Mar 232016
 

I have a complete first draft of the playtest scenario for the Universitas Magarum game. It’s about 17,000 words long, and has five situations, introducing all the major rules for the game and the background, just like a playtest and introductory scenario should. I’ve already played through it by myself, because the rules do support solo play, and it works.

Obviously, I do plan to go through it again before I send it out to other people for playtest. There may be places that need a bit more explanation, and I need to check for typos. Then I need to lay it out do that it’s easy to use; there are a few bits in the rules that work much more easily with a nice layout.

I am not, however, planning to do any more structural revisions. There are a couple of things that occurred to me as I wrote it. For example, I think it might be better to have more explicit connections to the climax from earlier in the scenario. Everything does build up to it, but the results of some situations do not make a significant difference to the final outcome of this scenario, although they would be very significant in a campaign using the rules. However, I want to get feedback from other players before I start tinkering like that. There may be more fundamental problems that need fixing first.

I’ll be asking around my friends and contacts to find playtesters from next week, I think, but if anyone reading this would be interested in playtesting, leave a comment. The playtest scenario should work with one to six players; with more than six players there would be situations where at least one player had no opportunity to act.

Nearly there! (And then, of course, I have to revise, and start working towards the full game, which will be at least five times the length of the playtest scenario.)

Mar 022016
 

I have started work on the playtest scenario for Universitas Magarum, the current name for the School of Magic game. I’m not absolutely confident that I’ll finish it by the end of this month, but that is looking entirely realistic, and even if I fall behind, I might well be close enough to motivate a final push to get it done at the last minute.

As I have mentioned before, this game has no gamemaster. One thing that has really come home to me while writing it is just how much conventional roleplaying games rely on the gamemaster’s creativity and knowledge of the game rules and world. This is particularly true when writing the playtest scenario, because this scenario has to be run by people with no prior knowledge of the game, its rules, or its setting. There is no other public information available, so they have to play it based entirely on the scenario. That makes the writing quite taxing.

Let’s take a couple of examples from contemporary game design. The first is from the 7th Sea Second Edition Quickstart. (The Kickstarter for that is still live at the time of writing, and arguably the most successful RPG Kickstarter so far; you should probably back it at the Scholar level if you have any interest in RPGs at all.) In the very first scene, there is the possibility that one or more of the characters will get no successes: “You (the GM) say what happens.” The GM is supposed to make it interesting and fun, and make the failure meaningful without seriously derailing the rest of the plot. Obviously, a good GM can do that, but it is not a trivial skill.

The second example is from Kult: Divinity Lost (which also has a live Kickstarter as I write this, and is also doing well). This is based on the Apocalypse Engine, and when characters investigate something, they have to roll. If a player rolls high, she can ask two questions about the scenario. If she doesn’t roll so high, she asks one question, but there is a cost. The GM sets the cost; maybe she puts herself in danger, or there is some cost. What sort of danger is appropriate? What would be a reasonable cost? For the most part, those sorts of questions are left to the GM to answer.

This is quite possibly a large part of the reason for the conventional observation that the quality of a game depends almost entirely on the quality of the GM, with a very weak influence from the quality of the rules.

In Universitas Magarum, the players are bound to succeed at the core part of their task, so the game always moves forward. However, that success might come with added benefits, or with associated problems. When that happens, and to what extent, has to be built explicitly into the structure of the rules, because there is no GM to whom I can turn and say “you decide!”.

It is not easy to make this work, but I’m getting there.

Feb 102016
 

I have been a bit distracted over the last month or so.

First, I was asked to translate an academic paper into Japanese. That’s hard work. In general, it is a bad idea to try to translate things out of your native language. Fortunately, the translation was for internal use only, so awkward language is not a problem if the meaning is fairly clear. Even so, it took a lot of effort, so I couldn’t do any work on this for a couple of weeks.

Then, Wizards of the Coast announced the Dungeon Master’s Guild, which is an opportunity to write D&D material for the Forgotten Realms and get paid for it. I’ve wanted to do this since I was 15, so I’ve been getting myself up to speed on D&D 5th edition. (It’s good. It is notable that the elements discussed as things you might want to include in a game do not include any of the elements I’m working on here.)

