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GameNerd: Diceless Design part 2

To pick up where I left off, I'm looking at three questions:

  1. What are my goals for my games?

  2. What are the basic components of a diceless system?

  3. How do I arrange my components to meet my goals?

I addressed the first in my previous post. On to the next one;

Elements of a Diceless RPG

I'm going to begin by talking out my my ass. Bear with me for a minute. It's my assertion that the basic character in an RPG has three basic elements; attributes, powers and accessories.

Attributes represent things about a character that everyone in the game possesses to some extent. Strength, Intelligence, etc. From a game design perspective, attributes should define the major axes of conflict between characters, especially in a diceless game. This means that the attributes that work best for Amber may not work well in another game. In some cases (superhero games , especially), the foci of conflict are less universal (e.g., super powers), but for most genres, attributes are going to be fairly central, and will end up driving the increasingly specific layers below.

In the Nano-Victorian Future, for example, I might make intelligence an attribute, because how smart and educated a character is should have significant impact on the charcters' role in the game. Science, history and the like are all valuable commodities in that setting. On the other hand, in Caecern, a high fantasy setting, that sort of thing isn't as exciting, so I likely won't use intelligence as an attribute there; characters can be as smart as they want to be, but it won't be central to the action.

Attributes can be done a couple of different ways. The traditional approach is "objective"; x points of strength let you lift y pounds, an agility of Q lets you dodge bullets, etc. Amber uses a "subjective" approach; the values of attributes are only important in that they tell you how you compare to other characters. The GM has to use discretion to determine how much the first ranked in Strength can lift, or just how long first ranked in Endurance can go. For the purpose of the game, the important thing is that they do those things better than characters with lower scores.

Both methods are attractive. I haven't quite worked out what advantages one has over the other in a game, just yet.

Powers represent various things that the character can do that aren't universal. If you don't have Pattern in Amber, you can't walk between worlds, regardless of your attributes. In a fantasy setting, "powers" might include sorcery, turning to stone, or secret fighting techniques. In the Nano-Victorian Future, exclusive access to certain kinds of nanotech, special education in obscure lore or actual cybernetic modifications might be more appropriate. In a modern world with no magic or superpowers, "powers" might be uncommon skills (gun training, chemistry, etc.)

For figuring out how powers work, there's again two approaches; Amber DRPG uses the cost of a power as a sort of cost of admission. Buying a power gives you the ability to do the stuff the description says you can. How well you can do that depends on your attributes.

I wonder if that's an overly blunt instrument for something like "wizardry" in a fantasy setting though; the genre calls for a wide variation in the power of wizards, and attributes might not be the best way to achieve that. As an alternative, one could just have a power as another place to pool points, making powers a sort of secondary attribute that not everyone ranks in.

A third path might be to have "milestones" where a certain amount of investment in a power gives a character certain abilities with it, while allowing fine tuning in between.

Accessories are things that are unique to the character. Zir magic sword Wellspring, zir steam-powered carriage, a beloved telepathic dog or an unbreakable lasso. These should be items that are important to the character's legend. No one cares what Elric's belt was called, but everyone who's read the stories knows what his sword was named. Accessories should be things that a character has investment in, and the GM should respect that - accessories shouldn't be destroyed or taken away without both the consent of the player (even if it's just "trust me, I'm going somewhere with this...") and a balancing shift to make up for the loss. It makes a lousy story if Arthur loses Excalibur while taking a bath, unless there's a story tied up in the how and why, and how he gets it back.

Accessories are important because they do a lot of help establish the flavour and uniqueness of the character. In an Amber game, all the PCs might have Pattern, but only one of you has a shape-shifting horse who can speak Spanish.

One more to go, where I attempt to pull it all together and end up with a lightweight game system. If you've read even this far, I'm impressed, and I owe you one1.

1 "One" is redeemable for one of the following; a beer, a cookie, chocolate, or mutually agreeable recreation.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 4th, 2008 08:13 pm (UTC)
hardest part of a diceless system, is the resolution of conflict.

be it a "bang your dead as my proton powered death ray destroys anything it touches"


"my *hurrr drool* character is so charming *twitch* your smitten with her"

im a big fan of the old WW VLARP (v2) rules, however that doesnt stop someone that has the beuty and social grace of road kill from haveing maxed out social traits 5 of them gorgious.

the element of a random factor, be it dice or R/P/S is to resolve these issues.

