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Posts Tagged ‘project atlantis’

Dice: do you prefer your own, or is it okay to share?

Recently, a new designer on a forum I frequent tossed out an idea for a system for a game that used dice as a physical currency to represent narrative control. (I didn’t mention that I had already done this with Diceconomy, because I didn’t want to skew the discussion, but the concept in general obviously appeals to me, and I like the thought of seeing more games do this.) One of the flaws in the idea was that the game required a huge number of dice. How huge? Over 20 per player. And because they represent a player asset, they can’t really be shared, meaning a 4-person game would approach 90 dice on the table.

Project Atlantis uses four dice, by comparison, and as such it may not seem directly related, but there is a point that bears consideration, and that’s how to manage the logistics of dice that do things other than serve as randomizers. Because one mode of activating character traits in the system for Project Atlantis requires a player to invest one or more dice in the trait, one quickly runs into a dilemma: if you’re playing with one shared set of Fudge dice, then a player who invests even one die has messed up the die pool for the rest. (Rerolling a die isn’t a good option because of the way die rolls interact with magic – to wit, magic manipulates the lay of rolled dice, so rerolling a die complicates the resolution mechanic.)

This isn’t a problem if everyone has their own dice, of course. But while statistics don’t seem to be available, I’m guessing the number of players with a set of Fudge dice remains comparatively small, and if there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s requiring players to buy too much proprietary equipment to play a game when it can be avoided. (One can convert regular six-siders into dF, but I recognize that many gamers like having the “proper” die for a roll). Another workaround dictates that one simply relies on non-dice tokens to mark investments and then just rolls fewer dice, which allows for sharing in the event that not everyone has appropriate dice.

As problems go, this one is rather insignificant, but it represents some of the factors game designers should take into account when creating a game. An early commenter on the Diceconomy games joked that I must have stock in one or more of the dice-making companies because of the number required to play (although compared to the example that prompted this post, Diceconomy is, if you’ll pardon the expression, rather economical: only 28 of a given color of die can possibly be on the table at a given time, and that’s an extraordinarily unlikely occurrence that practically requires collusion between the players to accomplish). Nonetheless, I’ll be considering the proper procedure for handling dice to please the most number of potential Atlanteans.

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So, when a character or characters enter a scene, the referee often either has a particular challenge in mind for the protagonists, or sets one based on what the characters do as the scene unfolds. Part of this dynamic, but one that goes unremarked, is the idea that this is a sort of gambling on the part of the players: if you enter a scene with a character strong on social interaction but weak on physical combat, then you’re betting on the fact that the challenge in the scene will in fact be social rather than physical. Character generation starts this gamble by having the player choose (or in some systems, randomly determine) what will be a “payoff” for the character. The above character’s player, in essence, put most or all of their metaphorical chips on the challenges in the game relying on interpersonal interaction rather than fighting.

Many games prescribe that the referee tailor scenes to the character’s strengths: the general advice is that if your group of players creates a bunch of hardened soldiers, they want fights, so the referee is supposed to give them fights. Then again, those interested in what might be called (to appropriate a clumsy and slightly inaccurate term with lots of baggage) “simulation” could argue that one doesn’t always get to choose what challenges come up in the course of a day: sometimes the hardened fighter has to navigate a fraught social event, and indeed some very interesting and memorable narrative conflicts arise from tropes like “the fish out of water” or “compensating for a deficiency”.

Where these two intersect, the system for Project Atlantis seems to suggest an answer. I’ve talked previously about the ability to invest dice in the traits a player wants to emphasize in a scene, so that a character with a relevant social trait can charge up that trait with a die from their pool, bringing it to the forefront of play at the cost of some of their ability to take more flexible actions with the remaining die pool. I think this provides an intriguing solution to the dichotomy described above: a player has to choose what the character’s strengths are, but can choose from scene to scene whether to invest dice to bring those strengths to bear, or instead use the slightly less reliable die pool for whatever needs to be accomplished. That flexibility is tempting, too; players may want to never invest their dice for a known and fixed benefit if they can just roll at their full pool for everything.

To emphasize the tactical nature of the decision, I would make the act of investing dice at the beginning of a scene an actual bidding/betting process, with a tangible reward for those who opt to rely on their chosen traits and thus put both mechanical and narrative weight behind them. When the scene opens, characters invest dice in what they think will be necessary, with the referee secretly designating a “primary challenge” in the scene that serves as the source of experience (for lack of a more elegant term). Players then get a tantalizing choice: keeping their dice free improves their chances of short-term success in the scene itself, but investing dice risks inconvenience for a more lasting reward (if they, say, go into an aristocratic conference prepared for a swordfight to break out, then they are ill-footed up until the point that the hypothetical melee does indeed ignite, in which case they look extraordinarily prepared!).

