Game design: Torg

It’s my personal policy not to write reviews about games I haven’t played, and ideally multiple times. So this isn’t a review, because I’ve only read Torg. But it threw up some interesting game design ideas, so I thought I’d write an article off the back of it.

I picked Torg up second hand from Baz King’s big rpg sell-off some time back, along with bunch of other fairly old games that I’m slowly working my way through. The game was published in 1990, in a period when a lot of game designers seem to have been looking to go beyond the model of gaming exemplified by D&D, with innovative game mechanics becoming increasingly commonplace, but the overall paradigm of fairly mechanics-heavy, wargame-with-knobs-on style gaming remaining dominant even in these cutting edge games. You need to bear this in mind when reading about their mechanics, which (I believe!) were extremely innovative at the time, but now look fairly clunky and outdated.

The mechanics

Zero-based die rolling. Torg is the earliest example I’ve come across of a game where the average result on a die roll is zero. This is an important innovation, because it takes quite maths-intensive systems (roll 3d6 and add your skill, or whatnot) and simplifies them by saying “your expected result is equal to your character’s skill level”. By extension, an “easy” task is one which has a difficulty number lower than your skill level, while a “difficult” task is one which has a difficulty number higher than your skill level. Of course, Torg went and ruined it by requiring players to roll a d20 and compare the roll to a look-up table to find out what the actual result was, adding in exploding dice whenever a 10 or 20 was rolled for good measure. In other words, they took a great and simple idea, and made it complex and cumbersome. Only two years later, this model was simplified in FUDGE[*], which does the same thing but much more elegantly.

Cards. I have often commented that it is strange how board game designers avail themselves of a wide range of tools to make their games function well: dice, cards, tokens, and so on, while roleplaying game designers typically restrict themselves to one tool: polyhedral dice. Torg breaks with this trend. It makes use of cards which are said to be designed to inject drama into the game. The players use them to generate a hand of cards which provide one-shot bonuses and special effects usable in combat, enabling them to put extra “oomph” into a given action, or to get GM hints, or even to create sub-plots for their characters on the fly. The self-same cards, if flipped 180 degrees, have GM text which create special effects during conflict, always handing an advantage to the heroes or their opponents, and so creating an ebb and flow in combat. These effects even vary depending on whether you’re in a regular scene or a climactic scene. I won’t go into more detail here, but suffice to say that the cards do two further things. They really are jam-packed with game mechanical power. And, as with much else in Torg, this is their weakness. They go too far with a good idea, and what was an interesting and elegant mechanic becomes cumbersome and complex. Still, it’s interesting to observe that two decades on the idea of cards in games seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance, with games like D&D 4th edition and the latest iteration of Gamma World allegedly (I have yet to sample these games) part of their mechanical set.

Possibilities. Torg uses a variant on what are typically called Fate or Drama points in other games, called “possibilities”. What’s interesting is that Fate points weren’t common in 1990 – indeed, as far as I know only Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying had made use of the Fate Point mechanic at that point. Possibilities in Torg are usable to reroll dice, survive danger or as experience points. They also have a formal role in the metaphysic, such that competing paradigms can be temporarily boosted by their use – so that, for example, my wizard could cast his spells in a world where magic doesn’t exist.

These mechanics are all ideas which, at their core, are very similar to concepts I’ve been toying with as a way of getting a crunchy, simulationist system that nevertheless supports drama and the ability of players to steer events a bit more than, say, D&D, without going the whole hog and turning into, say, Fiasco. It’s interesting to me that they all existed in 1990, albeit in a rather baroque form.

[*] I have no idea if the authors of FUDGE were trying to improve on Torg’s mechanics. I simply observe that the one came very shortly after the other.

DOGS IN SPAAAAAACE

I recently ran a game of Dogs in the Vineyard at a roleplaying con. But I wanted to run something a little different. Now, I’ll be honest, the basic game background doesn’t appeal to me all that much. I wanted to see if I could run Dogs but in a non-religious setting, without sacrificing any of the moral judgement that (as I see it) Dogs focuses on. My game went quite well as a game, but utterly failed in that objective. This article discusses why.

