By The Warden
PREVIOUSLY: If you missed out on last week’s post, you’ll definitely want to check that out. Over the next few months, I’m using this column to document the complete design process for a new system currently underway in my Lab. So far, I’ve established five objectives needed to fulfill my goals with this design: super-fast gameplay, rules-lite, easy to learn, emphasis on story/character, and versatile outcomes. As speed is my #1 priority, I want to break this objective down into greater detail and create a list of mechanical limitations, if you will, to speed up gameplay.
You hear a lot of chatter here and there about the death of tabletop games at the hands of video games. Sure, maybe some of that chatter has died down because of the recent increase in tabletop games, but I find most of that relates to board games. When it comes to RPGs, the theory remains that they simply cannot compete with the instant gratification and graphics of an XBOX One or a PS4. In some regards, I can understand that sentiment though I only agree with part of it for a different reason.
There is a major hurdle roleplaying games have against the rapid fire gameplay of video games and it all comes down to turn management. How long does it take to set a course of action and resolve it? Even if a video game pauses the game between turns, a la Final Fantasy RPGs, everything players need to make it happen are calculate and completed by the game’s program. For this topic, I’m not talking about how the game dishes out various actions, clarity of rules, or how to resolve those actions on a single turn, but how players complete their turns. While it may seem I’m passing the buck on this one and dumping it all on the players humming and hawing over what to do while their character has initiative, that’s not entirely the case. It’s a part of it, sure, but not the whole enchilada. How rules are written and the game conceived sets the tone for how players can manage (or mismanage) their turns.
It’s first and foremost on my mind as I work on my new system, codenamed “Phoenix”, and just as promised last week, I’m using this column to get into all the considerations and internal debates needed to bring this vision to life. As I stated in my list of core objectives for Phoenix’s design, I want this sucker to run smooth with the speed of a gazelle. I want turn management to be kept to a minimum so that players can focus solely on maximizing the fun without getting bogged down in choices and figuring out if they succeeded or not. Knowing how I want players to manage their turns means a basic understanding of how RPGs place that kind of responsibility on players universally, meaning what are some of the standard tricks and considerations designers place on turn management and how can I make efficient use of those standards for my own design?
THE MECHANICAL EFFECT
While we are looking for a shared outcome in my game’s turn management, that doesn’t necessarily mean I want the exact results between every player. A game’s turn management is measured by how the mechanics support and encourage a preferred style of play. For example, if you want your game to allow players to utilize a variety of features and powers so that every turn allows them to try a different approach, you may grant characters numerous abilities and attack types for an assortment of possibilities. This approach can provide players with a list of different actions broken down into categories of range (direct melee, direct ranged, group burst attacks, etc.) so that they can determine the best one for the immediate task at hand. This approach places emphasis on understanding the character above the game; yes, you need to know the basics of the game, but only so far as how your character’s abilities are affected by your given options. Another game may be constructed to keep turns fast with an emphasis on dice rolls rather than power selection and instead allow players to take a smaller number of options (such as weapons and standard penalties/conditions for attack types) allowing players to express their playing style through an understanding of the game as a whole. Regarding turn management, either example can create a completely different style for players that will shape how the game comes to life at the table.
Turn management mostly comes down to how many options your game provides and how much players are expected to know and access. I’d say at least 50% of it comes down to how the game is played with the rest broken down into a few other human quirks and common traits shared amongst gamers. In most cases, it becomes a choice between knowledge of the core rules versus character knowledge, such as the difference between Savage Worlds and D&D‘s later editions (particularly the 4th one). In Savage Worlds, characters have a few unique options compared to the rest of the party (i.e. Edges and Hindrances), but everyone mostly works from the same angle with the same tools. It’s all about how you make use of the rules to make your character’s actions count. D&D‘s 4th edition put the focus squarely on how your character’s build shapes their possibilities, such as whether or not they were built to inflict damage against multiple opponents or target one at a time to maximum efficiency. Either way, you’re giving players a list to choose from every turn and leaving the complexity of the game to determine the depth of its turn management. The more options you give them, the longer it can take for players to complete turns.
That being said, everyone plays differently, though they tend to fall into groups with names like “rules lawyers,” “actors” and “prima donnas.” Not everyone applies a game’s turn management the same way, but how those foundations are laid down does tend to lean it in one direction. The more rules your game has, the greater chance you’ll have rules lawyers playing it because it matches their preferred style of play. The more options, the greater the chance players will need more time selecting the right course of action. That’s not the crowd I’m aiming for. If any, I would lean towards imaginative actors who embrace teamwork and free-flowing ideas. The less constricted they feel, the faster they embrace the game and complete their turns. In theory.
