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Posts Tagged ‘delve’

Signing up to playtest that dungeon crawl game

You know the one. I’ve been talking about it for a while. (Nope, still no good names.)

Anyway, I want to give it one more spin of semi-open testing before rolling it out for consumption. Anybody who’s interested in joining in, please email me at the address on the contacts page. (Hint: it’s the name of the company at-symbol gmail.)

“But,” you may say, “I don’t have the time to do an intensive playtest! Those things are hard!” Relax! Not all playtesting is that intensive. This is not a heavy stress-testing type of playtest; instead, it’s more of a proofreading and this-page-conflicts-with-that-page kind of playtest, as well as a method of garnering feedback. I don’t require weeks and weeks of dedicated replay: all I’m looking for in a suitable group is the willingness to throw down once or twice and provide some written response on the good and bad points of the experience. The game itself is meant to be a pick-up-and-play kind of affair, after all.

If you’re ready and able, drop me a line with “Dungeon Playtest” in the subject. I hope to have the documents up this week for those who opt in.

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Pre-Gen Con productivity

It’s always nice to get some work done. With Gen Con less than a week away, the necessary materials are coming together.

For the game formerly known as Delve, the playtest character sheets have been printed; they’re double-sided with some of the most important rules on the back. I managed to get them down to a quarter of a sheet of letter-sized paper!

As for Corona, the game is a bit too sprawling to print out an easy playtest document for a table of completely new players, so I’m making agent dossiers that include specifics only on what the individual player needs to know: if you have a psychic power, you get the rules for that power, but none of the other ones, for instance. I’m a big fan of showing off all of a game, including character generation, during a demo, but I fear Corona‘s set-up is too involved for a group to have to absorb cold, especially at the end of a taxing day spent gaming, walking, and processing the vortex of sensory overload that is the exhibit hall.

For the wider Corona public playtest, of course, players will get the whole package, and create their own autarchies as intended. More on that after I get back from Indianapolis.

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While I ponder a bit more of the ins and outs of this new game, we’re approaching Gen Con, and there’s some exciting stuff to say about it, starting with the fact that Parenthesis Press is going to be there with a diverse slate of options.

First of all, for House of Cards fans, I’ll be running sessions at Games on Demand, which has been brought into the fold and given space on the second level of the Indianapolis Convention Center this year.

The most exciting part for me, though, is the announcement of the First Exposure Playtest Hall in the Sagamore Ballroom. For those who may remember me talking about Metatopia, this is in the same vein (and is in fact run by Double Exposure, the folks behind Metatopia, DexCon, Dreamation, and lots of other New York-area events): a ballroom full of new projects from indie game designers looking for playtesters drawn from the amazing crowd of gamers of which Gen Con is comprised. I’ll have (the yet-to-be-renamed) Delve there, but that’s not the biggest news – Corona will also be there. Regular followers will note that I’ve talked somewhat extensively about how the former works, its design philosophy goals, but Corona has basically only been cryptically mentioned by name with no further information.

Well, time to break that silence.

Corona is a strange specimen, to be sure, which is one reason I’ve been keeping info pretty hush-hush. It’s an RPG, but as much in the tradition of story games as House of Cards, if not more… yet it’s also very much like a board game. It’s a “strategic RPG,” to perhaps coin a term, in that your characters are the high-up movers and shakers of a solar empire, managing a domain against external threats and internal intrigue. In the tradition of Dune and its numerous antecedents, you’re a powerful and hyper-competent agent, or maybe even a psychic god-emperor overseeing the subjects orbiting the star that defines your territory and your power. When you take actions, you don’t wade into the fray personally: you give commands to legions, negotiate treaties, shape interstellar trade policy, or manipulate propaganda. The game is meant to be cerebral and stately, unfolding potentially over many different star systems, interweaving their stories with one another and with those the monumental figures that steer their destinies.

Final details will be available shortly, but the plan is to run three sessions of Corona, one each night on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, open to eight players interested in getting their hands dirty with the system in its current state. If you’re going to be there, please come by and take part! For more information on the First Exposure system, you can visit their website – registration will be managed through Double Exposure directly.

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[Delve] The Brad Is Down!

That’s not an accidental error in the title: during the most recent Delve playtest, the player of the Bard decided that he was the Brad, whose name was Brad. (There was some drinking going on this time.)

