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Author Topic: The Niche Engine (v. 0.1), for roleplaying that's about the setting  (Read 5943 times)
Robert Ahrens
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« Reply #15 on: December 15, 2006, 10:10:00 AM »

I think it would be a mistake to pin the success of a game session on the pacing mechanic. Both my games you mentioned have a kind of pacing mechanic, but they're not what the game's "about." So the game still works regardless of the how the die mechanics dictate the length of the game.

Well, I have two responses to that:

1) The game Paul's talking about above is "about" the changing of the Conclusion.  That's pretty directly what it's about, by my reading of the above.  So I think that it's worth thinking this through.  Certainly, the situation where the players are "behind" and have to face a certain number of losses before they can hope to have an impact isn't so bad.  But if I were a player and the situation were such that any stated attempt to alter the Conclusion was assured of success then, for me, that would rob the game of much of its impact.  If the game tells me (as I think it does) that the purpose of play is a struggle to alter the destiny of the Setting and then I do poorly in the struggle and the game "rewards" me by saying that I now have carte blanche to achieve that alteration in destiny, then I would feel that to be a legitimate hole in the mechanics.

2) With regard to your games, Jared, I have mixed feelings.  Based on a few instances of running it myself, and one time of playing it at SGB, the play structure of Inspectres seems to be:

"Wacky hijinks ensue"
Repeat as necessary
Last huzzah

where each humorous event riffs off the last until someone notices that we're out of tokens and it's time for a final blaze of silliness.  This works well with the light tone of the game and the freewheeling narrative sharing.  It also works fine across multiple sessions because the "counter" resets every session, so once you know how to gauge things for a single session there's no real further issue or creep over time.

As far as Lacuna goes, however, I do have a problem with the lack of guidance on roll granularity and pacing.  (I only have the First Attempt and my one experience of play (with you in the GM's chair) to gauge by, so I may be missing something.)  It seems to me that the dice in Lacuna merely dictate how much of a finite resource of still-in-it-ness I have to expend in order to achieve success in the current task.  That means my tradeoffs are almost all success now vs success later, or even success now vs getting to play later.  But (for me) this makes the structure of play too linear and the choices aren't very interested.  And, because you've rooted those choices in *every* conflict roll in a much deeper way than they are rooted in Inspectres it makes Lacuna not very attractive for me to play, alas.

Yes, this is my personal aesthetic baggage, but I hope it's not too esoteric as to be useful feedback for Paul.  Apologies if any of this constitutes topic drift.  I wont' raise this stuff any more in this discussion.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #16 on: December 15, 2006, 11:14:24 AM »

Hey Graham,

Check out my response to Eero, is the moral agency of the characters clear now? They can choose to trade human complexity for the power to possibly avert a lurid and disturbing future event.

I think I'm going to stick with World, Flesh, Devil, and my definitions of them. My first notes for the game used Body, Mind, Spirit, but I set those aside in favor of these because they suit my personal inner cosmology better, and because a simple upside of the Creative Commons license is that folks who want different aesthetics for conflict subdivisions can do ShareAlike adaptations of the game without even asking permission.

It's interesting that you think a player only bottoming out one Expression is uninteresting. To me what's interesting is seeing a player choose between iconic agency and human complexity. And that latter choice is what you're describing as uninteresting. My thinking is that as gamemaster I'll be looking for early play to telegraph which way a player is leaning, and then I'll hit him with scenes and conflicts that push him the other way. If he's Niche-ifying, and leaning toward agency, I'll hit him with non-Niche situations of personal relevance. And if I see him choosing to increase the Inevitability of The Conclusion, then I'll hit him with stuff that's in his Niche. Do you think it won't work?

And yes, that second sentence in the Assured Success section should read "Niche does not contribute."

Thanks,

Paul
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #17 on: December 15, 2006, 11:35:57 AM »

Hey Troy,

Yeah, thinking about my example Circumstances and Conclusion, faeries and tigers would be right out. I think I need a rule that requires the characters be faithful to the setting. And as you suggest, maybe it's as simple as giving the GM the power to force a negotiation. But I wouldn't mind something a bit more concrete if it's possible, along the lines of "underline a word in the Circumstances". But I can't see how that particular requirement would solve the problem. So the player underlines Cathavaia and writes a Niche that they're a thousand year old Klingon warrior living in Cathavaia.

Any thoughts?

Thanks,

Paul
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #18 on: December 15, 2006, 12:18:46 PM »

What do you think, can you see how my example is less...high up? I want to say, "Write it to expose the personality of the conflict, like the best narration you hear on The History Channel. Not like an encyclopedia entry." But I'm not sure that'll be a broadly effective explanation. How would you explain it?

