Odds and Ends

Focus on the Table

Yeah, I know these aren't anywhere near daily, but it's still the though for this day, so that counts, right??

This post https://plus.google.com/u/0/110592364350710312709/posts/Ye6LSw8Wwhw got me thinking about one of the things that I find different about how I approach Fate.

As brief background, the majority of my adult life has been spent making video games in various capacities. One of the high gurus of the field is Sid Meier, though he for some reason gets less credit than many of the "visionaries". Sid Meier has an incredible, almost perfect track record of making awesome games, with very few missteps. (Why he gets less "fame" is perhaps a topic for another day).

There's a quote that's attributed to Sid Meier. It may be misattributed, but I think it's valid anyway. The quote is: "There are three types of games. There's games where the designer is having all of the fun. There's games where the computer is having all of the fun. And there's games where the player is having all of the fun." And whether or not Sid said this, I think it's an incredibly true quote.

And it's applicable to RPGs. RPGs are famous for having incredibly intricate systems. But who is having the fun with those?

Let's take a simple example, and make a game that's a very basic combat game. Barely an RPG, if at all. In this game, the only action is to attack. Now, let's say that there are two versions of this game. In one, you just roll a d6 to determine damage on an attack. In the other, you add in all kinds of factors about the situation, the characters involved, the weapons and armor, and detail out every aspect of the blow -the angle of blow, exactly how it penetrated armor, etc and end up with damage between one and six.

Who is having the fun in the second version? Assuming that the player has little control over the factors that go into the simulation, is the second game any different from a player perspective, except for the die rolling? (I'll acknowledge that this game may be fun as a "deck-building" type game, where manipulating those statistics is the point, but that's not the focus of this post).

So, what happened? The designer of this game focused on making an accurate simulation (and I'm not saying that simulations are bad, btw, so let's avoid the GNS reactions, mkay?). In Sid's language, he made a game where the computer is having all of the fun.

What decisions would we make with this game if we were focused on the player having the fun? That's going to vary greatly based on what any individual thinks is fun (and that's definitely a topic for another day), but I think the most obvious thing that stands out is that having exactly one thing to do -"attack" -on any turn isn't a very interesting game. Hell, I don't even know if it is a game in any real sense.

Personally, I'd focus on the "chess-game" of combat. I'd give the player various moves, and figure out how those moves worked. Maybe some kind of double-blind mechanic to add uncertainty. I'd use a bit of Game Theory (the mathy kind) to figure out something approaching an appropriate payout structure, and use the minimum math possible to get the interactions at the table to work out the way I want to.

Okay, so what does this have to do with Fate? I've written quite a few words, and exactly zero of them have had anything to do with dice that have pluses and minuses on them.

One of the things about Fate as a core/generic system is that it's pretty common that it needs some level of tweaking to work with a particular genre or setting. And that's where I get to the real point here -how and why do you tweak/add? What's the priority? How do you know what to do?

The common impulse in these cases, built by many years of gaming, is to think of the game as some kind of a reality simulator, and come up with some kind of model for how these parts work together. And that may be useful.

But what's really important is what happens at the table. How the players interact with the system, the fiction, and each other. And that's what this is really about.

If you ask "how do I do cybernetics in Fate?" that's a great question. It's also an example I come back to time and time again, so there's that.

So, how do we start? We can hypothesize that there's some kind of humanity stress track. We can start looking at adding or removing consequences or the like. These seem like pretty reasonable places to start, but these are all systems questions. These are all about building a model, and they haven't explicitly looked at things from the player side at all. There may be some kind of implicit idea of how players will interact with them, but maybe that should be the starting point?

So, what does cybernetic enhancement usually do? Well, it makes you "better," for one -but, so does working out, so I don't know if we need to really increase the overall cap on skills for that. And besides, bigger numbers aren't super interesting.

The usual thing we see with cybernetics is that there's some kind of loss of empathy, especially as people become more enhanced. Also, they may fail. On a more positive note, given that they're machine, they may allow people to surpass human limits in some areas.

These all seem very highly story-centric so far. The negatives seem very much like compels, and the positive seems like it could be handled perfectly fine with an invoke. If we wanted it to be more persistent, we could add in a stunt.

But the key point here isn't "go systems lite" -even though with Fate you often can. Make as heavy of a system as you need to make. The question is in defining how heavy of a system you need to make.

As a software developer, I believe in something called Test Driven Development. It's horribly misnamed. The basic idea of TDD (as it's called) is a simple loop:

  1. Define what "working" looks like
  2. Make it work
  3. Clean it up to make it nice

The biggest key here is the first step. It seems obvious, but it's often not followed in many disciplines. If you can't define what "success" looks like, then how will you know if your work is successful or complete?

And when we do systems changes, we usually have some idea of what "success" looks like, even if it's very implicit. And for me, the implicit idea of success has generally been based on something like "gives realistic results".

Instead of that, I've learned now to look at success in terms of "what do the players do at the table?" The math is mostly irrelevant, so long as the interactions are there. And by doing this, I've started to focus on making games that are fun for the player, and not the system.

The funny thing about this is that when you start thinking in terms of the players, a lot of times it turns out you need less system than you thought. One of the most complex, deep games on the planet (Go) has rules that can be described in less than a page, probably. I generally teach people the rules in about five minutes.

I've focused so far in this post on modifying the game -and that's because this is the place where this tends to show up the worst. But it's a principle that's useful whenever thinking about RPGs, especially as a GM. Who is this fun for?

Is it fun because you get to show off your incredible creativity? Think long and hard about the role of the players -they shouldn't be an audience (especially in Fate).

Is it fun because it's an intricate mathematical simulation that produces great results? Again, think of it from the player perspective.

Because at the end of the day, the game is about the players (including the GM, of course). If they're not having fun, there's no game. It doesn't matter if the system has fun. And the GM/designer needs to have fun, of course, but not at the expense of the players.