of cropping up in future projects. They certainly help to inform future work.

Secondly, focus down on one element. While your challenge should involve making a whole game, the aim should be to investigate all the possible answers you can think of to a specific question. More specific is better. You can use stock mechanics and elements you understand well to fill in the rest if you like.

Your focus could be on a particular game element or rule. For example, things like:

  • How do I make a game play faster? The challenge I set myself on this ended up many years later as the basis for DreadBall.
  • How do I balance majorly asymmetric player powers/experiences?
  • How do I do catch up mechanics without alienating the leader?
  • How can I make an interesting game with just X? I’m thinking both physical components or a limit on the mechanics. Could be only roll and move, or only a deck of cards.
  • How do I get events to respond to player actions rather than feeling tacked on?
  • How can I reduce the amount of resource components without messing up the way it plays? This is a real-world requirement you may get from publishers. Use an existing game (either yours or someone else’s) as a starting point.

And so on.

Then there are two big categories that supply quite a lot of my own challenges:

  • How do I invoke X theme? Usually a combination of a time period and location like the Victorian sensibilities of the staff in a stately home, or the desperation of a besieged medieval city. You may want to dig down into this to define more detailed aspects of this overall theme that you want to invoke.
  • How do I invoke X feeling? Could be horror, rising paranoia, time pressure or another intangible. Very touchy-feely and tricky to nail down. Powerful if you can pull it off though.

You get the idea.

Now you can give yourself a time limit or a component limit (both worth exploring). You don’t need to do either, though you’ll know whether you need a deadline to maintain focus or not.

At the end of the day, you’re trying to build your skill. When you’ve finished, have a ponder and think about what you have learned. Maybe write yourself some notes. I find that a formal sort of debriefing (just with and for myself) helps clarify things here too.

Often, when designing games, you are drawing from a library of known mechanics and approaches. That’s fine. Everyone does. What will make your games sing is being able to stock that library with fresh ideas – maybe even things that you’ve never seen before.

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