Reset button hit, we find ourselves at the entry to a new dungeon, with the Bard, Dwarf, and Necromancer. As a way to spice things up, I extemporaneously slipped in a theme for the dungeon to help guide narration: this particular site was the abandoned workshop of Caiphas the Clock-mage, which legend holds is the repository for an automaton that helps to control or manage the weather, and which seems to be malfunctioning. (I may hard-code this “quest detail” step into the rules; one of the feedback notes this time was that the gamemaster in general needs a stricter procedural framework. A gamemaster used to traditional power dynamics in fantasy gaming will find himself or herself prone to hijacking the narration away from the balance of agency as crafted in the rules.)

Rather than take one step by step through the adventure as in previous sessions, I’ll sum up:

* The dungeon table is going to be overhauled: halls and intersections are over-represented. Thinking of turning them into things that are just assumed to happen procedurally, rather than taking up entries on the chart to accommodate them.

* Magic continues to be a powerful special, due to its catch-all “add a detail” nature, and it will probably require a bulleted list that delineates more clearly what it can and cannot do. That’s balanced out, in a meta-game sense, by the fact that it’s really tempting to use it even when not strictly necessary; the player of the Necromancer made all but one or two attacks in combat with Magic rather than defaulting to a “magic-flavored” Strike or Shoot, consequently skimming AP from the Pool on a regular basis.

* Up for debate is whether to add a declaration step to the beginning of the turn sequence. It would encourage tactical thinking and speed up the actual resolution of turns by forcing commitment to a programmed series of actions, but at the cost of some measure of player agency, which is an important principle in Delve (and in a lot of my games, really). That said, emulation of old-school adventure gaming is also an important principle, and I need to think about which is more> important in this case.

* Currently, no healing ability means characters with 1 Health are in a precarious position. Still working on the idea of a Heal special, but as one playtester noted, that puts a meta-game pressure on the players, who would then feel obligated to take a Healer character for “party balance”. The alternate approach is to add in a healing provision to the AP rules: spend an AP, regain a point of lost Health. Then again, what D&D 4th did with “healing surges” wasn’t entirely popular, and contributed to the “it’s just an MMO on paper” criticisms. It also runs contrary to the spirit of early dungeon crawl games, many of which were very unforgiving with regard to character mortality. As above, time to put some thought into prioritizing the various aspects of Delve‘s design philosophy.

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[Delve] The playtest gets a reboot

With some of the rules tweaks lately, let’s hit the reset button on the ongoing playtest session. Rewind to the beginning: in this alternate universe, the players pick the Bard, the Elf, the Thief, and the Viking. We start at 4 Adventure Points in the Pool as usual.

One of the things that still needs to be decided is whether the mere act of entering a dangerous or safe area results in a gain or loss in AP, respectively. On the one hand, it leads to AP inflation, since pushing ahead gets the party an AP regardless of the result. That means 2 AP for every dangerous area, and 1 for a safe area. Let’s see how it shakes down either way by running the same sequence of events with each possibility.

Starting with the low-AP rules…

From the entrance, the party starts by pushing ahead [+1] (5,5 = Intersection, 3 paths) It’s doubles, so the area is gray: neither safe nor dangerous until someone decides. The party opts to force it safe [-1] to have a secure zone around the entry.
Pushing ahead on the left path [+1] finds (3,6 = Dangerous hall), with an immediate follow-up roll leading to (1,1 stairs down).
To keep this from being too easy, the gamemaster immediately decides to force a hazard in the dangerous hallway [+1] (3,4 = Illusion). The gamemaster decides to yoink the Berserker’s stats and say the illusion is an ogre “guarding” the stairs. It doesn’t have any specials, though, so it’s worth just 2 AP to beat. However, since it’s not real, they don’t roll against its Defense; instead, they must succeed at a Master test for either Strike or Shoot to realize it isn’t real.

Initiative goes Bard/Elf/Thief, then Viking/Illusion. The party goes into the fight with 6 AP; the gamemaster has 4 HP to work with.

It’s a fight!
Elf starts a spell [-1] to attack the Illusion.
Thief uses Assist on the Viking [-1].
Bard Shoots at the Illusion: (3,1) miss!
Viking uses Fast [-1]. Then, Strike at the Illusion (1,6; assist 1,6): hit on the black die either way. The Viking’s player decides to call for a hand-over, putting +1 HP. The Viking also isn’t fooled by the illusion any more, and uses that narration to call out a hint to the others. They still have to make their tests, though.
Illusionary ogre returns the favor: Strike vs. Viking (2,1) hit!
Elf’s spell attack resolves last: (6,5) hit! But since it’s not a Strike or Shoot, it doesn’t let the Elf know that the ogre isn’t real.

