Making Puzzles For Games I: Vectors of Interaction

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In case the content of this blog did not demonstrate this, I am deeply interested in all facets of game design, a domain that can be messily divided into video game design and tabletop game design (there are a bunch of other areas of knowledge too, like for gambling games, sports, gamification, and surely a bunch of other niches I’m unaware of). There’s a lot of shared thought and space between video games and tabletop games, especially since video games from near inception to today have been using ideas from its older brother, a translation of ideas that tabletop games have started to reciprocate recently. There is, however, one idea that does not make the jump across that particular threshold so easily: the puzzle.

Puzzles, which I’ll vaguely and probably incorrectly define as “a challenge in a game which is overcome with knowledge, logic, or lateral thinking instead of strength, skill, execution, or numerical advantage”, are pretty tightly linked with both tabletop games and video games and have been since both mediums’ inceptions. Generally speaking, people like a good head-scratcher, and a puzzle is a good way to provide a change of pace from the regular core action of a game.

I’ve seen a lot of puzzles in video games, and a lot of puzzles in tabletop games, and I can tell you that while puzzles in video games range from awful to transcendent, puzzles in tabletop games, in my experience, are almost unilaterally awful.

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Again, some video game puzzles are definitely also bad

They’re awful in a specific way, too: the puzzle is presented, players spend too long bashing their head against solutions, usually in a solution that too closely resembles brute force, until finally the energy in the room is so thoroughly sapped that someone looks at the Game Master and goes “fuck it, what is it” and the whole thing is just resolved by GM fiat or by ten goblins falling out of a ceiling tile in a desperate ploy just to create some semblance of forward momentum again.

How can it be that even the most action-packed video games can successfully include some relatively obtuse puzzles, and sliding a single puzzle into even a slow, investigative tabletop RPG session collapses immediately? I don’t think it’s all bad puzzle design on the part of tabletop RPG designers (although they’re certainly not fully blameless), I think that there are fundamental differences in the two types of game which make one have a much easier time with puzzles than the other, the largest of which is going to be what I call “vectors of interaction”.

When I refer to a “vector of interaction”, I am talking about a single way in which a player can in some way affect the world of the game. You can think of these as “verbs”, although I think they’re a little bit broader than that. In Super Mario Bros, the vectors of interaction include moving left and right, jumping, crouching, and shooting a fireball. These are the fundamental vectors.

Since the player exists outside of the game and the puzzle exists within it, it is fairly reasonable to say that the only way a puzzle can be solved is by applying a certain set of vectors of interaction in a certain order. To open the locked door, you must move (a vector) to the enemy that has the key, attack (a vector) them until they die, pick up (a vector) the key, move (same vector) back to the door, then unlock (last vector) the door.

One of the strongest tools that puzzles in games have in creating the puzzle is by carefully curating the player’s vectors of interaction. Games frequently set up puzzles by teaching the player what their vectors are, and then conditioning the player to recognize subtle hints which indicate to them what vectors might need to be used where. This can be very obvious (when you see enemies, you probably need to fight or kill them), or more subtle (whenever you need to find a ladder in The Last of Us, the ledge that you will use that ladder to access will usually be painted yellow). The Witness, famously, built an entire game, with tons of puzzle variety, around a single vector of interaction: guiding a line along a grid to a goal.

Games can also build puzzles by subverting expectations regarding vectors of interaction, perhaps introducing new ones, or making the player find new ways to use old vectors. For an example of the former, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass has several puzzles that are solved by using vectors of interaction that the player might not even initially think to use, namely the DS’s microphone and ability to close. The ending of Portal 2 does the latter exceptionally, by leveraging a gag from hours ago that the portal-friendly walls of the Aperture testing facility are painted with moon rock, in order to get the player to shoot a portal at the actual Moon.

Here in vectors of interaction we have a massive gulf between video games and tabletop RPGs, one which at first blush sounds like it might be in favor of tabletop RPGs: video games have an order of magnitude fewer potential vectors of interaction than a tabletop RPG. Every gaming platform has a limited number of control inputs, which can only be reused and combined so many ways before a game’s controls become cumbersome. As a result, players’ problem solving toolkits are dramatically limited in video games. You cannot hash out a verbal truce with Bowser at the end of Super Mario Bros. You cannot get through a locked door in Resident Evil by breaking it down.

Tabletop RPGs, as a (typically) completely spoken-word storytelling medium where the game exists in players’ boundless imagination, has no such limitations. Players’ vectors of interaction are functionally infinite: any action they can conceive of, at least any action that doesn’t conflict with the fundamental rules of the game world’s reality, is valid. An enemy can be shot, stabbed, talked down, tied up, avoided, thrown down a big hole, brought to exhaustion, brought to boredom, outlived until it eventually dies of old age, anything at all.

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Admittedly, point-and-click adventure games actually have a similar problem, with their wide gamut of verbs available to the player and an unclear delineation between foreground and background

The problem is that infinite vectors of interaction equate to infinite potential actions at any given moment when solving a puzzle, which equate to infinite red herrings. When I as a player can talk to every single inhabitant of a town infinitely while investigating a murder, as opposed to a video game where they will inevitably run out of dialogue, I have the room to explore red herrings and dead ends forever. If they truly don’t know how to solve a puzzle, and try to simply brute force it, they have infinite options to iterate through until they find the correct one.

Thus, a potential avenue to developing a puzzle that players will solve in a finite amount of time, ideally before everyone at the table spits bile at the mere mention of the word “puzzle”, is the careful curation of vectors of interaction. By limiting the possibility space of a puzzle’s solution, players can reason about a more limited set of options and, hopefully, come to a solution in a limited amount of time. I’ll be discussing the ways you can do this in the next post in this series, but as a teaser, there are at least two strategies you can follow to do this, you can either add an additional layer of interaction to the game, limiting players’ available vectors to a more manageable subset, or you can use signalling in order to let players trim down vectors themselves.

The other major solution that comes to mind, one which I’ll also be covering, is what I like to call Gordian Knot puzzle design. This is to say, create a puzzle without a solution, at least not one in mind, and trust in the players’ ingenuity, combined with the infinite vectors of interaction available to them, to produce a solution without you having to think of it beforehand.

These techniques are designed to either constrain or work with tabletop RPG’s extreme breadth of vectors of interaction, and hopefully utilizing these techniques will help produce RPG puzzles that are actually enjoyable, for once.

 

Building Stronger Supporting Casts By Setting Them Free

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There’s a common idiosyncrasy pointed out about video games with any amount of non-linearity, which is that the player’s propensity to goof off frequently contradicts the in-universe drive of the protagonist to accomplish their goals. Shepard wastes his time in the club instead of saving the universe, the Dragonborn runs around collecting cheese wheels instead of stopping armageddon, the Sole Survivor pretends to be a superhero instead of finding their son, etc. While this is usually handwaved by lamenting the natural contradiction between having a narrative with tension, and offering players choice, a corollary question emerges: what the hell are your companions doing?

A decent number of games offer the player an ensemble of companion characters, NPCs who you can drag along with you on your assorted adventures, a second set of guns and a sort of Roman chorus chiming in on whatever you’re doing. Usually, these characters are given strong personalities, deep backstories, and goals of their own. All of this makes it all the more demeaning that, in most of these games, these characters become attached at the hip to the player character, being dragged along on whatever dumb garbage the player wants to do. This is completely contradictory to their written character; it makes them feel like some combination of uncaring about their own goals, the player’s babysitters, and servants to the players’ whim.

I only really started to think about this when I recently started to play Far Cry 2. A game who’s whole M.O is “the player doesn’t matter”, Far Cry 2 has a “Buddy” system that on first blush resembles these companion systems, but which has an interesting twist. When you meet a Buddy, they thank you for your help, pledge their services in the future, and leave. They go off into the African wilderness to … do whatever it is that they’re going to do. Probably some flavor of war crime.

