Sunday, January 17, 2010

Game Design Journal #1 - M.A/C.C

As you may have guessed, with the interest I have in the theory of game design and story craft, I also enjoy putting the theory to application. I've done this with a few botched attempts at making systems, successfully with what in the PC world would be called 'Total Conversions' of established systems (heavily modifying a system to do something it was not originally intended to do) to the point I'm fairly sure there isn't a genre I can't modify AEG/John Wick's Roll and Keep system to do decently, if not well. Lately though, I got hit by a design bug for a system that just wouldn't let me go. I seriously could not sleep for the better part of a week due to this. The result being that in a few weeks I have the base line for the system, essentially the large rocks are all in place in the jar. Though as I've found, with game design the first 80% can be done in less than a month if you have a solid idea, good flow of ideas, and people to bounce problems off of. The last 20% can take a LOT longer, getting all the bells and whistles, all the skills, advantages and disadvantages. Combining that 20% with play testing, balancing, revising, and that is where the real length seems to come in.

This is my first real solid push at making an entire game system, I've made a few half hearted attempts before, but this is the first real try. That being said, this is also my time writing a Game Design Journal, so it is a learning experience for me as I'm going through. That being said, let's get into it.

The Game
I'll be the first to admit this, but I'm a geek, hell I'm an uber-dork. I mean, I started a blog on livejournal to talk about designing Role Playing Games, and making Fantasy/Sci-Fi stories. I watch anime, play RPGs, read geeks books, play computer and video games, watch those sci-fi and other geek-centric TV shows, and oh yes, I read comic books. I like Super Hero comics, I like them a fair amount, but like many people I'm more fascinated not by the people like Superman and Spider-Man, gods with their powers however much of an every-guy they may be when not wearing tights, but by the people who are just normal people out there and trying to make a difference. The person who is using his wits, and his skills to make up for the fact that he doesn't have any powers. Ingenuity, quick thinking, and perhaps a larger than normal wallet along with some professional training are their 'super powers'. What is it that makes these people tick? Why do they get up in the morning (or evening) and do this? What is it that could possibly compel them to do the things they do, experience the things they experience? It's fascinating to me.

Now, there are a lot of RPGs out there already about being a super hero. Palladium's Heroes Unlimited, GURPS Supers, Silver Age Sentinels, Mutants and Masterminds, and let's not forget Champions. These are all games about recreating the feel of the comic books, about being the super hero and swooping in to save the day. They also all allow players to make the kinds of characters I'm talking about, the only problem is those characters in those games never felt right to me. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's very hard to take a system designed to let you make a Superman, and also use it to make a Punisher, not without some very creative usage of points, and vastly different points being given. It's not even that the Punisher's and Batman's of comics would be low point characters (I laugh at whoever says otherwise) but just that in making them high point characters you end up making them "Super Heroes" and lose their defining characteristic of "Just a 'normal' person". Yes, normal is in quotes for a reason, there is nothing 'normal' about Batman, the Punisher, or any other of the non-powered hero crowd, unless you are specifically comparing them to the powered folks.

So I decided to try and do something about it, it may not be the first take on it (a friend pointed out to me Palladium's Ninja and Super Spies which is compatible with Heroes Unlimited), but it is a take on it. The idea is to approach the "Super Hero" angle from the other side, from the perspective of the masked vigilante that doesn't have any powers. Just his wits, some gadgets, and his natural physical prowess. The game will focus on those kinds of characters, letting players play people like Batman, the Green Arrow, and Punisher, letting them experience more of what it is like to be that one "normal" guy trying to take down organizations such as the mafia, trying to make a difference in a world full of deities and demi-gods.

To get this feel right, the game needs to do two things simultaneously, the tricky part is that these two things are generally considered mutually exclusive. We need to make the player feel powerful, like the hero/vigilante that they are playing. They need to feel like the creature of the night that they are playing, the guy that with a glance can make a hardened criminal start crying for their mother. At the same time, they need to feel weak, fragile, vulnerable, human. It is amazing how much strain the human body can take and not die, just as amazing is how little it takes to actually kill someone. Luckily, there are plenty of great examples both in comics, and other mediums of how to do this.

Before we go into these inspirations, lets look at what it takes to make someone feel powerful. As said earlier in this blog, players feel powerful when they can take out multiple opponents somewhat easily. This is true to the source material, what are ten punks to Batman? Not even a warm up really. Now granted Batman is a high level character, but even still one of the things we need is to make sure that a starting character can take on multiple people fairly reliably. At the same time, they need to feel human and vulnerable, so getting hit needs to hurt. Looking back to Batman, in the stories once he's been hit once or twice, even groups of people that are usually nothing to him become serious challenges. So the ability to take on multiple opponents, but getting hit needs to hurt. So where can we turn to get examples of this?

Well, turning to both comics and video games we have our answer. The stealth action genre for video games in particular lets players feel powerful as they casually and stealthily take out dozens of guards without ever being seen. Get seen though, and it's a different story. Newer ones even make being seen not a deal breaker, just harder. Comparing this to comics it even seems like a strong comparison. Batman is strongest working from the shadows, the Punisher, Green Arrow, and all the other non powered people are generally quite stealthy. There is also the focus on preparation and the plan going into the truly hard fights.

Combining all these things we have a list of objectives that are wanted for this game, and a few places to look  for those answers. A good starting point indeed. So what do we call this game? Well, why hide what it's about, for that I named the game after what it is trying to emulate.

M.A/C.C - Masked Avengers / Caped Crusaders

Tomorrow I'll post the second Game Design Journal for this, which will be this games answers to the 4 questions as presented by John Wick for his method of game design. The 4th question is his, the first three come from his friend Jeff (I forget the last name), and they are a good place to look for designing games.

Happy Gaming.

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