However, I’ve not abandoned Kannagara by any means. I have, however, switched to the School of Magic for now.

Development there is going much more quickly than it did for Kannagara. It is quite easy to design situations, and I have a lot of ideas. This is a much better way to work out how the mechanics should go than doing Kannagara, where I also have to worry about accurately portraying Shinto.

And working out how the mechanics should go is important. I am still happy with the basic structure, but “game balance” is not easy. There are a whole bunch of things with numerical values, and I don’t have a good sense for how high those values should be. This isn’t really surprising, as neither I nor anyone else has ever played the game. I’m getting an idea for what sort of things make good elements of situations as I go along, and more ideas for how different situations can interact, but I do think I’m going to need to finish the basic rules for the school of magic before I can realistically do Kannagara.

Once I know how the rules fit together, I will know what I need to take from Shinto to make a workable game, and how the things I want to include can fit in.

In addition, from my point of view, the school of magic game is another one I have wanted to play for years, so I still get what I want.

I’m not sure whether I will have a fully playtestable version by the end of March, but it is still looking realistic.

This is a good example of how creative work is unpredictable. Given the brick walls I kept running into with Kannagara, and their complete absence in the new game, I think the switch is clearly going to be a faster way to complete Kannagara, even though there is a whole other game in the mix. I’m not going to commit to any schedules on Kannagara, but I want that one soon, as well.

Jan 062016
 

As I mentioned at the end of last year, I decided to look into whether designing the School of Magic game I’ve been wanting to make for decades would speed up the process of getting the mechanics into playtest. The only way to do that, really, is to try writing, and see whether progress is significantly faster, so I tried it out this morning.

The answer would appear to be yes.

The broader structure of how individual situations would fit together, and what the personae could achieve, was much easier to do in this setting. I guess twenty years of working on Ars Magica has made it rather easier for me to think about this sort of thing. (And yes, the broader structure in question does show the influence of Ars Magica. That’s not really something I could hope to avoid, even if I wanted to. It also has a very specific bit of influence from GURPS.)

I have a lot of background ideas, all of which can easily be made to work as story drivers given the system. Even exams fit in really easily as a major point of tension.

There is one important thing that I still need to test: how easy is it to design a specific situation? “Situation” is a specific term in the game system, referring to the units that serve the same purpose as “encounters” in other game systems. It has a different name because the personae are not typically encountering anything in a situation, so “encounter” is a bad name for it. A situation is quite elaborate, just like encounters in most other games, and has a number of elements that need to be designed. Players would normally take these from published material, in much the same way as they take Pathfinder monsters from the Bestiary, so the game needs to have a lot of them before playtest. This bit actually went quite smoothly in Kannagara, at least for some of the areas, so if this doesn’t go more smoothly in the School of Magic game (which will need a name, if I continue), there’s a good chance that I will go back to Kannagara. I’d really like to try this out this week, and my schedule suggests that I should be able to.

In practical terms, my thinking is this. If this week’s tests suggest that I will be able to finish a playtest scenario for the School of Magic by the end of March, I will do so. If they suggest that it is going to take longer than that, I will go back to Kannagara. I’d like to finish the playtest scenario earlier than that, if possible, but that’s the deadline I have in mind. I plan to continue working on Kannagara directly when the School of Magic is in playtest, and then fold the responses back in. However, if School of Magic continues to move more quickly, I will probably look at taking it to publication before I do the same for Kannagara.

My hope is that this change of tack will, in the long term, actually speed up the appearance of a playable form of Kannagara, as well as of the School of Magic game, but creative work is never that predictable. We’ll have to wait and see.

Dec 312015
 

Another year draws to a close, and Kannagara still isn’t finished. On the bright side, I didn’t run a Kickstarter for it. On the down side, I would have liked to be a lot farther along than I am at the moment. Writing a significantly different kind of roleplaying game turned out to be quite hard and a lot of work; who would have thought it?