This becomes more of a bet as traits increase in value: while I haven’t discussed this too deeply, keyword traits can have numerical ratings, which is to say they can be taken multiple times to improve their value and potency. (The Iconoclastic school of magic is the primary example of this, which replaces the standard magical elements with custom selections, but others exist: devoting multiple slots to being a Noble, for instance, should – and does – bring commensurate prestige and reward.) It’s tempting to make the reward for investment the ability to raise the relevant bid trait, but that’s too pat, and it doesn’t create an equilibrium between the level of risk and the prize at stake. A high-value trait will succeed more often, after all, and still only “costs” one die to activate, which means the possible detriment to the character doesn’t increase. Making the experience point reward equal to the value of the trait bid sounds okay at first, but that makes the experience progression of a character highly variable, because it increases the allure of bidding the highest trait in every single scene, but also asks that the character put all the metaphorical eggs in that one basket and miss out on experience more often than not.

A side-effect of bidding high traits, though, is that players will be encouraged to act in ways according with their traits, so the very social character attempts to socially manipulate situations, the master fighter will resort to drawing swords at the first chance, etc. in hopes that the powerful trait in which they’ve specialized will be the one that resolves the scene. Meanwhile, the referee is forced to create a “one true way” to resolve a scene, and removes player agency. In computer games, the term “pixelbitching” was coined to describe something similar, in which the tolerance level for getting the “right” answer to an onscreen dilemma is so rigid and unreasonable that the game becomes frustrating. This goes double if the referee has chosen a trait that none of the characters have, or have at a high level. Such decisions come across as punitive rather than empowering.

More thoughts on this later.

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That’s a terse and inelegant way of describing it, but accurate. I wrote earlier about a design track in which characters take dice from their pool to “invest” in some of their traits, giving up flexibility and power in performing actions in exchange for the static aura of benefit that comes with the trait so empowered. If you’re a noble, you can tie up one of your dice in the noble keyword on your sheet, and everyone will treat you appropriately, but you can’t roll that die for actions taken during the scene: being noble has its advantages, but also has its restrictions!
From that idea sprung a brainstorm last night: I’m contemplating framing Project Atlantis as a very tightly-focused scenario-based game. If you know Sweet Agatha, or Montsegur 1244, or the Giovanni Chronicles series for the classic World of Darkness, you know what that means: you approach the game with a specific premise and span of time already determined. What came to me is the idea that, in addition to investing your dice in your character traits, you might have the option in this fixed scenario to invest dice in what you want to occur at the end. For instance, I’m imagining a story that takes place over three nights: each night, each character gets a chance to choose how they want the final resolution to go, and they sacrifice one of their dice to give that denouement force. The dice are tabulated as votes at the end of the game, so the path that characters have put the most effort into bringing to fruition is the one that happens. (I can also see uncommitted dice being used at the end to try to place swing votes, but they would have less weight than those dice committed early and permanently.)
The idea may not be feasible for long-term play: I envision this being, as I said, one specific story taking place with three voting points. I can see the rough sketches of how a more open-ended version might look, but it’ll take some work. This is really meant as a reminder to come back to later: in the meantime, I have Corona and that dungeon game to work on.

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A quick musing: number of dice

So, “traditionally”, dF are used in sets of four. That was my initial baseline for characters in the new game, too. The investment mechanic complicates the normal scale of actions, however, because every die so invested irrevocably lowers the maximum possible roll result by 1. Difficulty scales are going to have to be considered not just for a standard four-die roll, but also factoring in the assumption that characters may be walking around with one or two of their dice invested in keywords, retaining only a portion of their dice to actually make a roll.

I also have to weigh the effects of making the number of dice a trait that can be improved with experience. It seemed like a logical idea, but it may be potentially unbalancing as the current scale is constructed. My instinct is to shy away from that and focus on developing keywords (either gaining more or improving the quality of those already possessed) instead of giving characters more dice. Which, now that I think about it, is derived from me applying Spectrum thinking to this. (No, I haven’t forgotten about Spectrum, but there hasn’t been any development lately due to there only being so much time in the day.)

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By the way, in my previous blog entry, I’m fully aware that there’s no way to physically rotate the position of entries on a sheet of paper as if they were a dial. The metaphor was used simply as a handy means of visualizing a mechanic: I had it in mind that the relative positions of keywords would remain the same, making a certain amount of game thinking necessary even in the filling out of the character sheet – rotating one keyword to match up with a higher or lower level would also align the other four keywords in the circle with respective sets, which could create serendipitous advantages or unintended limitations.