I see it, I think. What you have in your example is Situation, fully fleshed and ready for the characters. I limited myself to just general paraphrasing and focusing of the Setting in my example. Would you say that this is correct? Furthermore, when you write in the rules that ""Prior to chargen the gamemaster needs to dig into the larger setting material and focus his interest for the game onto specific circumstances of dramatic social trespass.", can it be equally well written in jargon as "The GM molds an interesting preliminary Situation based on the Setting"?

Specifically, in your example, the following paragraphs are Setting:
Halymn
The Eggs of Etiwr
The Ordo Parvulus
Cathavaia
The Gulo
while The Siege and Creit are Situation initiated by the princess getting ill. What I'd like to make really clear is that your intent really is that the GM creates the Situation in this manner.

Makes sense to me. What you're saying here, if I understand right, is that the GM first creates a Situation, and characters are then created in relation to it. Compare with DiV, for instance, where the GM likewise creates a Situation framework in Town Creation, but the characters are created independently of it. In that game both the Town and the characters are created in relation to the Setting as presented in the book, and their interconnecting is achieved through that Setting-based connection. Here you're saying that the Situation is created and presented publicly first, and characters are then created to fit it. I've played many games in this manner succesfully, so why not.

(For the theory-heads: yes, I know that Situation = Character + Setting, but you'll note that Paul already has NPCs in action in his write-up. That allows it to be a pre-created Situation, in fact.)

Quote
You also didn't connect Thurma's Annotations to The Conclusion as the text suggests, and that has me thinking about reworking that attachment requirement.

Well, I kinda intended to connect: Thurma has a way of life and is ready to die, both of which words are present in the Conclusion. Perhaps you intented for the connection to be firmer, not just spun off single words?

Quote
My intent is for the character's Niche to represent effectiveness and agency relative to The Conclusion, such that the lowering of World, Flesh, and Devil scores for Niche effectiveness is a process of reducing human complexity and becoming more iconic. It's the transition from Robin of Loxley to Robin Hood, from human to an iconic entity uniquely empowered to change the course of societal events.

This is important, and I totally missed it previously. That's what I mean by not getting the nuances.

Considering the above, should you have some manner of getting more Annotations? I know they're not very powerful, but psychologically I could see a benefit in the character getting new Annotations out of how the story progresses - the player could just write stuff down on the way as a kind of short-hand of how the character entangles in the Situation. This would be a (ultimately false) kind of a reward system for a character that is refusing the iconic direction. It would also increase the "human complexity" in a very organic manner, as the player chooses what is worth writing down.

Quote
Except the World, Flesh, and Devil scores are just numbers. For Thurma you gave them descriptors, because I think you intuited their association with a character's human complexity, but that's not in the rules. What's in the rules for human complexity is the Annotations. Except now I'm starting to think the attachment between the Niche and The Circumstances and the Annotations and The Conclusion is garbled. Your Thurma and my own example Conclusion have me doubting whether there's enough in a Conclusion for Annotations that support a diverse cast of characters and give complexity to an individual character. Could you write Annotations for a diverse cast of uniquely interesting Cathavaian and Parvulus characters from my example Conclusion? Perhaps both the Niche and the Annotations should be based on The Circumstances?

Interestingly enough, coming on the thread after a week, I remembered the rules as having the Annotations based on Circumstances. I had to check the see what you're writing about.

Well, I'll sketch some characters for your example, just what comes easily:
Purghinn, the brother of princess Geghttia. Familial relationship is an obvious Annotation.
Pasph, a masterful doctor and a secret master poisoner. The Annotation here is his skill in perhaps helping the princess or providing the poison for the deed to come.
Sav, an Ordo Parvulus knight. The Annotation is easy to connect, as he might be one of those ultimately sent to do the deed.
Strietan, the general leading the siege. The Annotation is his connection to the military situation.

Hmm... that's all I got. I could try some kind of Ordo Parvulus agitation officer in charge of indoctrinating people to try suicide missions, but as Ordo is so inhuman and fanatical it seems to me that they have little need for it. If I had to make a fifth character, I'd have to think or stretch a bit, in other words.

My basic question concerning the above is really whether a simple "connection" is enough. Are all of the above good characters simply by the virtue of having some connection with the Conclusion? Perhaps, I don't know.