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This isn’t to say they vanish. Rather, they instead intersect with your story at its most interesting moments. They reappear for most story missions, offering their own wrinkles based in their own goals (“Hey, as long as you’re in this area, you mind taking out a target for me?”), and sometimes when you’re killed in combat, instead a Buddy comes charging in to save you.

This was fascinating to me, and made me realize that video game companions who stick around through the entire game are a lot like anyone else who you spend a prolonged period of time around: at some point, you just run out of stuff to talk about. Their story, at least for the duration of the game, is yours, because they’re at your side the whole time. All you can get is chunks of backstory and character-revealing dialogue, but the character is rendered passive by their role as your new shadow. Filling out this character’s backstory requires a combination of them oversharing about their life, and them commenting on every little thing the player does (assuming the player is doing anything worth commenting).

By contrast, the Far Cry 2 buddies are interesting in the negative space of their lives. Because you only intersect with their lives briefly, you end up naturally interested in what you don’t see. Why is Flora suddenly a target for kidnapping by the UFLL? What was Paul doing in this desert before he happened across me bleeding out in the sand? It’s reminiscent of when you swap characters in Grand Theft Auto V, popping into one of the protagonist’s lives in the middle of a scene or moment: the unknown of what was happening just before the camera panned in on them makes the player wonder, and that wonder makes the character interesting.

A similar idea is put into effect (heh) in the Mass Effect trilogy. The selection of characters who are actually aboard the Normandy and available for missions varies over the trilogy, but those characters are still in the world when they exit the team, so they’re given some time out of the spotlight to pursue their own goals. This can be jarring at times, such as Liara’s 180 degree turn from naive and curious to stone-cold bureaucrat, but other times it means characters are given a chance to grow and be their own heroes, like Jack’s turn from “vengeful psychopath” to a mentor-like figure. Other characters, whose identities and arcs are strongly rooted in the culture they come from, like Wrex, Grunt, and Legion, are given a chance to reintegrate with those cultures and be changed by them, or to change them. This could never happen if these characters were permanently aboard the Normandy, just playing ping pong between missions.

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Being side-by-side with a companion character for an entire game feels a lot like a John Mulaney bit from his newest special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, in which he describes having so run out of topics of conversation with his mother that, desperate for anything, he just blurts out “Do you believe in ghosts?” These companion characters in video games are similarly suffocated by the need to be an interesting character for up to eighty hours. However, I think some writers have taken to an almost Hitchcockian approach to writing companion characters, wherein they are decoupled from the character and are given some time out of the limelight, which allows them to grow, act, and shape the world, free from the bungee cord tying them to the player’s waist.

This also ties into that idiosyncrasy I mentioned at the front: by letting companion characters loose from the main cast for a spell, they are able to complete their goals without the player opting in to them, which, from a narrative design perspective, means they’re allowed to have goals unrelated to, or even against, those of the player. A player would be hard-pressed to pursue a companion quest which actively sabotaged them, but having a loyal companion disappear from the cast, only to reappear having chosen their own goals and loyalties over their loyalty and friendship with the player, would be an interesting moment, both for the character and the player.

Untethering companion characters from the protagonist allows them to become more interesting by way of the unseen moments of their lives, and offers narrative designers new opportunities for character development that just aren’t possible when companions are chasing the heels of the player character.

What the Fucket Detective is Bucket Detective

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Bucket Detective might be the weirdest game I play all year. A game by Jesse Barksdale, the creator of the deeply unsettling and weirdly funny the static speaks my nameBucket Detective is a short walking simulator-type game which gingerly tiptoes the line between dark comedy and just flat-out disgust.

Bucket Detective stars David Davids, a character who Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek correctly refers to as “an irredeemable piece of shit“. David’s motivations are simple, idiotic, and amoral: his wife isn’t giving him the weird, kinky sex he wants, so he decides to write a book, inexplicably called “Bucket Detective”, in order to attract women. Unfortunately, David is a garbage writer and an idiot, so the going is slow in writing his magnum opus. After a meeting with an unscrupulous friend, David is given a shortcut: go to a building that very quickly turns out to belong to a cult, and help them resurrect a dark god in exchange for finishing your terrible book.

Calling David an antihero is just flat-out incorrect. There is no redemptive arc, no empathizing with his dark motives. The only things that make you possibly see from David’s perspective are the fact that you control him, and the weird, innate human need to empathize with things too dumb for their own good, like the twang of guilt you feel when a bird flies into a window.

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This, in my opinion, is the most interesting thing about Bucket Detective. As Barksdale himself remarks, a lot of video games use the empathetic quality of the medium as a sort of wish-fulfillment, a way to assume the role, however temporarily, of a character that lives a life in some way better or more interesting than our own. Even villainous characters, or amoral characters, typically feed into a dark, inadmissible fantasy to just sort of go apeshit every once in a while (see Grand Theft Auto V‘s Trevor), or the character of the stylish, ultra-cool villain (see Hitman‘s Agent 47, or even someone like Shadow the Hedgehog).

Bucket Detective grabs the player, however unwilling, and forces them behind the eyes of an amoral, irredeemable dumbass whose single goal is to, and these are the game’s words, not mine, “make penis spit with pretty girls”. There is no fantasy to be fulfilled here, no moral grey area to explore, David just sucks.

But, interestingly, he isn’t annoying. When people watch movies, read books, or play games with characters that they dislike, frequently they express annoyance with the character. A common example of this is Shinji Ikari, the moping, inactive lump of a protagonist of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or even video games’ resident Unlikeable Dick, Duke Nukem, whose pompous arrogance is more and more of a put-off the further he gets from the era in which he almost deserved it.

David, bizarrely, elicits no such venomous reaction from the player, or at least from me, which perhaps says more about me than it does the game. I think this speaks to excellent writing from Barksdale, and a superb, and arguably necessary, understanding of how to portray this sort of character. David is a trash human, but he’s a sort of miserable hyperbole of some fairly commonplace human feelings: he’s unhappy with his ho-hum life, he wants a romantic partner that he feels is out of his league, and to an extent, he’s willing to put other people behind him in exchange for following his dreams.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone who has any of the above senses is a piece of shit, nor am I suggesting David’s redeemable in his actions. David sucks, and you probably don’t. However, David’s reasoning in his actions remains constantly comprehensible. You’re never yelling at the screen that he should do something else, because you know every decision he makes, makes perfect sense to him. You’re never yelling at him to stop being an idiot, nor do you ever really want to slap him across the face. David’s the kind of train wreck you just look at from afar, shake your head, and go “what a fucking mess”.

It’s like, you know when you see a Youtube video of someone trying to rob like a convenience store or a vape shop or something, but they just hopelessly mess it up? David’s kind of like that: he sucks, you know he sucks, but for some reason you can’t get upset with him. I think it’s because he’s an honest character. He is greed, selfishness, and hedonism incarnate, but he’s greedy, selfish, and hedonistic in a way that, were you to sort of de-escalate the game from it’s melodramatic narrative, you’ve maybe felt before, at least in brief flashes and in much lower stakes.

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Remember this guy, who tried to rob a vape shop but accidentally flung his handgun over the counter? David kinda reminds me of this guy.

David is also, purely from the perspective of narrative function, a competent protagonist. He moves the plot forward, doesn’t waste time bungling the few tasks set out before him, is never wracked with indecision or guilt, and doesn’t waste time or word count giving himself undeserved praise. I think this represents a key game design insight from Barksdale: he already made his character completely insufferable within the narrative, which meant that anything that made him frustrating on a meta-narrative or mechanical level would have probably gotten the player to quit the game completely.

I think Bucket Detective represents an infrequently-explored frontier in games, specifically in game writing: how to make the audience like, or at least willing to tolerate, a character who’s an absolute garbage fire. Bucket Detective does so with a sort of vague, fundamental feeling of familiarity combined with the empathy we subconsciously give to the incompetent, but I doubt that’s the only method.

