Modular Game Hacks

A recent thing I’ve been hacking with is a rather modular game design. This seemed to emerge naturally out of having many desired projects with vaguely similar aesthetic desires on my part, and not wanting to reinvent my own wheels. The outcomes thus far a touch on the vanilla-side (by design) but cool so far. (The primary focus of this, right now, is an attempt to create a Mage homebrew I’ll like, ideally using Tarot.)

Here are the pieces:

  • A way of using a set of cards – tarot or poker – to generate a mix of success-outcomes and symbolic-influences. Inputs: a mapping of cards-to-symbols, and a means of applying bonuses towards the success-outcomes
  • Three sets of symbol mappings, for three very different settings
  • One “bonus-applying” system, involving stacked traits in a very White-Wolf-compatible way.
  • One “bonus-applying” system, derived in part from Dogs in the Vineyard but more about pacing of aesthetic payloads, kinda.

It’s an odd feeling, almost like I’m creating aesthetically pleasing story-games GURPS or something. We’ll see if it’s actually playable.

Brief Matrix Notes

  • For inspiration, try this music video: Thrice – Digital Sea. (x-posted to 10×10.)
  • Follow along as Eben works on a gnostic parable: link.
  • If one is modifying DRYH: Exhaustion produces great feats by slightly bending the rules of the Matrix. Instead of falling asleep: you comply completely with the gritty rules inside. You are again only human, and easily succumb.

Matrix Tricks

Some ideas of extra roles you can pass around for your Matrix-themed game. (Could this include games of Lacuna or Don’t Rest Your Head? Sure.)

120 BPM. One player controls the soundtrack, probably starting off with the original movie soundtrack, and then slowly mixing in other appropriate tracks. The emphasis should be on atmosphere and ambience. This player can invoke de ja vu by setting a track to repeat a certain part over and again, they’re invoked a glitch in the world, and suggested that something odd has just happened.

1280 x 1024. One player controls the resolution of the game visuals. They can describe the events happening, by limiting the color schemes or pointing out that a certain scene briefly goes truly grainy or pixelated, almost as if this events were being viewed on someone else’s creen. This player can invoke dramatic pixelation in order to cast suspicion or doubt on events that are happening, or to raise the possibility of oncoming danger.

9.8 m/s. One player controls the flow of gravity within the world events. This is a rare effect, but omnipresent: sometimes a character leaps gracefully across buildings, but sometimes instead they suddenly crash down suddenly, reminding them of their own limitations. Some times an object – like a cellphone – is carelessly tossed aside, but the camera watches the event in slow motion, underlining its importance. This player can invoke dramatic gravity distortion in order to imbue more meaning and importance to events.

Update: New Draft of Dance/Dawn

I put in my latest changes – ditching the attempt at a token economy, adding a new ritual (the duels) instead – and I’m really hoping that this can be my last functional draft. That this game, in fact, can work. (Whew.) I also made some functional (if not-yet-pretty) sheets to help put down characters and watch the clock tick by in play. Those will help the next game start off even faster.

On Wushu Hacks and the Great Action Game

JW is writing about “Brutal Poetry” and what for makes for a good fight, particularly in the context of story-game. I want to share my attempts & ideas – thus far – for remaking Wushu into my ideal game. No clear success so far, but I’m hoping someone can beat this. Familiarity with Wushu will help below.

The Vision and Dream: I want a game where I can sit down with folks, plug in a style sheet, and quickly rumble through our own version of Die Hard or District B-13.

(I played one game of Emperor’s Heart that came very close to delivering this for me! However, it’s not perfect (yet). Much cred to Chris.)

Chi / Hit Points / Can We Stop Yet? While I was working on my Wushu hack, I was also playing a small demo-game of it. Wushu provides clear metrics for when a fighting is over – Threat Rating for low-key group battles, “hit-point”-like Chi points for important boss battles. However, even in my short demos, I found that the battle felt like it *should* be over before it really was over. We were still having an undesired affect of whittling down “threat points”, long after the thrill of battle was over. (This is in fact more acceptable in D&D, where the tension of hanging onto threadbare resources if part of the excitement. This is unacceptable in an action movie.)

My attempted solution: at the start of a conflict, declare an explicit timeline for how long a fight would take, and the turns that would be taken within it (ex: 4 turns, two per participant). Instead of wearing down a buffer of points, players instead racked up points for their goals in the fight, and were judged at the end for successfulness. However, this lead to some awkwardness in determining who-goes-when. If it was clear that the fourth turn would be the last, the players wanted to time it so that the most effective / most appropriate person would be timed to finish off the fight, in part pre-playing the actual fight of it.

Also: my method of “racking up points” towards goals meant that some players’ goals were quickly shown to be impossible, which was sad at times. (If it was clear you were going to be KO’d at the end of the fight from the start, it puts a damper on any further action.) It think strict constrained fight length is the right idea, but my implementation is wonky.

