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[Illumination] Major system collapse

Started by Filip Luszczyk, January 04, 2007, 10:52:06 AM

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Filip Luszczyk

Saturday's playtest brought me to some conclusions about what I have now and where I'm going.

I have a generally workable system that is fun to play, as long as the players want to maintain a party mentality and engage in some mechanical competition with the GM. Looking back to the previous playtests, they were kind of like D&D - only, I had the Reality sheet and Aspects instead of the dungeon map and monsters, the group was moving between scenes/Events instead of rooms, there were bidding contests instead of tactical combats and players were searching for opportunities to change their Ideals instead of treasure chests. Since the system pretty much works with the right GM's approach and group dynamics, I could base an entertaining dungeon crawlish game on it, only without dungeons maybe.

But I can't use it for my Mage heartbreaker.

About the playtest. I continued the Rio game with Kamil, but we started a bit late and we weren't thinking too clearly. Come to think about it, I probably wasn't in the right mood for running a game, and probably I wouldn't have done it if it wouldn't mean missing a playtest opportunity. We practically ditched narration and went on with the conflicts, one after one. During the previous session, we did three Events in around 3 hours, this time we crammed more than three in an hour or so. Action went kind of "explosively", with Kamil's character taking over the city near the end, joining the carnival on a platform made from the bodies of killed soldiers. He raised his Power Ideal to five, on the expense of  Community again, and finished on the brink of Apotheosis (it would allow him to easily realize his character's ambitions on a global scale). Nice. But other than that, a lot of things didn't come out as it should.

Basically, there is currently lots of everything in the game, but not enough of what's really important. And my current rules for what's important simply don't work.

I can just as well start almost from scratch.

So, what do I really want from this game?

This makes me go back to my design goals. So, I want to write my Mage heartbreaker. As such, it should have everything that was good in Mage (only better ^^). And none of the stuff that wasn't good in Mage. The source inspiration is problematic, though, as Mage had many facets. It seems dubious that any two people could see it as the same game. For me, the good parts were:

1).Dynamic magic, with its potential for unbounded creativity in solving problems and doing cool stuff. I want Illumination to have this element of "figuring out how to use reality shaping powers in an interesting way". This is very important to me, since more than half of the fun I had with Mage came from maneuvering in the Sphere system and exploring the possibilities. This includes, to some extent, figuring out how to do things coincidentally.

2).Bizarre kitchen sink setting with all the cool locations and denizens. Pure awesomeness, with a place for everything and anything. Over-the top action, pulp adventure, psychedelic trips, everything goes. No such thing as "too much" or "too weird". This point basically boils down to having infinite possibilities. The "expectation of the unexpected" created a sense of wonder - or rather a specific kind of it - that simply can't be found in more rigid setting (hence my great disappointment with the Awakening).

3).The whole "belief is power" thing, that added some philosophical/metaphysical dimension to the game and made it possible to explore some interesting themes in addition to all the coolness. In fact, this is probably the key aspect of the game as it underlies both previous points.

Without having all these three things in the game, I won't have my Mage heartbreaker. The problem is, it may be impossible to squeeze them all into one game. Even if, it may be impossible to focus on all this stuff equally while playing, because of the possible incoherency. During the brainstorming that came after the Saturday's playtest, I even had a funny idea of making a system in which the whole point of play would be prioritizing these three aspects ^^ The only thing they have in common is "infinite possibilities" or maybe "everything goes" - but even in this, their focus completely differs.

The first point is especially problematic for me. I think everyone I know either ignored Mage's mechanics entirely and went freeform, or fudged so extensively that in practice it equaled going freeform. Myself, I tried to run Mage on a few different mechanics, including modified Exalted and some conflict resolution systems, but none worked right when it came to Sphere magick. I either had some real mess with the mechanical interpretation of effects, or the effects felt like they were only color (without any real need for the "figuring out..." step).

Now, the most satisfying Mage sessions I played in were with a GM who was fudging everything, all the time (he tried to hide it, but it was pretty obvious). At the same time he was giving us a great freedom when it came to trying stuff. Then things were either working or not. The thing is, there was this sense (a "sense", mind you) that it mattered what exactly I tried to do - even if the GM allowed only for things that didn't mess with his plans, it felt like it were the clever ideas that passed. Dunno, maybe I was projecting while assessing my own ideas myself back then. But I think the assessment element is important here.