I’d go deeper, but frankly, Bucket Detective takes an hour to complete and costs four dollars on Steam. Go play it. If you find yourself unable to tolerate David, congrats, it’s probably because you’re a better person than me. But if not, think about how it feels to become David for an hour, whether you can feel any sense of empathy for him. If you’re a writer or designer, and really wanna push yourself to the limit, I think an interesting exercise would be to make a character like David, a character that is terrible in every sense of the world, but still manages to grab the player at least a little bit, even if they’re ashamed to admit it.

 

 

PbtA Playbook Design

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I’ve recently been working a lot of refining Bleak Rains, my Powered by the Apocalypse game of desperate weirdos trying to survive in a dogmatic, paranoid island city during a magical monsoon season. More specifically, that refinement has come towards the player playbooks, which I would thoroughly argue are the core of any PbtA game. After all, the playbooks define the sort of interactions that the player can have with the world, and often serve as a player’s most effective vehicle for expanding on the fiction.

When I first concepted out Bleak Rains, I had 9 playbooks. They were as follows:

  • Anchorlugger: Like a Lovecraftian Scarlet Letter, the Anchorlugger has to atone for past sin by carrying around a massive, probably cursed anchor
  • Raintouched: Touched in a unique way by the properties of the rain, a Raintouched can harness powerful magical abilities during monsoon season.
  • Lighthouse: Selected by the Overseers that lead the city, Lighthouses patrol the streets to hunt down monsters that have washed ashore from the sea
  • Captain: Leader of a faithful crew, the Captain has authority over one of the many sailing vessels that risk the unfathomable waters surrounding the city
  • Gillman: Born of a horrible crime, a Gillman is a powerful, but monstrous half-breed that traces their lineage back to the monsters of the depths
  • Graveswimmer: Last defense against the resurrective properties of the storm, Graveswimmers are responsible for the disposal of regular and animate bodies
  • Shaman of the Storm: A raving madman in rags, a Shaman of the Storm harnesses the raw power of the storms and channels them into magical effects
  • Darkdiver: A looter by any other name, a Darkdiver can descend into the depths to loot sunken hulks and flooded parts of the city
  • Low Overseer: Wielding a small fraction of the power of the city, the Low Overseer is a low-level bureaucrat and law enforcement officer of the city’s government

In my opinion, these playbooks offered a solid foundation from which to begin. They offer a broad, but interesting picture of the world they inhabit (it’s a totalitarian city, but one fraught with crime and heresy, which has both a symbiotic and antagonistic relationship with the magical rain and seas that envelop it). Many “classic” RPG archetypes can be found here, albeit in abstracted and unusual forms, giving players something of a base to latch on to in a unique setting.

However, few first passes of any game are any good, and I knew I had to do at least something of a revising sweep to knock out obvious problems before starting playtests. For this, I read as much advice on the subject as I could, as well as digging into the GM advice for all of the PbtA games I own, and also this fantastic player’s guide for Dungeon World. Now, I hope to be able to distill some of what I learned to help make your PbtA game’s playbooks stronger.

Keep your moves as short as possible

The first drafts of almost all of my moves were long. Damn near every move had a list of options to choose from, little pieces of commentary about the repercussions of your actions, the whole shebang. It wasn’t uncommon for one of them to take 4-5 lines in my Google Doc.

This, predictably, caused some issues. The first is the simplest to predict: when it came time to try and stick everything onto my prototype character sheet, I found that I rapidly ran out of room for moves, and the moves sections were usually walls of text. An immediate no-no.

But, also, as in most forms of writing, the most elegant way to get across an idea also the shortest. Look at this move, written by Eon Fontes-May, the author of the Dungeon World Guide:

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It’s so elegant in its simplicity. The distinction between the yes, yes but, and no options are clear, and all of them lead to something interesting. There’s even a morsel of pirate-y worldbuilding in there too, it’s great. To contrast, here’s a move I recently cut.

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Look how long this is. The worst part is that, for any given player, you don’t need 50% of this text, because you’re only going to be invoking one of those bulleted pieces of effect text. There’s a ton of fluff writing that doesn’t really do any worldbuilding, it’s just vaguely and badly poetic. I trimmed this concept down a lot, to its current state:

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I’m actually still not in love with this, but it’s a step up. The list is pared down substantially, and is actually a list you can choose between, rather than a set of pidgeonholes to be forced into. The fluff text is gone, and I think the consequences are much clearer and more related to what’s happening in the fiction. It’s still long, but as a core move for a playbook, I’m willing to give a bit of depth.

Playbooks need to be widely applicable, or they need to be cut

Let’s talk about the Graveswimmer. The Graveswimmer was an idea I liked so much that it was one of the main points I covered when I first talked about this game. The idea behind the Graveswimmer was that the magical rains would resurrect the dead in this city, and Graveswimmers were the order responsible for, one, properly disposing of bodies, and two, slaying the living dead. It was cool, there were a bunch of rules about crafting your own burial ritual, it was neat and packed with flavor.

The problem was that the playbook was too specific. If you weren’t dealing with a dead body, in whatever state of animation, the Graveswimmer was sort of, if you’ll pardon the pun, dead in the water. The entire playbook identity was wrapped up in this one idea, and while that idea was dense, it meant that if that idea wasn’t applicable to the situation, the idea was pointless.

A similar issue arose with the Darkdiver, the submarine thief. As it turns out, when an entire playbook is based around going underwater, there’s surprisingly little for that player to do when they’re above water, which is, considering only two other playbooks directly interact with the sea in some way, probably where most of the game is going to take place.

Having a core playbook idea that’s dense is good, it makes it easy to come up with advanced moves, and it makes it more interesting for a player to explore the space provided by the character concept. But a character idea needs to be broad too, or else your player is going to be bored. Think of the playbook like the set of tools you’re giving the player with which to build their experience. If you hand someone a belt full of hammers, as the saying goes, they’re gonna be looking for nails.

As a result, I ended up cutting the Graveswimmer and transitioning the Darkdiver into a more open-ended thief class, while maintaining a diver motif, allowing the character to remain useful in a wider variety of situations.

Moves are actions, not reactions

Something I discovered in my writing was that a lot of my moves were reactive in nature: that is, instead of triggering whenever the player did something, they triggered whenever something happened to the player. This is not a pattern you see a lot in PbtA games, and there’s a good reason: it’s fairly uninteresting.

In a broad sense, players want to do, they do not want to be done to. Having a broad swath of one’s actions be reactive means that, when it is a player’s turn to act, their options are limited, and a lot of their neat tricks are locked away, only to be used when the fiction happens to turn in such a way that the specific conditional is triggered.

In all role-playing games, but especially in Powered by the Apocalypse games, players want to feel like they can shape the world, like they have agency. Having moves as reactions limits that substantially, and can contribute to a sense of being pushed and pulled by the fiction instead of being the driving force of it.

The Anchorlugger was subject to this problem in the first draft. As a social pariah, a lot of the playbook’s moves had to do with how people would respond to his presence, but it left the player with a limited set of options beyond “stand there and have people get upset at you”. A redesign merged the Anchorlugger and the Lighthouse, creating a playbook that was focused on a more active idea of atonement by involuntary monster slaying, which is rad.

Always fail forward

The key to PbtA design, the morsel of design thinking that should be in every move you make, should be that failure should still move the plot forward. This is a core concept of move design in general, but I think it’s so important it’s worth reiterating here. A player absolutely botching a roll should always put the fiction in a new, interesting place. For a simple example I’m proud of, check out this move for the Captain:

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Failing on this move results in a complete change of setting and situation, which gives both the GM and the player room to make new choices and move the fiction forward. I’m actually not totally in love with this move, because one potential result, just taking -2 Weird, is mechanically useful but narratively boring. I’ll have to work on changing the options on 7-9 to ensure that every option available to the player provides an interesting story beat.