To illustrate: if the elements are in the following order clockwise from the top of the circle – Ether, Fire, Earth, Air, Water – and a character has the descriptive chain “Loyal, Impulsive Hellene Master Sorcerer”, then spinning the imaginary dial to align Sorcerer with Earth for a hypothetical in-game benefit also yields the following pairs of keywords:

Ether – Hellene
Fire – Master
Earth – Sorcerer
Air – Loyal
Water – Impulsive

We can imagine, then, that there may be situations that arise in the scene in which the character has the opportunity to call upon Fire and the Master keyword benefit synergistically, or the player may be forced to act on the Impulsive keyword and try to leverage it by doing so in a way that falls under the auspices of Water. (Much of this is not going to make a whole lot of sense to people that aren’t me, because you haven’t seen all of what’s written thus far, but you may get the gist of it.)

While I like symmetry, I can’t quite shake the neat package of three core attributes that I’ve come up with, so I have to think of a way that they would fit into this framework if I want to progress forward with it. The most straightforward method is to overlay an equilateral triangle with the three attributes at the points: aligning one attribute with an element, which we would say is the “active attribute,” results in the other two being placed between two elements on either side of the circle. So if attribute A is declared as active and aligned with the Earth-Sorcerer axis, then attribute B falls betwixt Air and Water, and attribute C is shared between Fire and Ether. What that will actually mean remains to be fleshed out, but it’s very suggestive.

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If you’re going to create a magic system, and it’s based on a finite group of elements at least derived from the classical elements, it’s a safe bet they’re going to end up in a circle.

For the setting I’m hammering into shape around this game (because I’m a strong proponent of setting and mechanics being interpenetrated, if not built into one another), there’s a Magic Pentacle that has five elements in it. There’s a “standard” pentacle that everyone can default to, with the four Western elements plus “ether” to serve as a meta-element allowing for what I’m very technically calling “pure magic stuff”. As has been alluded to earlier, though, this will be a customizable framework, with characters able to build what are known as iconoclastic schools of magic — substituting one or more bespoke elements for slots in the pentacle.

Nobody has more than five, so the trick to conceptualizing your praxis, as it’s called in-setting, is distilling everything your magic can do down to five concepts that interact. They don’t have to cover everything; if you’re a necromancer, you can pick elements that deal only with death and entropy, consciously limiting yourself from performing a wide array of magical feats, but defining your specialty the way you want. (I’m playing with the idea of balancing the limitation of not being able to call upon the entire panoply of sorcery with an offensive bonus, based on the idea that it helps to know the elements that are being used against you to properly defend yourself from a spell, and so fringe schools are viable competitors with the standardized model; that said, Ether remains the catch-all magical school, so mainstream magicians aren’t easy pickings for some opportunistic rival with a quirky praxis.)

This combines with the keyword system in interesting ways: I can actually picture a series of concentric circular trait frameworks radiating out from the magic circle in the center. The next layer perhaps contains attributes – I only have three right now, but that creates an interesting possiblity. Namely, perhaps that ring is like a dial, and you can spin your attributes to line up with attributes (probably not at whim, since that would serve no purpose). One of the ways magic is often used in a game situation is to enhance one’s innate abilities, but there should be some cost in doing so, since you’re basically getting free quantifiable effect out of the synergy that casting a spell by itself wouldn’t give you.

To illustrate: my magician casts a Fire spell; I have no invested dice [see previous blog post], so I roll all four dF and add my Fire trait rating. If I’m enhancing my social attribute, though, by using Fire magic to appear more vibrant and energetic, then I would perhaps spend an action to line up my attribute wheel so Social is aligned with Fire, roll the dice for the spell, and get the total of both added to the roll. It seems to make sense, but it utterly crushes the difficulty scale as previously envisioned, and it makes personal-effect spells capable of a significantly higher amount of effect than throwing up a purely magical construct, which is weird and counter-intuitive. But I’m also pondering ways that that might make sense in the game fiction, and it does seem to lend itself to a tone of larger-than-life individual heroism than fits what I want to do. We’ll put a pin in that for later.