Round two!
Elf Moves in
Thief also Moves (…behind the enemy, naturally), Assisting the Bard [-1]
Bard Shoots again (1,1; assist 4,1) hit! The Bard sees through the Illusion.
Viking uses Fast to duck away [-1]
Elf draws his sword and Strikes (5,1): against the Master difficulty, that’s a miss!
Thief Strikes with a dagger (4,6): either one would work, so she takes white, hit! The Thief sees through the Illusion.
The ogre is in a bind: the Viking cleverly moved after Shooting could happen but before Striking, so it’s left with no action to take.

Round three!
Using the lighter AP rewards, the Bard and Thief would like to Assist the Elf, but with only 1 AP left, they can’t afford to. They just hang back and hope.
Elf Moves back, while Illusion Moves in to swat at the Thief, the last to hit it.
Elf draws bow and Shoots, using her Level bonus (+1) (3,6): hit! Finally, all adventurers see through the Illusion and it is defeated. The Hazard Pool went up to 10 from all the activity, but the party gets their 2 AP reward, bringing them up to 3 AP, while the Hazard Pool stands at 8.

Stepping back to analyze, the party would have gone into that fight with 7 AP for just entering the hallway, which wouldn’t have tipped the scales too much: the Bard and Thief might have both thrown their Assists on the Elf for that last shot, but things would basically have gone the same way. Let’s continue.


The party backtracks to the intersection (A) and pushes ahead [+1] down the center path, which yields (5,3 = treasure) something nice! It turns out to be (2,2 = Greedy Coin), which the Thief pockets for later.
Backtracking to intersection A again, pushing ahead [+1] down the right path leads to (4,1 = safe hall to 5,1 safe intersection, 3 paths). The dungeon is starting to open up a bit, but isn’t exactly cranking out thrilling adventure.
From this new intersection (B), the adventurers push ahead [+1] down its left path into (3,2 = Storeroom). It’s a safe place, and they make note to remember it for perhaps a good camp site later.
Back to intersection B again, pushing ahead [+1] down the center path – looks promising! (2,5 = Dangerous hall to 1,2 Dangerous Anteroom). The higher-AP rule option would have just given the group 2 more AP.
In either case, the gamemaster springs a trap in the anteroom [+1] forcing a hazard. It turns out to be (1,4 = Toxic Gas) a cloud of deadly vapor! Each adventurer must test Health [M] to avoid the consequences.

We’ll leave off there for now. It becomes apparent that opting to reward the party for entering dangerous areas on top of the “push ahead” reward will add up over time. In the stingy rules, the party has a Pool of 8 AP, with the Hazard Pool hovering at 8 until that gas trap was forced, bringing it down to 7. By comparison, the adventurers would have 10 AP with which to deal with the dungeon if they had a reward for entering the dangerous section, and they haven’t actually had any trouble since the illusionary ogre.

The two options for ironing this out seem to be either to keep the rewards light so far, or to even the score by giving the gamemaster a Hazard Point when the party enters a safe zone. If that were the case, the Hazard Pool would be at 11 after that last stretch of uneventful dungeoneering. That certainly lends the unconscious tension of looming danger down the line, and means the group would already be almost halfway to the game-changer if the Danger Level for the dungeon is 50.

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[Delve] Character advancement (?)

The question mark is in parentheses because I’m not sure if I want it in Delve.

One of the initial assumptions I latched onto and have maintained through the writing process has been the idea that the adventurers are each unique archetypes, fixed in their defined state. There is only one Swashbuckler, who has always been and always will be the Swashbuckler, with the specific combination of traits and specials listed in the back of the Adventurer’s Guide, and tweaking that at all makes the Swashbuckler into something else. (That seems to be shades of both Apocalypse World and Gauntlet.)

But a question occurs to me: the game gives methods and incentives for creating AP, and then spending them, but what about creating a tension in the economy by also instituting a competing incentive to hold onto AP rather than burning through them as quickly as they appear in the Pool? On the one hand, such an incentive already exists once players twig to the fact that their spent AP go right into the Hazard Pool to be used against them. But a hot streak on the dice and some reckless bravery on the part of players can undo that: hours spent carefully siphoning off AP to drop a big climactic dragon boss fight end sadly for the gamemaster who has to hand back all of those points as the monster sputters and falls to the adventurers’ onslaught.

