27 May 2009

Skills To Pay The Bills

As a long time Scaper I am no stranger to the benefit that special abilities or skills bring to a board game. A large part of Scape tactics come about from selection of units with complementary skill sets or units that may give an edge if the luck of the d20 is with the unit commander. In a tabletop skirmish game skills are awesome. The basic version of Scape has no skills and it sucks like a nuclear powered Dyson. No, in a tabletop game skills are that all important edge that makes an extra bit of fun for participants.

So I imagine when Monsieur Gygax was thinking about D&D the idea of dropping skills from the units was anathema and I can understand the point of view. A wargame or similar with no unit-specific skill matrix is yawnsome.

To further expand on my Scape example a Scape figure has five major ratings, Attack, Defence, Range, Movement and Life. A skill gives some advantage that increases these ratings either permanently or given some random event or particular set of circumstances. There are angels with shields who automatically double their defence. Furious samurai who can add to their attack when they engage the enemy. Gorilla soldiers who can move twice as far while the cat suited secret agents are on the field.

The reason this increases the fun in wargames is that the game runs within very strict rules and the number of outcomes to a particular scenario, vast as they may be, are finite.

Now let's make a sideways move into role play.

My favourite skills system ever in a role playing game is the Over The Edge system, where you basically make up your own skills and get dice pools in them. There are skills that a lot of people might have like "fighting" and then skills that people might not choose like "make up artist". The joy of it being your character can be good at whatever you like.

Of course this case is all a matter of scope the number of situations that could arise in RP are vast compared to the number of situations that could come up in a skirmish game. The chances that a general amnesty could be called in a skirmish and that because it's christmas day the characters will engage in a pleasant game of footie are slim to fat. It's not part of the game's scope.

Set a scenario in a WWI trench on christmas day and watch what happens. Exactly.

The immediate reaction of the role play scenario creator to this problem is to start mucking about with "skill trees" and the like. I don't know why any human being starts thinking "I can taxonomically record every skill a human being could ever need" or even "other people will find rooting around in my taxonomy fun" or even "this hideous conglomeration of number soup will be the one thing that makes the game worth playing". I'm not sure anyone does think the last one. In fact I think that people probably don't even regard them as a necessary evil. They might get as far as necessary but evil?

Evil can mean a lot of things. When you're trying to play an RPG evil is anything that turns the game into a laborious time waster. So I think large skill trees certainly fit into that most of the time.

Note here I'm not talking about suggested skills. Having a vast array of contextualising information about the kinds of skills one might have is not a problem. Especially not if your skillcyclopaedia indicates the proper definition of all skills should be agreed between Host and Player before play commences. Remember the player wants the coolest persona that won't break the game and the Host wants to provide the most thrilling experience into which the characters fit like perfect players in the dramatic events of the story.

I've never met a player who wouldn't agree to prune the power to feel more like they fit in the world. Power gamers tend to be caught in a well intentioned attempt to cover all possible bases. Power Game characters tend to lean on their magic character stat though and this makes for a one-dimensional character most times.

I've never come across an RPG where the variety of skills available was particularly what made the game in fact I've never seen one where telling the player any finite number of skills is all the skills that exist is anything more than a massive bummer to the players.

If you want to give the players a menu of skills and say get on with it you're not Hosting properly. The skills a player may or may not need in the course of an adventure or campaign should always be a negotiation between player and Host and should never come off a list.

That's how I do it, that's how Over the Edge does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far.

20 May 2009

Mixed Bag

First off let me just point you in the direction of The No Dice Node which is the official No Dice forum. I've always loved a good forum ever since I was first on teh intarwebnet and it's always been a sad little ambition of mine to run one. So sad little ambition now realised.

I'm really pleased that we've got 5 real members (and the Google AdSense bot) on the roster. Admittedly Admins still outnumber real community members but, hey, everyone's got to start somewhere. We've already proven to be a lively bunch and once I've finished writing this I'm sloping off to reply to threads and maybe start a few of my own.

I've always wanted to have the exploits of myself and my colleagues be fully interactive and I always find people more able to witter away and keep in touch in a forum than commenting on blogs or podcast posts. So I hope some of you will join us in the node and see all that's super live in the Node.

Before I disappear one brief thought I felt it was worth setting down regards how I'm finding the transition between thinking of myself as a writer and thinking of myself as a game designer. When I was a writer it all seemed very lonely. Writers aren't supposed to be particularly interactive and writer's circles are seen as places of ego battering misery for the ascetic journeyman. Basically writers aren't really seen as "chatty".

I remember when I was trying to promote the cause of POD back in the day people generally regarded it as a station of hopeless but valiant calling. Nobody in POD circles sees themselves as a "joiner", well, except me.

