Monday, August 17, 2009

Idea: Zombie Sim Game

I guess this is a good a place as anywhere to jot this idea down:

This summer, B. and I were chatting that it'd be fun to roll ourselves up as ordinary level characters in a high-simulation system like GURPS and then run an end-of-the-world zombie game/simulation. It would be cool to set this up in a specific city location, so the DM could have a real map of the area, thereby determining how long it'd take to get places, where certain supplies would likely be, zombie concentrations, etc. It'd be fun to see how long we'd last with all our now-useless skills, like computer programming and psychoanalysis. :)

mini20: Tensions in RPG design.

Last week, I stumbled across Microlite20, which is a very pared-down incarnation of d20. I find that, while I'm ever seeking simplicity, I have a difficult time actually hacking large swatches of a game system away. I make only little snips here and there, always minding backwards-compatibility (or at least equivalency) with the source material. In contrast, Microlite20 reminds me of pruning in the tropics: you can cut all the branches off, leaving only the stump behind. And instead of this killing the tree, it grows back as lush and beautiful as ever in 6 months.

That said, there were a few little quibbles I didn't like, so I set about tweaking it a bit. This did turn into putting a few things back in (in reduced form). The result is mini20.

Like I said, a large portion of my week went into this (despite having other more pressing projects!). I even drew up some hand-drawn character sheets and converted S.'s Omri line to mini20. However, we didn't get a chance to play this weekend; instead, we got drunk on pizza, beer, white wine, and 70s TV Wonder Woman. I woke up a few hour later, a little hungover, and started thinking about the project.

As this blog demonstrates, I seem to be constantly hacking on various game systems, yet never seem to reach a satisfied conclusion. These are some of the tensions I've identified in the past 24 hours:

DMing vs Design. DMing is a live, dynamic, social activity. While the game is underway, quick decisions are called for and the game moves ever forward. Design, on the other hand, is a largely solitary activity, where the resulting document can be reiteratively edited until perfect.

I'm coming to realize that DMing actually scares me. I think that's why I keep falling back to design, in this vague belief that the perfect RPG system will make for flawless, perfect DMing.

Rules vs Rulings. On the heels of the previous point, some systems provide tomes of specific rules. The advantage here is consistency and a crutch for the DM; the down-side is that then the DM has to recall or look up the specific rules at game-time. The alternative is to provide a simple system for the DM to make rulings on: to apply a modifier or make a call at game-time, and then move on. There are no lookups involved here. The downside is that the DM needs to manage making fair, consistent rulings, along with all the other game details going on at the same time.

Desiring a lite system, I want rulings; but being a little fearful of screwing up as a DM suggests more established rules. In short, rules compile all the possible rulings into rules before the game starts. But of course it can never be perfect: some situation can always arise not covered perfectly by the rules, requiring adjudication (ie, a ruling).

Game vs Story. On the one hand, an RPG is a game: characters are bought, described, and balanced in terms of points. There's a simulated world with clearly defined possible actions (skills, powers, etc.) On the other hand, especially these days, all of this is supposed to serve only as the underlying foundation for a story. (I would argue that, in the past, dungeon-crawling was more of a simulation/game than a story.)

Character detail vs simplicity. So, in terms of the game/simulation, we need character modeling. The more detail and customization possible in terms of the rules, the more stats, rules, and preparation time needed. Otherwise, character details are left superficial to the rules--which often does already happen with roleplaying details. Also, if too simple, there's no way to differentiate different characters and abilities--like different fighting styles, a smooth-talking con man vs an earnest likable diplomat, etc--in terms of the game world itself.

But in terms of story, it is frequently not the numbers and die rolls that determine the ultimate course of the story, but in-character decisions made by players based on the "superficial" personality traits of their character. This suggests that if story is the goal, simplicity and letting the game aspects take a backseat should work just fine.

Complete System vs Hack Document. This is my personal preference: when hacking on a system, I tend to want a single finished document that describes the resulting game, rather than simply producing a hack/errata-like document that lists the changes to make to the underlying system. I should really try to get over this, since it takes a lot more time to do it this way.

So, in conclusion, I'm not sure if mini20 is a good idea or not. It could just be more mental flailing around on my part, largely due to my failure to resolve the above tensions and decide exactly what the hell I want from my gaming system.