Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Announcing Sasquatch Game Studio

I'll keep it short...for now.

[cue villain laughter.]

Rich Baker, Steve Schubert, and I founded a game company to make high-end tabletop game products without brand teams or corporate make cool stuff with our (incredibly talented, creative, experienced) friends and colleagues in the industry.

Check us out here.

Our first product, the Primeval Thule campaign setting, is going to be a stunner. More details, art, release schedule, contents...all that stuff is coming.

This means I'm basically "descending into savagery" this summer, and I couldn't be happier!


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Failing Forward Lite

I did some story-gaming over the holiday weekend with a GM who was devoted to the concept of “failing forward”—the idea that a failed skill check or whatever isn’t just a negation of the success, but a failure that still drives the narrative forward.

And this GM was the failing-forwardest of the failing forwards. After about an hour, we were careening toward our collective destiny—individual successes and failures be damned.

At a table devoted to storytelling, where narrative integrity is the highest virtue, that isn’t necessarily a problem. At many Pathfinder/D&D tables, though, it falls short, because the game is also a capital-G Game, and because individual problem-solving (or problem-failing) is part of the challenge.

In those games, failing forward can still be useful, but only if you don’t forget the primacy of the “failing” part.

That’s what my weekend game lacked. The failures were often entertaining, and they had just as much payoff (in terms of emotion, narrative, and overall enjoyment) as the successes. I never felt the sting of failure.

A lot of well-meaning D&D/Pathfinder DMs have taken “failing forward” as a rallying cry. If that’s working for you, great! But consider this: when the “forward” overwhelms the “failing,” you may be robbing your table of drama and tension without even realizing it.

Failing Forward Lite

When I’m DMing and I see a good “failing forward” moment, I’m going to try Failing Forward Lite. Think of it as three parts failing, one part forward. The player still gets the sting of failure. The table condition is incrementally worse (and probably more tense) as a result of the failure. But the failure includes something beyond a simple “you missed/that didn’t work” negation.

Example: When the player fails an Arcana check to decipher some runes on a dungeon door, tell the player “you have no idea what those runes mean” (the failing), then add, “…but you think the restricted library stacks in the Demesne of Memory would have the answer” (the forward). The player feels the sting of failure, the situation is more tense, but you’ve added an option rather than just negating something the player wanted to do. That’s Failing Forward Lite.

Example: The player wants permission to enter the catacombs under the castle, but she fails an Intimidate check against the duke. Rather than just having the duke match intimidation with a forceful personality, have the Intimidate check work too well —the duke faints with fright.

The player feels the sting of failure (no permission to get into the catacombs). The situation is definitely more tense (approaching footsteps indicate that guards will march by soon and see the PCs surrounding the prone form of the duke). And now the whole encounter just took a turn that the players (and let’s be honest, also you) weren’t expecting.

Try that recipe: three parts failing, one part forward. See whether you get the benefits of the “forward” while keeping tension and reward intact.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Zero-Sum Action Points

I love action points. (And their Pathfinder equivalent, hero points.)

But I hate the action point rules.

To my mind, action points work best when they’re elementally simple: spend an action point to get an extra standard action. When a player spends an action point, it almost always makes the game more fun for everyone involved. The action point enables great, dramatic moments.

But all the other rules just complicate the action point’s essential elegance, and they’re begging to be forgotten in actual play.

• “+2 attack if you spend an action point while prone.”
• “+2 to Will defense if you spend an action point when adjacent to an undead creature.”

(Those are probably fictitious examples, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they turned out to be real. I shudder at the crazy, corner-case rules in racial feats and paragon paths.)

The eight (!) different ways you can spend a hero point in Pathfinder? Same problem. That hero point can generate a luck bonus: sometimes it’s +8, sometimes +4, and sometimes +2. 

Keep it simple, DMs—regardless of what edition you’re playing. Just say no complicated action points.

Side note: Adding action-granting points to 3.x games is super-easy; my 3.5 campaign did it for years. Older editions aren’t much harder—you just have to do a little more work to define a “standard action” category.