The other wheel that we have to deal with are the descriptive keywords; you pick a certain number of traits that define who and what you are in the world. Some of them are personality traits, like Passionate, Stoic, or Empathic, which deliver mechanical benefits to actions in line with their nature; others plug you into the game world, such as rank in an organization or having a special lineage. Put together, they convey a simple concept for the character that should ideally be intelligible to everyone in-game as well as around the table. When your character is described as an “Arrogant Aegyptos Thaumaturge” or “Impulsive Flame-Born Myrmidon,” those phrases will have defined meanings based on their components. Part of the advancement mechanism involves earning new descriptors, of course, so the Thaumaturge might be faced with the decision of whether to join the Council of Sages or become an Archon, or the Myrmidon might work toward the level of Aristos, becoming Renegade due to a twist of fate. Again, it’s possible one might be able to align these with the underlying layers of traits, bringing several different facets of the character to bear on a given task for great effect. An invested trait would not be eligible to align, I think, because it seems broken to allow both the standing benefit of an invested die to combine with a potentially huge die roll; then again, perhaps the opposite could be true, and the limitation is that you can only align traits that have dice invested, which requires several actions and in-game setup. Something to ponder.

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As the new game continues to take fitful shape in my mind, I’m in that fun portion of the creative process during which ideas will assail me at all hours. If you’ve ever had to get up as you’re drifting off to sleep to write something down so you can safely nod off without fear of losing the idea, then you know what I’m talking about. The newest mechanical twist for the game came about during one such moment of reverie.

It started by thinking about the Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game (which is the diceless previous incarnation of the property, not to be confused with the present iteration, the superb Marvel Heroic Roleplaying currently out under the aegis of Margaret Weis Productions). In that game, resource management was the core of the game play: characters generated points of energy each turn, and would have to allocate their points to different actions based on what they wanted to accomplish. The amount that could be diverted into a power or skill or action was partly based on the numerical rating of that trait, so your potential may be higher than the effort expended, such as Spider-man not swinging at full speed unless he chose to. Some traits earning free points of energy applicable only to its use (e.g., Wolverine’s claws, which only require a point of energy to “snikt!” into place but garner three more points of energy for purposes of attacking), but for the most part the choices involved in a given “panel” (action) were a matter of dividing up a known and finite amount of power.

Wanting to keep attributes and skills light (I prefer a skill-less system when I can manage it), I like the model of having a certain amount of attention that can be paid to all of the things that are going on in a scene. One of the advantages of the MURPG diceless approach is that some actions don’t require conscious attention to be functioning, or perhaps only require an initial invocation in a scene to become relevant. In my game, specifically, I’m thinking of social status: there are noble houses and elite organizations, and I don’t think a full-fledged die roll is necessary to tap into membership in such a group to get the benefits, but neither should it be available for free without any sacrifice on the player’s part – we’ve all seen inadvertently imbalanced systems of merits and flaws where the right combination yields a character that is brokenly effective over the course of the game.

Which leads me to the Fudge dice being used in the game: they’re typically present in a set of four. It’s a die pool… but also a pool of tokens, if you think about the overlap in those terms. Since I’d been looking for a way to mechanically regulate tapping into keywords for their powers, this may serve as my solution. Tentatively speaking, a character can opt to fully commit to an action, rolling their dice and adding their trait rating, or can at any point in a scene decide to invest a die in a keyword, setting it atop the keyword on the sheet. If a noble character decides to show their crest and name their family, they can put a die from their four on the keyword “Noble” in their character description and gain the standing benefits. These advantages would be lesser than a full die roll: investing a die would perhaps get you social advantage over character of lower status, while making a die roll using one’s Noble keyword is reserved for trying to pay for an armada or seize a rival’s position in a coup. In short, die rolls are for big things.

The potential is intriguing: our Noble, attempting to leverage her rank, does suffer a slight impairment to die rolls while one or more dice are tied up powering a keyword, and can choose to drop the scattered minor benefits of several different keywords being activated if need be. On the one hand, it seems to be counter-intuitive from a purely abstracted perspective; after all, one would think that being openly recognized as a member of the aristocracy wouldn’t make one worse at swordfighting. But looking at it from a fiction POV, let’s say that the character is so invested in maintaining a noble image that her fencing suffers slightly because she doesn’t want to be seen fighting dirty or using less refined techniques. She can drop that facade, freeing up the die associated with it, and get in a good kick to her opponent’s nethers, at the cost of the “aura” benefit of nobility she had been drawing upon. A constant balancing game emerges from the mechanical options, which becomes compelling game play based on the details of what those keywords on hand might be.

This can even apply to the magic system, since it’s an axiom in the game that all player characters, at least, have magic: you can pull off minor effects simply by having a die invested in one of your five element keywords, whereas working a major and complex spell requires you to resort to a die roll.

The underpinnings of what the traits are and do is almost fleshed out, and I’ll talk about that pretty soon.

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