Posts Tagged ‘the hammer falls’

Overdesign

Here’s two things I see a lot of as an editor/critic/snarky person.

There’s a concern when you put together games that every element of what the story can be needs to have mechanical backup. The game’s about hope? Then it needs A Hope Trait. The game’s about justice? Let’s write rules on law and punishment. I’ll write about this some other time.

There’s also a tendency to add (as a friend put it) a pleasing symmetry to all mechanics. Body has an offensive (Strength) and defensive (Stamina) angle? Then Mind needs that too. As does Wealth, whatever the fuck defensive money means. And suddenly your game has an Insurance trait the equal of Strength. Is that going to come up a lot? Was it worth the time making the choice on the character sheet in the first place?

We had some playtesting of The Hammer Falls recently. THF is a game of dystopias¬† and this is the third major rules iteration – it’s a doozy. There’s a couple of rough edges and a couple of solutions that didn’t make sense to me. But it’s good. Really good. So I chuckled to see just how many places the system waded into play,¬† partially because that symmetry existed and had to be used somewhere, right? But it made for some pretty constrained play where the system trumped improvisation.

It’s no big deal, obviously. I talked it over with the designer, and I think it’s a general concern he has balancing direction and structure provided by the system with a worry that the players won’t know what to do if the system isn’t actively prodding them. In a previous iteration, each session had a specific story arc with seven phases. This kept your session on track for a dystopic tale. But if your story wavered from the path, the system started bashing you round the head until you got back into the assigned slot.

Which is pretty dystopic, come to think of it, but perhaps not what the designer had in mind.

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Design til it hurts.

I’m corresponding with Steve Hickey about Left Coast, a game about sci fi authors in 1960s California, and how they deal with paranoia, hallucinations, alien incursions and bills to pay. Superb premise, but the system isn’t quite there yet.

Last year, I did an online course called Game Design Concepts. Most of the course was angled towards videogames, but lots applied to RPGs. My favorite topic was iterative design. Design something good, then test it to see what’s bad, then feed that back into design changes. Cycle that a lot. Weekly. Daily.

After all, you shouldn’t aim to write a a finished game. You can’t do that, so don’t worry about it. Just produce something that works enough that your band of intrepid and generous playtesters can poke at it at the table and see where the system skips.

As an example, I’m developing The Hammer Falls with the creator, Pooka . He was terrified he’d produce something that wouldn’t work… so we got a playtest about 6 weeks after he started designing. If he lost 6 weeks investment that’s no big deal. Lots worked, lots was confusing. Pooka was too necessary an ingredient for it to be a finished game. So the design gets tweaked.

(It helps hugely that the mechanic allows for lots of changes. We’re using playing cards for resolution, and one of the mechanics ramps up the difficulty by adding cards together. Initially, you added the values together. Now, it looks like you’ll add the number of cards to the first card drawn as it took too long to add more than two cards. Glad we chose cards where it’s easy to do that).

Hell for Leather is another one. The designer, Sebastian Hickey, playtested the game about 3 weeks after he first put pen to paper. Lots sucked. Lots worked. But because the premise of the game was enjoyably nihilistic, you could at least paper over the system cracks with fun roleplaying.

Left Coast seems to be in a similar boat. It’s got such a strong premise that I’ve no doubt charitable groups would give it a shot and paper over in a similar way. Then, when you look back and see that you motivated your character to do something, but that perhaps the system should be doing that instead, you can design towards a system that matters.