Friday, 8 August 2014

Playtest Results and Core Conflicts

So, as you may have guessed from the title, I ran the first playtest for AK. It went well, it highlighted a few issues I thought I had resolved, and a few I didn't know I needed to address. All in all, a bog standard playtest. Unfortunately, the issues uncovered mean that the rule's release is delayed. At least until I have a finished product that I'm happy with, rules-wise. I'd like to clean it up too. You know, make it look pretty, but form is second to function in my books so the rules are my first priority.

The meat of this post will be going back to my struggle on what to roll in Crucible. At a little shindig I attended earlier, I talked game design with one of my players, a fellow designer who has created a few pretty interesting systems. He's a pretty brainy guy with a mind for math and complexity so his systems are usually pretty complex to the point where I don't think I could run them if I tried. That said, he manages pretty well. Anyways, I mentioned my position that the core conflict resolution mechanic should reflect the core conflict of the game. This led to me thinking on the Core Conflicts of Crucible again. For a better idea of what I'm talking about, read the post titled Design: What do we roll?

Now the main problem I had in decided on a core dice mechanic was that I lacked a strong idea of the themes and core conflicts of the game. So I'm going to take the time to subject you, gentle reader, to my ramblings on the subject.

As mentioned previously, Crucible is an urban fantasy game, a genre with a humungous range of themes, tropes and conventions. The genre spans from books like American Gods to YA Vampire Romance novels. For the record, Vampire romance will not be my go to reference. My preference is for a rather dark, hopeless universe, but not to the same degree as Lovecraft (and, you know, without the racism). Well, I say preference, but honestly, I think half of my reason for this choice is habit. In all seriousness though, a rather grim tone has been consistent throughout the iterations of Crucible. I hesitate to call the protagonists magicians, wizards or anything like that, but they will have supernatural powers. The major thing I want to tackle in this version, is that having magic sucks.

“Why give them magic powers if having them sucks?” you may ask. That's part of the what makes the setting dark, and it also ties into the sort of pseudo-gnostic cosmology I'm building. Gnosticism, as it was described to me, was essentially having secret knowledge of The Divine/ God, but I'm extracting just the knowledge part. So the characters have secret knowledge that gives them supernatural powers, why is that bad or troublesome for them? Well, to borrow a term from White Wolf, the Masquerade is self-enforcing in this setting. Characters gain knowledge of the supernatural from witnessing it and not denying it. Those with this knowledge attract predatory supernatural beings that either kill or possess them. Alternatively, as is the case with the player characters, one of several groups can find and teach them. Learning these abilities comes with further knowledge into how the mystical world works and protects them from the supernatural monsters. As an aside, those monsters I keep mentioning, they go by the generic name Shadows. That isn't a placeholder, its the only name all the groups can agree on, and is only really used in inter-faction discussions.

Each faction doesn't have the whole picture, they might be working off of faulty information, they might not know anything about certain aspects of the world, or they might be entirely wrong about how major parts of the setting work. The factions also come with a philosophy about how the world works, and what secret knowledge they have. The philosophies directly (and indirectly) contradict each other on various subjects.

The standard role of the player characters in Crucible is to help keep people out of the way of the supernatural, to prevent Shadows from possessing people, as that only makes the magical world a nastier place to live in. If they deal with these problems, then there is less grief for the characters and their peers. On the subject of grief, part of what makes magic a burden in this world is the difficulty the characters have making a living. If they attract monsters to themselves, it's hard to hold down a job. The character's jobs then become solving these problems before they can reach the general population.

The player's role in the world gives us a framework in which to place the core conflict(s). I want a balance with investigation and horror on one side and action and adventure on the other. The system needs to do both with equal strength. I can see two options here. The first option is developing a system that addresses the needs of both halves without sacrificing one for the other. The second option is developing two separate but interconnected conflict resolution mechanics that allow things like powers to carry over without much extra work on my part. My preference is for the first, although I worry about it either becoming a generic system or moving too far into the realm of the narrative driven system. My reason for not choosing the second is to keep from devoting two much time to writing the core mechanics and to reduce overall complexity, both to aid revision. As an aside, I like narrative driven games and systems, I just don't want Crucible to be one.

To create a core mechanic that can equally address the concerns of investigation and action, I first need to look at the similarities of the two focuses. I can draw a connection between adventure and investigation as they are both about uncovering things. Adventure focuses on revealing physical spaces (E.g. the dungeon crawl) while investigation is a reveal of information (E.g. Who is the murderer?). Horror and action seem to be at odds though. One is about powerlessness in the face of opposition (E.g. Slasher movies) and the other is about overcoming opposition (E.g. Any action movie, or a D&D combat). Is a game that blends horror and action possible? I would argue that it is. One of the major themes of the game is the acquisition of knowledge, so investigation problems should be easy. Characters are often better off before they acquire that knowledge, so horror problems should be hard. In the horror genre, it's never a problem for the characters to get into the haunted woods/house/campground, but it's always a challenge to get out. This tells me that adventure problems should be easy, but action should be hard. In the case of action, I'm not limiting myself to combat. I'm including conflicts like chases. That said, I like the idea that if the characters are clever and prepared, they can deal with the horrifying monsters.

All in all, this breakdown of genre and theme has told me two things. Actions that a character can take their time on should be easy, and things that a character does quickly should be hard. The supernatural abilities that PCs possess will help even the odds for quick actions as well, so as to not make it hopeless. But if the external modifiers for a task are how much time you have, this suggests a time based mechanic, possibly with a die pool that ticks up. A possible mechanic is something like an adrenalin surge, trading the ability to make actions on a long time frame for bonuses while making quick actions. All in all, I don't know how it will work, but if I end up choosing this as the core resolution mechanic, I may need to make extensive re-writes on the mechanics I've already done. Luckily, I was already half expecting that.

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