Sunday, 21 February 2016

In Pursuit of Fiction-First

It's been a few months since I last posted here, but I'm hoping to revive the blog. Since releasing the PowerFrame Core Rulebook I've been working on-and-off on a couple of new RPGs, and I'd like to keep a record of my progress and thoughts.

The first new game is Thunder Hunters, which I've mentioned here a couple of times – a naturalistic game of primitive tribes living alongside dinosaurs. I've made some good progress, but I need to put some time into playtesting the basic mechanics before I develop the rest of the game.

The second new game is one I've just thought up recently, so my brain's currently buzzing with ideas – Blade Bind, a hyper-drama game of Chosen wielding giant supernatural swords, inspired by Shinobigami, Eternal Contenders, and Wield. I've got some idea of the overall shape and content of the game, and I'm just starting to develop a card-based duelling mechanic, which prompted today's post.

Pursuing Fiction-First

I find it really easy to come up with RPG rules that are Mechanics => Fiction (like a D&D tactical map battle, or a board game), but I find it harder to come up with systems that are Fiction => Mechanics => Fiction (like Apocalypse World or Cortex Plus).

This isn't necessarily a problem, but it's harder to get evocative descriptions out of players when you can play part of the game like a card or board game: the mechanics generate plenty of fictional output, but they don't respond at all to fictional input. You can describe your actions however you like, but the bottom line is they don't affect your mechanical options.

I hate to pick on Eternal Contenders, because it's a great (although sometimes frustrating) game, but it's one place where I really notice this phenomenon. The card-based duels tend to take a while to resolve, but although the game exhorts you to be descriptive there really is no link between your description and the outcome of the mechanics. After a few rounds, duels tend to turn into almost pure card-games, with the players reading the fictional outcomes but not offering a lot of description unless strongly prompted.

I also experienced this phenomenon when working on Neon Burn. I came up with a wonderful dice game for antigrav racing, where the way you played your dice expressed the way you were racing (conservatively, reckless, blocking others), and the mechanics provided fictional outcomes (progress, current positions, damage). But as above, the mechanics didn't really respond to fictional input – instead, your mechanical choices dictated fictional outcomes. You could play the whole race just by referring to the dice, and check at the end to see who won.

Designing for Fiction-First

I really like the effect you get when a character's approach or intent shapes the way the mechanics work. That way, there's no bypassing the description. I've experienced at least a couple of games that manage to achieve this.

The first is Apocalypse World (and its kin). The mechanical Moves only trigger when you do certain things, so you have to actually describe how you're going about it. If you don't, and just try to jump straight to a Move you assume is going to be the right one, you risk rolling for the wrong thing. I've seen this with players who assume that Seize by Force or Hack and Slash are the "Attack" Moves, and roll for them before I can point out that their opponent isn't in a position to fight back.

The second is Cortex Plus, of which I've played the Smallville and Firefly variants. In these games, the dice you roll are tied to your approach. It's more than just picking the appropriate skill to roll, though – depending on the variant, you may need to pick and justify appropriate Values, Attributes or Roles; Relationships or Skills; Distinctions, Assets, and possibly other stuff. In effect, building your dice pool tells a little story about how you're trying to overcome a particular challenge.

I've worked pretty hard to come up with a fiction-first system for Thunder Hunters, and I think I've done an OK job. You choose how to respond to the current situation each turn, which interacts somewhat with your opponent's actions to create a set of outcomes. Your intent determines which Stat applies, but you also get to choose where to assign your tool bonuses: Are you setting your spear to stab a charging foe, or using it to fend them off, or throwing it? Fictional positioning is also important to help minimise the natural "tools" that dinosaurs can bring to bear against you.

In a (Blade) Bind?

So the card-based sword-fighting system I've come up with for Blade Bind is currently pretty mechanics-first. Your choice of cards to play is representative of your approach to the fight (aggressive, cautious, desperate, cunning), but you can totally play out a duel without describing any fictional choices or positioning.

I'm not sure if it's a major issue though. I want the fights to be pretty fast, so the amount of time spent auguring cards to get fictional output should be fairly low. I also want the game to be pretty grim, where the only real way you have to alter the situation is through duelling, so cutting down on fictional options seems reasonable. Hopefully brief and thematic fights will encourage some enthusiastic description in any case.

I also have some ideas to tie extra mechanics to the cards; perhaps special powers can only trigger on a face or an ace, or I can tie particular manoeuvres to certain suits. I'll certainly be looking for ways to help tell a story and bring fictional positioning to the table as I continue development.