Posts Tagged ‘To Seek Adventure’

The Importance of Playtesting.

In order to lighten the mood a bit from my post earlier today, let’s talk about game design.

You can’t build games in an ivory tower, or even at an Ikea writing desk. Today, I’d like to talk about what happens when one kind of reality meets theory, and a bit about the lifecycle of a game design.

Playtesting is an integral part of the game development cycle. Game design, unlike publishing, is an iterative process. You build, you play, you build, you play. In the process of playing, you will uncover problems, and they will need fixing.

I’ll illustrate. My current project, To Seek Adventure, is a two-player adventure game. It’s a roundtable game — no single GM. The game uses random scenario generation, rather like In a Wicked Age. For several generations of design document, it used a random location for each scene.

In a white box environment, playing through the game myself and working out the math, this seemed fine. Put into actual play, it crashed and burned. The game was too random. Players had too many curve balls to react to.

So my co-designer and I went back to the drawing board.1 We created a scenario generation system based on drawing some random elements (with just one location), then brainstorming a set of challenges for the heroes to face.

We took that back to the table, and damn, the game ran like a charm. I’ll be talking about these mechanics more in the future, but suffice it to say, I’m really happy with them. The game’s a mile closer to finished because and only because we put it into actual play.

During the same rounds of playtesting, we found that another mechanic was unnecessary because players tended to do it automatically. So we struck that rule. In the white box, it felt fine. But with real live people… superfluous. Entirely.

The next step is external playtesting. As a designer, I’ve got to know whether the game works when I’m not in the room. An earlier version came back with mixed results. Time to try again with the latest and greatest.

Vincent Baker’s talked about how roleplaying games modify a conversation. I’d go so far as to say that you can’t tell what that conversation is until you’ve had it. You can guess, sure, but it’s like high school debate. Prepare all you want, but you’re going to end up in emergent arguments you never predicted.

Playtesting is vitally necessary because we, as designers, can’t whiteboard human elements. A roleplaying game lives and dies on human elements. Those need to be observed, and the game needs to be improved in response to them. More to the point, a roleplaying game only truly exists in play. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your game’s clockworks are… it must play, or else it’s hardly a game at all.

  1. Actually the gridded Moleskine.

Dice Against Deviltry

You and Me Against the World

A while ago, I wrote an article on buddy adventure in roleplaying games — loosely defined as two characters alone against a sea of troubles. Swords and deviltry, to put a very fine point on it.

How can we build a fantasy adventure game which takes two heroes, two players, and sets them against the world with only their wits and their swords? Something that really captures the action of a Fafhrd and Mouser story?

To quickly recap my earlier post, the necessary elements of buddy adventure1 are push and pull.

Internal pull is made up of the common traits that keep the two heroes together. External pull is what draws the characters through the adventure — the prize(s) they seek.

Internal push is the contrasts and competition between the two characters. External push is the trouble that manifests during the adventure.

So, our game needs to encode each kind of push and pull into the story. Characters (and players) need to both cooperate and compete (teaming up and trying to top each other in feats of daring), while facing adversity heaped upon them (by such things as evil priestesses and dastardly wizards).

I’ve always been a big fan of the introductory scene in The Swords of Lankhmar, where Fafhrd and the Mouser alternate describing the scene before them, and Leiber seamlessly segues into a great action sequence. Let’s make that kind of riffing back and forth the basic rhythm of our game.

We’ll start with a core mechanic, as the core of the adventure is the aforementioned feats of daring. Let’s offer a mechanical advantage for describing them, a la Wushu.

When you describe your hero performing a feat of daring, take a red die.

“I vault across the table, scattering the drinks and lunging for my foe’s heart!”

The most effective source of adversity is another player — this is the origin of the traditional GM. With two players and no GM, let’s encourage the players to create adversity for each other’s heroes. Let’s make this a details-for-dice situation as well.

When you describe a difficulty for your partner’s hero, give your partner a black die.

“The drinks spill, causing you to slip and land face first at your foe’s feet.”

Obviously, red dice should help your hero. Let’s say that they contribute to resolving a conflict. Each red die that comes up higher than a target number reduces the conflict’s “hit points” by one.

Each red Success reduces the scene’s Challenge Rating by one.

Less obvious is how the adversity should work. In order to prevent players from either being total jerks or total softies, we need to make players glad to receive adversity.

Well, red dice do “damage” to the conflict, right? So let’s give the conflict the ability to do damage in return. We’ll make red failures (“Misfortunes”) deplete our heroes’ hit points.

A red Misfortune takes away one point of a hero’s Luck (the hero’s ability to dodge trouble and stay in the conflict).

That means that every heroic action carries the risk of mechanical adversity. So let’s have our black dice mitigate that adversity, effectively converting mechanical adversity into narrative adversity.

Each black Success cancels one red Misfortune.

We want a quick back-and-forth between players, so let’s put that into the structure of the round…

On your turn, take a red die or give a black die.

…and make sure that dice get rolled every so often, so that we don’t end up with a giant pile to be rolled at the end of the scene.

When you and your partner have each taken or given a total of three dice, roll your accumulated dice.

So, let’s sum up:

  • You have three turns in a round.
  • On your turn, pick one:
    • Describe a bold action for your hero and take a red die.
    • Describe a nasty complication for your partner’s hero and give a black die.
  • When both you and your partner have taken all of your turns, roll your dice.
  • Each die 1-3 is a Misfortune. Each die 4-6 is a Success.
    • Each red Success reduces the Challenge Rating of the scene by one.
    • Each black Success cancels one of your red Misfortunes.
    • Each remaining red Misfortune reduces your hero’s luck by one.