THE SECOND HALF OF THE EQUATION
At this stage in game creation, all that does is provide me with a target audience to aim for. I don’t actually have the rules completely laid out, just some rough ideas on the basics without going through stress tests to ensure they’ll work. What I need are firmer, smaller goals to keep in mind while putting the pieces together, areas where I can control (to some degree) how long it takes for players to fulfill their turns beyond mechanical structure.
Keep Dice Rolls Simple: One thing I’ve learned from previous designs is that people generally do not have great internal math skills and it varies from person to person. Some players need a calculator just to add two numbers together, others have trouble with a pile of them. When you add on features such as modifiers, penalties, and multipliers, there is a risk of some or all of the players increasing their turn management solely because of math. To meet my goal, I want to keep the math to its absolute basics and stick with a single die and no more than one modifier of any degree (positive or negative).
Page Flipping: Looking up additional material and expanded descriptions of rules, modifiers, and conditions only ensure your game will pause every now and then to verify correct application. Not all the time and some players/groups have greater mastery of the rules than others, but that can only be expected with something they adore and embrace to the level of Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Fate Core, and other massively popular games. For a little game like mine, I can’t count on that. That’s ignorant and so I need to condense the rules down to something that will be fully explained on a character sheet.
Tactical Combat: The more tactical the mechanics, the longer it takes to complete a turn. As a basic rule of thumb, miniatures can actually slow down gameplay when they unlock ultimate perfection in determining range, terrain effects, cover, and a whole mess of options common to tactical games. At the same time, playing theatre of the mind style leaves too much open to interpretation and can lead to confusing descriptions put on hold because one player imagined her characters on top of the large boulder, not standing in front of it. Anything that can potentially pause the game will greatly affect turn management. Because of my rules lite objective, odds are using the theatre of the mind approach will be my better option.
Descriptive Benefits: I’ve recently fallen in love with the idea of mechanical benefits to descriptive actions and I’ve been experiencing it quite a bit lately during playtests for Fraser Ronald’s Nefertiti Overdrive (now available through the Kickstarter – what a great time to mention this game, eh?). In Overdrive, players describe how their Qualities (broken down into Concepts, Elements, Traits, and Drivers) come into play to unlock their listed dice value in a pool rolled against the GM. Certain dice are known as Action Attributes with two values listed; a base one for generic, non-flourishing use and a higher value when players go hog wild with the description. In other words, simply state that you’ll punch someone and you only add a d6 to the roll. Turn that punch into a 360 degree spin kick across 20 feet of enemy-controlled territory and you’re now working with a d10. This is an example of descriptive benefits.
It’s something that has been used throughout roleplaying from one degree to another in the form of bonus experience rewards (at least in my experience, though there are some hard-up GMs out there who only dish XP for kills). Modern systems have begun to embrace these aspects and incorporate them into the game’s core designs. There are no rules for how well descriptive benefits apply. The sole purpose of descriptive benefits is to encourage interaction and awesomeness in gameplay. Does the GM think it’s awesome? Boom, gain the benefit. No complex rules required. Something like this would fit Phoenix’s speed goal quite nicely.
(There’s another advantage to using this approach: meeting the needs of my core audience, which is my Development Team. This is a game I’m designing for them with the goal of expanding out to a larger crowd. Seeing as I know this style of play works for them as most of the Team has also been behind Overdrive’s playtesting and Fraser himself is part of the group, it’s a safe bet that they’ll enjoy descriptive benefits.)
LOCKING IT DOWN
Ok, so to meet my gameplay objective, I need to keep this game to absolute basics that can apply to a wide variety of circumstances using minimal dice/modifier math and descriptive benefits to create an imaginative experience that all fits on a character sheet. With some solid mechanics and a basic task resolution engine behind it, I think this is a lofty and achievable goal. And because it is my top priority, I want to assign a solid measurement to ensure these are all being met. A line in the sand that will cause a rule to be axed if it causes the average turn to cross that line.
I’m going to set a goal of 30 seconds per turn. Maybe one or two could take a little longer, but I want the average player’s turn to start and conclude (AKA pass to the next player) within 30 seconds. Real world time. What do you think? Plausible or stretching it a bit?