Still, I have made some progress this year; quite substantial progress, in fact. I have a basic set of mechanics that seem to work quite well, and have an obvious way to incorporate facts about Shinto into the game. It’s now a matter of writing the material so that there is enough to play with, and getting people to try it again. I think this version will work better than the last one, but only a playtest will tell. So I need to get it to that point.

With that in mind, I have been considering a change in strategy. Actually, this is something I’ve been considering on and off for a long time. The problem is that I am designing a new kind of game about material that is almost completely unfamiliar to my target audience. Even people who know a lot about Japan tend to know relatively little about Shinto, and the details of rituals and matsuri that are important in Kannagara are a mystery to the overwhelming majority of Japanese people. I periodically wonder whether trying to do both of these at once is too ambitious. That is, it might be better to use a different setting, one more accessible to English-speaking gamers, to get used to the mechanics, and then write Kannagara.

If I did that, the setting would be completely invented, because part of the problem is working out how to fit real-world things into the game system in a respectful and informative way. With a completely made-up setting, I don’t need to worry about that. What’s more, there’s a game that I’ve wanted to play for years, decades, in fact. That is the “School of Magic” game. I think this goes back, ultimately, to reading A Wizard of Earthsea when I was about ten years old; in specific game terms it goes back to reading The Principalities of Glantri in my teens. The thing about the game that I want to play is that it is about learning magic and discovering magic, not about killing monsters in the tunnels under the school. I have yet to find a rule system that supports this. GURPS will let me create the characters, but does not really support the game, not even with the supplement on schools that came out recently.

The mechanics I have written for Kannagara would support that game. I could make up the magic system and the school system to work well with them, and “School of Magic” is a sufficiently well known trope that I would expect the game to be accessible to many gamers.

Eventually, I definitely want to write both games, because they are both games that I have wanted to play for years. The question is which to write first. I haven’t decided yet, and I will keep moving Kannagara forward until I decide definitively to work on the other one, but I may switch tack early next year.

Dec 092015
 

Today, I have had time to work on the game, and it felt very productive. I did two main things.

First, I tweaked the mechanics in an attempt to deal with the problem of near-redundant statistics I noted a few weeks ago. I think this approach will work, and make the rules significantly simpler, but I need to let it sit for a while and come back to it.

Second, I started working on actual content for the game. I have started by working on the mechanics for harae. I have a good way to fit harae into the game: in order to perform a matsuri while they have kegare, the personae must perform a full harae. This fits with Shinto practice, but also means that there is a solid game reason for the activity. If the personae have no kegare, then the harae will be a purely formal part of the matsuri, background colour with no game mechanics. If, on the other hand, they do have kegare, then the harae serves a clear game-mechanical role, which is important.

Because harae is a ritual, there are two stages. First, the personae must create or discover the ritual, and next they must perform it. Today, I was working on the rules for creation. Part of this was entirely generic, within the ruleset, and that was a good thing, because this is the very first part I have written to be generic. I got the feeling that it is going to work, and that things are going to fit together. This is a very good thing, although that sort of feeling can, alas, be wrong.

The other part was more specific, incorporating aspects of real-world harae rituals into the game. And it was easy. There is an obvious place for them, with in-game meaning so that they are more than just colour. I started plugging them in, and this is the sort of mechanical fiddling that I enjoy doing. I do need to work on how to fit them in somewhere else as well, but this is a very good start. I think I need to include more detail than my first write-up has, but that’s something for second drafts.

Once the rules for creation are done, I think the rules for discovery will be very simple, because they will be essentially the same. In the game, it doesn’t matter whether the personae get something by creating it or discovering it, after all. They would use different abilities, and there will be conditions on discovery that do not apply to creation, but fundamentally they will be extremely similar.

Performance will be different, but it offers potential as the other place in which I can include real-world elements with game effects. I still need to work on that, but I hope that I will be able to do that next week.

