Saturday, 5 March 2016

Game Design #65: Abstraction, Tables, and "Negative Game Design"

Yeah, my train of thought is sometimes still boarding at the station.  This is inspired by my large draft folder of incomplete posts, and a dearth of time.  On the Delta Vector google group, a topic was posted that pretty much covered the same ground as a draft post, which has been sitting in the drafts box for a month. 

So I've decided to "publish and be dammned" - and if there is enough interest in the topics, I'll expand them into the full posts I originally intended.    Kinda like a trailer for the movie, if you are being generous (or a the ramblings of an incomplete thought process, if you aren't).

Abstraction - What to abstract, and when?
Basically, rules are either simple to execute, or complex.  Realistic or unrealistic (as I've written elsewhere) have nothing to do with how gluggy or fast playing a set of rules are.  A key aspect is abstraction, which streamlines things. 

When to abstract, and when?  Well, we can abstract or even outright remove anything without a major impact on the genre being simulated.  For example, a modern rifle with a 30-round, quick loading magazine might abstract the loading process, as let's say it takes 15 seconds to empty the clip, and 3 to load it.   Whereas a crossbow needs to be laboriously reloaded every round, so the loading process might be tracked/detailed or otherwise have a process within the gameplay (move or fire, reload counter, etc).  Likewise, if a trooper carries enough ammo for a typical engagement - do we need to track it?
1. The focus is on the effect, while streamlining and simpifying the process.  
2. But sometimes we can remove the process altogether. 

Trappings vs Effect:  I've seen diagrams where a d100 is rolled cross indexed to diagrams of the human body for wound results. For a 1:1 skirmish, then we might care about individual soldiers. But let's ignore the location of the wounds and focus on the effects - unimpeded (scratch, graze); minor but noticeable injury (deep bleeding, sprain); major injury that severely impacts (broken bone etc) but does not take out of action; out of action (cannot fight on) and dead.  The exact location of the wounds can be abstracted.  Like Savage Worlds highlights so well - it's not about the trappings, but the final effect.

Charts and Tables: Good riddance?
Back in the 80s and 90s charts were de rigueur; usually very complex affairs, accompanied by often dozens of modifiers.  In the inevitable backlash, the humble table has almost vanished from gaming altogether, replaced by chugging handfuls of dice, usually to beat a fixed target number, with "modifiers" being shown by simply adding or removing dice.

Tables allow you to quickly cross-index data and allows table designers to 'build in'complex math and do all the hard work for the user.  

That said, tables have value in quickly doing complex tasks simply.  The designer can 'build in' complex math in the "back end" - the player simply has to run his finger down a column.   So by abandoning tables, have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

So I think perhaps the question should not be "do tables have value" (they obviously do) but "how complex can the math be in wargames?"  I've recently seen DP9 do some rules which 'improve' on their old ones primarily by replacing multiplication/division with addition/subtraction.   I personally have no trouble with 2x, 3x and 4x multiplication, so I think this is a waste of effort.  But does this make the game more accessible?  Would your gaming circle really miss anyone incapable of doing Year 3 math?

Negative Skills
I dislike negative skills.  In the videogame "Warframe"  you are a cyborg space ninja, wielding swords, automatic weapons and Jedi powers.  However in about 1/3 of the missions, drones with "nullifier" bubbles render your Jedi powers useless.  These missions are simply less fun.  You have fewer options, and the game is a poorer experience.  I mean, why have cool Jedi powers if you never have a chance to use them?

Another example is Faction A has the ability to teleport short distances; Faction B can cast AoE attacks, and Faction C completely nullifies the powers of Faction A and B.  Faction A vs B might be an interesting contrast of tactics; whereas Faction C reduces everything to a boring vanilla battle.  Faction C has a negative skill.   What if, instead, Faction C has a chance to reflect or mimic the powers of Faction A and B would make Faction C more active and interesting to play or play against, as it adds in new tactics and possibilities, rather than removing an element from the game.

Linked to this is an increasing trend for "limited activation" - not all units get to activate in a given turn/phase.  This is admittedly a simple way to force difficult decisions on the player.  But it's also negative activation. 