Don’t neglect the stuff

Moves are certainly the shining star of PbtA design, but don’t overlook the inventory of your characters. Your player characters’ gear is a perfect opportunity to slip a little bit of setting into the game in an inconspicuous way, and to set players up with some unanswered questions and unfulfilled opportunities at the start of the game.

Consider these three items, collected from assorted playbooks in Bleak Rains.

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Each of these objects is useful, but each also raises an interesting question along with it about the world or the character. Whose blood is it staining that scimitar, and why can’t you scrub it off? Is that a real eye, and if so, whose? What about the city of Indra causes the compass to stop working? For the addition of just a few words into each item description, you plop some fresh player characters into the world with questions to ponder.

In Summary

Playbooks represent the primary vehicle through which your players can interact with the world, and as a result, good design within the playbooks will affect every moment of a player’s interaction with the game.

On top of reading my (frankly probably useless) advice, see what other designers in the PbtA space are doing. Crib what you like, design responses to what you don’t, and don’t hesitate to bring your craziest, most interesting ideas to paper.

Learning From The Best To Create A Card Game That Lasts

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Everybody and their mom is trying to make collectible card games right now. Chasing the monstrous cash-cows that are Magic: The Gathering in the physical space and Hearthstone in the digital, company after company is trying their best to put out to find just the right combination of spices that can properly topple one of these giants, or at least firmly plant its own territory in the market. Some have managed to find their own way in this market: Eternal and Duelyst have seen success as digital card games alongside Hearthstone, and Fantasy Flight Games’s Limited Card Game model has produced several lasting hits to hit the table, most notably Android: Netrunner.

So, let’s say you want to stand on the shoulders of giants and create your own card game. By all means, you should! Just because a few games are currently dominating the space doesn’t mean that you can’t try to put your own spin on things. Gaming history, both physical and digital, is littered with examples of competitors rising in previously monopolistic markets and finding their own place, and even besides that, you should just make whatever games you want.

However, if you’re going to make a competitive card game, it’s worth learning from those who came before, because some of these games have been in existence for a while, and in their legacy you can find extremely valuable tidbits that can help your game, no matter what spins it takes on the model, succeed even more than it would on its own.

CCGs Need To Balance Their Game Value

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More so than any type of game, CCG players are inherently always thinking about the money they’re putting into the game. This is to be expected; after all, trading card game packs are essentially the original loot boxes, with players dumping tons of money into packs only to get garbage cards. Where physical games have an advantage is that the cards being pulled are physical objects, which a person can then sell, trade, or do whatever they want with. Digital card games tend to not have that luxury, which means that the sting of buying a bad pack of cards hurts twice as much.

Random card packs are generally player-antagonistic to begin with, for all the reasons that randomized loot boxes are. By and large, they’re tolerated in Magic for two reasons. The first is the one I listed above: cards can be traded and sold, allowing costs to be recouped. The second is that Magic‘s player base is so large that there is a large secondhand market for cards, meaning players who don’t want to participate in random packs can simply buy all the cards they want.

If you lack these two key characteristics, your players are essentially forced to buy packs for the cards they want, which is problematic for fairly obvious reasons. If you need to buy multiple packs to get the card you want (if at all), the player’s buying power per dollar, measured as how many of the cards they want they can get for one dollar, is reduced immensely.

There are a few solutions to this which are floated around. The first is to offer players a constant drip feed of free cards. Many games do this as a reward for good play (packs are commonly offered as rewards at Friday Night Magic, and Hearthstone gives you packs as rewards for arena wins). However, I’m not entirely convinced by this, because it generates a positive feedback loop: players with good cards are more likely to win, and thus more likely to get these free card rewards, while those players with bad luck are forced to buy packs, thus making already frustrated players even more frustrated.

The other solution used to increase pack value is one popularized by Fantasy Flight Games: derandomize the packs. The smallest unit of Android: Netrunner cards is more expensive than a single pack of Magic cards, but contains four times the cards and, on top of that, the contents are completely transparent. Every pack for the same set contains exactly the same cards, and on top of that, contains enough copies of each card to run a full set in the game. Players in search of specific cards know exactly where to get them in Netrunner, and thus waste less money on packs full of duds.

Keep A Fluid Meta

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I feel pretty comfortable saying that card games have probably the hardest time balancing themselves for competitive play of any type of game. Every time a set of cards is released, the number of potential interactions between two cards increases exponentially, let alone combos involving 3 or more cards. In this way, it’s almost inevitable that extremely broken card combos will emerge over time, completely missed by the original designers because it is simply impossible to consider every possible implication of a new card. Moreover, the competitive meta of a card game shifts over time, meaning cards that are bad at release become incredible in the meta five years from now, and vice versa. Consider Shivan Dragon, a Magic card that was a top-tier pick of its time now worth twenty cents, and Pot of Greed, a YuGiOh card with the simplest possible effect that is now banned in tournament play.

Because of the ever-expanding possibility space of competitive card games, it can be really easy for players to find a dominant strategy and have said strategy consume the entire meta. Magic‘s history is colored with numerous decks which have dominated competitive play for up to months at a time (see: TarmogoyfNecropotenceJace the Mind Sculptor, Delver of Secrets, etc.) Hearthstone‘s player base was (is?) up in arms over the perpetual dominance of single strategies. YuGiOh is, well, balanced like a grand piano on a seesaw, but plenty of decks have see their time in the light for that game, including the pictured-above Six Samurai.

Dominant strategies are like death to card games, both in that they will bring unto them a decisive end, and in that they are inevitable. Pretending they aren’t going to happen is a fool’s errand, so having a strategy to deal with them is the only option. The most simple solution to this problem is a competitive ban on the cards that form the cornerstone of these strategies. This can backfire, however, since players might be pissed after spending a large amount of money to get powerful cards, only to have you deem them unplayable (especially if they paid that money to you).

Another option, much more easily performed by digital games than real ones, is a rebalancing of the cards in question. By tweaking the specifics, broken card combinations can be made more competitively friendly, but the art of game balancing is a difficult one, and decreasing a card’s potency too much is essentially equivalent to banning it: it’s just that the meta deems it unplayable, instead of you.

A third option available to you is to print a counter. Magic does this a lot: new sets frequently include cheap, easily-accessed cards which provide counters to dominant strategies from older sets. This strategy ties your game balance directly to your card release schedule, but is my generally preferred solution, especially in games like Magic that allow sideboarding. Players can still opt to play whatever deck they want, with players running powerful decks having to play around the gamble that their opponent hasn’t packed hard counters, and players running sub-powerful decks choosing whether to spend a sideboard slot on hard counters for a deck their opponent might not even be playing. This allows a competitive meta to remain relatively open.

The Barrier To Entry Needs To Be Low

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Look at this YuGiOh card. What the fuck, right? I have a passing knowledge of how YuGiOh is played, and this card still completely confuses me. Look at all of this goddamn textThere are two text boxes.

This is bad, that goes without saying. An important part of competitive card games is ensuring that, at any point, new players can enter the game and feel confident in knowing how to play the game. A lot of digital card games offer tutorials or story modes to ease players into the systems, but not all of your players are going to do that, or pay attention, and even still said tutorials rarely include the more complex strategies included in play.

A lot of card games solve the issue of rules complexity by compartmentalizing and homogenizing their rules. The first word, compartmentalizing, refers to keeping certain rules or mechanics contained within a subset of the cards, meaning that if you’re playing in a format that only allows for a subset of available cards to be played, you’re dealing only with a subset of all of the rules. A player getting into Magic now doesn’t need to know what the keyword “ninjitsu” does, because all of the cards with ninjitsu were in a set from over a decade ago.

The idea of keywords ties into the second idea, homogenization. Most card games use keywords as shorthand for more complex rules, meaning that the player merely has to learn keywords, instead of the effects of individual cards. When a Magic player learns what “trample” does, they now understand what every card ever printed with trample does, at least in part. In this way, the game rules are sort of encapsulated as a language, and just like a language, you don’t need to learn all of it before you’re ready to speak.