My ideas here were inspired in part by shot-framing (taking a less fiddly tack), but also in part by the Season Setup in Primetime Adventures, where a character determines their overall arc for the season. I would love to figure out something analogous to determine a character’s contribution to the night’s story overall.

Rewarding Details Wushu clearly rewards adding more detail (in the form of +1 per embellishments). I thought I wanted this, but wanted better, consise detail. I tried to keep the “+1d / embellishment” rule, suggesting that simply referencing a previous detail would suffice, but it still lead to the same end results: too many details, not enough flow.

I considered establishing a clear rubric (guidelines for judging and rewarding proper details), but this is problematic. I didn’t want to take players out from participants or observers of the actions to be come judges of it as well. (Throwing in “fan mail”, a la Primetime Adventures, is one thing, but providing stronger feedback might not be easily possible.)

I also considered making a concept map of specific details that should be reincorporated, excluding freeform details. (For example: there’s a plate-glass window, and I add it to the list. I’m being clear here: I’ll reward a player for kicking a foe (or being kicked) through said window.) I worried this might be overly constraining or static; however, I’ve seen that freeform details alone have not satisfied, while I’ve seen constrained detail come to be of good use (in Geiger Counter for example).

Characters Have Issues. It’s important that fights have some stakes and impacts other than the direct outcome. (The hero is trying to destroy the helicopter, but this fight is also showing us something about his feelings about being double-crossed by the government.) However, I’m not certain about the default approach – tagging these issues as optional or mandatory “stakes” stacked onto the outcome of a fight.

I still like Wushu! I think I can still play it just great. I get its mindset, and I know how to map its bits to represent different parts of what I try to do in play and what I want. However, it’s clear to me there’s other stuff I still want from an action game that this game doesn’t provide . Hence, the hacking.

The Matrix: Unknowable

Many enjoyed “The Matrix”, and were inspired to create their own fiction in that world. What other stories would I want to tell?

(1) I saw “The Matrix”, and I liked it. Watched alone, I think it stands up: as a thematic whole, with paranoia and unreliable narrative throughout. Character interactions and setting minutae are secondary. What you’re seeing instead are symbols of characters – “Cipher”, “Dozer” – casting shadows on blank screen. The story is, overall, a redpill: it halts the narrative its in and reaches out to the viewer perceiving it. There was once was a Thomas, and he was not the One; he died. But, he was not dead, and he returned as the One. Freedom granted him limitless power.

(2) I was an undergrad, battered by the throes of the computer science curriculum: too much all-nighters, too much caffeine, all CRT screens and halogen lights, buzzing sounds and naps sitting upright or dreaming. It was a cruel education; although, I think there were some nights, as I strained to climb the stairs back to my room, that I almost felt the stairs give way, slightly. I almost felt the hardened world swish around me as I ceased to pay attention, and perhaps if I looked past the corner of my eye, I’d see the bright yellow-on-black outlines and edges where detail broke through, and the thin structure of the simulation would finally show itself.

(3) In the first movie especially, there’s so much uncertainty and gray weariness aboard the ship, The Nebuchadnezzar. What year is it? Is there really a Zion? (We never see outside the ship.) (We don’t need to, you see.)

(4) If you emulate a genre or story, you do want to service its characters, settings, details: all the bits you cherished and wished for more of. You want to service the story you’re emulating. However, some authors would plead that you not do this: you are taking material of the story to be its subject, when they are only its object and stage. The subject is at arms length, and you’ve missed it already. It is not for us to continue the story or retell the story, but to retell its telling to us, for that’s the only accurate story there is.

(5) I was reading a Johnny Cash biography, and there were references to the Christian phrase: “God’s Kingdom”. The semantics of this, to an American liberal, sound initally like a claim towards an inherently Judeo-Christian America, but I realized this wasn’t the point. Instead: imagine that, trapped in all of this current world – your Car, your Job, your Aunt – are a few threads of what is actually real – (death + pride), (greed + sloth), (vices + virtues). You could scald away much of the world, and indeed your own body would eventually come apart from this world, but there’s something real beyond it that remains. The real world, that you give your heart for, day in and out. A real world that will, one fine day, crash down upon the world we live in, making us free at last. When a believer is speaking, what do they see?

(6) I saw the final movie of the Matrix trilogy; looking back, I could make some sense of it all if I reimagined all these events as the muddled, re-creolize, reinterpreted Gospel that parents within a matrix tell their children. Yes, my darlings: the world we have is a much greater one than the one before, due to the sacrifice of the One. And yes, if you believe hard enough, you will come to understand and overcome the world you are in; you’ll see beyond this world, and the next, just like the One.