I attempted this through a game I dubbed DOGS IN SPAAAAAACE! featuring a small colony on a distant world, struggling to survive a drought that had left them short on supplies. The players were important local people with an interest in keeping the colony from self-destructing, and the stuff that was going on in the colony was twofold:

1. A young woman from the colony, Isabelle, had fallen in love with one of the Wallas, local aliens who sort of looked like wallabies (hence the name), and started having a love affair with him. Another colonist called Peter who wanted to woo her had attacked and killed the Walla in question. In turn, the Walla’s daughter was on the warpath, demanding reparations and a trial by combat for the murderer.

2. The colony was very short on food. Rations had been cut, and particularly severely for the Drones, cloned humans engineers to be stupid but strong and unable to reproduce, and generally treated like cattle by the colony. One of the Drones’ keepers, Ethan, decided that this was unjust and started stealing food for the Drones. In turn, one of the senior keepers had started a petition to have the Drones culled, to help the supplies last longer. It would be only a matter of time before Ethan found out about this and went off on one.

Not this kind of Dog In Space. Image by Bobbie Johnson.

Now, there were several bad decisions in this design process, all of which I was aware of but (mistakenly) thought I could get away with.

– The players all had formal roles in the community (mayor, sheriff, priest, guildmaster). This led to a certain amount of hierarchical behaviour. It wasn’t always problematic, but it led to the sheriff deferring to the mayor on an important decision, which was sub-optimal.

– The colony was in a survival situation. Food was scarce; at the start of the game, a supply ship got destroyed, straining supplies still further. Moreover the Wallas represented a potential existential threat to the community, and I had made them seem overthreatening by referring to early conflicts between humans and Wallas when the colony was formed.

The combination of the two things above led to people acting more as politicians than moral decision-makers. They were far more concerned with the colony’s survival than whether they were doing the right thing. This made for an interesting and tense game, but one that didn’t feel all that much like Dogs game.

There were some good Dogs-esque bits though. The first was that the players spent a good deal of time debating whether it was ok to hand Peter over to the Wallas to face their justice. They knew anything less would enrage the Wallas, but handing him over could lead to unrest in the colony. In the end they copped out and handed the choice to him, but the debate was interesting and in a campaign I could have returned to that theme later on. The second was that there was real concern about the status of the Drones and whether they could indeed be treated like animals. This was somewhat drowned out by political concerns, but again, perhaps I could have returned to it at a future date.

I’d like to try this again at some point, but the concept needs some work.

Rolling the bones… or not.

I have noticed recently a trend for using electronic dice rollers in place of, you know… dice. Now, while I can fully understand the desire to make things simpler in roleplaying games[*], this is not the way, people.

 

Maybe I’m getting old, but the feel of the dice in my hands, the noise they make when they roll (no, electronically simulated dice-noise does not count), the ability to superstitiously pick specific dice to roll in the hopes they will provide a better result… it’s all part of the experience. And just clicking on a screen – if I wanted to do that I’d be playing World of Warcraft, or Portal 2, or whatever it is people are playing now. Insert recent game here.

 

Come to that, why are roleplaying game designers creating games that are so complicated and/or require so many dice that people even contemplate using a computer to make the roll? I mean, mentioning no names *cough*Exalted*cough* but I’m pretty sure when you have to pick up more than 10 dice – and individually count out the results on each one – you haven’t written a roleplaying game, you’ve written a computer game. So logically, you need a computer to play it. I hate to undermine my own argument, but while playing a certain game recently I found myself so frustrated with the mechanics, and so embarrassed at how long the other players had to wait for me to count out my dice, that I caved and used the e-roller. Yes, I admit it. But that’s not the worst of it. Because we only had one computer in the room, I ended up getting someone else to click the roll button for me[**]. Think about that for a moment, and tell me it doesn’t make you feel a little sick inside.

 

So come on, roleplayers. Come on, White Wolf. Let’s drop electronic rollers and the games that make them necessary. That, or give up and play computer games instead.

 

[*] I’m fairly sure nobody would be stupid enough to design a system for a board game that was complex enough to drive people to this sort of behaviour.

[**] Incidentally, an interesting fact: Bad luck is capable of detecting not only who is rolling the dice, but also who is clicking on the e-roller, and whose skill check they are clicking for. Not that I’m bitter.

The pen is mightier than the sword

I hear a lot of people talking implicitly or explicitly about making their combat sequences like a really great movie. People are increasingly describing camera angles and SFX. But roleplaying is people talking to each other, using words. Which is, you know, more like a book than a movie.

