Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Order/Chaos Dice System: Mechanics

So, I doodled a few ideas about the dice system. I liked the idea of some sort of duality; the idea of pushing a dice pool at the risk of compromising your character. For instance, a Noire-style investigation campaign could have opposing good cop/bad cop stats; dropping further into corruption might make sense in the short term, but will have serious repercussions in the long run; or a pulp fantasy campaign where your character can give in to chaos to give a temporary edge.

I think this can be represented by having three separate dice pools; the first we’ll term ‘Order’. This represents a character’s adherence to the laws of the setting; in the Police Investigation setting it’s the character’s standing in the police department, how ‘by-the-book’ they are. The second we’ll term ‘Chaos’. This will normally be a temporary pool, though it may increase as the character’s Order decreases. It represents a character’s existence ‘outside’ the rules, how far they’ve pushed the limits. Finally, we have a stat (or series of stats) representing the character’s other abilities. In order to keep this simple, I was tempted to go for just three other stats: Power, Reserves, and Finesse. These three stats can apply to a variety of spheres; so Physical Power would be Strength, Mental Reserves would be Willpower and Social Finesse would be Manipulation.

Finally, we’ll call the opposition pool Pain; this keeps it personal for the characters. This keeps rankings for enemies simple too, and modifiers for difficulties can all be rolled up into a single number.

Conflicts are resolved by players gathering all the dice in their pools, and rolling them together. The GM rolls all the Pain dice too. All dice showing a 1 or a 2 are a success; compare the players successes against the GM’s successes. Ties go to the players. This determines if an action is successful or not; the number of successes you win (or fail) by is your margin.

The pool which shows the highest die is the dominant pool; in ties compare the next highest, and so on, until a pool runs out of dice (in which case the pool with more dice wins) or one pool has a higher die.


A player rolls 3 Order/3 Stat/2 Chaos against 5 Pain and gets:

3 4 2 / 1 6 3 / 6 1 against 2 1 3 4 3

The player gets 3 successes against the GMs 2 successes, succeeding at the action with a margin of 1. Stat and Chaos both have a 6 as their highest die though Stat has the second highest as 3 vs 1. This means the Stat pool dominates. So, the player succeeds at the action by application of their natural aptitudes; depending on the action, this might be brute force or mental agility.

This is a first pass at the idea, nice and basic so far. I want to add a bit more flavour by mixing in some talents, and I’ll talk about that in the next post.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Order/Chaos Dice System: Introduction

A while ago, I got a copy of the indie PnP RPG Don’t Rest Your Head. It’s an interesting game, very influenced by stories like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and the neo-noir film Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas.
Although I’ve not had a chance to run it, it features a neat little resolution mechanic I’ve seen called ‘rich dice’. Conflict resolution involves rolling pools of dice of different colours; the success of the roll is determined by how many dice, regardless of colour, show a 1 or 2. The pool which shows the highest number ‘dominates’ the action and gives more information about how the character succeeded (or failed).
A similar mechanic is used in the new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay; here, you can see at a glance (with practice) why a particular roll succeeded; maybe your second spent aiming was what helped you find the crack in their armour, maybe charging in screaming caught them off guard.
In DRYH, the GM rolls a pool (Pain) against 3 pools rolled by the players (Madness, Discipline and Exhaustion). What makes it interesting is any of the pools can dominate with a success, even Pain. Further, you can push certain stats (such as Exhaustion) for more dice; the extra dice might help you succeed, but if that pool dominates you end up with a further negative consequence.

I had a few ideas about how I could structure a similar system; I figured I’d feel them out on the blog to see if it all hangs together.

Friday, 3 June 2011

“You’re being economical with the Truth”

I recently finished LA Noire.

Like many recent R* games - yes, I realize it was actually published by R* and developed by Team Bondi – LA Noire kind of snuck up on me. I didn’t go into the game with too many preconceptions. I really, really enjoyed it, but I can see why going into it with the expectations that it’s Red Dead 1947 or Grand Theft Noire would be disappointing. I adored the atmosphere, and even played through in Black & White mode for the authentic cinematic experience.

