October 23, 2006
John Crowley: "I think of it [Aegypt] basically as comic."
Backwards and forwards
pompe weighs into the "What's wrong with sf" debate (via Ian McDonald): "We don't need more nostalgia sci-fi. Seriously. Sci-fi once had a progressive slant which it must rediscover. But not recreate. ... Forty years ago, brave Americans from NASA in clunky spacesuits would colonize Titan with trusty fusion-powered dozers. The solution for 2006 is not to tell the same story but with uploaded Indians working for SkyCorp Inc. and nanite swarms colonizing Titan."
October 15, 2006
Flavour mechanics considered harmful
Mash mentioned somewhere -- I can no longer find where -- that I was interested in aspects of roleplaying theory other than the anatomy of narrative. Since getting an ear-bashing from Michael on Thursday night about the uselessness of anatomy-of-narrative theory, and having defended it only to see Michael's criticisms gloriously validated less than 48 hours later, I thought I'd write up some observations on ergonomic and usability aspects of roleplaying games.
Ergonomics? The physical factors? Are we really expected to concern ourselves with such mundane matters as how we roll dice and what is the optimum font size for character sheets? Don't I realise that roleplaying games are about narrative, setting and character, not about rolling dice for heaven's sake?
I do, they are, and we should. Those mundane matters can break immersion and engagement just as surely as good narrative, setting and characterisation can create it. Every excursion into the realm of mechanics drags us away from the in-character experience, breaks the flow state. The received wisdom on flow states in programming is that, once concentration is broken, say by a phone call or email, it takes 15 minutes to get back to the level of productivity one was at before. Die rolls and such like aren't so blatant a break, because they usually relate to with the in-character experience, but the impact is still noticeable; and the worse the usability, the bigger the break.
I'm going to use Fading Suns as my case study, mostly because it's the only game I'm in at the moment which has been running long enough for me to fully appreciate the impact of the mechanics, but also because it has some interesting "flavour" features which look great on paper but work disastrously badly in practice. In fact, it's my contention that the "flavour" features do more to harm engagement than they do to promote it.
Fading Suns' core mechanic is a pretty simple variant on White Wolf's Storyteller system. You add an attribute and a skill, and try to roll the total or less on a 20-sided die. If you succeed, then the higher the roll, the better, with a roll equal to your total being a critical success; if you fail, you fail, with a roll of 20 being a fumble.
Now this already has a few problems, but in and of itself it's pretty benign. Now let's start adding in some of Fading Suns' "flavour" mechanics and see how it looks.
First, Fading Suns provides a character customisation system based on Ars Magica-style virtues and flaws. This means that goal numbers are subject to special modifiers in certain situations. The problem is that whether a modifier applies is not always obvious. A particular offender is the Keen Eyesight virtue, which gives a bonus to perception checks involving eyesight. The net result of this is that, whenever the GM asks for a perception check, the cry goes up, "Does it involve eyesight?" This more than doubles the time spent on mechanics-level interchanges. It's a good thing we don't have any more of these modifiers in our group, or every perception roll would turn into a game of 20 Questions: "Does it involve eyesight? Does it involve hearing? Is it bigger than a breadbox?"
Second, Fading Suns provides a mechanism called "accenting" to represent particularly careful or desperate actions. The idea is that a player can trade off the chances of success against the quality of success: in a do-or-die situation, you can take a reduced likelihood of success but guarantee that if you do succeed it will be a high quality success; or if you can't risk disaster, but have plenty of time to get it right, you can increase your chance of success at the expense of achieving only marginal success. This potentially turns every die roll into a lengthy odds calculation: "if I positively accent by 1, I get the better result table; but if I positively accent by 4 then I'm guaranteed at least a +3 success, but I have a 40% chance of failing; but if I negatively accent by 4 then I max out my chance of success... but I have a 55% chance of getting only a +0 or +1 which won't be enough... but I'll be able to try again next round..." This is particularly poor design given that the accent system is meant to be used for moments of high tension -- do-or-die or can't-afford-to-fail -- just the moments when a lengthy excursion into mechanics is least welcome.
To add insult to injury, by the way, the positive accent (do-or-die) mechanism is broken, so the whole "how much should I accent by" calculation turns out to be meaningless anyway. You should positively accent by 1. End of story.
Third, in accordance with its idea of itself as a "futuristic passion play," Fading Suns allows players to invoke their character's Passion in order to improve their chances of success at actions their character cares about. This is a nice idea, but has two problems which cause it to bog the game down. First, the definition of a character's passion is very vague. Players are required to supply a Passion attribute, but the direction of that passion is nebulous, so in practice any request to use the passion system results in great debate (either that or it becomes a general-purpose "I need plusses" system which rather removes the flavour). Secondly, it is implemented as a Passion roll, the result of which gives a modifier for subsequent rolls related to the passion. Because using Passion on its own for this would result in little chance of success and feeble bonuses, the game supplies a laundry list of modifiers of which any or all may apply. Finding and trawling the list is a very slow process.
What makes the Passion system triply annoying is that it is usually invoked in response to the request for some other roll. "Make your attack roll." "Hey, I hate this guy. Can I use invoke Passion?" The smooth flow from the request for an attack roll to the attack roll itself is disrupted as the game detours to perform a completely different roll. It is extremely noticeable, once a player has completed the "invoke Passion" mechanic, that they have to perform some sort of reset to get back to the task at hand. ("Right, what was I rolling again? Melee?") A mechanic that should be in helper posture is so complex that it has forced a complete context switch.
I want to mention a fourth problem, which is not technically a flavour mechanic but which is exacerbated by this multiplicity of flavour mechanics. As mentioned before, a Fading Suns goal number is attribute plus skill, plus modifiers from situational or flavour mechanics. This results in a lot more addition than the plain attribute plus skill mechanism. Figure in, say, a wound modifier, an accent and a passion modifier, and you've gone from one addition to four. This causes genuine problems as people try to keep track of the numbers in their heads. (Worse, alone of all modifiers, accents modify the die roll instead of the goal number. So you have to keep track of which modifiers to apply where.) This is particularly frustrating because the modifiers do not affect the quality of a success, only the goal number; so the modifiers don't matter unless they would change your die roll from a success to a failure or vice versa. If your base goal is 13 and you roll a 2 -- or an 18 -- all those calculations to work out if your net goal was 9 or 10 were unnecessary.
The net result of all this is that Fading Suns is, mechanically, an extremely tedious experience. (This is not to say that any given Fading Suns game is doomed to tedium. I'm greatly enjoying the one I'm in.) The heavy use of well-meant but badly-designed flavour mechanics, ombined with other infelicities such as poor character sheet layout and unpredictable skills lists, make every roll in Fading Suns a potential source of disruption; worse, the more tense and critical the moment, the more likely the disruptive mechanics are to intervene. Flavour promotes engagement and immersion; mechanics disrupt engagement and immersion. Mechanics that purport to introduce flavour need to be examined with great care to determine that their cost does not exceed their payoff. Fading Suns' flavour mechanics fail this test particularly badly, but they're far from alone.
Yes, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's critical hit system, I'm looking at you...
October 07, 2006
Dr Who advent calendar
Ian McDonald: "I hope the Christmas Day window opens on a Dalek exterminating the Holy Family."