On the other hand, it kind of seems to me that you might have the relationship turned around from what comes naturally: shouldn't the Niche of the character be connected to the "adventure" at hand (Conclusion), to ensure that his is a relevant archetype to the story? And likewise, isn't the "human complexity" residing in the general setting (Circumstances), not the brief Conclusion? One reason for why I wrote the Niche long and Annotations short with my example was that there's plenty of material in the Circumstances of Dragon Pass, but only a little in the focal statement of the Conclusion.

Otherwise I agree that there might be some murk in the relationship Circumstances, Annotations and Conclusion have. Best found out in playtest, I expect.

Quote
2. And yes, if I've bottomed out in Devil and World, I can't try to change the future with either of them. And if I'm bottomed out in Flesh as well, I can't try to change the future at all. The mechanic implies that fully changing the future will require the efforts of more than one individual.

That part is cool, but it also means that there actually is no reason to drop yourself to zero in the third endeavor, apart from wanting to succeed in some important conflicts that come after you've fired off your two shots at changing the Conclusion. This becomes a bit of a break-point resource-wise, because it's to the character's benefit to maximize one endeavor and use the other two for zeroing (assuming a purely Conclusion-centered agenda on the player). I don't really know if that's a serious problem, just sayin'.

Quote
It's interesting that you think a player only bottoming out one Expression is uninteresting. To me what's interesting is seeing a player choose between iconic agency and human complexity. And that latter choice is what you're describing as uninteresting. My thinking is that as gamemaster I'll be looking for early play to telegraph which way a player is leaning, and then I'll hit him with scenes and conflicts that push him the other way. If he's Niche-ifying, and leaning toward agency, I'll hit him with non-Niche situations of personal relevance. And if I see him choosing to increase the Inevitability of The Conclusion, then I'll hit him with stuff that's in his Niche. Do you think it won't work?

Ah, this is key for trying to GM this thing. I'm most likely going to try to run The Niche Engine next Tuesday with some teens and the Finnish rpg Heimot. Any other advice?

***
A stray thought: if I understand correctly the Conclusion assumes that the GM will be taking sides, and hard, on the central issue of play. The job of the GM basicly seems to be to sell the idea that the Conclusion as written is "bad", so as to engage the players in the mechanics. I guess he could flip-flop after getting the players convinced to make Inevitability rise a bit, too. But at the beginning, what he presents as the Conclusion should rather objectively be bad, otherwise there's a bit of a question as to what the characters are even doing in the story. In your example, for instance: it'd be pretty difficult to relate to that if it proves right from the start that the princess is an ugly bitch who deserves to die.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #19 on: December 15, 2006, 12:30:36 PM »

Hey Robert,

Thanks for working the Imperative/Inevitability mechanics. You've got me thinking the game might be missing a rule: after a recasting attempt, whether it's successful or not, Imperative is reset to 0.

Paul
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« Reply #20 on: December 15, 2006, 01:05:09 PM »

And...I think I need a higher starting value for the Inevitability. Otherwise players start characters with a World, Flesh, or Devil Expressions of 1, bottom it out in their first Niche scene, and then call for a recasting. A concerted effort on the part of the players could end the whole thing in seven or eight scenes. What do you think makes sense as a starting value for the Inevitability? Some calculation...or perhaps setting it equal to the highest World, Flesh, or Devil Expression across the cast of characters?

Paul
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #21 on: December 15, 2006, 03:31:12 PM »

And...I think I need a higher starting value for the Inevitability. Otherwise players start characters with a World, Flesh, or Devil Expressions of 1, bottom it out in their first Niche scene, and then call for a recasting. A concerted effort on the part of the players could end the whole thing in seven or eight scenes. What do you think makes sense as a starting value for the Inevitability? Some calculation...or perhaps setting it equal to the highest World, Flesh, or Devil Expression across the cast of characters?

I'm going to blabber about this with a bit of math and bad modelling. Skip to the end for the short answer.

Assuming one conflict per scene, one scene per character per "round" of play, each player will get one opportunity to either raise Imperative (losing the conflict) or lower an attribute (auto-win by Niche) or raise Inevitability (auto-win outside Niche) each round. Assuming the players are optimizing for resolution, what they will do is lose a lot and lower their attributes. Let's do some thinking on it:

Optimizing players will always go for the Niche auto-resolution if they can, at least if it's with an attribute they want to lower (which is all of them, as the optimizing player only cares about the Conclusion, not the cost of getting there). If they can't, they'll want to lose (to raise Imperative), meaning that they'll use a low attribute. I'd say this means the optimal attribute spread is 1/1/5, as it means that two thirds of the time you're using an attribute that's easy to zero and easy to lose with. Assuming you have choice in using the attributes with clever application, you'll be using one of your weak attributes practically all the time.