As I was playing I was struck by how similar it was to a traditional adventure game. You find items, talk to characters and use things from your inventory. I guess the closest game to it would be the Phoenix Wright series, with the witness interrogations and crime scene investigation, though it does cut out the cartoon campness of the Ace Attorney games (to the point where it could perhaps be accused of taking itself a little too seriously). Mainly, though, I was surprised by how neatly they sidestepped a lot of the adventure game niggles that have plagued the genre for years.

Graphic adventure games have traditionally fallen back into ‘pixel hunts’. So, one particular item in the background is interactive, requiring careful combing of the screen with the cursor to find it. This is often exacerbated when only one particular item will satisfy the game’s peculiar requirement. Maybe a stick is needed to reach something just out of reach, but of course it’s only possible to use a stick for this, and in fact it’s not possible to take any other path round the puzzle.

LA Noire uses subtle musical cues and controller vibrations to highlight when your character, Phelps, is near an item he can examine. It even lets you know when you’ve found all the important items in a scene. There’s a limited pool of ‘intuition points’, which are replenished as you progress, that can highlight all the clues you need. I think most critically of all, you can even progress through the story without finding all the clues in an area.

Putting all this together you dissolve the frustration of not finding the correct item. LA Noire retains the satisfaction of solving a puzzle the correct way. At the same time, by allowing the player to progress without requiring them to collect a backpack full of the kind of things you’d find Wombles throwing away, it means players don't spend an hour trying everything in their inventory on everything in the environment. It should also be mentioned that the game lets you skip action sequences too so you can focus on investigating.

The other facet of this is to introduce a measure of replay value to the game. This is something helped by the game’s episodic nature. Each installment has the scope for some branching based on player choice within it without majorly affecting the overarching plotline. But on top of that, there’s an opportunity to go back and pick up any clues you’ve missed; in one case, I entirely missed out questioning a suspect by visiting the locations out of order and, although I still got the right guy, there was about half an hour of the case that I missed.

I’d also like to say a word about the scarcity of the action. In Grand Theft Auto, when you pick up a mission, you know pretty much what lies ahead. You’ll drive to a place, shoot some people, then drive somewhere else. Sometimes you’ll chase someone in a car, sometimes they’ll chase you. All well and good, but it begins to feel like the beginning of an episode of Casualty; When you start a simple sounding mission, you’re waiting for the inevitable complication. You know, you just know, that your job to deliver a package to a contact will end in violence.

LA Noire has much less action, and the action is a fair bit clunkier than other similar R* games, but because it’s unexpected and almost restrained it works brilliantly. You turn up to question a suspect, you’re always aware they might try and run away, but because they don’t always when they do it is much more effective.

I think I’ve said everything I’d like to about LA Noire. Other, real websites have spoken at much greater length about what it does well and where it’s lacking. I was just excited when I played it that the changes made to broaden the genre's appeal mean we may get more strong story-based adventure games.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Plougher of Kings

In The Witcher 2, I’m playing as an arsehole. 

I demand rewards for work I would have offered for free in other games (hey, killing monsters is how I make a living!). I kill people who provoke me. I even fed two guys to a demented ghost they had provoked, justifying to myself their actions had brought their fate on themselves.

I mean, it helps that Geralt is already a bit of a prick to begin with: he’ll often haggle the price of a job without any input from the player, something that in other games would have been a dialogue choice left up to you. But this all works to let me get more inside his head. When confronted by the two guys and the angry ghost, I didn’t think about what I would do, I thought about what Geralt would do.

I’ve played a fair bit of TW2 over the past few days - including a ‘just ten minutes before bed’ session that ended up with me not getting to sleep until after 03:00 - and it’s made me think about roleplaying and consequences in video games. I know that sounds grandiose and pretentious, but bear with me here.