I love people, I love seeing what lies within someone's imagination. I love to tell stories with people and being the designer of No Dice and its associated systems is already an awesome thing. I've met possibly 15-20 new gamers as a result of No Dice and all of them have been awesome human beings, every game that finished I was sad to see them go and hoped we'd hang out for a session again.

That's what I think the absolute difference between being in the gaming world and the pure writing world is. I am all about enabling the stories of others, writers feel they have story to tell that is theirs.

I am glad I've found my side of that fence.

14 May 2009

Things Are Getting Desperate

Only a couple of days to go until No Dice debuts at Beer & Pretzels. I'm really looking forward to taking some games out for a trundle. Justin, Mrs Monkey and myself had a war council last night and it all is looking quite exciting. I think it's fair to say that hopes are high for this enterprise. Sure we won't be filling a Global Stadium Tour any time soon but I hope people can get behind what we're trying to do here.

One thing that struck me in the paper-riffic character sheet production bonanza that took place yesterday was that we really do have a vast array of different rules and features that swap around in a dizzying number of ways to create an awesome powerhouse of role play variety.

It was part of the design all along that there would be a Vanilla system onto which features would be bolted as suited the needs of the scenario but I never expected there to be so many subtle shades. For example Con of the Dead is the exemplar of cheap and cheerful, four character records to a sheet of A4, 8 stats, a suit, a character name. Extremely efficient.

At the other end of the scale Marauders: Pirates of the Kamuri Kandam has 12 stats and a whole separate grid for fighting. Shadow Cities two meters for combat (ranged and melee and a huge wash of skill slots). Revelation Point, our slasher one off, employs a completely gimmicked system for making Slasher one offs where injuries are micromanaged and obssessed over much as they are in the genre they attempt to emulate.

Despite what could be a dizzying array of different rule sets the system remains, at heart, pretty simple. The scores on the sheets are only ever chucked in when needed. In fact there are sub variations of the rules for certain situations, the Marauders one off we're taking to B&P has almost no role play in it, well, very little that would require role play tests. In response I've stripped the 12 attribute skill grid out of the one off sheets and presented players with a character history and a fighting style.

Anyhow, all of this variety is intended to impress and I hope it does. After this piece of work we're looking forward to a launch party next week and then, well, the launch. A rest can't come soon enough to be honest.

Word of the week has been traction. What we're all really hoping is that this product will create some space for us to get some traction, buy a little time to do the work and get on with writing up the twelve books we've got planned so far (not counting anthologies of one offs). I predict a lot of hoarsely telling people that if they had a good time please to spread the word in the immediate future.

Oh well, off to think about fliers to hand out this weekend...

7 May 2009

Frantic Preparation Abounds

Those of you champing at the bit to get a copy of the Core Book will be pleased to hear that the final few bits and pieces are coming together nicely. We've had tentative conversations speculating about what kind of business it might do.

When I published my novels I knew how badly they would do. I am a very harsh reader and rarely read any novels unless they really grab my attention. I am apt to view my own work in the same light. Sure it's a good novel, I might think, but there are thousands of good novels that don't sell well.

But a game?

The scope of a game is different. If you're Harry Potter you can sell yourself to millions of people world wide, no role playing game will ever outsell you not even a Harry Potter RPG. But if you are an unknown but pretty decent novel you could go through a print run of 600 copies 550 of which will get remaindered and no one will ever know who the hell you were.

RPGs are far more narrow band. If an RPG is decent it will shift a few units no matter what. Or at least that's the way it seems. Of course if you write a rubbish RPG it fares about as well as the unknown decent novel. But there is some kind of meritocracy in the world of the RPG. Good stuff makes a mark, bad stuff makes a different kind of mark. The community is communicative and keen.

It's a world I understand. While I'd never really be able to sell a novel to someone without resorting to "it might give you an idea for an RPG session" I can tell every role player who ever lived that they need to look at No Dice.

In the latest podcast (#5 up this weekend) Justin talks about the appraisal of D&D 4e which states that it's a game that does an epic job of removing all the RP. Well No Dice is almost the polar opposite it's a Role Play tool that hacks the game down to a minimum.

Thus if people want to mix their game complexity with some RP fun it might be best to buy both. One's a game, the other supports you in Role Play, together they might just make beautiful musics... or they might just make a terrible hideous carnage filled mess.

The point is valid. I have always looked on No Dice as an addendum to crunchier systems because if I want crunch I can easily get myself stocked up. If I want to examine parts of the RP experience that don't involve crunch there's limited resource available. And what is there isn't terribly well organised.

So I'm keeping my phylanges crossed that people see things the way the No Dice Crew do. I guess we'll find out come June 1st and thereafter.

My own personal ambition that we've done something really good is when we sell around 1000 copies of the printed book. My target to know it wasn't a complete waste of time and energy is at a more conservative 50 copies.

There's a hell of a lot of legroom inbetween for stuff to evolve.