Once again, we think about the trope of the adventurers in D&D-esque games making forays into the dungeon and periodically returning to town with their loot, “leveling up” to return to face the harder obstacles. This provides a useful conceptual model for a way to handle Adventure Points, though the exact implementation needs to be examined. Having adventurers spend their AP to raise traits would be tremendously broken, even with some kind of limiter (such as having to raise your lowest trait, and maintaining a cap of 6; a concerted player could have a stat block of straight 6s with just 15 AP, which would be easier and easier to obtain as the odds of success go up in direct proportion to the traits). Because the trope often involves liquidating the loot from the dungeon, we might also have to consider whether treasures can be converted back into AP, and the sudden influx to the point economy that would result. This does not seem to be a good idea on the surface, but given the proper framework, it might be allowable.

Buying specials seems at first to be an appropriate way to mark character advancement, provided that they cost a reasonable amount: off the top of my head, it seems that 10 AP would be sufficient, but that will require actual testing to verify. Because specials are a means of removing AP from characters, they shouldn’t be too expensive to obtain, but given their utility, they can’t be cheap, either, or adventurers will suddenly find themselves defeating enemies too easily and flooding the Pool with more points than they should have. It also threatens the aforementioned unique flavor that each adventurer ought to have: if the Berserker can just pay 10 AP and get Magic, the notion of defined character roles implodes.

Let’s look at what “level” implies: it’s a measure of general improvement in competence. A brainstorm occurs – adventurers may be able to buy up their “level” to use as a free-floating modifier to die rolls. This bonus could be split amongst multiple rolls, but doesn’t refresh until the party next breaks camp. That implies that adventurers start at “level 1,” and so have one point to add to a roll already from the beginning of the game, unless we want to arbitrarily define them as “level 0” or the bonus as “level -1”, both of which are clunky. So we’ll keep it that way, and now adventurers have a new toy to play with. To keep it from being immediately abused, an adventurer can only gain one level at a time, and only by exiting the dungeon. (I always hated when characters suddenly level up in the middle of a dungeon.)

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I’m normally not a fan of “critical hit” mechanics in games, per se, although it’s not easy for me to articulate why, because I do like having a method for player characters to be exceptional, and that may (indeed, often) includes exceptional talent at combat. It probably stems from my dislike of over-reliance on randomization for what happens in the game: while combat is certainly a chaotic and unpredictable situation, it feels many times like “crits” take agency out of the players’ hands and put it on the inanimate dice.

That said, in constructing Delve to emulate as much of the experience of classic dungeon-stomping adventure as possible, the specter of the critical hit looms. Now, I could wave my hand and point to the Strong special, which lets adventurers deal extra damage for an AP. Of course, you have to have that special to benefit, and one of the things about crits in fantasy games is that they are a potential outcome no matter who or what you are.

Reexamining the assumption of the critical hit is part of my reconciliation process. Just as one of the tenets of Delve‘s design philosophy is “dungeons are plots, not places,” I look at the critical hit and see that it’s not so much a matter of dealing massive damage – that’s the surface condition, to be sure, and what most game-minded players fixate upon – but instead a way of changing the narrative of the fight in a way that’s more than just “I hit, I do damage, is my opponent dead yet?” With that perspective, crits are instead a means of overlaying narrative detail onto the fight that affect the way the fight progresses. It’s not uncommon for crit systems to impose a layer of modifier to mechanically justify their results, but in the end, it’s about putting an onus for roleplaying and verisimilitude on the affected character. If the crit table says that my wizard’s leg was broken by the minotaur’s maul, then the tacit agreement of everyone at the table is that I have to factor that into my choices of action and subsequent description or break the immersion.

Delve, fortunately, already has rules for how and when to add narrative detail to the game, so we can accommodate criticals in the game by referring to those. In this case, it’s also a way to perhaps address the persistent issue from the previous post of generating points for the game currency. As with previous playtest drafts, the choice of the die (white or black) influences this decision, but instead of a static inflation of pool sizes, we introduce the idea of handing over. In a sense, every roll is now a critical: you are explicitly given narrative authority over the results of your action if you take the white die, while the gamemaster takes the narration if you go with the black die. BUT: you can choose a hand-over of narration, in which the proverbial baton is passed, albeit in exchange for the compensation of a point for their pool. So, if you roll a success on the black die, the gamemaster would get to decide how that plays out, but you can opt for the gamemaster to hand over narration to you, and a Hazard Point is awarded for the deferral. We flip the authority for failures, by the way: choose to fail on the white die, for instance, and the gamemaster gets the narration, though handing over is still an option. (The decision on handing over is always on the person who made the roll, no matter who benefits.)

That gives us a second in-port for points to the otherwise closed pools system, but one mediated by the desire to have narrative control. Pushing ahead remains the primary reliable form of growing the number of points in circulation, but this system does something else that’s interesting – it makes the decision regarding narration a tactical one.

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