However, rules complexity isn’t the only thing scaring away new players. The above two ideas, cost to play and strategic diversity, can also serve to draw or repel new players. However, another big component is the player base itself. Card games, after all, are inherently competitive, so ensuring that a player likes the people they play with is crucial. My personal experiences with the Magic community are about as mixed as a mixed bag can get, with some wonderful interactions and some absolutely miserable ones. Hearthstone tries to decrease potential bad behavior by decreasing vectors of player interaction: direct chat between opponents is largely only possible via a limited range of emotes. Legend of the Five Rings has had some missteps in recent years due to misuse of elements of Asian cultures, which have turned off some new players sensitive to those topics. If you let your community get toxic, the only people you’ll have left are the toxic ones.

In Summary

Making a card game that lasts is hard, for all of these reasons and a million more that I would get into but am not because I’m coming on 2000 words and ain’t no one wants to read that much. But, despite that, I think making card games is still a worthwhile venture. They tap into the childhood nostalgia a lot of us have, memories of us as kids playing assorted, potentially bad, card games with school friends. They’re perfect breeding grounds for player innovation and creativity, with an open possibility space ripe for trying new strategies and building novel decks. Moreover, when done right, they can foster wonderful social spaces where people can come together, maybe even in person, make friends, and play games. That’s kickass, and I’d love to see people hit the ground with a running stride in making these things, because the world could always use more games.

Into The Breach And Dynamic Puzzles

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Few genres of game are so closely linked with very deliberate design like puzzle games. Associated with intricately connected mechanics and components, arranged in such a way as to facilitate a single, solution.

It’s worth noting that the concept of a “puzzle” in games really can be stretched across a spectrum. On one end are open-ended challenges, which are problems for which the possibility space of the answer is extremely open. A camp of Bokoblins in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an open-ended challenge where the player can use any valid approach to solve it. All the way on the other end are pure puzzles, where there is a single state of the puzzle which qualifies as success. I call these pure puzzles because this category comprises the non-game things we traditionally consider “puzzles”: there’s only one correct configuration for a jigsaw puzzle, and you can’t just put any words you want into the New York Times crossword.

Turn-based strategy games, meanwhile, exist somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Generally speaking, the number of atomic moves available to the player in such a game are limited (ex. instead of movement being a single fluid motion, it’s usually divided into large units like spaces, which limits the number of distinct options available). This means that there are only so many valid combinations of moves that will yield success.

However, many turn-based strategy games incorporate some amount of random chance, most famously in XCOM‘s “to hit” probabilities. This inclusion creates distinction between turn-based strategy games and pure puzzles, since random chance means that the exact same set of moves can yield both success or failure, depending on the way the dice land, whereas the solution to a pure puzzle is always its solution. If you put the correct words into a New York Times crossword, there’s not some chance that you’ll be wrong still.

I mention all of this because Into The Breach, the latest game by Subset Games, is commonly referred to as a turn-based strategy game, but I’d argue there’s something to be learned by thinking of Into The Breach as crossing the boundary into becoming a pure puzzle game.

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If you’re unfamiliar, Into The Breach is a grid-based, turn-based game in which the player controls a small squad of giant mechs attempting to protect the civilian populace from a race of giant insects called the Vek. Unlike many similar games, Into The Breach does not have “to hit” chances, and enemies always broadcast the exact move they are going to perform next turn. Into The Breach is not a game of perfect information (buildings have a certain percent chance to resist destruction upon being hit, and while you can see where enemies will spawn next turn, you can’t see what they are). However, it’s much more open about information than other games which are mechanically similar.

In fact, the designers themselves have noted that this seems to push their game into the territory of being a puzzle game. “It’s very fair to say that Into the Breach is a puzzle game wrapped up in a strategy game,” said game co-creator Matthew Davis in an interview with PC Gamer. “But we just kind of stumbled into that design as we went into it.” Intentional or not, Into The Breach‘s deterministic gameplay meant that the AI of this game needed to be built with incredible care.

The AI in non-pure puzzle games, after all, is equally as much as beneficiary of random chance as the player. The need to ensure an game’s AI is beatable is, at least somewhat, lessened by the presence of random elements, as what could otherwise be an unbeatable AI will occasionally be pulled down by random chance, as will a defeated player occasionally be lifted up by random chance. In this way, an AI can exist in somewhat of a range around “perfect difficulty”, whatever that means for the game at hand, because random chance can pull an imperfect AI towards that sweet spot.

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Into The Breach‘s AI gets no such help. Since there is little to no random chance in the game, that means that every turn, the game’s AI must place every active enemy in such a place, and get them to perform such an attack, that the player, with their current position, abilities, and mech statuses, can complete the turn with minimal permanent damage.

While it is, I guess, possible that the game’s AI moves the Vek across the board without taking all of these factors into account, having played a lot of rounds of Into The Breach, I can say that the game so consistently strikes a balance of difficulty that if it doesn’t take all of these things into account, it’s a damn impressive fake-out.

Instead, it seems more likely that the game’s AI algorithm is looking at the player’ mech abilities, placement, the location of key objectives, Vek health abilities, the map itself, and probably yet more things. It is taking all of these things, performing some math stuff on them, and generating a puzzle, one for which there is at least one solution, which isn’t too easy to derive (or else it won’t be a satisfying challenge), nor too difficult to get (or people will get frustrated). Striking the balance, without having random chance in the wings to give your difficulty balance a nudge in the right direction, with such a small set of options available to the player to solve the problem, is hard.

So, I’d be interested in really seeing the AI algorithm driving Into the Breach, because what it does is really something special. Subset Games have essentially generated an engine which generates pure puzzles on a regular basis, an algorithm which spits out fairly complex and interesting puzzles with a set of pieces, some of which are outside of the algorithm’s control (the AI gets to pick what Vek spawn, but not what the player brings in to the fight). I hope this game inspires other designers to adopt this sort of “dynamic puzzle” mindset, because clearly, the idea of trying to design every moment of gameplay as a puzzle to be solved can occasionally produce some amazing games.

Now, excuse me, I’m going to go back to trying to finish my 2-island run with the Blitzkrieg.

The Underdog Story: Designing Comeback Mechanics

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Get it? Because, “comeback”, and, like a comeback is a type of insult, and…nevermind

Everybody hates the blue shell. It’s become a common memory in the canon of being a modern video game fan: you’re in the lead in a game of Mario Kart, only for a winged blue shell to sail out of nowhere and home in on you, knocking you out for just the brief moment the person behind you needs to sail out from under you and steal your well-earned first place. You, we, have been the victim of a classic comeback mechanic: a game mechanic designed to favor the losing player, in an attempt to shorten skill gaps and prevent a player from being dishearteningly stomped by superior players.

The essentials of designing a comeback mechanic are fairly simple: add some feature that can be triggered by a losing player, or is more likely to be given to a losing player, or is more powerful based on conditions typically associated with losing. This feature grants the player who wields it some sort of unique advantage, designed to allow them to close the gap with the winning player. The most frequently mentioned comeback mechanic in games is Mario Kart‘s blue shell, but they’re out there in the dozens.

The key to comeback mechanics is that they’re very commonly used in games where a tight control of competitive balance is required. However, what this means varies a lot from game to game. Mario Kart, for example, uses blue shells, in conjunction with other items dropped for low-skill players, as a way to leash the higher-skilled players, and prevent them from gaining too indomitable a lead over the lower-skilled players. In this case, the blue shell can be seen as lowering the efficacy of high skill.

