GC 2016: Con Wrap Up


Playtests four and five down.

Yesterday was pretty busy so I never got around to writing about my Saturday game. Although nobody was signed up to play, I ended up with five players! I was pleased to have so many, and the game went well. There were no major revelations, although I did have one player experience the same glitch that I have found in past play tests: they took a Recall that reduced their ability score to zero.

And that, it seems, was a running theme, because at today’s playtest another player did much the same. Clearly it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. One of my players suggested that I should start all of the stats at one and then distribute attribute points on top of that. I need to crunch the numbers and see what it messes up, but I guess that’s possible. I’m just not sure what it would accomplish. I think it would be better to just make a note that characters can’t take Recalls that would reduce their ability score below one.

They also suggested that difficulty checks should be higher. They’re probably right about that, I did keep the checks pretty low. That’s because I can be too nice as a GM. I want players to succeed. I want them to have a chance to be awesome. But I should know that players can sometimes fail and still end up being awesome.

All in all I learned a lot over the past week. The overriding feeling I got is that with a couple minor tweaks I think I’m ready to get this game off the ground. Right now, though I need to head back into the hall and make some artist contacts who might be interested in doing some commission work. Wish me luck. 🙂

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting Tagged with: , ,

GC 2016: ALL The Feels


Third playtest down. This time I had a full table to run through the adventure and it went really well. Nobody had any problem creating a character, so from that aspect I think things are pretty well locked down.

The adventure itself went surprisingly well too. I was a little nervous because I hadn’t looked at this one for about three years. I had to make a lot of adjustments to it at the last minute because I hadn’t counted on how much the game mechanics have changed since then, but apparently it was worth the effort because the players had a blast. I got positive marks across the board.

That’s not to say that it was problem free. I did have one player whose character had a Focus of one and she took a Recall that was -1 to her character’s Focus. So I think I need to add a general statement that players can’t take a Recall if it will reduce an ability score below one.

But really… that was it! All other comments were related more to how to streamline the character creation process for a con, which doesn’t really apply to the game rules. It’s more about adapting the rules for a specific environment. I think – knock on wood – the rules are finally solid enough to stand on their own.

Two more bits of awesomeness. First more than one player asked how they could follow the progress of the game. They asked! That’s the first time I was actually asked. Before this I’ve just offered up the info, so the idea that someone might willingly track the game’s progress is really exciting!

The other bit of awesomeness is that one of the players is a professional tech writer and offered to do some proofreading pro bono. For a game company that consists of one employee, that’s amazingly cool.

I ‘m trying to enjoy this as much as I can because tomorrow’s game has no one signed up yet. But that’s a problem for tomorrow. Tonight I bask in the glory of an amazing playtest.

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting Tagged with: , ,

GC 2016: Lone Wolfing


Second playtest down. The bad news is that the game was ill-attended. I had only one player. VERY disappointing turnout. Nevertheless, I rolled on with it.

The good news is that this was the first time I’ve run the game as a lone wolf game and it scaled wonderfully. I was concerned that not having at least one other player would make everything too high powered, but I was able to nerd it on the fly and made it work for the situation. Maybe it’s Pollyanna of me to find the positive in such a bad situation, but I really do feel like I still took something of value out of it.

At any rate, tomorrow’s game is sold out, so it might be good to contrast it to today. Here’s hoping.

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting Tagged with: ,

GC 2016: Out of the Gate


First play test down! The boys at Kentucky Fried Gamers provided me with a table at Scotty’s Brewhouse so I could do a first run-through of the Playthings adventure. Here’s a brief overview of how things went.

First the bad. I really screwed up as far as presentation is concerned. At Who’s Yer Con I covered the table in paper and had crayons for the players to doodle their character sheet on. I also had poker chips to help players with distributing their attribute points. Both of these worked well in that play test and I sorely missed them for this game.

Now the good. Thankfully the players didn’t know anything about the WYC test and didn’t miss the window dressing. I was really pleased to find that the players’ enjoyment did not depend on the bells and whistles. The game itself carried the fun.

