Random Notes

A few things I’ve had on my notes to write about, figured I’d jot down some thoughts.

I’ve been increasingly fascinated by what you might call “pre-defined creativity.” It’s popped up in both video games and table-top roleplaying games. In some ways, I guess it isn’t really new. But it has stood out most strongly in my attention lately.

In playing a video game like God of War or The Force Unleashed, your general complement of abilities is made more robust by some finishing moves. When you are about to beat the big boss, you have to press a series of buttons that it prompts you with. In return, you get this wicked cool cinematic attack instead of just flailing away with your weapon.

You get it some with smaller enemies, but it’s really prevalent with the big threats. I guess it isn’t really a new thing. There have been finishing moves for a long time. Mortal Combat‘s “Fatalities” comes instantly to mind. But it’s felt more spread throughout games lately. My view may be skewed, since I haven’t gotten to play an immense number of video games over the years. But that’s been my takeaway.

While it’s fun to look at, it’s also kind of a bummer. What I would like to have is a robust virtual environment, capable of allowing such things. Instead I get a mini-game to unlock a cinematic sequence in which my character throws the bad guy into the ship’s engines or knocks him through a glass floor.

And I see the same in varying degrees in table top roleplaying games. The one that comes immediately to mind is D&D 4e. Each of the powers has some cute, evocative name and description to explain what your character is doing. Being able to whip out “Sly Flourish” with my rogue is far more colorful and says more about my character than than “standard melee attack with Weapon Finesse.” “Bait and Switch” allows me to stab someone and bolt past him. Again, more evocative than “I make a standard attack, use Tumbling to move through his occupied square and then move past.” And it makes combat with minis far more interesting.

I can think of a few games that tried similar approaches in the past, with less success. Usually with the goal of making martial arts more interesting. I’m reminded of Conspiracy X, which had an absurdly elaborate system for hand-to-hand combat that was quite out of place with the X-Files tone it might otherwise evoke.

One could argue that a lot of character creation mechanics can fall into this bag as well, encouraging PCs to have more depth by taking advantages and disadvantages.

The stunt mechanics from White Wolf comes to mind as a way of heading in the other direction. It originated in Exalted, but I’ve seen it in Changeling: The Lost and Scion as well. The basic concept is that you are rewarded for coming up with cool stuff that entertains your fellow players. Similar mechanics can be seen in the stunt rules in Anima Prime and the Fan Mail mechanics in Primetime Adventures. On the more character creation end of things, Aspects seem to fall in this bag as well.

It’s sort of an interesting dichotomy: Canned coolness versus dynamic coolness. And, the sad thing is that it’s easier to obtain canned coolness rather than come up with it yourself. While I game with a very creative pool of people, I often feel like the people I play with are the exception that proves the rule.

In other news, I’ve had a few things that Rob Donoghue has blogged about swimming around in my head. It starts with the relatively static progression of games like D&D. You are provided with an illusion of advancement, of getting cool powers, etc. But ideally the threats scale to your advancement, so in a way you’re just running in circles. Except the rules become more complicated. Some video game RPGs do this as well, so that the enemies you face are always an equal match to your power level.

Which sort of answers my frustration with the lack of advancement in Spirit of the Century. If the only purpose of advancement is to enable you to fight bigger threats, what is the real value of advancement?

These thoughts lead me to Amber Diceless and a distinction Mr. Donoghue had made between vertical and horizontal advancement. Amber is a really hard game to justify advancement in, and games I’ve played have often resulted in absurdly slow advancement or fast advancement that’s hard to justify.

The idea of horizontal advancement is that you don’t necessarily get more powerful, but you may expand the reach of your power. So your XP goes into projects instead of power. I’ve seen a similar mechanic in the Society of Flowers sourcebook for Nobilis, with the concept of Social Miracle Points. You spend these to represent time you’ve invested in maintaining social connections.

With this in mind, I’ve been mulling around the idea of gaining bigger stats and powers more difficult, while having advancement function more towards long term goals: Building spy networks, cultivating a reputation.

I don’t have a firm idea for a mechanic yet, and I keep meaning to dig out Society of Flowers and review what they do there. But it may serve as a way of making Aspects and point spends viable as something that comes up at the beginning and end of a session, and not something that interferes with the roleplay you have going on. It could be too easy to break, since some people try to use force of personality to get away with things their attributes don’t support. But I find it interesting conceptually.

2 thoughts on “Random Notes

  1. sixthsecret

    On threats and scaling:

    Yes, what constitutes an “even” threat does scale with advancement. If you just look at things in raw relative numbers, then, yeah, there is no difference between always need X to hit and doing Y% of target’s health.

    Of course, RPGs are more than just raw relative numbers. There is also the narrative element. Sure, at level 3 an orc may be an “even” threat and at level 8 an ogre is. But if you fight one ogre at level 3, that thing is scary as all hell. At level 8, it’s part of a challange. At level 11, you’re pwning it in the face.

    Not to mention that the bigger threats tend to be part of bigger stories. Sure you may need to roll the same to hit when fighting Snur, the level 4 solo goblin shaman, at level one as you need to hit OMGWTFBBQcus, the level 33 demon prince, at level 30. But in one case you are saving a village. In the other, the multiverse.

  2. admin Post author

    I can see the psychological appeal of advancement. I found out that in our absence the party went up a level, so I need to level up my rogue/warlock by this Saturday. So I’m totally nerding out about that.

    And yet… there’s the realization that if you just take the same monsters and re-skin them as things progress, you get the same effect with less math.

    This mostly seems to come up with D&D and the like, especially with newer editions. The Challenge Ratings of encounters really helps you ball park what the characters are going up against. If you’re looking at something like Shadowrun or Exalted, then it’s a little harder to peg that. Possibly due to the fact that SR and Exalted tend to be less driven by scaled encounters. I’ve seen exceptions, as the dungeon crawl Exalted game I played in illustrated. But based off of how the game is written, D&D definitely encourages that model.

    I also come at this from the point of view of, “I don’t do math for fun.” One of the biggest buzz kills for me in 3.X was playing in games where you play 7th, 10th, 20th level characters and have to do all this calculation for the stuff you can do. Blargh. So I’m not a huge fan of the number tracking you pick up as you gain levels. 4e is less offensive to me in that regard, but I do still end up annotating the crap out of my character sheet.

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