What the above means is that each turn the players are either going to zero or getting Imperative. Let's arbitrarily say that 50% of the first round conflicts will involve the character's Niche and allow a lowering. So with N players Imperative will be at roughly N/3 (as some of those rolls will actually give the player the win, despite low attributes) after everybody gets one scene, and half of the players will have zeroed one attribute, ready to Recast. Let's just say that the players will continue taking auto-successes even after zeroing in one attribute for simplicity's sake, and also assume that the Niches will keep on appearing 50% of the time. So each round Imperative will increase by N/3 and 2N/3 attributes will go down.

Because the expected value for a player dice roll is somewhere around 1.5+Attribute while GM die roll will be 3.5(+Inevitability), in a Recast situation the players will want to have at least 2 points advantage, preferably 3. Getting more isn't necessary (although nice if they can get it), as the players don't care if one of them fails, others can still try. This allows us the calculate how long the game goes on before the first Recast attempt, if Inevitability starts at 0:
N=2 -> 3 rounds (as they gather 2 points of Imperative)
N=3 -> 2 rounds (ditto)
N=4 -> 1-2 round (depending on the exact ratio of Niche-situations and rolling)
N=5 -> 1 round (a bit over 1, but close)
N=6 -> 1 round
...

As we can see, it is indeed very quick to start Recasting. What's worse, with more players it's even quicker. How does increasing Inevitability affect this? Simply: each point of Inevitability requires the players to raise Imperative by one point, so it requires one extra failure. So if we want to give N players one more round of play, we'll want N/3 points extra Inevitability. Of course after the first couple of rounds the players will have more than enough attributes at 0, at which point they'll only go for the failures. So let's say after three rounds each player has 1-2 attributes at zero, and they'll just stop auto-succeeding and rather try to lose at dice. At that point they'll start racking 2N/3 or so Imperative per round.

Now, how long do we want the game to take? From playing similar one session nar carpet bomb stuff (including a really nice zombie game I concocted last week) I'd say that you'll need around three rounds of scenes to establish protagonism and roles in the story at a minimum. Of course, if the game is supposed to have less intensive scenes, less player skill involved and no hard scene framing, then it's considerably more. But let's say 3 rounds. So our target is that the players will play four rounds before the first recast, so they'll have to spend three rounds to get Imperative up and one round to see who's actually going to do the Recast. Or something like that. Let's correlate the number of players with beginning Inevitability (X) to get some numbers. I'll round down this time.

X:N=2N=3N=4N=5N=6
032111
153322
254332
364433
465443
575544

So according to this it would seem that if we wanted the game to last about 4 rounds before the first Recast, we'd want Inevitability to start at 1 for two players, 2 for three players, 3 for four players, four for five players and five for six players. (The table seems very symmetric about it, but don't be suckered, it's an illusion of rounding down. Some of those numbers are definitely to the small side.) For our purposes this is very good, because we have a very simple formula: starting Inevitability should be equal to (number of players)-1 (not counting GM). Simple, and ensures that the game takes roughly the same number of rounds for any number of players, which is good, because then all players are getting an appropriate amount of turns.

Of course, here we have the problem of extreme assumptions: the above assumptions have the players going for Recast singlemindedly and in total cooperation (so far so that they'll all opt for 1/1/5 attribute spread), which is not very realistic. What we have here is only the practical minimum of how many rounds the players will take with each value of X to get enough Imperative to Recast. Assuming the players have less optimal attributes and play with more concern for the fiction, it's easy to lower that starting value even lower.

Then again, you (Paul) might think that four rounds between Recasts is too short or long, so the numbers can be fiddled to get whatever is appropriate. Perhaps Inevitability = number of players (not counting GM) is a good formula for playtest purposes, at least. Combined with the idea that Imperative drops to zero for all Recast attempts it means that there will be perhaps 5 rounds of play (as the players won't be so single-minded) between Recasts, for a total of around fifteen rounds for the whole game. Sounds good to me.

***
The problem set is considerably simpler, by the way, if you want the total amount of scenes to be roughly similar between different numbers of players. So the game would last a given amount of hours each time, for instance, instead of giving each player the same amount of playtime. To achieve that you'll want to have the amount of scenes the same each time, regardless of N. It might not be obvious that in this case X, the starting value of Inevitability, is almost equal to a constant; as each player increases the value of Imperative by roughly the same amount on his turn, the number of turns before reaching a given value stays the same regardless of the number of players. For example, with X = 0 the game will last for roughly six scenes between Recast attempts as the players push Imperative up a couple of points. If all Recasts succeed, the game will last around 20 scenes.