Negative (Limited) Activation

 Example: You have 10 units, but only get 5 activations.  So 5 units have to "miss out" each turn.
Or you have to roll a 4+ on a d6 or your unit does nothing. 
Yes, it forces vital "decision points" on the player in a simple, easy way that adds no complexity.... but it's lame.  It's a GAME folks.  I didn't paint my minis for hours just to have them sit around "cheerleading" for most of the game.   Whilst it's not precisely what is happening,  there's the sensation units are "missing out" on their "go."  

But we need friction! I thought you were for 'realism?' I thought you liked resource management?  Yes, but there's other ways to do it besides make units sit around doing diddly squat for most of the game.  I don't mind things like suppression removing actions, but to have units inactive for large portions of the game isn't fun.  A unit can be limited in it's choices, but it's not so much fun when it can do nothing at all. 

I like the "everyone gets an action, +1"  
i.e. ALL units get a chance to act EVERY turn/phase, but it is EXTRA actions which are the resource to be managed, i.e:

#1. DBA (limited action): roll d6 for the number of units you can activate
 You will have units sitting around - you have to make choices as to which units act, and which units sit around boringly like dummies.

#2. DUST Tactics (resource management): roll d6 for the number of extra actions you can take (which cannot be interrupted by reaction fire etc); THEN all units get to activate (or - as in Robotech - the d6 shows extra abilities like double moves, power attacks and dodges)
You will have all units able to act - you have to make choices as to which unit get cool extra special abilities and actions.

Both have resource management and an equal amount of decisions added.   But the perception is the first example is negative (completely nullifies half your minis), the second is positive (gives extra abilities and actions to your minis). 

Because the base mechanics of #2 (DUST Tactics) is positively geared, even if we remove an action due to suppression or a game effect, the player can still activate the unit by spending one of it's 'extra actions.'   Whereas in example #1, removing an action from a unit would simply exacerbate the "I can't do nuffink" feeling.

In my experience as a sport teacher, if a kid turns up in uniform, kitted out, excited to play, sitting him out isn't fun or desirable.   I know that units missing turns shows friction and simulates initiative, the ebb and flow of combat, etc.  But the perception that your carefully painted mini sat around most of the game completely static does not promote  a sense of "fun" and "involvement" - for me at least.
There's other, better ways to do it.  

Note: Eric Farrington explores this topic from a different angle in the google group


  1. Lately I've heard that it's better to couch things in positive terms. I think it was on Extra Credit. So instead of having only some units be able to act, have all units able to act, but give some bonus actions. Epic Armageddon does that, where units get a certain minimum action, with the opportunity to do more.

    1. I am curious, Do you think that is a trend or a truth? In a few years will designers feel the opposite?

    2. I think it's a "truth" in that people prefer positive gearing/phrasing.

      People who come to game will tend to always want to at least percieve that their models are acting and contributing, just as players who come to play soccer tend to prefer not to sit on the bench.

      To continue the sports analogy: suppose we tell a team that for 20min of a game, their goals will not count. That would be discouraging and depressing; even if it also applied to opponents.

      In contrast, telling them they have a 20min period where all goals count double, is more positive and interesting.

      The decision is the same - when to enact the 20min no score or double score period - but one would be met with enthusiasm, the other with resignation.

  2. I feel there's a place for either mechanism.
    Most big battles saw most formations spend most of the time doing nothing - consider Gettysburg (A well known example), you've the initial attack, the fighting in devil's den, little round top and Pickett's charge and a few miles away a cavalry battle was taking place.

    If all the greys got to move at will, Chamberlain would never have held the little round top.

    In big battles - everybody moves tends to result in "everybody advances, and nobody manoeuvres" - tactically dull.

    DBA would also be incredibly dull if PIPs were free.

    Small skirmishes are different, but some situations (Big Vs small quality force) only really work when the big horde is limited.
    Those Navy Seals are getting one or two actions per turn - the AQ goons are mostly milling about trying to figure out what's happening.

    1. It's probably historically sensible - I'm more arguing it makes for a less fun gaming experience in general.

      For example, in the free PC game Warframe, you are a cyborg space ninja with Jedi-like powers. In missions against one faction, a (very prolific) "nullifier" drone renders your Jedi powers useless. You can guess which faction is less popular to fight. It's just lame to have cool powers and be told you can't use them 90% of the time.