Watch Me Contradict Myself
In my Thursday night 3.x campaign, I handed out poker chips to represent action points, and I loved the dramatic moment when a player picked up the chip, contemplated it briefly, then slid it across the table to me.

(Players of the FATE RPG get these dramatic moments all the time by using chips as props for Fate Points. It’s a good bit of physical theater.)

For my upcoming campaign, I’m going to make action points more complicated. I'm bringing back the poker chips, and I’m going to try something new: zero-sum action points. 

The idea is simple: When the player gives that poker chip to the DM for an extra action, the player is really giving the poker chip to the DM. The DM can spend that chip later. (Insert evil laughter here.)

This makes the action point system more complicated, but if the “DM spending” moment can be as elegant as player spending, then it might be even better.

What Does the Poker Chip Do?
First, let’s deal with the obvious way a DM could spend a chip: to give a monster an extra action, or more broadly to help out the monster.

It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it nicely mirrors how players are using their chips. But I don’t think it’s very satisfying.

First, 4e and Pathfinder already have ways for monsters to get action points/hero points. (It’s a lot more prevalent in 4e, where they come standard on elites and solos.) At the tables I frequent, it doesn’t feel like an awesome moment when the DM has the dragon spend an action point, though. It feels like the DM is cheating—but within the rules.

Second, when I’m a DM, I don’t need my monsters to be tougher or more effective. I’ve got monsters at literally every level of effectiveness, and I’m never going to run out of monsters. In mid-fight, I don’t need more monster actions. I don’t need some kind of pervasive stat buff either.

Instead, I want to spend my DM poker chip to increase the amount of mayhem in a fight, or to ratchet up the tension somehow. Mayhem and tension…those are the products I want to buy with my poker chips.

(Mayhem and tension are probably neutral for encounter balance, but the players won’t see it that way. I don’t want players to hoard their action points because they’re worried about me, but I do want a little frisson of danger when they slide that chip across the table.)

At this point, I have about half-dozen ideas for tension and mayhem. Some of them are what I’ll charitably call “inelegant.” I don’t know which is best…but that’s what playtesting is for. In the coming weeks, I’ll be spending my DM poker chips in the following ways:

Property destruction. You spend the chip to make the roof collapse or the room start filling with water--really, anything big that makes the encounter a “whole new ballgame.” You’d probably have to design a specific “destruction upgrade” for each encounter, which is both a strength and a weakness. Good thing I like making encounters!

Reinforcements. New bad guys—or better yet, a third faction that mixes it up with everybody—show up. Again, you’d design the “reinforcement upgrade” for each encounter.

Messing with criticals. All crit ranges increase, all crits deal even more damage, or all crits have an extra rider effect. Something like that. It’s gonna be a big swing, though—you don’t want it to go unnoticed.

Riskier debuffs. For the rest of the encounter, if you miss with an attack that would have imposed a condition if it hit, you get hit with that condition yourself. (Probably too crazy, but that’s why we test.)

• Successful hits impose a vulnerability condition to future hits of that type, probably with “save ends” or 1 rd./level timing.

Save DCs start moving around—every time you make a save, it gets harder to make the next one.

Debuffs on misses. If you miss with an attack, you grant combat advantage for a round.

Of these ideas, I think the ones that mess with criticals and saving throws hold the most promise. Those are naturally high-drama moments, and cranking up the tension even further with a poker chip might pay off in spades.

But like I said, I’m gonna test a bunch of these. It’s a meritocracy of tension and mayhem. A mayhemocracy, if you will.

Getting the Chips Back to the Players
Ideally, there’d be a full-fledged poker-chip economy, where the DM is sliding the chips back to individual players. (This is what FATE does to great effect.) But I usually want mayhem and tension to be tablewide, so it’s hard to know which player gets the chip. I’ll probably just put the spent DM chips into “limbo” until the players earn action points the normal way (depending on whether we’re playing 4e or Pathfinder). At least at first…