this all reminds me, i should add you to the NOX dev team.
Mar. 4th, 2008 08:18 pm (UTC)
That's the beauty of Amber's mechanics; the GM keeps track of everyone's stats (and after a few advancements, no one is quite sure how they measure up), and when there's conflict, highest number wins, depending on how the players describe the conflict and how that shifts which numbers get compared. Get into a swordfight with first ranked in warfare, you lose - how it's played out determines how badly you lose and what the consequences are.
Mar. 4th, 2008 10:43 pm (UTC)
I've always thought that an interesting way to do Advancement would be complete GM control, or at least giving more control to the GM. That way you wouldn't have people upping skills that wouldn't realistically be upped. The guy who spent the last 20 session stabbing people wouldn't suddenly be able to cast spells, the hacker who sits at his computer every game wouldn't randomly decide that he could bench press a car...etc. And also it makes it more like real-life, although we can control how our lives improve as time passes, if we want to work towards specific goals, in the end much of it is out of our hands.
Mar. 5th, 2008 01:11 pm (UTC)
I think this is how kalivor has done advancement in the past, essentially making people role-play their advancements, which otherwise are pretty artificial.
Mar. 4th, 2008 08:19 pm (UTC)
Relative attributes seem to work well in a game world were the set of characters that matter is fairly small -- it's assumed that you can plow through any crowd of mooks without even breaking a sweat, but there are a small number of worthy opponents around whom the game will revolve. Objective attributes work better when any given stranger can be an opponent to be reckoned with. It's a difference of philosophy of game world, more than anything. I prefer the latter, largely because I'm increasingly anti-hero, or at least against the idea of setting up gaming worlds in such a way that heroes are in some special or blessed category.

The distinction between powers and attributes is actually interesting... I think that a strong argument could be made for a gaming system with only powers; the assumption there being that what one does, what one learns, etc., is far more important than who one is. Progressive powers make sense for a lot of things; I use the same 1-5 rating scale for skills in my world that I do for attributes. I do divide skills into two categories, those things which having an explicit skill in merely makes you better at, and those without which you have no chance of succeeding. Athletic skills, for instance, can be frequently replaced by simply being an exceptional, if untrained, athlete. Language skills, on the other hand, can't be replaced no matter how smart you are -- you may still be able to convey fairly complex meanings through hand gestures, but you can't speak the language.

I'm sort of on the fence about accessories. I think I need to review how I'm handling things of that sort in my system. I tend to take a very detailed, simulationist approach to equipment, but it doesn't end up mapping very well to how most people seem to like to play.
Mar. 4th, 2008 08:35 pm (UTC)
See, I also tend to go with Amber on things like skills that everyone has; they come free with your attributes. It's not worth investing a "power" in it if its universally accessible. "Power skills" would only be the stuff where you can't do it if you don't have it.

As a Narrativist, I also take the approach that if it's not specified in the rules, it's not important, so do what you want with it. Want to speak twelve languages? Sure, if it fits your background, go for it. No, I'm not going to write that down if we're playing a game where skills of that nature aren't important to the action.
Mar. 4th, 2008 08:39 pm (UTC)
And you're right, on attributes; relative attributes shift the conflicts towards near-rivals, and encourage inter-player conflict (which Amber is famous for). Interestingly enough, player vs. player conflict in a game where death is negotitated OOC can be a lot more enjoyable than in some other games.
Mar. 4th, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I can see that. Both this and the skills stuff relate to a different desired worldview in-game. I'm all for narrative, but I want it layered on top of a meaningfully balanced world. Given a basic idea of the character as an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, modeling the fundamental skills that normal people comes part and parcel with forcing characters to deal meaningfully with the limitations that ordinary people have.

I think it also makes a difference that the world I'm portraying is one in which the baseline level of skill is very low -- subsistence farming and unskilled labor. Now, both categories end up involving quite a bit of real world skill, but the kind of basic background training doesn't really happen to many people, and represents a significant advantage to those it does happen to.

Part of how I balance this is with elements like story points and grace points (i.e. style, willpower, destiny, etc) -- this represents the mechanic stepping in and saying, yes, we have this heavily simulationist world; now let's turn around and let the plot run rampant against that background, because that's what plots do.

I'm generally interested in cooperative modes of interaction between players, not adversarial ones, in many ways because I find the kinds of social interactions that can result from adversarial relationships less enjoyable.
Mar. 4th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)
Behold the Great Text Avalanche part 1
Amber is both the best and worst rule system I’ve ever come across. It is the best at doing what it was designed for and the worst at being adapted to things it wasn’t. The amber rules are simple which is very good, the simpler the better, but at the same time they are incredibly versatile. This is where many games systems fall down, you can have a simple system, and do limited things, or you can do anything you want but have to play rifts, and nobody wants to play rifts. Amber falls down in a totally different way. It doesn’t allow for mistakes or good/bad fortune, which we all know happen all the time. The best way to illustrate this is to think about your skills at tying your shoes. If you compare it to all the other skills you have you probably have about a 500 000 in shoe tying. Despite this every now and then in our adult lives we end up with a knot in our shoes that make us take a minute to undo it and start over. It just happens, that’s life. Now in amber this will never happen, but really it shouldn’t. You can bend reality to your will, no mere mortal can ever dream of harming you, you are a demigod, shoe laces are no concern of yours. The problem is if you ever want to play a character that doesn’t have some degree of Invulnerability to Murphy’s Laws the amber system doesn’t work well. And personally I like these little failures in games, I like it better if as a GM I can make a character slip and fall down the stairs and through a secret door they didn’t know was there, and that makes more sense if the character tripped and knocked something over while trying to move silently a few turns earlier.