Better yet, the fixes I put in place after WYC worked beautifully. Between the change in what constitutes a Hit or Miss and the addition of accessories players succeeded far more often and had a lot more fun with it. Also, the changes I made to the benefits and drawbacks of each character type helped eliminate confusion on what they were for and how to use them. So overall, despite some stumbles, today was a big win.

I’ll report more as it happens. Wish me luck. 🙂

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting Tagged with: , ,

Probabilities Gone Wild! (or, How I Finally Fixed Playthings)

geralt / Pixabay

After giving the issues with Playthings some breathing room for a couple weeks I decided to get back to it by giving the system, which I’m now calling the Hit ’n’ Miss System™, the same treatment that I gave to the Knockout System™ from my last post so that I could take a peek at the probabilities.

In my playtests I have been using pools of six-sided dice. Each die was successful on a roll of 4, 5, or 6 (Hit) or a failure on 1, 2, or 3 (Miss). To replicate this on a spreadsheet I created eight columns of 1000 random numbers between one and six. I then checked each die for a hit and totaled the number of hits for different numbers of dice per line.

Spreadsheet: the most boring thing whose name sounds vaguely dirty

Spreadsheet: the most boring thing whose name sounds vaguely dirty

Long story short (too late) I plotted out the percent of hits for different values of dice and came up with the following.

This explained a lot. During playtests the players frequently had a hard time rolling successes, even on a difficulty of 1. A difficulty of one should be super easy. With eight dice it should be all but guaranteed, but here we see that the best chance a player has is 88%. Not good enough, in my estimation. I want there to be a chance of failure, but I want those chances skewed in favor of the players.

So I had the distribution, now I needed to fiddle with the numbers. I set up the spreadsheet with two variables: one to represent the value of the dice being rolled and the other to represent the success threshold. By changing the die value to 8 I got a much better distribution:

But 'octohedron' is so much harder for kids to say than 'cube'

But ‘octohedron’ is so much harder for kids to say than ‘cube’

This is more like what I wanted to see. However, the whole point of using a d6 was that almost everyone can scare up a few of them by pilaging other games. So I returned to a d6 and tried lowering the hit threshold to 2. Low and behold:



So the moral of the story is that the system was sound, but I needed to change how I defined a hit. Now a roll is a hit on 3, 4, 5, or 6 and a roll is a miss on a 1 or 2.

The other crucial bit is that I was making challenging tasks difficulty 3, 4, or 5. (I think I even had a 6 in there somewhere.) And before you say it, yes, I know that the highest an attribute can be is 4. I was counting on the players either 1.) having skills that increased their stats beyond 4, or 2.) working together to accomplish tasks, in essence adding their attributes together. But look at the old distribution. On a difficulty 3 the best they could do using eight dice is 54%. It’s in their favor, but only just. And don’t get me started on difficulty 4 and 5. I want those to be hard, but not nigh impossible. By lowering the hit threshold to 2 it boosts their chances to 71% on difficulty 3. Much more in line with what I wanted to see.

The players eventually figured out that they could work together to pool their attributes and that got them out of a few jams, but I didn’t like how frequently they had to rely on that. For me it underscored the need for me to create a list of items that characters can use to increase their dice pools. A well placed +2 Thumbtack Of Stabiness or a +1 Dental Floss Of Climbing could go a long way.

It’s crazy that such small changes could make such a huge difference to the game, but they really do. And I may never have figured it out without plotting it all out. Math, kids, learn it. It does matter.

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting, Publishing Tagged with: , , ,

An Entertaining Diversion

luctheo / Pixabay

I’ve found in the past that if I get stuck on a problem it sometimes helps to walk away from it for a while, do something else, and come back to the problem later with a clearer mind. Following Who’s Yer Con I was jazzed about how well things had gone with the Playthings playtest and I set to work straightaway trying to correct the few issues that I had identified. Some were simple to resolve, others were not. I hit a wall when trying to address an issue with the probabilities in the core mechanic, so I decided to take a break and do something else.