***
Looking at Paul's suggested solution of having X = highest attribute is interesting, as it forces the min-maxer to consider turns wasted in that manner. Assuming that the players have to take one turn to drop an attribute or one turn to get Imperative (to counteract the high beginning Inevitability, if they opt for a 1/1/5 spread), the optimal spread of attributes will be far from obvious. Clearly all players should go for the same set of attributes, but whether it's more efficient to start with disbalanced attributes and work Imperative up or balanced attributes (best you can do is 2/2/3, which still gives you starting Inevitability of 3) and work the attributes down, is a nasty question depending on how often Niche really comes up, as well as the number of players. Very nice.

However, the game will be quite long with Inevitability between 3 and 5 (which is what this amounts to), especially as in a practical group somebody will take that 1/1/5 spread anyway. As can be seen from the above table, the length of the game in rounds will be pretty variable, and with few players perhaps too long. I don't know. It's easy to calculate that with Inevitability 5 there'll be around 15 scenes between each Recast attempt at minimum.

Paul's solution does have the benefit of removing the uncertainty caused by point spreads, though, so it's preferable in that manner. It's too complex, but you could combine the best of both worlds by using the formula of X = (number of players)+(highest attribute)-5. That would give us Starting Inevitability between 0 (two players, both 2/2/3) and 5 (five players, at least one 1/1/5). I'm pretty confident that you'd get nice numbers with that, especially as you can finetune the -5 term to suit preferences.

The promised short answer:

If you want each player to have roughly the same amount of play time regardless of number of players (five scenes or so between each Recast attempt, say), the simple formula of Starting Inevitability = Number of players does the job. If you want each game to last roughly the same amount of time regardless of number of players, the even simpler formula Starting Inevitability = X does it. If you don't mind a complex formula, Starting Inevitability = (number of players)+(highest attribute)-5 gives a very fine control over how long the game takes in terms of mechanics, and the choices made by players at chargen do not enter it.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #22 on: December 16, 2006, 06:41:13 AM »

Looking at Paul's suggested solution of having X = highest attribute is interesting, as it forces the min-maxer to consider turns wasted in that manner. Assuming that the players have to take one turn to drop an attribute or one turn to get Imperative (to counteract the high beginning Inevitability, if they opt for a 1/1/5 spread), the optimal spread of attributes will be far from obvious. Clearly all players should go for the same set of attributes, but whether it's more efficient to start with disbalanced attributes and work Imperative up or balanced attributes (best you can do is 2/2/3, which still gives you starting Inevitability of 3) and work the attributes down, is a nasty question depending on how often Niche really comes up, as well as the number of players. Very nice.

I realized last night that strictly speaking the above isn't quite right due to a breakpoint in the works. Let's look at the possible attribute spreads:
1/1/5 - what the minmaxer would use
1/2/4 - note that the maximal attribute is one point lower, but there's one less attribute at one; so far, so good
1/3/3 - again, maximal attribute has come down two points, while the minimal is still at 1; not so good
2/2/3 - the balanced option; note that the maximal is the same as above, resulting in a breakpoint

Considering the factual choices the players have in distributing attributes, it seems clear that there will be several attributes at 1 in all groups; three of four possible attribute spreads have a 1. In that sense it actually seems that the highest attribute among the group actually has very little to do with the amount of low attributes, they'll be there anyway. From that viewpoint a more relevant formula would be the amount of 1s in the group, perhaps: Starting Inevitability = (number of attributes at 1). This is very clean, scales with the number of players as well as amount of minmaxing,  and on average gives similar results as the (number of players) formula I suggested earlier; as two possible attribute spreads have only one 1, one has two and one has none, the expected average Starting Inevitability stays cleanly at number of players (assuming the different spreads are equally popular, of course). Even if it doesn't, it's not a problem, as the minmaxers draw Inevitability up by choosing 1/1/5 while the possible conformists pick 2/2/3, taking Inevitability down. In other words, both extremes result in a roughly similar length for the game.

Yeah, pretty nice. But that's enough about Starting Inevitability, a pretty secondary concern anyway.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #23 on: December 19, 2006, 04:54:11 PM »

As an aside from mechanical concerns, I'm curious what people think of the example Circumstances and Conclusion; I know the relationships between the Conclusion, Niche, Circumstances, and Annotations need to be rethought, so no mechanics, just tell me what kind of character you'd create if you were going to play in the setting...

Thanks,

Paul
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And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
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