Mar. 5th, 2008 03:00 am (UTC)
Re: Behold the Great Text Avalanche part 1
I don't think it requires the level of awesome that Amberites have. I'm trying to tell stories about heroes, not demi-gods. Heroes mess up their shoelaces and trip going down stairs, but unless there's a reason to focus on it, that stuff goes in the same box as PCs going to the bathroom. It happens off camera.

While I agree that randomizers have their place in gaming, I don't think they are necessary, and would get in the way of the kind of game I'm looking to run here. :)
Mar. 4th, 2008 10:56 pm (UTC)
Behold the Great Text Avalanche part 2
This next topic is something that is very relevant to amber, but has ties to all games. It’s Role Playing vs. Roll Playing. If you look at just stats and probability you are roll playing. If your character has some pretty huge weaknesses because of their history you are role playing. I like games that have a good blend of both, and I despise games(and gamers) that are all roll playing. Now amber is the other extreme, you don’t have dice so you remove any chance of roll playing, but I think there are times when it’s needed. For example, right now I am playing a d20 Modern character who is a computer hacker. I can’t describe what I’m doing or why it’s clever, because I know nothing about hacking computers. I have no choice but to say “I’m making my computer use roll” and see what happens. In a diceless system I can’t do that so I’m limited to playing characters with similar knowledge to me, and what’s the point of playing a chemist in a game? I can go to work and do it for real. Another example is, you can have as many points in Charisma, Appearance, or skills in Cause Lust, and if you’ve been an introverted person you’re whole life you can’t pull it off as a character. If I could play a suave confidant amber character that everyone likes I would have had more that 3 friends in high school. And I did play Amber’s Hot #1 Bachelor in one game and everyone wanted to smack him in the face.

Mar. 4th, 2008 10:56 pm (UTC)
Behold the Great Text Avalanche part 3
The last topic I wanted to throw out there is the games concept of damage. I like Bruce Willis and Jackie Chan movies, and I hate Steven Segal movies for the same reason. Steve wanders through his movies killing everyone in his way without mussing up his hair, not even remotely interesting. Bruce and Jackie take a serious ass kicking and have to bleed to save the world. Getting hurt adds the illusion that you might fail in your endeavour, and adds tension. Also when you succeed you can look back at the sacrifices and it gives the victory scale. Now if all characters are created equal PC and NPC alike then every mook you face is just as likely to kill you as you are to kill them. If you do this you have two choices, make death easy for everyone or hard for everyone. The consequences of either of these options are not very appealing to games. If you assume PC are better than NPC and you deal more damage, or can take more damage, then you’re leaning towards a Steven Segal movie. So not much better. Other thing to think about are the weird way D&D does their damage system. I can fight just as well with 1% of my hit points left as I can with 100% of my hit points left. Like I’m not going to drop my axe because the handle is coated in my own blood or something. But here is the big one. If I’m first level and get stabbed 3 times, odds are I’m dead. So why does it make sense that if I’m 10 th level and get stabbed 3 times by the same three swords I’m not nearly as dead? Nobody every satisfactorily explained why your hit points would go up with experience. Sure you could learn better ways to take a hit, or better ways to avoid getting hit, but that would be damage reduction and armour class wouldn’t it? Amber handles damage the best, leave it up to the GM. Yes those goblins are capable of hurting you, yes you just took a fireball in the face and are still standing, no can’t run 100 meters and jump onto the back of a car after you’ve been shot 6 times. There are a lot of ways to do damage, just be sure to think about it.

Mar. 5th, 2008 01:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Behold the Great Text Avalanche part 3
Damage systems are my #1 pet peeve about most combat systems. Sure, a 300 pound Australian biker is going to take a bit more damage than the 90-pound pencil pusher. But a sword to the chest cavity is going to be pretty effective regardless.

Your point about damage vs effectiveness is excellent. I've ssen damage systems where each body part takes damage separately, and you start taking penalties if they become too damaged (eg -2 to movement is your leg is at 50%) this I think goes too far in the other direction, and gets you bogged down in details.

I tend to role-play damage. What exactly the effect of a Logrus tendril to the brain is is going to depend on the Psyches of attacker and defender. But how you determine what actually happens is based more on story telling and roleplaying.

To reply to your earlier comment though, you don't have to know anything about psychically shielding yourself against Logrus to do it in game. I'm not sure how you guys liked it when I made you role-play stuff like that, but if anyone gave me a good enough explanation of what they were doing, I generally let them away with it.

The worst part of Amber is that the GM has to decide EVERYTHING, which often (in my case, anyway) slows the game down. Well, maybe not as much as flipping throught the books looking for obscure tables to roll against, but it certainly increases the in-game workload. I always admired how Steve could take the roll results (hidden, of course, and if he didn't fudge a roll or two behind his hand I'd be surprised) and turn them into a role-playing event. He even winced if you got hit badly.

Whatever the mechanics, they can't be allowed to interfere with the flow of play. There's nothing so boring as waiting for everyone to make their rolls before the action proceeds (I actually drifted off in comabt almost every time). But that's just me ;)
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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