It is a little annoying that my other work, the work that actually pays, is having a busy period right now, because I think I’ve just got Kannagara out of initial development, and into the stage where I can seriously get on with writing it.

Dec 022015
 

Today, I think I completed the rules framework for the game. It is nothing like the rules I described earlier on this blog, but it all hangs together nicely, and will, I think, support the sort of game that I want to design.

I actually have a track record of designing in this way. First, I do a lot of work on a particular design, putting in a lot of detail and making it quite usable. Then I throw it away completely, and start again from scratch. I did this on my PhD dissertation, where I wrote one 80,000-word dissertation every year, and had no words in common between the first and the last. I don’t think I even had ideas in common, other than the topic of the dissertation. I also did it a couple of times for sub-systems of Ars Magica 5th Edition, and I’ve done it for other gaming things I’ve written. I think I have to conclude that this is just the way I work. I’m not sure that I’d recommend it to anyone else, however. First, you should try working styles that don’t involve chucking months’ worth of work away.

I’ve also realised how much more I have to do. If we compare to Ars Magica, the current state of the rules is as if I had the core rules for Ars Magica, for Abilities, Arts, and Laboratory work, but did not yet have the Ability list, Arts list, spells chapter, or much of the Laboratory chapter. Of course, the background chapters don’t exist yet either. If we compare it to writing a setting for Pathfinder, I’m currently some way before the point at which you start work, because I don’t have any character classes yet. (There are not going to be character classes in Kannagara, but I’m missing the equivalent things.)

The remaining work should, however, be the sort of rule tinkering that I really enjoy. As long as this set of rules don’t fall apart under pressure as well, things should start moving forward nicely. I do have a fair bit of confidence in the rules this time, though, because they worked in the simple playtest, and they can easily incorporate a whole bunch of things that I really wanted to include, but couldn’t see a way to handle before. I might even be able to work effectively with smaller chunks of time.

Of course, the progress here depends on time available. Designing Kannagara does not immediately pay, so it has to cede priority to things that do. In addition, last week I took the week off because my local jinja had asked me to write them an English pamphlet, and that had also been pushed back by other commitments for far too long. However, I thought that this was a reasonable trade-off; both activities are about presenting Shinto in English, and the pamphlet for the jinja will have a more immediate impact than Kannagara. The leaflet is basically done, now, so that should not be a distraction any more.

I’m really hoping that the next few weeks will be calm, and allow me time to work on this.

Oct 212015
 

This blog has been quiet for a bit, because development of Kannagara has been on hiatus while various life things happened. However, they’re over now, and I’ve moved this game to a higher priority. Today, I ran the first mini-playtest of the new version.

In a sense, it wasn’t a real playtest, because I was the only player. Because Kannagara is designed to have no gamemaster, it ought to work perfectly well for solo play, which means that I can do preliminary testing by myself. It will still need proper testing with other people, of course. However, to do that, I would need rules and content that was written up to be fully understandable by other people, with explanations of what is going on.

At the moment, I don’t have that. I do have a full set of rules, and I wrote up all the content I needed to run a single “situation”, the Kannagara equivalent of an encounter. (“Encounter” is a bad name for them in Kannagara, because in most cases the personae do not encounter anyone or anything.) Then I ran through it.

It worked.

There were plenty of minor moments of tension when rolling dice, and some of the mechanics worked well. Then there was a good section of making meaningful choices, and a climactic moment of tension (when I rolled very well. I win!). I think the basic mechanics are sound, finally.

That’s not to say that they are perfect, because I noticed a few flaws. One was to do with the consequences, and I think it will be fairly straightforward to fix. The others may take a bit more effort.

The biggest was that the first part of the situation did not, in the end, involve any meaningful choices. In part, that was because of the solo-player set up; with multiple players, it would make sense for particular personae to take particular actions, which would add a bit more choice. However, even there, the choices would mostly be obvious given the persona’s game statistics, so while it would distinguish the personae, it would not give each individual player meaningful choices to make.
I think I may be able to combine a fix for the absence of choices with a fix for the problem with the consequences. Let me explain the structure of a situation in general terms.

