Monday, 8 September 2014

Design: Rewarding Randomness and Card Conflicts

One of the fundamental ideas of the roleplaying hobby is the idea of using dice as an objective means of determining success or failure. There are exceptions, such as LARPS and certain narrative focused games, but they have made a conscious decision to not use dice due to logistical or design choices. I'm focusing on the, at lack of a better term, traditional RPGs. Like I proposed in the Fluxborn first impression, I'm asking why we, as gamers and as designers, reward and punish based on arbitrary results.

The classic examples are the critical hit and the fumble. These are events with a small, but not insignificant chance of occurring, and they either greatly reward or greatly punish players. Even the idea of success and failure relying on the roll of a die is rewarding and punishing arbitrarily. If I try to remove myself from any knowledge of tabletop games, I would wonder why a die is involved at all. It doesn't reflect the skill of the character, or the player at all. It can level the playing field, but it can also skew things one way or another.

We need an objective arbitrator of results in a structured RPG. That is the way RPGs distinguish themselves from, say, an improv game. Because even game master, the referee analogue, is one of the players, it can't be a judgement call. This is especially true since every player may have internalized a different take on a given scene. If the referee makes a call that doesn't mesh with someone's idea of the situation, there can be conflict. So we naturally fall back on the randomization of dice as our arbitrator. This is the whole reason for mechanics, it is something to fall back on when two players disagree. This may have something to do with the hobby's connection to war games, which traditionally used conventional six sided dice, but in early examples the dice were only used for factors outside the influence of tactics.

Most games, especially those with a more traditional structure incorporate things like attributes and skills to show where a character's strengths and weaknesses lie. Even with this notation imbedded in the game's structure, we, as gamers, still rely on dice as an arbitrator. In RPGs with a level based component, some things are impossible to a lower levelled PC, so it doesn't seem to be about allowing agency on the part of players. Honestly, the only explanation I can see for why RPGs use dice at all is tradition.

I wrote about games that don't use dice in their design earlier. These games, usually newer and in the broad category of “narrative” or “story” games eschew the use of random arbitration in favour of narrative guidance. Even then, this doesn't so much reflect the skill and nature of the characters as it does the most interesting narrative path. I don't see anything wrong with either path, it just struck me as odd that things like critical hits are considered an inherent part of the game and those that drop things like the use of dice are deliberately breaking away from the usual form a game takes.

To switch gears completely, I've seen games use playing cards as the randomization factor instead of dice. It makes sense, if you take out face cards, you have 10 cards in each suit. If you shuffle after each draw, it's the same as rolling a d10. Most card games don't have you draw one card at a time. You usually have a hand of cards. A core mechanic using a hand of cards puts more emphasis on strategy and less on purely random factors. I came up with a outline of a card based resolution mechanic while musing on the subject of randomization.

There are three major things that your standard playing cards have that dice don't. First, we have set colours, black and red. Second, we have suits. Four identical sets with only a symbol to distinguish them. Lastly, we have the face cards: Jacks, Queens and Kings. I'll admit, the face cards don't fit into the dice analogue that the rest of the cards give us, but if we link them thematically to the concept of the game, we can do some interesting stuff. The jokers are interesting for similar reasons but don't have the same fourfold symmetry that the suits give us.

The standard playing cards aren't the only kind of cards readily available to a gaming group though. The tarot deck has four different suits, ones with a less abstract form. We have the swords, a basic symbol of offence with masculine ties (phallic metaphor and all). So the reverse would be the cup suit with ties to femininity (I'm just working off what I remember about the metaphor of these kind of things, I don't have any attachment to these ideas, but they work for our purposes). What is the reverse of offence? Obviously defence. We also have the pentacles, or the version I'm choosing to use, coins. At first, I had trouble thinking of what sort of connection the coins could have to game concepts. Then I looked at the obvious counterpart for coins (and the only suit of the minor arcana remaining), the staves. What was the big realization? Well, another name for that suit is wands. Wands are associated in pop culture with wizards and witches making it a symbol of the occult (or, arcane, if you will). Wands then seem to be in direct conflict with the worldly connotations of the coin suit.

The French suits of the tarot minor arcana correspond to the suits of a typically deck of playing cards. Wands and clubs are paired, as are diamonds and coins, hearts and cups, and spades with swords. Wands and swords would then be black suits, with coins and cups as red suits.

You might ask “what does this have to do with a conflict resolution mechanic”? It's the very basis of it. In my original conception of this system, I had two (at times, conflicting) ideas of things I wanted in the system. Firstly, I liked the idea of a character having an overarching theme of high or low and red or black (some other distinguishing mark perhaps, if using the tarot deck). Secondly, the idea of each skill being tied to a particular suit and either high or low. We can use the metaphorical descriptions of the tarot suits for a guideline on what kind of skill to link to what suit. The high and low is difficult to thematically tie into the mechanics. Either way, I suppose that the skills would be divided into ranks and playing a card that is closer to high or low (for high or low skills respectively) would be the intended goal. Playing a card that meets or exceeds the rank, after any modifiers, would equal a success. In this example, if you have a low skill of 4, you would need to play a card that is a four or lower in the relevant suit to get a success. Whereas, if you had a high skill of four, any card that is four or higher is a success. Playing cards that don't match the suit, or even the colour would be possible, but with penalties. On the subject of modifiers, I think I would apply them to the skill ranks, rather than the card played, just for simplicity's sake.

On the subject of hands, (the grouping of cards, not the limb, or hands in general) the player characters would have five or six cards while the GM would have a larger hand (possibly 10-12 cards) for all the NPCs. That said, if there were particularly large groups, they would either have to be grouped together, or the GM's hand size would increase. An alternative way of handling the GM's hand is to give them the face cards. This removes a potentially interesting tactical element from gameplay, but something about the GM working in more metaphorical terms interests me. This mode prefers the tarot deck, as there are four face cards per suit as well as the major arcana which could serve a similar purpose.

While I enjoy working on mechanics for mechanics sake but before I can go any further in designing this system, I need to decide what kind of game it is for. The basic mechanics (ignoring the tarot based suit metaphors for now) are card based, and could be modified to be fairly neutral. My first association is with the western, shortly followed by mafia stories as they both have a thematic link to cards and gambling. The mafia in particular is a good fit for this system since North American pop culture usually uses Italian crime families as their inspiration. The common tarot deck is based off of the Italian style, so you can see the connections build up. Those choices are based entirely on the method of arbitration, not the concepts of the system itself. I like the idea of the GM using the face card and major arcana, so I'll assume that the system uses the tarot deck. We have swords, the occult (or knowledge), and wealth. What this suggests to me is a fantasy game with a wider scope (especially given the medieval nature of the face cards). To me, this system seems like it suggests a group of allied baronies, marches, or small kingdoms struggling against outside influences. Unlike the typical adventuring party, the communication would all be correspondences, they would rarely be in the same room, much less crawling into a dusty old crypt together, and combat would be done with armies, not weapons. A departure from the typical fantasy game to be sure, but it could be interesting. In fact, I think I'll start writing something of a setting for it. We'll have to see how it works out.

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