Friday, August 10, 2012

Behind the Screen, 8/10/2012

It is my job to talk about boring rules stuff but this week's session is light on mechanics testing, bless and curse the role players in the test group, leaving me no rule changes to document or new mechanics to present. After staring at a screen trying to write something about nothing, we'll do something a little different: a look at the design philosophy that goes into adapting a rules set to a new setting.

Click too see a discussion on how easy it is to make rules that go horribly right after the break.

It is an interesting moment when your design principles work too well. One of the goals for FO:E - APMRPG is that no one would need more than pencil, paper and dice to play. This keeps the game easy to learn and not require breaks for math or rules searching, nice benefits for preserving the flow of a game.

One effect this had on APMRPG is reducing reliance on the battle mat. Call it an over reaction to experiences with the Dungeon and Dragon's 4th Edition. The system's fun but the nature of the powers system made it difficult to run a game without a map. That is great for face to games and groups that want tactical combat. For game masters that like to improv and groups that play via the internet, not so much. To accommodate, APMRPG was written in a way that game masters can describe the scene and not have to worry about putting everything in a square.

For a time this was good. The playtest game proceeded wonderfully on game master description alone. Mission accomplished. Then there was moment. The test group is crossing a stretch of desert wracked by freaky weather. Dust devils start kicking up, patches of swirling air fling sand rock strong to tear up the players if they do not find shelter. Amazing Grace and Who-Dares-Wins pile into the part cart, Gentlecolt Jack leaps into the driver's seat and snaps the reins across Nopony's back. They charge into the teeth of the storm and to overcome the challenge Gentlecolt Jack rolls...

A single Drive check.

Wait. That's it?

Double checking the notes for the session, yeah. The scene sounded so much cooler in planning than it was in execution, and extra annoying since this group has done amazing vehicle encounters before. Ask us about the Flying Scotsman some time. Grace and Dares still talk about that game. What went wrong?

The answer came looking over the notes the next day. The other encounters used maps. Using maps made it easier to fill the encounters with hazards. Other vehicles to avoid, short cuts in front of oncoming trains, routes through traffic that can require specific maneuvers instead of a simple "did you roll a good Drive check, Y/N?" Trying to track dust devils by description alone proved to hard in the planning phase and boiled down to succeeding or failing a single skill check.

The rules did exactly what what we wanted. And it was boring.

The experience was thought provoking. In the attempt to keep APMRPG accessible, we made a system that took something as exciting as race against time and weather and boiled it down to a single die roll. Sure, we can use a grid in later sessions. APMRPG is a d20 based game, its not hard to go back. But that avoids the central question. Can a descriptive game capture the same excitement for groups without using the same number of pieces as round of Monopoly?

These are the types questions that pop up in the design and test process, but at the same if you like problem solving that's what makes this fun. There is a certain satisfaction to coming up with solutions help players feel the fun and excitement of a story like Fallout: Equestria.

One path toward solutions is discussion. If you have experience in mat less games, go ahead and share your thoughts in the comments. A few people bouncing ideas around is the first test towards moving a game from concept to release.

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