The “something else” turned out to be a new system mechanic that for now I am calling the Knockout System (for reasons I hope will become apparent). The idea came about while I was playing Pokemon Master Trainer with Beth and the kids. To catch a Pokemon you roll a single d6 and you have to roll one of the numbers listed. For the easier Pokemon there are three numbers for success, for harder Pokemon there were two numbers for success, and for powerful and legendary Pokemon you have to roll one specific number.

I started by pondering the probabilities of the dice rolls, ’cause I’m weird like that. Even on the easy Pokemon you only had a 50/50 shot of catching the little bastards. I started musing about how the odds might be skewed more toward the player’s favor, the most obvious being adding more dice to the mix. Then I started thinking that it was sort of odd that as the difficulty gets larger there are fewer numbers for success. That led me to think that you could turn it on its head, so instead of trying to roll specified numbers, you had to avoid specified numbers. The more numbers that are knocked out **wink, wink**, the more difficult the roll. Then I started thinking about making the numbers you had to avoid variable by rolling dice to establish the difficulty.

As it wasn’t my turn in the game I surreptitiously pulled out a container of d6s and started rolling, playing out some basic scenarios. One die vs. one die, one die vs. two dice, two dice vs. one die, two dice vs. two dice. Then one of the rolls landed on a pair of sixes. I paused, wondering what should be done with that. If the difficulty is two dice and they both come up as the same number, should that just be a lucky break for the other player?

I kept rolling dice and started to notice an interesting pattern: it seemed like the more dice the attacker used the less likely they were to succeed, which is exactly the opposite of what you normally see in RPGs.

Soon I was in full-on obsession mode. Once our game ended we shooed the kids off to bed and I broke out the laptop to work out the probabilities.


Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 1.23.31 PM

Yes, I can really be this anal.

The only way to establish a pattern is through a whooooole bunch of rolls, which can take a long time. Thankfully, our friend Microsoft Excel has a formula for that: RANDBETWEEN. It gives you a random number between a given start and end point. To simulate a d6 you just set the start as one and the end as six. A few cuts and pastes later I had eight columns and 1000 rows. (I’m not sure why I chose eight columns. It just seemed right.) Each column represented a single die rolling 1000 times. These eight dice were my attacker. I then repeated the process to get another eight columns representing the defender.

Hello, Mr. Bell Curve

Hello, Mr. Bell Curve

Since we’re talking about the defender avoiding the numbers rolled by the attacker it’s a simple success/fail scenario. I just had to compare whether any of the dice rolled by the defender matched those of the attacker. If not, it was a success (1), if so, it was a failure (0). This took a bit more time to set up because I needed to set up different scenarios to get the full picture. Once I had my results I plotted them out in a chart of percentages showing the likelihood of the Defender winning. I was pleased to see that my initial impression was correct. Adding more dice to either the attacker or defender decreased the chances of the defender succeeding. In fact, multiple dice on both sides decreased chances even further, creating a bell curve in the middle. Suddenly things began to click into place.

It lays out like this: the Defender gets one die. The defender’s goal is to keep his defenses up. The attacker rolls a number of dice equal to the attribute being used (strength, intelligence, whatever; I haven’t worked that out yet). His goal is to take out the defense by matching one of his numbers to the defender’s roll. If the attacker rolls multiples (two or more of the same number) then the defender must roll that many dice for the defense.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 1.24.06 PM

Wait, d-what?…

That all tracks pretty well. The main problem I see is that according to the chart above anything beyond six dice is basically impossible. Of course that is if both sides are using d6s. I decided to try other dice values. The sweet spot turned out to be d12. That gave a very nice curve and made just about every number combination possible. That appeals to me. The d12 is sort of the lonely outcast among dice, so I like the idea of showing it some love by creating a system that uses d12s exclusively.

Obviously this is a long way from being a fully functional system, but it was a fun exercise. I think I’m now ready to go back and tackle the remaining issues with Playthings. Hopefully a little distance will prove to give me a bit more perspective.

