Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mechanics and Mental Weight

Mechanics and Mental Weight
In part I'm batting around in different directions on these posts with the idea that I'll go back later and tighten them up into a single article. Again, my main goal is to prepare some thinking about converting one or more existing game systems/settings over to the new HeroQuest 2e. That game has major differences from most other rpgs, requiring some real consideration of what's going on at the table.

A few things that came up/occurred to me after yesterday's post. Gene mentioned the idea of break points rather than just choices. I think that fits better because choices or even resolutions suggest an active mechanic, which happens quite a bit. But as I suggested yesterday, sometimes those shifts and breaks come about more passively-- either as a factor of the character's nature (this player has handsome, so this NPC is more likely to approach them) or as a result of past behavior (these people are going to avoid the party because of the negative reputation they've built up over time). There's no roll and the players don't see the events playing out at the table, just the results.

But I think more importantly is for the GM to consider what constitutes an actual break when player's have active involvement. If the situation is going to go one direction, regardless of the PC's actions, then that isn't a break. A good GM has to be prepared to show a shift in things. If the player's asked to roll, test or contest then the resolution should be undetermined before hand. Now the player may not always get the result they desire, but when a player takes an action and succeeds, they should see some change in the narrative-- for good or ill. Bouncing off of things is among the most frustrating things for the player. Even in the player doesn't “win”, they should see some kind of result. There's a classic trope that the player makes an action and it just bounces off to demonstrate the invulnerability of the opponent. Even in that case something should be stressed about the change in the situation: information gleaned, gaining attention of the bad guy, perhaps a sense of weakness on the player's part. Just saying it bounces off is usually the weaker way to play that out.

One can't forget that rolling dice (or pulling cards) is actually fun as well. One of the dangers of a narrative heavy game, or one which resolves most things through negotiation is that players get fewer opportunities to roll. The fewer the number of rolls made in a game, the greater the investment and emotional weight placed on them. That's actually one of the drawbacks to the Action Cards system-- players can see pretty visibly how many rolls they've made. They don't track in parallel how many breaks they've managed or controlled through negotiated resolution, so there's a different weight there. I'd also say that fewer rolls means that certain skills become more obviously useful-- at least they become the ones which seem to have more rolled tests against them. Again I think players don't consider in that the utility of skills(or abilities or whatnot) used in negotiated resolutions—often there's no obvious [yes/no] result from those resolutions so some players categorize them differently, which I think is a mistake.

There's another interesting sidebar about abilities that came up in conversation with Sherri last night. Different systems put different weight on it, but in most game systems, combat usually has a higher level of detail than anything else. Combat also often operates under another set of mechanical systems, with factors like initiative, damage, armor, etc. Even the segmentation of time and events within a combat scene works differently. Combat options, because of their level of crunch and detail, are often the easiest to expand as a game system wears on with more and more supplements. Legend of the Five Rings, for example, explodes into combat detail in the second edition as a substitute for anything substantive-- which is a point I'll come back to later when I'm talking about converting that in particular. Another usual difference is that the idea of critical success usually apply to combat more than any other part of the rules. Even if a game has the idea of a critical success for non-combat actions, there's usually not the detail or added mechanics to resolve it beyond saying- you did well. There are a couple of rare exceptions. Rolemaster Standard System for all of its craziness, did have tables for different non-combat skill classes and individualized results for exceptional success in those.

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Sidebar to that sidebar-- one of the things that Storyteller does well is perceived success. By that I mean, where you roll and count up successes, you know when you've really done well. With other open roll systems, sometimes a;ll but the highest rolls feel the same and the GM can narrate them the same way. I've been trying in ST to make sure to reward a large number of successes, to show how absurdly high they are. And pretty quickly they can be crazy high. Storyteller defines a single success as basic, but things like three successes as being extraordinary (except in combat where these things are opposed). So five successes ought to be legendary-- which in a lot of the systems (especially Exalted) is quite easily doable. But the point here is that you have an immediate gratification to rolling a bunch of successes in ST that you don't necessarily get in other one-die open systems unless you roll a critical.
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The point I want to make here is that combat usually exists as a separate system, not in complete parallel with the rest of an rpg. Again, this is another place where HeroQuest diverges-- all contested systems use the same form of resolution, even down to how time and such get applied (liberally, as it happens).

Conversions

I've converted a number of existing game systems and settings to other ones over the years. Some of that's been fairly straight line and some has been pretty catch as catch can. Usually with things like setting and sourcebook material I handle it pretty loosely. For example, I adapted a good deal of Warhammer Fantasy rpg material for my old GURPS game. I never worried about the mechanics there, just the basic ideas. The same thing when I borrowed Rolemaster or MERP modules for ideas. When I ran Rolemaster on the Third Continent, I used a great deal of Runequest/Glorantha there, but again only for plots and general capabilities. I never worked out any kind of formal conversion. I've thematically borrowed Mage: the Ascension for Champions, Unknown Armies for Action Cards, and Amber for GURPS.

But I have done some heavy-duty full conversions as well. For example, my Action Cards version of Changeling: the Lost is pretty direct. Mind you, Action cards is pretty loose but I can usually look at the various abilities and mechanics and come up with how those will function in AC. I've dropped a few systems, but kept some of the crucial interlaced parts. Players can look through the original source material and probably see how the mechanics of the various contracts, tokens and other abilities would fit into the current game.

But I've also converted Legend of the Five Rings twice into other system, both with a high level of detail. My first attempt was a conversion over to RMSS. Rolemaster had the advantage of having a lot of existing parts and scattershot mechanics, so I could pick and choose the elements which would best simulate the Rokugan setting. I had four main tasks to accomplish. First, converting the classes over to RM classes. Since L5R really only had a few (Samurai, Monk, Scout, Shugenja, Courtier) that was reasonably easy. Each class was defined by the costs it had for the many and various skills. Second was to convert the advantages and disadvantages into background options and picks. Some of the bonuses ended up being harder than others to figure, but most went straight over, but it did take some work to consolidate those from various sources and bring them together. The third part ended up being the most subjective. L5R has “schools” with five ranks of abilities and the idea that players gain those abilities through advancement, with the last rank really being the apex of skills. Many of them were purely combat oriented and therefore easy to convert, but others had more complex affects. For example, the Suzume Clan ability to avoid danger or the Yasuki Tradesmen's contacts. Things like the Tattooed Monk's powers I also had to figure out-- define each of the possible choices and figure out when such a character could buy more of them-- a level limit? Free? Purchased with development points. In the end I pegged ranks in Schools to character levels, with PCs gaining their new abilities at certain levels. The final part was figuring out how to handle magic-- I really didn't even try to simulate the original L5R's restrictions (such as scroll use) but instead simply chose out various spell lists that seemed to reflect Rokugani magic. We ended up with one and a half mages, so that didn't prove to be a problem.

How successful was it? I think it worked pretty well for what it was-- a more conventional fantasy game with a samurai backdrop. Rolemaster focuses on combat and the campaign reflected that. Most social interactions tended to be handled through Negotiated resolution. The magic felt powerful, but perhaps not exactly of the original setting. I left out some important mechanics because I couldn't see exactly how to handle them: Honor and Glory. I put a good deal of work into the conversion-- I wrote up pretty much everything so that any choice could be simulated. That's always a hard call when you're doing something like this-- do you do everything up front or do you just work on what the players have chosen? Despite that effort I pretty much decided against using Rolemaster again.

Shorter post today-- still pressing on, tomorrow about the Storyteller conversion of L5R and talking about the system premises of HeroQuest 2e and how they change up a good deal of what I've been talking about.