Monday, August 12, 2013

Design Discussion

One problem with the traditional tabletop game is the inaccessibility of it.  While game systems have always existed on both ends of the spectrum of heavy math, and light math, the popular and successful ones that a majority of people play have some fundamental flaws with the design of the system that make it difficult for a few critical things.

Game Masters are necessary and fundamental in design for the success of a tabletop game, and the feasibility of a system without one is quite limited.  But the GM position in a game can be quite stressful for new people to pick up, and most games aren't conducive to learning.  Additionally, GM burnout in general is a factor, and games are always healthier when different people in the group take turns GMing, and understand what goes into the process.  Healthy groups can last a very long time and be the source of friendship and socialization, and are one of the very best parts of tabletop gaming.

However, few systems on the market are really focused on encouraging that kind of development.  It's sort of an accident of happenstance, or a sign of good friends when it does.  Most systems are designed mechanically to reinforce the Game Master as an enemy.  It encourages players to try to beat the GM, missions and plots and fights are about winning the game, rather than about telling story.  A GM by nature, must be of a certain personality type to be willing to have that kind of control and in that environment only certain kinds of personalities will even have fun.  Not every game will play like this, but the very base systems of D&D and Pathfinder very much treat the GM as the enemy.

World of Darkness did a great job with it's storyteller system of trying to focus on the storytelling aspect of the GM instead of the mechanical functions.  It has a very light set of mechanics to reinforce story as the main aspect of the game, and it had plenty of thematic elements to back that up.  WoD though requires an intense amount of plotting, and is very focused and limited with each separate module not being very compatible.  In addition the thematic elements at the time of release made it difficult to appeal beyond a very niche audience.  Furthermore, the underpinning mechanics that did exist where very broken and actually had problems with scaling backward, where the more dice one had, the more chance of catastrophic failure there was.

In both D&D 3.5/Pathfinder, and WoD, the GM has the added issue of having to fudge dice and re-balance the game on the fly.  Due to Pathfinder's ridiculous class and system imbalances with many different rulebooks and synergies that scale exponentially, the power imbalance in a game of unequal skilled players means significant difficulty for a GM to balance encounters.  With powerful players it can be a challenge to even present a moderate amount of difficulty without catastrophically wiping the party, or making less skilled players feel useless.

So what purpose does Dreamcatcher serve in this discussion?  Many systems provide enough of a good experience that any existing tabletop group can have plenty to choose from.  And newer systems have come out more recently to make the games more mechanically balanced that allow newer GMs to pick up the dungeon crawling portion of traditional tabletop, like D&D 4.0, but they miss the primary point.  With the advent of video games it becomes a challenge for a tabletop game to offer the level of mechanical interest, and strategy found in video games.  In addition, Massive Multiplayer games offer a few of the social elements that drew people to tabletop.

What is the primary unique factor that tabletop games cannot have replicated in video games?  Collaborative storytelling.  A common derogatory term for GMs who force a specific set of actions and plot on players as 'railroading', which is to say, the GM that does not adapt the story and seeks to tell a plot like a movie.  This eliminates the largest part of the interaction in story for the players.  Dreamcatcher seeks to mechanically offer a cooperative experience that while maintaining the model of GM and player, sets up the entire system mechanically and thematically to reinforce the players and GM on the same side.

Dreamcatcher calls the GM a Dreamweaver, for they help to navigate and inject plot, come up with situations to challenge the players, but the entire focus is different.  There is no combative rolling in this system, rather the Dreamweaver does not roll dice against the players.  Instead, players roll for both offensive, and defensive situations.  It creates a unique dynamic compared to existing systems in play, and makes it immediately less combative on a subtle psychological level.

The rules themselves are designed to inherently discourage the traditional optimization of games in numerous ways, that don't inhibit design of character, or fun or flexibility.  There is logarithmic scaling instead of exponential scaling of power, allowing for characters who dabble to still have use.  Skills are flexible and broad in use, so creative players may be more effective by thinking through how to solve a situation rather than picking attacks or skills from a list in front of them.  That isn't to say the system is without mechanics, as there have been many that have come out before to strip a system bare to focus entirely on storytelling.  But rules play a roll in helping new players learn how the world works, and a robust system can help in allowing shy players to be eased into role playing instead of just being thrown in.

What strategy exists in Dreamcatcher was carefully selected.  The three fundamental sources of strategy this rule set incorporates are:  Resource Management, Luck and Risk Management, and Problem Solving.  Resource management is something pretty much anyone who has ever played a game instantly grasps and is able to understand and use.  This game features different resource pools to manage during the course of play.

All resources recharge after periodic breaks, in this case taking inspiration from one of the better design elements of D&D 4.0, the rest system.  While many games have used 'days', or 'sessions', to describe the period in which things recharge, both are arbitrary, and harder for players to understand on a mechanical level, and neither element is within the control of players.  Long rests as defined in Dreamcatcher are periods of rest or break, long enough to have a full eight hours of sleep uninterrupted.  When players choose to do this, is under their control instead of the Dreamweaver, so they can retain they can plan how they use their resources based on when they know they will be able to recharge.  In addition, there are short rests, which allow for some resources to recharge during a break or breather.  This adds another element of depth, choosing when to use these resources so that recharge is not wasted.  Spending a lot of resources in one encounter, may prove problematic later down the road as the resources that do recharge do so slowly.