Posted in Game Design

How Much Suspension of Disbelief Is Too Much?

Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay

During my recent playtest for Playthings at Who’s Yer Con I ran into an issue that has crept in the back of my mind for a long time. I had a kid playing the game who was maybe six years old. He wanted his character to be his plush Toothless the dragon, which was cool. I love giving players the chance to play as their favorite toy. The problem was that the kid was insistent that in the game Toothless could fly and he got very upset when I tried to explain that Toothless was just a toy and couldn’t fly.

My wife and I have a running joke when we watch movies or TV shows. Take, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy and the Scoobies are fighting some big bad and Buffy gets thrown across the room and slams into a wall. One of us might say, “Oh please, if someone hit a wall that hard they would be dead,” upon which the other will inevitably say, “So… You’re okay with vampires, werewolves, and demons being real, but Buffy bouncing back from being thrown into the wall is too much for you?”

Going back to the kid, this is where I find myself now. (“So… I’m okay with Toothless being an awakened Toy that moves around on his own, but Toothless flying is too much?”) I ended up compromising and allowed Toothless to be able to glide, but not actually fly, but it still bugged me.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve struggled with this problem during a playtest. A couple years ago when I ran Playthings at Gen Con one of my players tried to use one of their accessories, a plastic hair dryer, as a real hair dryer. When I said that it was just plastic and wouldn’t work they were flummoxed. (“So… Fitness Instructor Stacy being alive is all right, but her hair dryer functioning is too much?”)

I take some solace in the fact that I’m not the only one who has waffled on this issue. In Toy Story there are times when objects that shouldn’t have functioned, did. Early in the movie the green plastic army sergeant uses his “binoculars” to look at the birthday gifts in the distance. Same thing happens later when Woody uses Lenny the wind-up binoculars to see the Combat Carl that Sid is about to blow up. Those events have always bothered me, but the question is why?

I think the answer is that it’s a matter of being internally consistent with the world that you present. A key point in Toy Story is that Buzz is just a toy, so he can’t fly. So Lenny working as real binoculars sticks out because he’s just a toy too. So why can he function as real binoculars when he’s a toy, but Buzz’s jetpack can’t function because he’s a toy. It’s inconsistent.

I know this all seems nit-picky, but if you create boundaries then you need to abide by them, otherwise the players suspension of disbelief may be disrupted. Playthings is not supposed to be a high magic setting. The only “magic” is that the toys awaken. Period. Outside of that, they are still just toys. They can’t fly, their hair dryers don’t actually function, and Lenny the damned binoculars can’t magnify squat! Sorry kid, but Toothless the dragon will have to take a cab.

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting

Who’s Yer Con 2016 Playtests: What I Learned

ed_davad / Pixabay

Another couple Playtests down. I’m happy to report both went very well. The changes I worked on post- Gen Con seem to have made a significant difference in how quickly players picked up the rules. There was no more confusion on what to roll or when to roll it. I chalk that up as a big success.

Additionally, since I made sure that all stats had to have at least one, the zero attribute issue vanished. There were several instances where players didn’t have enough in a stat, but they had something to roll, which meant they had something they could build on with bonuses or with Proof of Purchases. Another success there.

This year part of the event was letting the players build their own characters. This turned out to be a LOT more work than I anticipated leading up to the con, but it forced me to fill in rules details that I had previously hand-waved. For starters I had to actually define the process for creating a character; basically to formalize it and write it down rather than just having it in my head. This was key since I was asking the players to actually step through the process. Similarly I had to flesh out the Toy types. I already had the types, but they were little more than bullet points.

Finally, I had to come up with a list of Features and a list of Recalls from which players could choose. Previously I just came up with those on the spot based on what sort of Toy I was making, but I knew that wouldn’t work for players. Leaving it open ended like that, while liberating for some, is overwhelming, especially to new players. I ended up with about 70 each of Features and Recalls, which took considerably more time than I anticipated. All of this paid off, though, as the players easily stepped through the character creation process. So score!