However, “maintaining tight control of competitive balance” means something totally different in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, which has a comeback mechanic called X-Factor. X-Factor is a one-time use mechanic which increases the player’s damage and speed, by a factor of 10%, plus an additional 10% for each of your downed characters (UMvC3 is a 3-on-3 game, capping your bonuses at +30%). This mechanic is not about limiting skilled players. After all, any player can trigger X-Factor no matter how good they’re doing. Instead, the idea of X-Factor is more directly to prevent snowballing.

You see, a player with multiple characters left is at a competitive advantage to one who only has one, fairly intuitively. With multiple characters, the moveset at your disposal increases by an order of magnitude, you can call in assists, chain your Hyper Combos or perform them simultaneously, in essence your options at any given moment are much wider than someone with a single character. By itself, this fact means that a game of Marvel would be won with the first character down, barring incredible skill. Get one character down, and it’s a 3v2. Ride that advantage, and now it’s a 3v1, and the game is on lock. However, the existence of X-Factor gives a player who is behind a chance to stop their opponent’s momentum on a dime: it can be triggered instantly, including in the middle of combos, meaning that you can take a single hit and turn it into a downed character with moderate skill, preventing your opponent from snowballing into a W.

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Sometimes, a comeback mechanic simply needs to give the losing player some time to catch up to the winner. For this, I turn to a comeback mechanic so subtle most people don’t even know it exists, unless they’re playing this game, in which case I usually obnoxiously mention it after about the third cocktail. This game, of course, is pool.

Pool has less of a comeback mechanic and more of a comeback mechanical interaction, which in my opinion is a better choice when possible, because it leaves players with a sense that that’s just how the game “is”, instead of that the designers slapped a mechanic on to babysit bad players (which is not what I think of comeback mechanics, but it’s certainly what some people do). In pool, if you’re just running the table on somebody, you’ll find yourself with a problem, quick: you only have so many shots left available to you, and the other player’s balls spread all over the table, each of them serving as an impediment. If you’re the player who’s down, though, you have a ton of different shots to choose from, and your opponent so handily cleared the table of most of the obstacles in your way. In this way, the player currently losing has a competitive edge.

So, how should you build a comeback mechanic? Well, the first thing you need to think about is exactly what a “comeback” means, and what kind of comeback leads to the most enjoyable gameplay. Do you want your down-and-out players to have a moment of glory to level the playing field, like that provided by X-Factor, or do you want to simply slow the winner’s progress to give the loser a chance to catch up, like in pool? Do you want to make the winner perform a bit worse, like the blue shell, or do you want the loser to perform better, like the Bullet Bills also found in Mario Kart.

Another important consideration is that you don’t want winning players to per se feel like they’re being punished for being good, nor do you want people to feel like the optimal strategy is to lose (unless you do. If the strategy your game is trying to teach is “lay low until your time to shine”, a comeback mechanic might be a way to reinforce that). Generally, comeback mechanics aim not to create a route for victory, but simply to prevent getting absolutely facerolled. A comeback mechanic has still done its job if the loser still loses, but by much less than they would have without it. Better players should still beat worse players in the most common case, no matter how you slice it, but the comeback mechanic ensures that those worse players still have a chance to win at all.

I have a rough rule of thumb when it comes to comeback mechanics: the comeback mechanic should not, in itself, close the gap between a winner and a loser. After all, Mario Kart‘s Bullet Bill doesn’t take you all the way to first, and pool doesn’t let you just grab three of your balls and drop them in pockets if you’re behind. Instead, a comeback mechanic should be such that the comeback mechanic, plus some combination of player skill, opponent misplays, and luck can close the gap. That way, when a skilled player looks up to see that the opponent they were beating is now the winner, they know that, despite the comeback mechanic’s presence in the game, they still could have won, and when the losing player triggers the comeback mechanic, they have the challenge in front of them of using this opportunity to succeed.

 

How I Build A Playtest Session

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So, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to playtest a couple of my tabletop RPGs with my gaming group, and while those two games have been wildly different in mechanical fidelity, each seems to have gone fairly well, and were extremely informative. I thought it might be an interesting read to share how I build these playtest sessions, seeing as I’m currently working on my second playtest adventure for my dark fantasy game, Blackmarked. (You can read more about Blackmarked here, here, here, and here).

So, the very first thing I do is I set out with a list of questions I have about my design. “Is it good” is not one of them. When you set out to playtest, you should have real, concrete things that you want to figure out about your design. Ideally, these questions should be specific, because specific questions will hopefully yield specific action items for you to take going forward. If you ask “Is it fun?” the answer you get might be “No”, and “No” tells you nothing about what you should do next. If you ask “Were you able to build the character concept you envisioned with the character creation rules?” and the answer is even still “No”, you know what needs to be done: increase the variance of character creation.

It’s also worth remembering when you write these questions, and later when you hear answers to them, that your design is not the only thing that will influence the answers. Your playtesters and the GM’s style will have at least equal weight on your playtesters’ opinions of the game. Your player might say they were able to build any character they want, but they might only want to build obvious, tropey characters. Your players might say the game seemed hard, but the GM might have just been remorseless, or maybe even they just got unlucky. Knowing your GM and your playtesters’ preferences helps balance this out but, as with all things, a big sample size helps eliminate individual bias.

Now that you know what truths you’re trying to wring out of your players, it’s time to actually build the session contents. At this point, you’re in familiar territory: you’re just planning a session, just like GMing anything else. I’m not going to tell you how to do this, if only because GM prep is a process that’s very different and personalized for every GM.

Here’s what I will say though: you have a couple extra things you need to consider as you prep. The first is fairly intuitive, and that’s that you need to build your game in such a way as to let your players answer your questions. If you’re curious how lethal your game is, you should plan your session with a range of difficulty in the combat, so you can try to isolate where exactly the PCs start falling. If you’re trying to figure out how the Hacking mechanic works, you better put some computers in that session.

Another thing you need to consider is that there’s a much greater-than-average chance that the game will just crumble to bits in the hands of your players. Maybe they’ll stumble across a combination of rules that turns them into unbeatable death machines. Maybe a stray goblin will murder the entire party thanks to a poorly thought-out rule or an unbalanced string of dice rolls. Maybe a player will accidentally roll a useless character, or maybe the whole party will just ignore a rule that you think is pivotal. More so than ever, you need to build a session that is resilient to the most whiplash-inducing swings of luck, focus, and player strategy.

Also consider a general piece of advice for any one-shot, one that goes doubly-so for unfamiliar systems: players have no idea what their characters do in this world you’ve created, so define some clear goals for them. Don’t give them the chance to piss around and mistake their own lack of guidance for a lack of game focus. If your game is about hunting monsters, start your session with all your party in a room with a guy who says “Go hunt this monster, dummies”.

The last big thing you need to consider is that this is the players’ first interaction with your rules. Even if you’ve playtested with this group before, chances are you changed some subset of the rules between then and now, and even if not much is different, your players are still going to feel as though stuff has changed. So, if at all possible, try to structure your adventure in such a way that the complexity of the situation escalates. Think of a video game tutorial: first you jump, then you shoot, then you jump and shoot. Similar theory here.

If you’re still not sure how to build an adventure for this purpose, a solid recommendation is to simply pilfer what you can from other published adventures that are designed to introduce players to a game and see how they do it. Many systems have an introductory adventure in the back of the book, designed to integrate players with the game. Others yet have published adventures that are perfect intros for new players. Feel free to read some of these, study their pacing, their structure, the way they introduce mechanics, and pilfer as need be. Here are some adventures, and their corresponding systems, that I found useful:

  • The Sword for Burning Wheel
  • Sailors of the Starless Sea for Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • Any of the Beginner Games for Fantasy Flight Game’s Star Wars RPG
  • Tower of the Stargazer for Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Now, let’s say you’ve finished up your adventure up and are ready to run it. Dope! Most people don’t even make it this far. Now you have the complex part: finding a group to run it with. Just like with writing the adventure, you have all of the normal problems of finding a tabletop RPG group, but with some new problems too! How fun!

