Coalescing

Having had several plans picked apart by events, and the subsequent unavailability of people and services, I’ve been looking at other options. What’s been most helpful in this regard has been the idea of building a plan that is less structured, or perhaps just more simply structured.

I needed to come up with a plan that would be less likely to need changing yet again. The need for repeated revisions has been very disruptive and has really got in the way of thinking clearly and creatively (though I did design most of a new game yesterday, so it’s not stopped me entirely). Simple and flexible has been the aim for this new plan. I’ve also been testing it with example use cases. Inventing further apocalypses to throw at it has been an entertainment.

In between iterations, I got side-tracked reading about creativity and productivity, which has been a worthwhile distraction. Then I delved into the numbers and research around coronavirus to try and understand what’s likely to happen going forward. To sum that up: we ain’t out of the woods yet, boys and girls. Not by a long chalk. And when we get back to “normal”, that may not be quite the normal we’re used to

Anyway, suffice to say that a little more research to check some specifics and I’m expecting to be back online shortly.

Wherever you are, stay safe, and I’ll see you soon.

 

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Strange Days

Well this is an unusual turn of events.

As both of you who read this may have noticed, I’ve been absent for a while, distracted by the collateral damage of the pandemic. Sorry about that.

Freelancing is not easy at the best of times and starting again is even less so. The various (suboptimal) measures that were (eventually) put in place to deal with the pandemic have basically screwed my previous plan entirely. Among other important things, too many people and companies I need to make it work are MIA for the foreseeable. So, I’ve been looking at what I can do in the shorter term to make a little money, because I still have bills and as someone who’s just gone back to freelancing, the government is providing sweet FA in terms of realistic support. This from “the party of business”. Still, they’re politicians, so you knew they were lying, right?

Anyway, I’ve been working on plan B, or C, or Z or wherever I’m up to now. Several cunning schemes have had to be abandoned as things continued to change and resources and options dwindled. In the end, I think I must expect to do everything myself and assume that few if any of the people and companies I would normally deal with behind the scenes are going to be available this year. Maybe ever. If they are, then that’s a bonus.

Exactly how this is going to pan out, I’m not sure. All of this is being done in unseemly haste and it is absolutely not the ideal situation to do creative work in. Still, let’s see what I can come up with.

For the moment, I’ll be posting in a less structured format, though I’ll aim to post something every week to keep you in the loop.

Wish me luck!

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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.

Posted in Game Design Theory | 3 Comments

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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