One of the things I didn’t initially click with in The Witcher The First was that you were forced to play as Geralt of Rivia. He's a genetically engineered and mutated monster hunter, covered in scars and with a slightly twisted sense of morality. In a way he’s the logical conclusion of the adventurer archetype, in the same way that the characters in Watchmen were a deconstruction of the superhero archetype. He literally exists only to solve problems in small villages by killing monsters.
Of course, as he is a defined character (he’s starred in books, graphic novels, even a TV series and film), all of the choices you make must be between the kind of things Geralt would do anyway. And as the morality is typically grey-on-grey in the Witcher world, the ‘right’ choice is hard to make.

The thing TW2 really does well is that the consequences for your actions are not immediately obvious. A choice you make might not have ramifications for another several hours of play, so if you don’t like the outcome of the action there’s not really much chance of reloading and picking something else. 

And it goes further than that. As a sweeping generalisation, games tend to be very predictable systems. I need enough information to make an informed choice about what to do. LA Noire is a good example of this: because it’s so vital to the gameplay, the facial tics and twitches to indicate lying have to be over the top. Unexpected consequences for actions the player has no information about is kind of a dick move for a developer.

Of course, real life is nothing like this. Getting up late for work one day might have all sorts of consequences for even the rest of your life. If you try and imagine every single thing that would have happened if you got up on time you’d go mad. TW2 exploits this to make your actions in the game world more real by making them less fair. Yeah, you couldn’t predict what the outcome of your action would be. You can’t go back and change it, you’re going to have to live with the consequences and think a bit harder the next time something like this crops up. 

So, as you can tell I’m enjoying The Witcher 2. I’ll try and post more thoughts up about it when I’m a bit further through; I’m still only in Chapter One, and I hear the second chapter is packed to the gills with awesomeness.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Demo Reviews

I've just got a hold of Red Dead Redemption, but as playing that is going to be a pretty mammoth undertaking, I thought I'd do some posts in the meantime!

I was in London this weekend to see some friends over from the other side of the world. Made the mistake of walking down Oxford Street, and happened to walk past Primark... The combination of the close press of a million souls, the 30°C late afternoon heat, and the already fairly ground-in Evil of Primark combined to create something akin to the 3rd Circle of Hell. I manged to avoid its Abyssal pull, and thought I was through the worst.

Then we got on the Underground.

Anyway, I've also been playing a couple of demos.

I gave Transformers: War for Cybertron a whirl, a game I've had fairly mixed feelings about. I was initially excited when I heard about it because... well, it's Transformers, innit? And it could never be as bad as the absolute mess of CGI Michael Bay released as a film, could it? Then my initial excitement turned partially to doubt; surely the whole point of Transformers was they were robots in disguise, right? That's why they said it in the song. I've never been completely comfortable with the Cybertron based parts of the Transformers continuities, and here was a game based entirely on Cybertron.

The demo was multiplayer only, not really the part of a game I look forward to most. Still, it gave a reasonable idea of what the robot-on-robot action would be like (fairly clunky and visually indistinct, as it turns out), and while it didn't strain my underpant elastic at first, I've chewed it over in my brain for the past few days and have started to warm to it. I think a single player mode with a bit more character and charm is exactly what I'm looking for, and I hear that's exactly what the game has. Still, I do hope that the vehicle modes in the full game are more inspiring than they are in the demo; just about everyone in the matches I played stuck to the robot mode, a sad indictment of a game based around Transforming robots.   

The other demo I tried was Blur, a collision of Burnout and Mario Kart. There is honestly no other way to describe it. The action is pretty eyeball-searing, but I think the fun of both the above games comes from clustering around the TV with your housemates, handing out the beers, and then squealing obscenities at each other. Maybe if I'd played Blur in such surroundings it would've jumped straight to the top of my most wanted list, but, as it is, it's probably going to stay low priority at least until it comes down in price.