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First off, you need a group of people who are okay with the fact that the game they’ll be playing is both incomplete and possibly bad. Your players need to be aware of the fact that there might be things in your game that just don’t work. Stuff might be busted, and need to be hotfixed by you on the fly with some off-the-cuff ruling changes. You might have just not thought of a mechanic that the players expect or want to use, and have to whip something up on the spot. You need to be upfront with that, and you need to be OK with that.

You also need a group of people whose biases, tastes, and experiences you are aware of. Sometimes these will be relevant to your core questions (if one of your questions is “Can players new to RPGs pick these rules up fast?”, you should probably find people new to RPGs), but knowing this for anyone will help you understand the context of their opinions and criticisms. If you’re building a story game full of narrative mechanics, and you get a player who’s a 3.5 munchkin, that’ll affect what they think. Don’t necessarily use this as a mechanism to exclude people from your playtests (let’s be honest, the pool of RPG playtesters is not big enough for you to be excluding people), but do use it as a mechanism to determine your game’s strengths, weaknesses, and audience.

Finally, keep in mind that your playtesters are ultimately doing you a favor, even though they do get to play a game. Playing an RPG is a decent time investment, even for a single session, and your playtesters have allowed you to spend that time of theirs on your pet project. At the bare minimum, get them snacks, drinks, maybe a name in the book. If your project is such that you can swing it, offer to give them copies of the completed rules when you’re done (this also serves selfish purposes: by offering someone a completed game, you’ve now got people who’ll ride your ass about completing your game who will help motivate you).

You can also scrounge up playtesters in the form of other designers. If you’re extremely lucky, you can compose a group out of hobbyist designers, taking turns playing each others’ games. This is a fan-fuckin’-tastic way to play a lot of cool games and to also keep your passion for game design lit, but remember that every designer has their opinions about the way games “should” be, and while their advice is useful, it’s ultimately no more inherently useful than any other playtester’s.

So, go out there, and get some people playing your homemade RPG, even if you don’t plan on publishing it or even finishing it. Best case scenario, they love it and and you get the incomparable high of having people play and like your game. Worst case scenario, they hate it, and you learn a ton of stuff about game design that you get to carry into the future (this won’t happen if their feedback isn’t specific, but that’s why we build questions beforehand, remember?). So, really, worst case scenario is just a different best case scenario! You have no excuse.

 

Collaborative Mystery Games

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Running a mystery in a tabletop RPG is pretty hard, as it turns out. An RPG traditionally has a single source of truth, the GM, and thus, all information required to solve a mystery must pour forth from the GM’s mouth. Unfortunately, players have a tendency to assume the converse, that everything the GM says must be essential, simply by the merit of having been said. Combine this with the normal problems constraining a mystery (clues being too obvious or too baroque, unclear motivations, easily sidetracked audiences, etc.) and the whole endeavor is pretty hard.

There have certainly been great leaps in portraying a mystery in an RPG. Gumshoe is a fantastic system for running mysteries, as it makes the fantastic observation that the useful part of a game is not finding clues, but rather understanding their role in the mystery at large. However, it’s still victim to a fairly fundamental psychological problem: sometimes, players just get locked into a train of thought that isn’t right, and end up frustrating themselves as they chase loose ends.

I’m experiencing this right now, in fact, as my current Dungeons and Dragons game is centered around a mystery. I can feel the frustration as my group, myself included, get stuck in our preconceived, false notions about the mystery, both angry enough at the dead ends to know we’re barking up the wrong tree, and too rooted to our current assumptions to be able to create alternative hypotheses.

This got me thinking: player agency with regards to the story of an RPG is sort of the new hotness right now. Plenty of games offer mechanics by which players can create truths about the world around them, and plenty of GMs nowadays are OK with, or even very into, the idea that players should get an amount of say with the game world.

What if players got to dictate truths about a mystery game, defining a mystery as they solved it?

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So, the immediate problem with this idea is that it, well, fundamentally destroys the concept of mystery. If the players can just point at a guy and go “He did it”, and actually warp the fabric of reality itself such that he most definitely did it, there’s no mystery. They’re no longer the audience, but the writer, and a writer is not surprised by their own mystery.

With this in mind, such a system should not give the players complete control over the path of the mystery. Instead, players should have a more granular control over the clues, and be given some say as to what matters and what does not. The greater mystery as a whole is still left in the darkness, under the watch of the GM, but the players can find some fact in the world, some detail or clue, and say that, yes, this is indeed a piece of the puzzle, and here’s why. It’s then up to the GM to determine how that known piece of information bridges into the unknown mystery.

Here’s a really rough implementation idea. Let’s say that every character has some sort of knowledge domain, just like how Gumshoe does it. The rough-and-tumble street thug knows all about the underworld and crime and thievery. The posh noblewoman knows all about courtly traditions and noble bloodlines and gossip. The coroner knows all about wounds and blood spatters and poisons and bodily decomposition. Along with these domains of knowledge, the players are given some sort of metacurrency. Let’s call it Deductions.

When a character comes across a clue in their particular intellectual domain, maybe a splash of dried blood on a couch cushion, maybe a broken lockpick beneath the window, maybe the knowledge that Lady Verisimilitude or whatever left on the day of the murder to go to the the royal banquet at Bangers-and-Mash-upon-Thames, that character may burn a Deduction to make a conclusion about that clue, a conclusion that is, of course, completely pulled out of their ass.

“Real blood will dry brown if left to stain for that long. This is still red, and thus must be fake”

“This particular kind of break is most common if one attempts to pick a lock with strength instead of finesse, a common mistake for an amateur to make.”

“Bangers-and-Mash-upon-Thames cancelled its banquet this year after the local Baron fell ill, so Lady Verisimilitude must have gone elsewhere.”

The important thing is that these are facts from this point forward. That splash of blood must be fake, that thief must not be that good a lockpick, and Lady Verisimilitude must have lied about her whereabouts. The key here is that no conclusion is drawn here that cannot be pulled directly from domain knowledge. The player is not allowed to assert where Lady Verisimilitude was, merely that she was not where she said. This would have to be enforced as a rule.

In this way, I guess it would be more accurate to say that the players are not actually providing any answers to the mystery, but are instead being given the power to say what questions have answers that are important. It’s still up to the GM to say why there’s fake blood on the sofa, who in the town is a crap lockpicker, and where Lady V was, but the players can rest assured that those details have been codified as important, and thus, time and mental energy spent pursuing answers will not be wasted.

Because that’s ultimately the death knell for a good mystery, is if a lot of time and energy is spent by the players, and they feel like they gain little out of it, most likely because what they’re pursuing is simply not important to the mystery that the GM has laid out. By giving the players a sort of mechanical reassurance that what they’re doing is important (because they have enforced that it is, no less), they can be assured that they’re moving forward.

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Speaking of the mystery the GM has laid out, they’ll have to do so somewhat differently now that the players have the ability to assert facts. Generally speaking, you’ll have to make sure that your mystery is solid enough that the players aren’t completely dictating the story, yet flexible enough that it can incorporate all of the things that they believe to be true. Furthermore, since Deductions are a limited resource, you need to ensure that every clue you scatter through the game has both a place where you expect it to fall in your web of mystery (in case no one uses a Deduction on that clue), but also is general enough that players can slot them in a variety of places as they see fit.

Perhaps you just meant that broken lockpick to signify that the intruder was not invited in during the Grand Ball, and had to break in, but the concept of the lockpick being broken in an amateurish fashion gives you an extra wrinkle to work with. Maybe the thief’s bookshelf has a dog-eared copy of “Lockpicking For Dummies” stashed on one of the shelves, or their garage has padlocks lying on the workbench, clearly for practice. The detail the player created hasn’t changed who the thief is, but rather acted as a piece of bait that the players bit on to, that you can use to reel them towards the revelations.