As for the things I that were present in Mage that I don't want in my heartbreaker, these would be:

1).The whole GM's fiat thing - or maybe rather unconstrained GM's fiat, since fiat itself is probably inherent to the assessment thing (a difficult issue, and I'm not sure if I'm able to solve the conflict). Also, Paradox as an almighty GM's lighting bolt, 10d10 damage, no save allowed.

2).Mage's setting tied to the World of Darkness at large was... stupid. Although almost everything that came after Mage fit Mage better than Mage fit what was before (hmm...), Mage was still out of place in the big picture. Or maybe rather the big picture was out of place as the frames of Mage. Conflicting perspectives, and I don't mean character's or faction's but whole game's perspectives. Conflicting atmosphere and themes. Come to think about it, Mage (and I'm thinking specifically about 2nd edition, non-revised) was probably the most optimistic game in the whole WoD line.

Pushing the supernatural into the shadows of mundane world and stressing the whole masquerade thing - I don't see a need for this. It's not like I want to have reality shaping characters and evade changing the status quo at the same time.

Also, too much setting details = no good. I think I'm treating Mage's setting more like a source of cool color and a springboard for ideas, and I don't really give a damn about the richness of the metaplot or the encyclopedic treatment of everything.

3).A lot of mystic(k)al junk. Avatars or familiars for example, or even weaving everything around magick with k. I don't see any need to somehow squeeze all this stuff into every single paradigm. I'd rather stick to the "what you believe, happens", and make everything else a matter of style. I want a game about shaping the reality and about conflicting beliefs, not about magic(k)al practices themselves.

Filip Luszczyk

Where do I go from here?

Now, I'm analyzing what I have and toying with some ideas.

The new Vision rules didn't work well in the end. They didn't, because even after reducing the number of Beliefs, these rules were too bothersome and didn't come up often enough to have any real impact on the session. Kamil commented that they didn't come up since I already had Substances and Methods, hmm...

Conclusion - out the window with these rules. I need to make Vision mechanically central to the game. Probably I'll base characterization on the Beliefs, and go back to longer list. If I give Vision a similar mechanical role to DitV traits, players will probably start to use it.

Stats - Illumination and Confidence have no real mechanical impact. They determine starting pools, and then lie on the character sheet doing and telling practically nothing. Out the window with them.

Aspects - after the fourth playtest, I see that they don't fall down as often as they should. Choosing the highest Aspect for almost every task is a no brainer. Kamil also pointed out that high enough Aspects are too powerful - their impact on the results of the challenges becomes to big in relation to spending resources. So, out the window with them, too.

It occurred to me I could "merge" Vision, Stats and Aspects, by giving ratings to the Beliefs and basing resource generation on them. And the more I think about it, the more I like the idea. This wouldn't even change much when it comes to characterization, since Aspects could be written down as Beliefs. After all, in Illumination the character is good at shooting because he believes he is, and it goes for every possible trait - so this stuff can go under Self Beliefs. Lenses are strongly associated with Shaping Beliefs already. Ties are not really needed, as relationships are not a key thing in this game (and they could be expressed as Others Beliefs just as well, e.g. the character wouldn't be associated with someone in a special way if they weren't believing there is such a connection between them).

So, Beliefs could produce tokens when the character experiences something that clashes with or validates them. Gaining proofs that the Belief is right, convincing others to it or having it disproved would generate either Illumination/Light or Confidence/Vim, probably no more than once per Event (so, changing the Belief would allow for using its value once more). Provided I stick to these two resource pools, that is. But I'm not sure if I need them. Currently, they differ in how they function on the story level, but most of the time both can be used to achieve the same end results.

I'm also toying with the idea of having Doubt as something similar to Development, only used to buy new Beliefs and change old ones. So maybe proving the Belief or converting someone could give its rating in tokens, doubting the Belief could give its rating in tokens and Doubt and having the Belief proven false and removed could give twice (or so) its rating in tokens and Doubt. Then, Doubt could be spent to buy new or change current Beliefs. Or something in these lines.