It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, though. The first issue came with the Toy type bonuses and penalties. It hadn’t occurred to me that if one of a Toys stats was 1, then having a -1 penalty would make the stat effectively 0. I hadn’t 0ccurred to me because I assumed that the players would naturally account for the penalty and distribute their stats to offset it. Poor assumption as I had a player who effectively ended up with a zero stat. I’m going to have to figure that one out.

The next problem surprised me quite a bit. In all previous playtests no one ever had an issue understanding how a dice pool worked. This time through there was confusion on this point in both playtests. Honestly, I don’t think this was a problem with the system. I have a theory on this one. To help make the idea of the stats a little more concrete for younger kids I decided to let them use poker chips to distribute their attribute points. That much worked great. The kids distributed the points with no problem. But I think they missed that each chip represented the number of dice to roll. For some reason there was a disconnect there. I think if I try that method again, instead of having them distribute chips for attribute points I should have them distribute dice so that there’s no need for conversion. I.e., need to roll Strength? Pick up the dice in the Strength space and roll them.

Finally, I need to take a look at the difficulty scale. In the adventure I had set a lot of difficulties from 3 to 6. The problem is that if they only have 1 to 4 in their stat then reaching a difficulty of 3 to 6 is pretty tough. I ended up having to nerf a lot of the skill check difficuties to make them achievable. This one may work itself out once I include accessories. Then they can have additional bonuses on their skill attempts. At any rate, I need to sit down and do the math to be sure I know the probabilities a little better.

So all in all, a pretty good run, and several of the problems I encountered weren’t necessarily system related. We’re edging ever closer to possible publication. Right now I think once I’ve addressed the current issues and completed the text, I may be ready to post out the rules for beta testing and see what kind of feedback I get from outside GMs. That prospect is really exciting!

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting

Heart [of the Game System] Surgery

'Oh, man - how many times have I told you? Measure twice, cut once.'

I took some time after my last post to stew on what to do with the Pick 2 game engine for Playthings. While the game play worked great, the initial concepts proved to be an initial stumbling block. The method of deriving stats, while simple in theory, proved to be too convoluted for players to grok quickly and I decided that before I could proceed any further I had to address changes that needed to be made to the very heart of the system. Heart surgery, if you will.

It hasn’t been easy to come up with a solution. Frankly, I was disheartened to discover that the one thing I saw as a selling point of the system – its simplicity – turned out not to be simple for players. It negated the whole point of the system and I wasn’t sure it could survive this sort of fundamental change. I struggled for a while trying to think up a way to fix the problem, but couldn’t come up with anything. Then I toyed with the idea of scrapping the system altogether and using an existing system, but I just didn’t like the idea of being beholden to someone else’s system.

Finally, with the deadline of Gen Con game registration looming, I came back to the idea of trying to fix the system. Apparently enough time had passed for a solution to present itself, although it did require a sacrifice. The Pick 2 system was based on the (I thought) simple concept of “Body, Brains, Balance: pick 2”. The idea was that each area started with 1 point, but you moved one of those points to a neighbor giving you two, one, and zero. So far so good. Players understood that. Then from these points the ability scores were extrapolated. This is where problems began.

For starters, people had trouble with the concept that any action required two skills, even if it was two of the same skill. So you would have, for example, Body/Brains, Body/Balance, and Body/Body (or Double Body). In my mind this seemed really easy, but this was consistently confusing to players. I believe the problem is a matter of labels. The ability names confused players.

This, however, was not the biggest problem. The biggest problem was the zero. Since you had two, one, and zero to work with for ability scores that meant that one of your abilities, even when doubled, would be zero. In nearly every game I’ve run there was at least one time where a person needed a particular skill (say Double Body) but they had a zero for that ability, meaning that unless they had some sort of bonus in their Features, they had no chance of succeeding. Definitely not cool. I knew that I had to fix this.