So anyways, as I like to ponder how combat in games might be made cooler, I’m going to spend a little time looking at what’s cool about combat sequences in books. Starting with Joe Abercrombie, who for my money is one of the finest combat describers out there. Take a look at this little sequence from “Best Served Cold”:

“‘Fucking Talins,’ mouthed Shivers under his breath, the ashes of self-pity in his throat suddenly flaring up hot and bloody. It gnawed at him to come this low.Bastards had no use for his boots, just wanted to make themselves feel big. But it’d be a fool’s fight four against one, and with no weapon handy. A fool’s choice to get killed for some old leather, however cold it was.

He crouched down, muttering as he started to pull his boots off . Then his knee caught Red Nose right in his fruits and doubled him over with a breathy sigh. Surprised himself as much as he did them. Maybe going barefoot was more’n his pride would stretch to. He smashed Rat Face on the chin, grabbed him by the front of his coat and rammed him back into one of his mates, then sent them sprawling over together, yelping like cats in a rainstorm.

Shivers dodged the bald bastard’s stick as it came down and shrugged it off his shoulder. The man came stumbling past, off balance, mouth wide open. Shivers planted a punch right into the point of his hanging chin and snapped his head up, then hooked his legs away with one boot, sent him squawking onto his back and followed him down. Shivers’ fist crunched into his face – two, three, four times, and made a right mess of it, spattering blood up to the arm of Shivers’ dirty coat.”

There’s several things in here that are worth noticing. First, there’s absolutely no trading of blows. It’s all totally one-sided. Shivers is winning, so the action focuses on him kicking ass. A lot of games just don’t let that happen – even mooks get a roll to hit and the GM lamely describes them swinging and missing. The closest we get here is Shivers dodging the bald man.

Which brings me to the second point: it’s all from Shivers’ perspective. We hear how he sees the world and what he does. The bald man doesn’t swing his stick at him, Shivers dodges it.

The other thing I like about this sequence is the sheer visceral descriptiveness of it. Clearly there’s limited application of this for RPGs, because how much flowery language are you really going to use, but even so I could see applying a bit more brutal immediacy to my combat description.

Finally, and this is important, it’s really quick. The fight is all but over in one and a half paragraphs. Yet it doesn’t suffer for that, it feels like a real fight. Abercrombie does do longer fight sequences, but it’s striking how even really major fights can often be dealt with in a page or two. Yet many rpg systems grind out over many minutes if not hours.

I may look at some more authors at some point. Please feel free to drop a comment if you have an author you’d like to recommend for really awesome combat sequences.

Choose your own adventurer

A long time ago (for verily I am a long way behind on my podcasts), Happy Jack’s were discussing the idea of creating pregenerated characters for one-offs but providing a list of disadvantages to choose from for each character. You get a pre-genned character but you can give it a bit of customisation. This got me thinking – why even stop there? You can give each character options for powers, skills, whatever. You could even give them options for backgrounds. Choose between a rival who is trying to kill you, a secret you can never speak of, or a long-lost sibling believed dead. The GM could then hand you an index card with more detail about your chosen option. It would mean the GM couldn’t rely on any individual background detail coming up, but it gives you a bit more ownership over your character. And the unused backgrounds could easily be saved for the next one-off, so you aren’t wasting too much effort.

One-offs can very easily be just railroaded experiences, you’re handed a character and away you go. I’ve got nothing against that – but this seems to be a really simple way to replicate some of the fun of character gen without sucking up so much time that you no longer have time to play the game.

Since drafting this article, I gave the idea a try as part of a one-off Dogs In the Vineyard game I ran for a con. Dogs traditionally lets you gen your own characters, but given that I didn’t have a lot of time, I decided to just create the characters in advance. But I didn’t want people to be stuck with whatever I gave them so each character had two alternate sets of traits, which I chose to illustrate possible backgrounds for those characters. (For example one of the characters could either be the guy who grew up in the big bad city and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, or the guy whose parents expected too much of him and he rebelled and went off to do something different from what they wanted.)

It worked pretty well, and I’d definitely do it again. It hardly added any time to my prep, and equally it added almost no time to the game compared to just handing out fixed characters.

Welcome to Black Armada

Black Armada is a small press publisher and blog about roleplaying and board gaming run by Rabalias and Frax. Between us we have over 50 years’ experience of playing and GMing. That means we really like it, and we really like talking about it too.

We’re the publishers of games such as Lovecraftesque, Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars, and Bite Me! – you can buy them in our store.

