Wednesday, August 03, 2011

In Which the Warlock Contemplates Game Against Story...

Okay, fellow gamers.   Bear with me for a tick, once more, as I do some rambling.

The games that I tend to enjoy stem from a fairly diverse number of systems and fundamental game theories.  But, the systems that I tend to favor most recently all have one major thing in common:  the ability to manipulate and even to defeat luck.

The Copper Pot collects some fate...
In WEGS, every Ark comes ready-equipped with a number of Spoints, which can be used on nearly any percentage roll in the game, and even on some non-percentage rolls.  It's entirely possible--and sometimes more than desirable!--to use Spoints to achieve a percentage-chance of success that exceeds 100%.  While this all but guarantees success--barring a really horrible Bad Shot or a Wicked Failure--luck has effectively been removed from the equation.  The spell goes off, the sword strikes true.

In Savage Worlds and its numerous settings, every hero comes equipped with Bennies (or, Fate Chips, if you're playing Deadlands), which can turn a seemingly lethal blow into a near miss, or allow for complete and total re-rolls on skills.  In ICONS, heroes get Determination, which allows them to create power stunts, achieve massive levels of success (regardless of dice roll), and even "retcon" details in a scene, changing the narrative.

Not all games include such a system.  Aside from a brief flirtation with them in Eberron, D&D has never used such a mechanics.  Action points in 4e rarely grant anything but an extra action.  Call of Cthulhu and other "atmospheric" games don't use such a mechanic.

So, as I continue working on Cold Steel Wardens, a major question arises.  Do I put such a mechanic into the game, or do I "let the dice fall where they may"?

Representation of GNS Theory
I believe that the rub lies in what's referred to within game design circles as GNS Theory or, later, The Big Model.  Ron Edwards--creator of the Sorcerer RPG--created this theory as an ongoing set of theory regarding social interactions through role-playing games.  It's been one of the longest running controversies within game design circles since Edwards came up with the idea, but for me at least, Edwards' ideas run true.  Edwards claimed that players (and the games that they prefer) typically would fall within a given category--Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist.

My main impetus in creating Cold Steel Wardens echoes a fundamentally Simulationist.  As a representation of the Iron Age of Comics, CSW is built to emulate a certain era of comics, including all of the conceits and hallmarks of that era.  As I told ChaoticFrederick--whose commentary and revisions have been invaluable as I've moved forward!--I expect there to be ninjas, I expect there to be lots of guns, and I expect there to be mafia bosses.  Those are all stereotypes that are hallmarks of the Iron Age of Comics, for better or worse, and they tend to appear quite often.

However, I have a strong desire towards specific Narrativist goals.  The system for Aspects, Motivations, and Stances--which I'm about 2/3 of the way through!--encourages players to test their Hero's assumptions about ethics and morality.  While this stems from such storylines like Miller's Daredevil: Born Again and O'Neil's run on The Question, it's a fundamentally Narrativist idea.  Further, the investigative nature of the material itself lends itself towards storytelling, on the player level, the GM level, and the table-wide level.

However, the mechanics of CSW also provide for a degree of system mastery and "optimal build", which are hallmarks of the Gamist idea.  There's a strong desire for me, as a designer and as a gamer, to try to build "The World's Greatest Detective" or "The Martial Arts Master" in this system.  And, as with nearly every system out there, I've spent more than my share of time dealing with combat at this point--the "throne room" of the Gamist player.  Plus, the ideas that I've been kicking about, regarding a system for in-depth investigation, are solidly gamist--it's a matter of how well the Heroes can access the clues, and how well the Players can put them together.

So, where does this leave us?  Well, with the Hero Pool.  This is to say, the fate-defying mechanic I'm debating building into Cold Steel Wardens.  It's a simple mechanic--a pool of d8s equal to twice the number of players, which can be used to add to any test.  They're one use only--once they're gone, they're gone, unless the GM refreshes them (usually by challenging the PCs in underhanded ways). 

One might say that it's a fundamentally Gamist mechanic--it's something built in to defeat luck, and can be exploited.  It doesn't add much to the story, says the Gamist, but it lets us hit once in a while.  The Narrativist would probably disagree, adding that it adds more creative control to the minds of the players, and allows the Heroes to add in that "last-ditch effort" on a test that really requires a success.  A Simultationist might decry such a mechanic, due to lack of "realism", but simultaneously uphold it as a fitting representation of the genre. 

So, again, where does this leave us?  I'm not really sure.  I wouldn't be so arrogant thusfar as to say that CSW is going to be the mystical Zen-center of the GNS spectrum, but it's raised quite a few questions in my mind, as to where CSW is going.  Let's see how playtest rolls out, and we'll go from there...

A few links for you, in case you're curious:


  1. All of your considerations and concerns are well-founded. Fate-manipulation mechanics can have a serious impact on tension and suspense, and they certainly DO affect a player's decision-making process in terms of risk vs. reward and such. IMO, look at the issue not only from the GNS perspective, but from the perspective of THEME. Is it inherent to the feel and flavor of your setting that heroes often or always elude failure and dodge out of harm's way? (Probably, if you were going Golden Age!) Or, does the setting embrace heroic failure as part of story & character development? (Very Modern Age, like right now!) I suspect Iron Age is somewhere in the middle, hence your quagmire. My suggestion: provide for a fate-manipulation mechanic, **but make it inaccessible at certain times during a game** - a rule that would be fundamentally different from simply limiting its number of uses. At certain moments, particularly those triggered by doubt, regret, or a profound emotional reaction, even Iron Age heroes like Punisher and Daredevil ran out of luck and had to rely solely on skill. Thus, they were reminded that they were heroes who weren't always super all the time.

  2. Very insightful post, brother! I appreciate the feedback!

    Right now, CSW has developed as a dice pool-type system, and the Hero Pool starts at 2 dice per Hero in the game. The GM is exhorted to add additional dice to the Hero Pool when they pull a "dirty GM trick", such as exploiting a Hero's Flaws or playing on the Hero's past (their Aspects), their present situation (Motivations), or what they believe (Stances).

    I'm inclined to lean more towards the Modern Age sensibility, given your extremes, as the Modern Age in comics is a direct result of Iron Age sensibilities, tempered through a more modern viewpoint. Heroic failure is absolutely anticipated, and even encouraged in CSW, as it's a hallmark of the Iron Age.

    I have the Hero Pool usage limited at 4 dice, and it's subject to group approval--if even one other player says "no", then you can't use the Hero Pool.

    Is the Hero Pool necessary for the theme. No, I don't think it is. But, does it fit? Well, there's got to be something that separates the Heroes from the gun-toting thugs they're taking down. I see the Hero Pool as a "last-ditch effort" for Heroes, when they chips are down and they just can't get by on their own natural skills.

    I'm still undecided about the mechanic, but we'll see how it rolls out in Alpha testing. :D