Monday, June 27, 2011

LinkStorm 2011

I've been neglecting this blog for the last few months, but I've been pretty busy with writing about games all over the rest of the internet. I'm hoping to start updating this blog again soon, but in the meantime, here are a few things I've written elsewhere:

Most recently, I guest hosted on CommanderCast, a podcast discussing the Commander variant of Magic: the Gathering. You can listen to the whole thing on their website here.

I wrote a pair of articles on aspects of RPG design for Eye of the Vortex, before they switched over to an MTG focus. The articles should be visible here and here, but EoV's hosting has been spotty of late. I may ask the editor if I can repost the articles on my blog since they don't seem to be using them.

I've also been fairly active discussing Commander on the official forums, and have written a number of article-length analytical posts. Here are a few of my favorites:

Sunday, February 27, 2011

RPG Skill Lists

Most contemporary RPG systems have a list of skills characters can possess. These can range from simple checklists of a few general areas, to vast indexes of possible fields.

Most RPG systems can be categoriesed as one of three levels of RPG skill specificity. Broad skills cover whole categories of thematically related skills that may or may not realistically be related. Moderate skills cover smaller areas, but still include a variety of different specialties. Narrow skills cover an even smaller range, usually limited to a specific application of general abilities.

To illustrate, let's look at what skill sets might look like for the two most common RPG skill fields, combat and social interaction. Games with broad skills might have a single skill called "Melee" or "Influence" that cover the entire category with a single statistic. Moderately specific games might have a number of different skills, like "Diplomacy," "Intimidate," "Sword," or "Polearm." Games with truly narrow lists might have dozens of categories of each - "Public Speaking," "Interrogation," "Rapier," and "Guisarme-Voulge."

Some games use a mix of different levels, indicating the system's intended focus. A hack-and-slash dungeon crawler-might have 20 combat skills and one social skill, whereas a highbrow narrative system might have the reverse.

Other systems mix various levels by allowing or requiring specializations within broader categories. Various incarnations of D&D and WoD have allowed players to advance general combat skill, but include some abilities or rules grant special bonuses for using their weapon of choice. Some variants of the FUDGE system ignore the distinction entirely, allowing players to make up skills/traits as narrow or specific as their GM will allow.

However, I'm more interested in the values and advantages of the different categories.

Broad skill categories seem to be on the upswing - most indy RP systems these days use very limited skill lists, providing a basic mechanical outline and assuming the players can just roleplay the specifics as they like. Dungeons and Dragons cut its skill list in half for 4th Edition, going from 36 core skills to 18. Broak skill lists are probably the most mechanically elegant, because they streamline character creation and gameplay at little cost of mechanical relevance.

The advantage to moderately specific skills is not one of mechanics, but one of characterization. While some argue that roleplaying should be the responsibility of player rather than the rules, I've always been a big believer in encouraging characterization through the system itself. I think it is important to provide rules that allow a character sheet to show the difference between the Green Arrow's skill at archery, Batman's skill with batarangs, and the Punisher's skill with guns. (Yes, that's a geeky example. Yes, I'm mixing Marvel and DC characters.)

Narrow skill list have always been pretty rare, except as optional specializations. GURPS is the only system I'm familiar with that uses truly specific skills as the core list. The GURPS skill list is somewhat absurd, containing over 350 entries and a wide variety of everyday skills including Accounting, Economics, Administration and Finance. Even if these are distinct skill sets in real life, I can't imagine that level of specificity serving much purpose as a roleplaying mechanic.

I'm looking into some ways of trying to find a balance between mechanical elegance and creative freedom. I think the best option may be a variant of the systems that involve general proficiencies with optional specializations.

GDS2 Chronicles: Conclusion

As you probably know, I was eliminated from the Great Designer Search 2.

I finished in fourth place, the highest result not invited to Wizards of the Coast headquarters for tour and interview. Two weeks later, I'm finally in a place where I can talk a bit about the contest and my feelings regarding it.

As stressful and eventually heartbreaking as the contest was, I'm very glad I took part. It did a lot for both my skills and confidence as a game designer, and certainly got my name out into certain areas of the industry.

In the end, I can't say that I disagree with the outcome. As passionate and knowledgeable as I am about Magic design, I don't have the professional or personal experience to do my dream job justice just yet. I have a ways to go as a person before I'm ready to make a creative passion my career. Some day I will design games for a living, but not today, and maybe not for a while.

In the mean time, I've been taking a break from Magic design and getting into some RPG system theory. I've got a huge post on RPG skills that will probably go up later tonight. I think my goal for the coming year is going to be getting a homebrew system into a shape where I can submit it to some publishers or just publish it myself online.

Finally, the GDS2 was a wonderful experience for just how much support I got from friends, family, and random strangers on the internet. One last time, thanks to you all.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

GDS2 Chronicles: The Final Challenge

Tonight the fifth and final Great Designer Search 2 challenge begins. Of the four remaining contestants, one will get eliminated and three will get flown up to Renton for a job interview.