You’ll also find gaming tips, discussion articles, reviews and free games and game modules here, together with a significant quantity of random game-related bibble. We welcome comment and discussion so please feel free to contribute.

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Johari’s window

Ok, apologies in advance to management experts, because I am about to abuse a well-loved management metaphor until it is hardly recognisable anymore.

Johari’s window is a neat metaphor for learning and feedback. Picture a window divided into four quadrants. The top-left quadrant is things that I know about me, that you also know – public knowledge about me. The bottom left is stuff  I know about myself that you don’t know – my secrets, things I could reveal to you in future. The top right quadrant covers information about me that you know but that I am unaware of – this is important for management theory because it’s the space in which feedback can happen. The bottom right isn’t seen as especially important for management theory and it isn’t important for this post either. It’s the domain of things about me that nobody knows. Maybe there some great insight that can be gleaned there, but if there is, I (rather appropriately) don’t know what it is.


Image by Brent O'Connor

Incidentally, I have no idea who Johari is either. Whatever. [Edit: Googling around, because I just *had* to know, I see it’s actually called “A Johari Window”, so probably Johari is some kind of acronym and not a person at all. I shall persist in imagining I never discovered this.]

So, what does all this have to do with gaming? The answer is that you can use it for character generation. When you create your character, draw a window and write stuff in each quandrant.

The  bottom-left and top-right corners are for unresolved questions about your character. Who was that masked man? Who killed your father? What is the meaning of your birthmark? Why can’t you remember anything from the night of the 21st, and what happened on that night? Are you going to save humanity, or destroy it? But which quadrant you put each question in tells you whether this is a Dark Secret type of question – one you’re handing to the GM to answer, which might have an answer that you don’t like (top right quadrant), or one you’re going to answer yourself, at a dramatically appropriate time (bottom left quadrant). I suggest that by using Johari’s window, we can signal to the GM what questions are for her to answer, and which questions we want to keep for ourselves. Maybe you could even put some questions in the bottom right – these would be open to anyone to try and answer.

The top-left corner of the window has a use, too. Put things in there that are known at the start of the game. (Known to you as players, that is – maybe not to your characters.) By putting stuff in there you’re saying to the GM “this stuff is off limits”. If I say that my character is the son of a noble jedi knight, and put that in the top left corner, then the GM should not reveal partway in that the knight in question is actually Darth Vader. That would have been a cool plotline, but by putting my heritage in the top left I’m telling the GM to stay away from it. Break the top-left window pane at your peril.

Qwirkle (Mindware)

Rating: ***

Type: Strategy

# Players: 2-4

Recommended # Players: 3-4

Time to play: Up to 1 hour

Summary: Qwirkle is a spatial strategy game. Players take turns to try and make rows and columns of tiles that either match colours or match symbols. It’s sort of like Scrabble but without any vocabulary requirements or pesky triple word scores. This is its strength: it is also its weakness. Qwirkle is incredibly easy to learn and master, and quick to play. As such it is well-suited to families and casual gamers. The dedicated strategy gamer may become frustrated by the limited strategic options and strong role of luck.

Gameplay: Players draw six tiles from a bag, and take turns to place them on the table. Tiles must be placed to form a continuous row or column, though existing tiles on the table can be incorporated. No row or column may contain tiles that do not match on colour or symbol, and no row or column may contain tiles that match on both colour and symbol. Since there are six colours and six symbols it follows that you can only ever make a column or row that is at most six long, and you are often prevented from doing this by other nearby tiles.

A point is scored for each tile in your row or column (including those which were already on the table) and, like Scrabble, it is possible to score more points by placing tiles to simultaneously create multiple rows/columns. Play frequently revolves around cunningly placing your tiles to maximise this effect. At the same time, completing a row or column of six tiles (called a Qwirkle) earns you a six-point bonus. This bonus is just enough that it is nearly always a good idea to go for a Qwirkle if you can, and nearly always a good idea not to put a five-tile row in play if you can help it.

Qwirkle is intensely easy to learn due to its simplicity. This makes it very attractive for families and casual gamers who may not want something too demanding. While it initially seems equally simple to play and, indeed, chiefly a game of luck, there are in fact some moderately complex strategies that can be deployed to maximise point-scoring if you are so inclined. Because of the six-point Qwirkle bonus mentioned earlier, the game remains competitive even when players of quite disaparate skill levels play together.