We now have a core mechanic for push and pull between two players. Players are rewarded for both describing bold actions for themselves and narrating trouble for each other. Next, we’ll look at tying this to scene framing.

What do you think?


  1. And lots of other things!

The Swords of Lankhmar at Grognardia

James Maliszewksi has updated his Pulp Fantasy Library with a note on The Swords of Lankhmar. He quotes the opening scene, which is of particular interest to me, since that scene’s the single largest influence on the mechanics of To Seek Adventure, my game of buddy adventure. In 2SA, the action scenes unfold through call-and-response, which is directly tied into an economy of dice between the players.

The Swords of Lankhmar is notable for being the only full-volume novel in the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. It’s one of their best adventures, with some of the best Mouser scenes ever, including his assignations with Hisvet and his infiltration of Lankhmar Below. Fafhrd doesn’t get quite as much attention, but his interactions with the pair’s quasi-parental wizardly mentors are priceless.

You and Me Against the World

Rose and the Doctor, Fafhrd and the Mouser, Axe Cop and Dinosaur Soldier. Two heroes, simultaneously different yet essentially the same, facing danger and death.

Count Fucking Dracula

Count Dracula without Felix? The Count personally fucks that noise.

Buddy adventure, whether cops, swordsmen, or time travelers, is pretty much my favorite fiction format. I’ve tried my hand at writing it1, and it’s been a staple of my gaming forever. Hackan and Marek were pre-steampunk brother swashbucklers. Frankie and London were two kids lost in the night and the city.2

Oddly, it’s a structure mostly ignored in roleplaying games. I suppose it’s partly because the ur-campaigns of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson featured large casts of rotating (and sometimes short-lived) PCs. Besides enjoying the format, one of the reasons I’ve run buddy adventure so much is that it’s been easier for me to gather and focus two players than four.

Most games work pretty well with two players and one GM, though rules occasionally need fudging. What, though, about two players, no GM? I can think of a lot of times in my life when I’ve had one other gamer available and neither of us was keen to take on the sole GM responsibilities.

There are a few good examples, but the best is Emily Care Boss’s entirely excellent Breaking the Ice, a game that follows a couple’s first three dates. Boss has a particular talent for what I like to call “roundtable” games — roleplaying games that aren’t so much based on eliminating the GM as distributing the traditional GM duties. In addition to the base game, which you have to play with somebody who’s not squicked at telling a romance story with you, I’ve run a number of sessions of Meet Your New Partner, the same rules applied to buddy cops.

Since this is an under-explored design space, where could we start exploring it? A game about two characters should be defined by the push and pull between them, as well as their push and pull with adventure. The character contrasts (push) and compatibilities (pull) are what drive our scenes. Their motives (pull) and obstacles (push) define their adventures.

Traditional GMed games make the adventure’s pushing the responsibility of the GM. Players may or may not bring push between the characters to the table. Adventure push is possibly the defining feature of the referee as created by Dungeons & Dragons. In my experience, it’s one of the first things that falls out when D&D-style groups decide not to use a GM.

What about pull? Most games provide a bit of intra-party pull in the form of the characters needing each other — rules and settings are generally designed to make sure no one goes alone by default. The adventure pull is usually also the domain of the GM, although most games provide a default pull, like “treasure beneath the earth.”

I’d suggest that for a two player game, the mechanics should remind players to provide push and pull. Your adventure push could be as simple as “roll for wandering monsters.” Adventure pull’s a little harder: at some point, somebody’s going to have to say “this is what we want.”

Fortunately, your genre’s going to come to the rescue for both of these things: pushes and pulls are usually familiar constructs. Buddy cops? Pulled by justice, truth, revenge. Swashbucklers? The glitter of jewels and the gleam in dark, pretty eyes. Time travelers? The wonder of the unknown.

You have a relatively finite number of goal types, then, and it’s easy to brainstorm new ones, especially if you have random tables or other such divinatory aids.

What about pushes? The genre and divination tricks apply here, too, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that having players cycle through pushing each other’s characters works really well. In other words, I describe my character’s response to the situation and the complications your character faces, then you take those complications and respond to them, then send some more my way.

Sam and Max

"This place reeks of adventure and excitement, Sam!"

Gameplay lends itself towards being both cooperative and competitive, which most heroic partnerships are. Rose and the Doctor try to top each other on one-liners. Legolas and Gimli count kills.

So, let’s boil this down into a quick list of questions, starting from the broadest subject (characters) and drilling down all the way to the combat round.

  • Characters:
    • What sets your hero apart from your partner’s hero?
    • What do your hero and your partner’s hero share?
  • Adventures:
    • What does your hero want from this adventure?
    • What’s the overall nature of the obstacles your heroes face?
  • Scenes:
    • What’s at stake in this scene?
    • What’s in the way of what your heroes want?
    • How can your hero top your partner’s hero?
  • Actions:
    • What’s your hero doing?
    • What’s going to complicate things for your partner’s hero?
  • Are they fucking? The Internet wants to know.

    Those are your narrative questions, which should be a good foundation for plugging into traditional roleplaying games (with more or less time statting the obstacles, depending on your system).

    How can we go further, though? How can we embed those questions into the rules, so that gameplay is a series of natural reminders to do the things that make these adventures better?

    And how can we build a fantasy adventure game that utterly nails them?

    1. Vampire: The Requiem‘s Count Dracula stories, in Savage and Macabre and The Man Himself.
    2. That would be my Vampire game Never Let Go, the best game I’ve ever run.