I think such a system could be incorporated into any game already capable of running mysteries. Just, at any point where the GM would describe a detail of a clue, instead turn to the player and say “What do you notice?”. I think a certain key would be to give players a finite amount of ability to do this: too much and they’ll end up convoluting the plot beyond the GM’s ability to improvise, or they’ll line up facts in such a way that it basically forces a certain conclusion to be true, ending back up at the point where they are both writing and reading the mystery.

So, where does this get you? Well, your players will be given facts that are 100% guaranteed to be both correct and useful, and since they’re dictating them, they’ll never have to worry about being stuck down a train of thought that’s wrong, because they’ll be able to demand that their focus is, at least to a degree, relevant. This eliminates the guessing game of “Is this a red herring, or is this useful?” that tends to suck the fun out of mystery games.

Here’s the really bloody secret, though: you should already be doing this. If, as a GM, you have dictated from the very beginning how each and every clue relates to your mystery, even if you’re not concealing those clues behind skill checks, you’re running the risk of players getting stuck in those logical dead-ends where they’re focusing on the wrong thing, interpreting a clue the wrong way, or trying to kludge every detail into the incorrect hypothesis they already have. Frankly, the more players are confident in their wrong answer, the less fun you’re going to have.

I’m not saying “the players should always be right”, but instead “the players should always be half right”. Don’t give them the entire mystery, but instead give them just enough that the twists and turns of the mystery come from the parts they do have set in stone, instead of coming out of left field because the players were dead wrong in the first place.

One Goal, Two Executions: Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild

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I liked Breath of the Wild quite a bit. I had somewhere in the realm of 45 hours played when I finally reached the peak of Hyrule Castle and destroyed Ganon, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have some moments where I had a lot of fun. But, that whole time, I couldn’t help shake the feeling like, in this beautiful, wonderful game, there were some things that just weren’t working.

Then, the day after I beat Zelda, I strolled over to my mailbox and grabbed my copy of Super Mario Odyssey, and I was blown away, for a variety of reasons. But, maybe one of the most surprising things for me was how similar the core design ethos of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the ethos of Super Mario Odyssey are, and how, in my opinion, Odyssey got it so much more right in a way Breath of the Wild did not.

For starters, let’s talk about that shared design philosophy, because I do not think that I’m stretching by saying that both of these games attempt to achieve the same design goals. Those goals, in my opinion, are as follows:

  • Grant the player a constant stream of rewards as they explore
  • Create interesting puzzles by configuring known mechanics in interesting ways
  • Encourage players to pay attention to the world around them

Let’s talk about that first goal: granting players a constant stream of rewards. Both Breath of the Wild and Odyssey are jam packed with rewards, from Odyssey‘s 880+ Moons, to Breath of the Wild‘s litany of Shrines, Korok Seeds, and weapons. For both games, if you notice something that looks like it should lead to something, 99.99% of the time it does.

The difference is that Zelda has these rewards scattered across one massive world, while Mario opts to instead cluster them into small, but dense levels. Ultimately, neither of these approaches is right or wrong, but in the end I dislike Zelda‘s approach because it fails to capture that travel time well, in my opinion. This time spent moving between shiny things is ripe for exploitation and enjoyment, either by using enjoyable movement mechanics (a la Just Cause, or the Batman: Arkham games), excellent radiant story morsels to find (as Bethesda’s games like to use), or just by having the journey punctuated by the engaging, challenging combat (like a Souls game).

Zelda does none of these things, unfortunately. The movement in Zelda doesn’t feel terribly great, unfortunately. The limited stamina means you can only run paltry distances, especially in the early game, and horseback riding and climbing are both not terribly interesting. If you find any story tidbits on your journey, they won’t amount to much more than a meaningless side quest or the same Yiga Clan ambush that happens a hundred times. The combat, unfortunately, is also fairly cut and dry, and the game’s limited pool of enemies ensures that these fights get stale fast. Combine all of this, and getting from reward to reward is ultimately a chore. Your “steady stream of rewards” is cut up with these long sequences of boredom.

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Some might accuse me of simply being of short attention span, preferring the immediate, constant stream of rewards that Odyssey presents, which is true to an extent, but I also don’t think that I’m out of line by saying that if a game wants me to enjoy the journey, there should be something about the journey to enjoy.

Moving on to that second philosophical point, the idea that puzzles are to be created by configuring known elements in new ways. So, you’ve traveled that long distance and gotten to the shrine or the Korok seed or the Divine Beast, so what do you do to solve it? Well, while I haven’t completed every shrine in the game (I’m sitting at about 40 out of 120 right now), that sample size is big enough that I feel fairly confident in saying that most every puzzle utilizes a subset of the following components:

  • fighting
  • traversal mechanics (running, gliding, or climbing)
  • Stasis
  • Magnesis
  • Cryonis
  • bombs
  • electricity
  • fire
  • water
  • wind

There’s certainly plenty of clever puzzles one can construct out of these building blocks (especially the Shiekah Slate powers), but there’s a fairly simple problem: with few exceptions, each of these mechanics are introduced to you in the tutorial, with no expansion of their ability throughout the game. I understand why this is the case: since the game is open-ended and players can encounter any shrine at any time, they wanted the player to be able to tackle any of the puzzles contained therein.

Now, this is again a result of Zelda‘s open world design. Since Odyssey has a constrained set of levels, to be taken in a largely premeditated path, it can introduce puzzle mechanics (largely in the form of capture targets) right before you’re going to need that knowledge. Zelda does not have a predetermined player path, and thus does not have this luxury.

However, the trade-off is this: the puzzle variety gets extremely stale over time. Once you become fluent in the language of Breath of the Wild‘s puzzles, they become extremely rote and repetetive. There’s a metal thing, use Magnesis on it. There’s some water, use Cryonis on it. Since you’re introduced to all of the puzzle mechanics immediately, that gives you maximal time to get bored of each of them, instead of drip-feeding you new mechanics over time.

Contrast this with what we might call “traditional” Zelda design. While not open-world, it seemed like older Zelda games, especially A Link Between Worlds, had tried an alternate solution with great success. The world was littered with puzzles that, while featuring a common language, had solutions requiring components that the player might not have had at that time. As the player accrued items over the game, they eventually collected the abilities they needed to solve the puzzles they found. It certainly seems like having puzzles scattered about Breath of the Wild‘s world with solutions you didn’t have yet would both increase the sense of mystery and wonder the game tries so hard to cultivate, and offered another set of rewards to add to the other types: puzzle-solving abilities.

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Let’s move on to that third point: paying attention to the world in order to find puzzles and rewards. Before I get accused of jumping onto the bandwagon of just bashing the year’s popular games, I want to close with how Breath of the Wild does this particular component better than Odyssey.

Super Mario Odyssey is interested in having its players pay attention to the world, but not in a sense of mastering it, like something like a Prey, but instead with an analytical mind. I see these two walls are close together, so I can wall-jump up them. There’s a lady Goomba, so I’m going to go find a male Goomba to woo her. There’s no need to really master your environment, nor cleverness that can be performed with that knowledge.

Breath of the Wild, meanwhile, is a game all about learning about your environment and using that knowledge. Learning environments allows you to know what natural resources grow where, allowing you to craft the dishes you need. Learning your environments gives you new vectors to attack enemies from, as you glide down from cliffs or launch enemies into the briny depths. It gives you vantage points from which to shoot arrows from afar, or alternate routes to avoid enemies that are too tough. This is all compared to Mario, where mastery of a level just tells you where the stuff is.

Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild both are interested in very similar player experiences, but thanks to fundamental differences in style of game, diverge upon their execution. With this in mind, I hope not to bash one game or another, but to emphasize a point that I emphasize frequently on this blog: game design is not mathematics. A problem does not possess only a single solution (I know this metaphor doesn’t map one-to-one for math, but go with me). You can pursue a single goal, and depending on the environment constructed by the other basic elements of your design, you can come up with answers to that same question as different as, well, Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.