So in an effort to try and become more organized and structured in my game design life, I’ve recently started using Google Keep as my web homepage, encouraging me to finally keep to-do lists and such. While I’ve theoretically had a to-do list as a recurring Outlook reminder, and Outlook has a great Task functionality, a recent spate of listening to the Board Game Design Lab podcasts (fantastic website and series, btw!) encouraged me to not only do this, but to use a psychology trick in the process: putting lots of small, almost effortless tasks on the list, so tackling the occasional big object feels like a continuation of my momentum rather than trying to roll the boulder up the hill from scratch.
Back to our regular schedule of content, after many mini-updates! Today, I wanted to take a bit to talk about outsider game balancing. Outsider here means someone who isn’t the game developer doing the balancing, and I wanted to go over two possible approaches to this balancing aspect.
One setting I am absolutely planning on playing in eventually is that of Walmart: Apocalypse. On the surface it’s an insane, ridiculous setting filled with Mad Max style zaniness, but it’s also quite capable of shifting to be hardcore survivalist horror as well. I’ll talk a bit today about the setting, and what systems I’m planning on running it in.
Something that I’m curious about is seeing a comparison of how other people GMing games balance before-hand preparation with off-the-cuff improvisation. I’ve tried games slanted heavily towards both, and would like to talk a bit about my thoughts on the different styles before finding out what your preferred style is.
My early games of GMing, huddled around a flickering candle (To set the dramatic mood) on a Boy Scout campout, were entirely freeform/improvised (And the rules were little better than that). I found that this was a good way to roll with the punches, as the players tended to act wild and crazy at the best of times, and were backstabbing murderhobos at the worst. We had numerous interesting adventures, including poisoning an entire town using reagents recovered from a disabled trap and turning the entire contents of a blacksmith’s shop into a medieval armored tank. But just as often we’d get bogged down, as I would struggle to come up with names or objectives in the scant seconds before attention spans began to wane and out-loud musings on the worth of another character’s possessions were uttered.
So something that has been on my mind lately as I’ve been brainstorming a new RPG (Inspired by the freeform skill/flaw choices in Eric Nieudan’s amazing White Books) is the concept of Skills. There seems to be two main schools of thought, and each has two subsections I’ll discuss a bit as well. The first of these categories is Structured Skills, indicating that the skills come from some sort of list that the player picks from and records, while the other is Freeform Skills, where the players are free to make up their own skills rather than pick from a list.
Of the two groups, I have to say I heavily prefer Freeform, as it allows for far greater flexibility when making a character and generally requires less memorizing of rules as well. Examples of this include Risus and one of my personal favorites, Simple D6. Freeform skill systems also fall on a gradient, between Mechanical and Fluffy.
So a few months back I got back into Magic the Gathering, getting revved up and attending the Theros release stuff, and getting super-excited I had a deck with two Abhorrent Overlords (Even though I built the rest of the deck like crap and won diddly). While I have fallen off of the wagon in the intervening months due to the holidays and a busy work and home life, something I really, really like about Magic is the system for Drafting.
Something I really enjoy in games is the chance that, under perfect circumstances and/or with a perfect roll, the underdog model or player character or what have you can overcome impossible odds and make the shot, 1-hit-kill the enormous dragon, dodge what should have been a point-blank shot, etc. I also like it when the trope is flipped on it’s head, where there’s a chance to fail so spectacularly that everything is ruined utterly and completely, if you roll/plan badly enough.
A good example of this is exploding dice mechanics, and for this example I’ll use Mantic’s Deadzone. Deadzone uses d8s, and on a roll of 8, you keep the 8 and roll another die. This means with an absurdly good string of luck, one can roll a huge number of successes, enabling a model that might normally never have a chance in hell against a target have a remote chance of actually damaging it or taking it down completely.