Monday, November 8, 2010

Game Chef 2010: "Nice Job, Finalist."

So the word's come down from Game Chef 2010 Master Chef Jonathan Walton's chosen Action City! as a Finalist, which is great news. More importantly, he had some insightful commentary on the game:

Concept: A game about 80s action movies. Explosion-tastic.

Execution: Unlike several other games, which have several single-protagonist stories happening in parallel, this game is explicitly about one character, the hero, with everyone else playing allies or enemies. The explicit division between scenery chewing, talky scenes and action scenes makes good design sense. It’s perhaps a bit strange that both the hero and the other characters have equivalent stats, since the hero in these movies is usually both super-competent and unkillable (i.e. they die hard, but these movie often try to portray them as normal dudes, so perhaps that make sense. Resolution contains an unusual combination of both stat+trait invocation and setting difficulties, though, in this case, it seems as if the acting character sets their own difficulty, taking a bonus or penalty to their roll based on either personal preference or the fictional circumstances (it’s not really clear which). Additionally successes can be banked to help in later conflicts, so the mechanics seem to incentivize making some easy rolls in the beginning, which could be weird if players decide to roll for things that don’t really matter. Failure gives characters conditions that prevent them from selecting the easier options when assigning their own difficulty, which is a pretty smart mechanic. There’s also a Once Upon a Time-like mechanic where the players are incentivized to incorperate specific action movie clichés (“vehicle of convenience”) into the narrative, with any remaining clichés counting as resources for the GM and bad guys in the final conflict. While my concerns about “forced incorporation” mechanics remains, I like the way teamwork between the players might be required to set up some of these situations. The bad guy generation guidelines also look like a ton of fun.

Completeness: feel like the main thing missing from this game is some sense of how pacing and scene distribution is supposed to work, especially when the hero might end up with the crap beaten out of them after just a few scenes. When should we cut from the hero to the various other characters? The hero is supposed to get more spotlight time, right? But how much is “more”? Does the GM frame all the action scenes while the players call for and frame the personal scenes? That seems to be the way it works, but the rules don’t say that explicitly. How do we know when we are reaching the final showdown? Should the GM specifically try to target the friends of the hero, or just allow them to become entangled in the caper?


Cookery: Some of the uses here are a bit of a stretch, but this designer was smart not to let the ingredients been too restricting.


Conclusion: Nice job, Finalist. This game is definitely ready to be played, but needs to keep an eye on a few things, including refining the scene framing guidelines and figuring out how the non-hero characters can become involved in things.
Pretty much everything in the Completeness section is a concern I already have about the game as it now stands, which is kind of a relief. I was a bit worried that I'd missed something vital and game-ruining, so if the worst thing about it is stuff I already knew about, then I feel much better about the next revision.


Speaking of which, here are a few things off the top of my head to hit on:

  • There isn't necessarily a "GM" here. The critique makes reference to the GM and "the badguys" as if they were separate entities. The Opposition isn't, strictly speaking, the GM, though -- he's a player just like the Hero and the Friends, but with different rules. Like them, he has resources and limits and all that, and completely lacks the arbitrary authority which is so commonly associated with the classic GM role. The Opposition really only controls two things: The actions of the Badguy and other individuals/forces which oppose the Hero, and the framing of Setpieces (more on that below).
  • Cakewalking has a cost, always. I'd argue against Jonathan's inference that "the mechanics seem to incentivize making some easy rolls in the beginning" -- win or lose, if it's a Cakewalk the Opposition gets a bonus die. Making an obstacle a Cakewalk is essentially saying, "This is so important to me narratively that I'm willing to take my lumps later for the opportunity to advance my Arc/overcome my Hang-Up." If anything, I'd argue that the rules incentivize Close Calls, because they don't offer a reward for success or a penalty for failure apart from whether or not you get to advance your Arc.
  • Every roll does matter. Jonathan's concerned that the players might "roll for things that don't really matter," but they only break out the dice if the Opposition says so. It's only when the Hero or Friend and the Opposition reach a stalemate that anyone rolls dice, so if the Opposition wants to make everything an uphill battle for them ("No, you don't fix that leaky faucet before heading out to the FBI office! Roll some dice!"), then that's his call. So while the Hero or Friend is in charge of how difficult an obstacle is to overcome, the Opposition is in charge of determining what the obstacles actually are. As long as every scene has at least one roll, I don't foresee any problems there.
  • The Arsenal doesn't really work like that. Unless I'm misunderstanding the critique, Jonathan's main concern with the above two points is the Arsenal, which lets players set aside a die from a second matched set to use later on. However, since the Arsenal can never have more dice in it than non-Opposition players, there isn't a huge opportunity to, as it were, "game the system" there. Besides, Cakewalking doesn't let you roll more dice -- just more than the Opposition. Your odds of adding a die to the Arsenal are the same no matter what difficulty you set.
  • Rolls don't really work like that, either. This is perhaps a minor point, but an important one. When Jonathan says, "it seems as if the acting character sets their own difficulty, taking a bonus or penalty to their roll based on either personal preference or the fictional circumstances (it’s not really clear which)," it makes me think I may not have explained the core mechanic well enough. You never get a "bonus or penalty" to a roll -- you just impose a bonus or penalty on the Opposition. That's a distinct difference, to me. The difficulty you set is solely a matter of personal preference, but the narrative needs to bear it out, too. If you're trying to punch out some thugs and decide it'll be a Cakewalk, the narrative should describe you quickly dealing with them and moving on; if you're going to beat them by the Skin of Your Teeth, the narrative needs to describe a more protracted, desperate situation. (I know it's out of genre, but the first example that occurs to me is Aragorn at the end of the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. He mows through those Uruk-Hai minions like they're nothing, then spends three minutes in a nail-biting slugfest with Lurtz.)
  • Equivalent stats aren't everything. Even though Heroes and Friends have "equivalent stats," as Jonathan points out, Heroes still have the edge. Heroes can't be compelled to act against their will like a traitorous Friend can. Heroes have longer Arcs, and therefore get to frame more Talking scenes, which means more screen time. And Heroes can't be killed, which seems pretty major to me. That said, it's probably worth thinking about how else Heroes can have a practical advantage without mechanical fiddliness.
  • Scene framing has rules. I clearly need to be more explicit when it comes to who frames which scenes. Heroes and Friends get to set up their own Talking scenes, but the Opposition gets to frame Setpieces. Maybe it's the "framing" part of that that needs to be better defined, though. I.e., what does it mean to frame a scene? Is it just getting to determine who's there and where it's taking place? Or does that extend to being the one to decide what success and failure actually mean within the context of the scene? All of that needs a better explanation than I could muster when I originally wrote it at three in the morning.
The timing on all of this is pretty good, as it turns out. If Jonathan had stuck to his original timeline, I would've been neck-deep in writing "Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle" and completely unable to switch gears back to game design.

I'll post the revised version here sometime, say, this week. Hopefully I can coerce some suckers -- er, recruit  some friends to do some playtesting for me. I may be able to playtest it myself, but given the way my schedule usually goes that's not a guarantee. Besides, blind playtests are the more informative. Stay tuned!

2 comments:

  1. Not surprised that it made it as a Finalist. I can't wait to give it a shot and help boost it up.

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  2. Thanks for the support, Other Jonathan. Like I said, I'll let people know when the next version's available online. The first revision was a big step forward, IMO, but based on MC Jonathan's critique I think the next one's going to be more about clarification than anything else.

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