I'm currently sitting at the bottom of the four, so this is the round that I really need to make count. Mark Rosewater has emphasized that my card design skills are top notch, but I'm failing to present a clear and cohesive vision for my set.

I've been working on how best to do this, and here's what I've come up with for my write-up so far:

I think that "a peaceful world converting tools into weapons" is a good thematic concept for Utopia in the same way that "a world where destructive natural forces have made civilization impossible" was a good concept for Zendikar. But Zendikar wasn't known for its complex societal ideas - it was known as "Adventure World."

I need a simple, resonant, saleable theme for Utopia to complement its more complicated ideas. My answer is to make Utopia the "City Set." Ravnica used a city as its flavor backdrop, but it was too full of multicolor and guild themes to represent idea of a "City World" in gameplay.

The final challenge's assignment is to design an intro deck for our set. On the one hand, I think it really plays to my strengths - I can design a fun deck made of interesting cards as well as anyone. On the other hand, they already know my strengths: I need to show the Vision that I have so far failed to demonstrate.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

GDS2: Utopia and Crutches

Color identity is my favorite aspect of Magic, so it's not surprising that my original set concept was about exploring the color pie in new ways. I wanted to depict the rarely-seen aspects, and the concept of a peaceful world adapting for war provided a framework for integrating these ideas into the gameplay of Magic.

This is not, however, an easy concept to design for. I struggled with whether or not it was doable at all, until I eventually settled on using enchantments as a mechanical touchstone to tie things together. The problem was that I quickly came to lean on enchantments too heavily, and they usurped the focus of my set. It was so much easier to design good "enchantments-matter" cards than "weaponized paradise" cards that it completely overran my submission.

Rosewater addressed this by deftly kicking the "enchantments-matter" crutch out from under me and telling me to start jogging. With the same update, my existing mechanics were condemned to the scrap heap and I was given four days to design 18 commons to show off my set's mechanics. Hoo boy.

I should mention that I don't think this was necessarily bad for my status in the GDS2. I was given clear instructions and a very difficult challenge, which is pretty much the perfect situation for trying to prove myself as a designer. It did make the process rather stressful, though.

On Wednesday, I narrowed my colors down to blue or black. On Thursday, I invented the Gold counter mechanic and shifted my focus towards black. I came up with the idea of life-payment Mercenaries late Friday and powered through the submission itself over the weekend. There was not as much time for playtesting or direction changes as I might have liked.

The end result is far from perfect, but I'm very satisfied with it. The mechanics are somewhat questionable, but they show my ability to adapt with feedback and convey a unified flavor. I made good use of collaboration with the online community, and I think it shows. I have no idea whether I will be eliminated this week, but I hope that I have demonstrated enough potential that some questionable mechanical decisions will be excused.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

GDS2 Chronicles: Finalist and Input

October was not a good month for this blog. I spent two weeks pouring all of my energy into my Great Designer Search 2 submission, a week recovering, and then a week banned from talking about the search.

The good news is that after all that, I am one of the 8 finalists. My full submission is on the Wizards page here and I've revamped my Wiki page here.

Up to this point, I've pretty much done all the creative and mechanical work on Utopia myself. My big theme for this week is trying to change that. As proud as I am of the work I've done, I know that I can't brainstorm an entire set's worth of mechanics on my own.

I still want to show off my vision for the set, but I need to demonstrate that I can do that by taking suggestions and accepting other people's ideas. So give me all the input that you can, and I will make Utopia as awesome as it can be.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

GDS2 Chronicles: Epiphany

I have all of my best mental breakthroughs at 2:00 AM. Really, I don't know why I bother trying to make serious decisions at any other time of day.

I've been very conflicted about the whole "Weaponized Paradise" theme for my Great Designer Search set. On the one hand, I feel like it's a very interesting concept with a lot of depth and available design space. On the other hand, it's very open-ended and difficult to implement. Feedback has been largely positive, but I agree with the concerns that the idea may be *too* high concept. I'd even gained some confidence with a few cool mechanics, but had been struggling with whether the idea was strong enough for a set. I considered just letting the theme go despite my interest in it.

Tonight's epiphany was that the best course of action is to give a set both a textured philosophical theme and a simple mechanical one. Invasion block's themes were "an epic worldwide conflict centuries in the making" and "multicolor." Zendikar had "adventure world full of deadly peril" and "lands." Now we have Scars of Mirrodin, with "a world corrupted by ancient evil" and "artifacts."

"Weaponized paradise" is the exact theme I need to drive the flavor of the set and determine how I want it to feel. But I also need a more basic mechanical concept to ensure synergy and focus my design. "Enchanments" is a strong (if obvious) choice that evokes a certain "powerful magic we had lying around" concept, but I'm not attached to the idea yet.

I'm pretty ecstatic about this breakthrough, though, and feeling like I'm back on track.

I've put up my page on the GDS Wiki here, but it tends to update a few days behind my thought processes on this blog.