Nevertheless the strategies available are quite limited and if you’re looking for strategic depth you should probably look elsewhere. The game can get fairly repetitive but retains interest despite that if, like me, you are obsessive about maximising your score.

Components: 108 chunky black tiles with brightly coloured symbols on, with a large drawstring canvas bag. The tiles are designed to stand up – so you can hide your “hand” from your fellow players without needing a special rack as in Scrabble. One complaint is that the red and orange symbols (and to a much lesser extent, the green and blue symbols) are quite similar in hue, so unless you have good light this can be confusing. The instructions are clear, simple and well laid out.

New Year resolutions

Play at least ten games (roleplaying or board) that I have never played before.

Play a full roleplaying session, not just a one to one, entirely over Skype (or G Chat)

Read at least ten sci fi and/or fantasy authors I’ve never read before, including at least five women.

Write a complete roleplaying system.

Complete my murder mystery for Undying King games.

I reckon if I finish all that lot I have a right to be pretty pleased with myself. Let’s see if I can manage it!

Mwahahaha! (White Wolf)

Rating: * *

Type: Resource building/card game

#Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 3+

Play time: 3-4 hours

Summary: Mwahahaha! puts the players in the role of super-villains attempting to build a secret weapon with which to threaten the world. The players collect four kinds of resource to construct their weapon, and to deploy various supporting cards, including minions which can be used to try and steal resources from the other super-villains. The players must progress through four stages, starting with threatening a city and ending in successfully threatening the world (the game’s victory condition). As the game’s name and concept suggests, the various super-villain characters, secret weapons and support cards are “humorous”. In fact, getting into the wacky spirit of the game is a minimum requirement to enjoy this game, which lacks much in the way of interesting gameplay.

Gameplay: The objective of Mwahahaha! is to collect enough resource tokens, from four types, to activate a secret weapon and thereby intimidate increasingly large sections of the world into submission.

Each player chooses a super-villain and receives a small number of secret weapons to choose from. These vary only in the number and type of resources favoured – and, of course, the variety of amusing theme played to – something I’ll come back to later. Players are then dealt resource cards which can be exchanged for resource tokens. Resource tokens can be used to buy empire cards (permanently improving the level of resources you can collect), or minion cards (used to steal other player’s resources and empire cards, and to defend against same), or to activate your secret weapon.

The chief point of gameplay is to build up the correct number and type of resources, which in turn is dependent on the resource cards you draw. You can sidestep the need to draw the right resources by collecting empire cards or by attacking other super-villains with your minions – or by trading with other players. Finally, there are also dirty trick cards which act as one-shot effects to enhance your actions or disrupt others.

Eventually someone will get enough resources to threaten their first city. This is resolved with the roll of some (usually a lot of) dice, with a pretty high probability that the city will cave in and offer you tribute in the form of more resources. Once you’ve done that you need to put still more resources into your secret weapon, so you can threaten a state, then a country, and finally the world. As you get closer to threatening the world, chances are the other players will try to dog-pile you with their minions and dirty trick cards, so you’ll need to put more time into defending yourself.

Strategically, Mwahahaha! is pretty lacklustre. There are plenty of choices to make but none of them really seem to make much difference to the fundamentals of the game, which is grinding out those resources. Maybe we at Black Armada were missing something, but this felt tedious and long-winded, with the slow build-up from threatening a city to threatening the world only serving to draw the game out.

The main element of the game that promised to be fun is the amusement factor: every card represents some comic or movie trope, and the super-villains offer the opportunity to do slightly racist accents (Doctor Hitler vants a banana, dumbkopf!). In turn your choices may at least partly revolve around what will be funny. Care to threaten the world with a giant robot? Or perhaps you’d prefer an army of dinosaurs? As you can imagine, this is fun at first, but the underlying lack of gameplay interest meant that it wasn’t long before even the humour left us cold.

Components: Mwahahaha! is a great-looking game. The box contains high-quality components with unique artwork on most of the 271 cards and on the 10 mad scientist cards. It also contains 20 doomsday devices, which are made of the same sturdy cardboard as the mad scientist cards and designed to slot into them (although we found it was occasionally a bit of a tight fit). Finally, it has 230 colourful tokens and as well as a large number of really spiffing luminous green and purple dice. (The contents claim “all the dice you need to play” – we make it 20 dice.)