Resources include three separate pools of Fortitude, each of which represent a different part of a players well being.  Physical, Mental and Spiritual Fortitude are calculated differently, and expended on failure or occasionally consumed on use of certain abilities.  A character is only as strong as their weakest Fortitude, as if any should hit zero, they become Vulnerable.  The reason for the different health pools is it discourages optimization by design, as a character is only as strong as their weakest Fortitude.

Another major resource is Destiny.  Destiny is a stat that lets players write their own story.  They may expend Destiny in order to override dice, assure successes, or replicate any function they need to.  They are very powerful, and if spent together can stack up to create game changing actions.  Destiny is the single most powerful effect a player can have in storytelling, allowing them to determine the outcome of a situation, but being a resource they must be careful to decide how they use it.

The next big element of strategy is Luck and Risk Management.  This is presented in some ways with the Destiny resource, but also applies to the fundamental dice system.  Many games in the past feature little thought beyond rolling a dice or dice on the player's end and seeing what falls.  As described in a previous chapter, Dreamcatcher features a mechanic called Fraying, which is secondary consequences to an action. While failure and success are the two primary measures most consider in an action, consequence is far less considered in design in most systems.  Consequence is expressed in the form of Frayed Actions, situations in which a Fray goes through that may occur regardless of an actions success.  When players roll, a specific number called Fraying determines what dice that come up count as Frays.  Frays may be removed from a roll by any other non fray dice.  This means that excess dice may be used to cancel frays out.  However, there will be situations where a player must choose between success while leaving a Fray in the action, or failure, or between a huge success with a fray or a minor success.  These considerations are up to the player, who has the choice of deciding between the options and determining how the action concludes.

The dice don't determine what consequences are though, and the system leaves enough flexibility to make it sensible rather than mechanical.  A Dreamweaver may use one of the many Frayed Conditions to represent a story element, or may come up with far more elaborate consequences for the frayed action, but regardless it becomes a choice the player makes that integrates them with the story being told.

The last big source of strategy in the system is problem solving.  The game does not differentiate combat with any other form of encounter.  It treats every system by design as a skill challenge, or puzzle to solve regardless of the conditions.  It is mandatory that a Dreamweaver present multiple paths to conclusion for players, and is given tools in encounter design to allow for creating these multiple paths and determining conclusion in a mechanical way that will reinforce the storytelling.

Character skills are expansive, and designed around a guideline of potential, but leaving open the option of using skills in ways not quantified within the book.  The skills allowplayers to think outside the box and approach encounters in ways that aren't prescribed directly by the rules if they make sense from a story perspective.  The design does not inhibit the story, but reinforces it.

That is the most fundamental part of Dreamcatcher, rules that are simple enough to grasp, have good depth but reinforce the story instead of limiting it.  It is the hope in the long run that more people get to experience role playing, and GMing and creates an inclusive experience for both experienced and newer players.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

First Draft Get

Draft #1 is officially completed.  An arbitrary designation, as there is still original content to write, and some sections already been revised pretty heavily, but none-the-less this is a milestone.  Play-testing will begin soon, and alpha players are rolling up characters, though honestly a significant and major overhaul to the way character creation works is already being designed for draft #2, to bring the unnecessarily complex and intimidating process down to something far more manageable without losing flexibility.  This is not a small change, but a complete and total overhaul of the character creation process that brings the design goals far closer to a reality.  This should not be overwhelming or intimidating for new players, unlike the current design.

The first draft was 138,500 words, without either of the unfinished vignettes, though there may be additional content written in the forms of Dreamcatchers, Traits and Flaws as character creation happens during play.

What does this mean?  Dreamcatcher is on track still for a December or January Kickstarter still, and hopefully will not slide too far, though the art portion of the equation must be to a certain point first.  In addition the author must hire a lawyer to help with art contracts so that progress on artwork can happen, and needs to start working on simple Layout design in order to assist with draft #2's structuring process.

Even so, its good news for anyone who is interested in the project.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Current Progress

Draft: 1st
Current Word Count:  138,000 + 2800 Unfinished Vignette

The progress in the last month has been unfortunately slow, though I am this last week making some much better progress.  I've settled some campaign matters, written some more functional things and finished making examples for significant thematic aspects to the game to give a better idea and guideline for creating more, and visualizing the concepts within the setting.

I invested a lot of time on an important vignette sequel I've been struggling to finish, but it's almost done at the very least.  The first draft is getting ever closer to being completed, after which playtesting shall begin.

Completed -

8 Vignettes
31 Contracts
3 Godstones, 19 Minor Dreamcatchers, 13 Major Dreamcatchers, and 10 Oracle Coins
150 Traits and Flaws
30 Husks
5 Common Runewords 9 Rare Runewords
6 Penumbra Examples
3 Wild Examples
12 Dreamtime Examples
18 Metropolises
4 Pathways
6 Crossroads
Character creation
Character growth
Setting history
Skills thoroughly created, expanded, detailed

To do list 

Two more vignettes
More Minor Dreamcatchers
Guidelines for Husk creation
More Husks
More Pathway examples
Mock Play Sessions
Pregenerated characters with stories