Tag: games

Storytelling game mechanics, part one: roleplaying games

The best bit about playing games is the storytelling, as exemplified on Tabletop – not just the roleplaying games that are explicitly about narrative, but specific mechanics used in what would otherwise be considered pretty conventional modern board games.

In this part I will talk about a couple of roleplaying game mechanics which enhance the story telling.

Mad! Mad, I Tell You!

The roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu is about combatting eldritch horrors and, more practically, their deranged minions. A crucial part of the game is that your character has a limited amount of sanity which is eroded by encounters with the darkness – once a character’s sanity is gone, he or she becomes permanently insane and ceases to be a player character.

Sanity is a percentile value (01-00 => 1 to 100). It has a starting value usually in the range 50-75%, and has the following interesting properties.

Firstly, when a character encounters an unspeakable (or even speakable) horror, he or she makes a sanity roll to see how severe an effect the horror has: that is, the player rolls percentile dice trying to roll at or below the sanity statistic. In other words, the more sanity a character loses, the harder it is for that character to avoid losing more.

Secondly, there is another statistic – a knowledge skill – called Cthulhu Mythos. This is a measure of how much knowledge a character has of the dark horrors lurking under the surface of our world. It is a useful skill in investigating these terrible puzzles. A character’s sanity may increase, but it is limited at its maximum to 100 minus Cthulhu Mythos – the more competent a character becomes at deciphering the unspeakable mysteries, the less sane they may be.

The combination of these two mechanics conveys a sense of desperate decline over the course of the game, which exactly mirrors the feeling of hopeless decay evoked by Lovecraft’s original stories.

Hard to Kill

Another feature of Call of Cthulhu which I like is how deadly it is. By contrast, Savage Worlds is meant to be a a much more cinematic – even pulpy – game system. Part of that pulpiness is how difficult it is to kill the characters.

One mechanic which helps here is the wild die.

Characters have traits whose proficiency is measured in the type of die: the best skills have a d12, the weakest trained skills have a d4 (untrained skills are d4-2). Testing a skill requires the character to roll at or above a certain target number with the trait – usually 4, Harder tasks have a higher target number (eg trying to shoot someone hiding behind a wall increases the difficulty). So if your skill is trained to a d8 proficiency, it is easier to make the shot than for your buddy who has never picked up a bow before.

However, player characters roll two dice: the trait die, and the wild die – a d6 which gives a second chance to succeed at any test of skill or stamina. This makes it harder to kill characters because they usually roll successfully to evade a trap or disarm an attacker with one of their dice.

The second mechanic which helps is that each character gets bennies. If a roll was bad, the character may spend one of their bennies for the session and reroll.

The effectiveness of these mechanics can be measured by the fact that in Savage Worlds settings where the pulpiness is not desired (such as the Cthulhu Mythos setting) both of these mechanics are removed or weakened.

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Roleplaying With Kids

I love roleplaying games, and I love playing games with my kids. Putting the two together is not an unobvious thing to do.

My kids can deal with pretty complex games, but they are still young and so a full-on system is overkill on so many levels. There are existing roleplaying systems for kids, but the one I have looked at most closely is both tied to fantasy settings, and apparently owes much of its structure to Dungeons & Dragons.

I do not care for D&D.

My solution to this was to use a system derived from a different roleplaying system called Savage Worlds. This is the system that we are more or less exclusively using in my roleplaying group, and I like it a lot because it is setting-neutral, the core mechanics are simple to learn, and it plays pretty fast. It is still too complex in its full form for the boys to deal with just yet though, so I trimmed it a bit: cut the number of skills, especially, and simplified character creation. In fact, I wrote up characters based on the boys’ ideas.

I ran a short superhero game session, and the boys loved it. We used LEGO minifigs as miniatures, and they battled an alien dragon that emerged from a tunnel and had a blast.

The next outing is to run a game for a group of kids we know – I’m going to use the same basic version of Savage Worlds, but my thinking at this point is to run a story set in Middle Earth. This is a setting I will have to do very little to explain, since there has been so much Hobbit and LotR exposure over the last decade. It is also a low magic setting – one of the difficulties with the superhero game was that the superpowers were a bit complex to run. If I am running a game with 6-10 munchkins, I want this to be as simple to follow as possible.

Besides, I want this to be about story and character and puzzle-solving rather than combat. Combat always ends up more complicated than you expect, and it’s easy for an encounter with even a handful of characters to get bogged down in minutiae.

I will post details of the game system itself when I have them properly written down. I may even post the game materials once the game is played.

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Imagine being in a Coen brothers film – not just acting in one, but discovering what the story is as you go. This what Fiasco is all about.

It’s a GM-less roleplaying game, a game about improvising stories from solid foundations. There is a nominal victory mechanic, but it is a game which is a lot more about the journey than the destination.

And there is an awful lot in Fiasco which is of value to writers.

The game is structured around a setting, and the relationships between characters in that setting. This single shift in focus is one of the most powerful things about Fiasco when compared with more traditional RPGs: the things which drive stories are the relationships between the characters rather than the characters themselves. The way to play Fiasco is to invent the simplest thing that could work*, and then elaborate on it while bouncing ideas off other players.

Lesson one, then: build relationships between characters before you define your characters.

The narrative drive of the game is a small set of needs and objects – only a very few per game, rather than a hotchpotch of narrative elements which might confuse the story and the player.

Lesson two: shorten the list of narrative drivers.

A game of Fiasco starts by picking a play set, a collection of story and setting elements which the players use to shape the story. The game comes with four, and there are many more play sets available on the publisher’s web site. Or if the players have their own ideas then they can write their own play set before they start.

Lesson three: you only need enough setting information to understand the story.

Fiasco play itself consists of a series of scenes, focussed in turn on each player’s character. The mechanics of the game are such that on your turn you get to either pick the setup for the scene (establish) or choose the outcome (resolve). But you have very few scenes to tell your character’s part of the story – you get four in the whole game.

Lesson four: get to the point.

These lessons are not appropriate for every story that you tell, but for certain kinds of stories they are very helpful. The writer behind the TV show Leverage has used Fiasco in his story development sessions (he appears in the Tabletop episode linked below), and there is a worked example in the Fiasco Companion of a London gangland story treatment which demonstrates how effective Fiasco can be as a seed for interesting stories.

The only problem I have now is that if I watch a Coen brothers film I find myself analysing it in terms of the Fiasco structure – Burn After Reading especially seemed to conform to it.

A couple of episodes of Tabletop were dedicated to playing through a Fiasco game, and are highly recommended if you want to get a feel for how the game works:

But Fiasco is great. It’s some of the most fun I have had playing a game.

[*] compare with agile software development also, although I am not going to pursue that further here.

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