In the first stage, the players generate their options. This involves dice. In the second stage, they use their options to set up the possible outcomes. Finally, they roll a die to see what the actual outcome is. This final die roll is the climactic moment of tension in the situation, and always will be; the rules guarantee a wide range of possible outcomes, while also guaranteeing that the outcome cannot stop the story moving forward.

Part of the problem with consequences is that the outcomes ended up too purely good or too purely bad. Mixtures are more interesting, from a gaming perspective. I didn’t end up with a bland middle possibility, which is good, and I don’t think that’s possible, but I’d still like more good at the bottom and more bad at the top. I think there is a change I can make to the generation of options that will have that effect. The next step in development will be to try to make that change work.

Jul 152015
 

Oh dear, it’s been a couple of months since I updated this blog. I have continued working on the game, but I’ve also had to start editing the final book for Ars Magica, so I haven’t had quite as much time to work on Kannagara.

The problem I’ve been working on recently is the problem of offering choices to players. I am a firm believer in the principle that a choice is only a real choice in a game if it makes a mechanical difference. If something is just colour in the way that a player describes her persona, it is not really a choice that the player makes. This means that the rule system has to support a wide range of options.

Pathfinder is a good example of a game that offers lots of choices. There are all the classes, to start with, and then the choices of feat at each level. All of these choices make a game-mechanical difference. One could even argue that Pathfinder has too many choices. Similarly, in Ars Magica, magi can choose which Arts to emphasise, and those choices make the magi very different.

These are examples of choices that make the character different. Kannagara incorporated part of that by having different abilities for doing the central activities of the game (discovery, creation, and growth), but I wanted to add some more options, so that personae could take different approaches to the same ability. Overall, these approaches should be balanced, but each should have advantages in a particular situation. I think I have the framework for that, pending writing up and playtesting.

The framework goes like this. Each activity has two abilities. One determines how many times you can do something, and the other determines how effective each action is. The overall effectiveness of the activity is determined, effectively, by multiplying the two numbers together, so neither activity is better than the other, and, at this stage, the choice makes no mechanical difference. However, each environment limits both the number of times you can do something, and the effectiveness of each action. Normally, one of these limits is significantly higher than the other, but either can be higher. Obviously, if you have a high maximum effectiveness per action and a low number of actions, a persona who can take a small number of highly effective actions will do better. A persona who could, in theory, take a large number of less effective actions can only take a few of them, and so will get a lower total. The reverse is true if the situation allows a large number of actions, each of low effectiveness.

Personae can choose to favour one approach or the other independently for each activity, which means that there are a lot of options for a persona.

Another kind of choice is choice of action, and the environment provides that; the personae can use different abilities to resolve challenges.

Finally, there is choice of outcomes. As I mentioned way back near the beginning of working on this project, I want to set things up so that the actions of the personae change the context for the final decisions. I think I have a way to apply that to every major activity in the game, with the added advantage that it will be impossible for things to come to a halt because of failed dice rolls. However, I haven’t quite got that worked out enough to talk about on this blog yet.

May 192015
 

In the last week, I seem to have crossed a critical point with Kannagara. I now have a 6500 word draft of all the core mechanics, and I think they are both simple enough to be usable, and complex enough to support the sort of game I want to write. I don’t yet have anything I can share for playtesting, because the draft is too abstract. If we use Ars Magica as an example, the current draft says “You cast spells by adding a Technique and a Form together, then adding one Characteristic”, but it does not yet have a list of Techniques, Forms, or Characteristics.

(Obviously, that’s not at all how Kannagara mechanics work.)

The dice mechanic I mentioned earlier on this blog has gone, and so have most of the details of the proposed mechanics, but the basic thrust of the game is the same, and a lot of the concepts will be retained. The next step is to start preparing ability lists, and describing what they can do. This is also where I put concrete numbers on things.

While I was writing today, it struck me that these mechanics would also support the “School of Magic” campaign that I’ve tried to design in any number of systems, and never been able to do. I should really write Kannagara first, though.

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