The hard decision to make was that I had to give up the “pick 2” concept. It simply didn’t work and had to be abandoned. However, the actual mechanics of the system beyond that were fine.  So basically I needed a simple way for players to come up with their ability scores and I needed those abilities to have unique names.

The names were the easy part. In essence, what you have is Power, Constitution, Willpower, Concentration, Intelligence, and  Cleverness. But since the game needs to be kid-friendly I went for simpler terms: Strength, Grit, Will, Focus, IQ, and Wits. Done. So now instead of asking for a Body/Balance roll I ask for a Wits roll, and instead of asking for a Double Body roll I ask for a Strength roll. Simple. Quick. Specific. Problem solved.

As for how to come up with ability scores, I decided the easiest way was to give players a point pool and let them fill the ability buckets as they wanted. But of course if you allow them to do that then you’ll always have that one guy who puts everything into a single ability, making them useless in almost everything, but damn near unstoppable in that one ability. Plus, the whole problem was having a zero ability score, so clearly some boundaries had to be set.

So first, how many points should they get? That was pretty straightforward. The scores previously broke down to four, three, two, two, one, and zero. Total that up and you have 12. However, that divided a little too easily; they could just have two in every ability. I want players to have to choose at least one ability that is better than the rest. I want them to have to make that decision because it forces them to think about their character and in what area they excel. The answer: add one more. Make it 13. That way it doesn’t divide evenly. That way, the players can have almost all twos, but one ability has to be at least three.

This was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t solve the zero problem. To fix that I decided to set some limits. All scores have to have at least one, but can be no more than four. This gives the players flexibility, prevents power stacking, and eliminates zeros. We’ll see how this all plays out, of course, but I feel like this new approach addresses the most glaring problems with the system.

Now there’s just one last problem to solve. Since you’re no longer picking two, the name Pick 2 Engine no longer works. So what to call it… Hmmm…

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting

Heeeere Bessie, Bessie, Bessie…

Sacred Cow

Didn’t know sacred cows had ear tags, did you?

I learned several very important things in my Playthings playtest at Gen Con. First, I learned that creating an adventure where the characters can pop back and forth between two different planes of existence is twice the work and a real pain in the butt. Believe me, I won’t be making that mistake again. Sheesh.

Second, I found that the setting easily supports a darker tone. No one ever questioned the pairing of toys and horror. In fact, they seemed to relish the idea. The juxtaposition of such innocent things against creepy, unsettling surroundings played very well among my players. Including it as a play option is a must.

Third, I learned that while I’ve billed the game as playable for six years old and up, it depends upon the kid. I’ve run the game very successfully with six-year-olds before, but the adventure failed to hold this year’s six-year-old’s attention. Maybe it was the subject matter, maybe the kid was hungry or tired, who knows. Point is that instead of saying the game works for kids six and up, I think I need to say kids “as young as six” to set proper expectations.

But most importantly, I learned that the system – as written – has several major problems. First and foremost, because of the “pick 2” aspect of the attributes it means that every player has one attribute score that is zero. I’ve tried to make up for this by including complimentary “Features” and bonus “Proof Of Purchase” dice, but I still ran into instances where a player had a zero and was just screwed. That… Cannot… Happen! The players want to be awesome and the system should at least give them a chance, even if just a small chance, to be awesome.

In addition, the damage system is too complex. The adults in the game had trouble grasping it, so I can’t expect young kids to grok it. I like the idea of having simple levels, but the system used to move between levels needs to be far simpler.

Finally, the players are consistently confused about what number to roll. Maybe I’m just not communicating it well, but I think the circle graphic I’m using on the character sheet along with the using two attributes for any action is just too confusing. This goes directly to the core on which the system was based. As much as I hate to admit it, the “simple” idea I had is the very thing that is complicating matters. I’ve worked and reworked the system on and off for three years now. Since the setting is working very well, but the system is not, it’s time to slay the sacred cow and cut the system loose. Time to either develop a system that is more streamlined and will compliment the setting or else adopt an existing system that will work well with the setting.

Wish me luck.

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting


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