I'm not sure what to do with GM's Aspects, though. One idea I have is that the GM could define key Beliefs for the consensual Reality as a whole (and maybe a few key Beliefs for significant NPCs). This could even allow for representing some non-mundane paradigm that already dominates the Reality, basically highlighting the weirdness of the setting that I want. E.g. it would be possible to define a Reality in which belief that, say, skyship technologies work and vampires exist is common - consequently making these things a part of consensus. This in turn equals providing tools for setting creation - and at the same time diminishes the need to include an actual setting in the game (let's face it, I'm a No Myther and frontloaded setting is not my thing anyway). I'm still not certain how to solve the problem of resource generation by GM's Beliefs, as it would require different triggers than that of the players in order to be balanced.

Ideals - they draw a lot of attention. The problem is, the game is about the power of belief and shaping the reality, and character's drives, although important, are not to be so central. Out the window with Ideals. Again, they can just as well be expressed as Beliefs.

Trials are another matter. They tie the characters to the setting, but in the current rules they are problematic. As Kamil pointed out, there needs to be some real reason for the character's to follow Trials. Also, there is nothing that would tie the characters if the player's didn't maintain a party mentality - and however I look at it now, the game would break if the characters were not tied somehow. I'm thinking about completely reworking Trials. What occurred to me is that a network of common Trials tying the characters could work well. For example every character could share one Trial with every other character, and every such Trial would tie the pair to some outside setting element. At the same time, there would be a small number of additional Trials that would involve all the characters. Also, I think I should require that in every Event there was a level of Trial at stake.

Obviously, I would have to change the mechanics for Trials, possibly making them resource pools accessible for the GM (or for anyone involved in the Trial, or the like). But this in turn would increase the bookkeeping required, which is not good. I'm still not sure what to do with this.

Methods - I'm not sure if they belong in this game after all. Their role was to provide constraints on the characters shaping, therefore making the players maneuver in their options. The problem is, with conflict resolution there is no real need to work with them, since the right stakes often allow for achieving same end results without shaping. And I'm back with the "figuring out..." issue, as now I'm positive about having conflict resolution in this game.

I'm considering getting rid of Methods as shaping constraints and changing them into resource pools, replacing Light/Vim. At this point, I could assume that every action is in fact shaping, as it all hinges on the character believing he or she can do something (basically, it amounts to everyone having a Substance of own actions mastered automatically). So, whenever the character would be creating something, the player would bid tokens from Method of Making - no matter if it's about writing a letter or conjuring a starship out of thin air. Method of Reaching will be out of place if I go this route, and the remaining five methods are still too much. Three would be nice. I'm tempted to go for Stasis (for strengthening, protecting, healing and creating), Chaos (for changing, controlling and understanding) and Entropy (for weakening and destroying). That would allow for differentiating the pools on the basis of the desired effect, but I'm not sure how close it is to Urges from Nine Worlds (I don't think having too much in common with 9W would benefit this game). Also, I'm not sure whether to leave the GM with one resource or give him the same three pools (with all those changes I need to rework the currency flow completely anyway).

Substances - I'm struggling with myself. I really like the concept of Revelations, and I'd like to have some constraints for the characters. Still, the conflict resolution doesn't go well with the "figuring out..." thing and constraints. If I want to keep them, I need to find some way of tweaking them to really matter for the end results - and I'm totally out of clue. Also, I'd have to clearly differentiate Substances from cleverly expressed Shaping Beliefs (basically, Substances are "what?", Methods are "how?" and Beliefs are "why?"). Stressing that Shaping Beliefs can only explain why the Reality is affected, but not determine the exact scope of shaping could be enough. Or not.

One thing I certainly don't need after completely switching to conflict resolution are the limitations for character's actions based on capabilities. We didn't use them in practice anyway, so out the window with them.

Resolution generally works well. I think I could streamline it by removing damage, as Impact effects were slightly confusing and going through all the options was bothersome. Also, rules for Conditions could be improved, as it was sometimes unclear whether the Condition provides modifiers in a given challenge or not. I think I could actually merge Conditions and damage together, and make Conditions resource pools. It's kind of solving the prolem by reversing the procedure, as that way anyone could decide that the Condition applies by spending the points and strengthening the relevance in narration, not the other way. But again, bookkeeping.

There are some issues in the resolution area when it comes to shaping. Basically, the whole "figuring out..." thing. I need to make what the player attempts matter somehow and, going back to my experiences with the freeform Mage, the key is probably in GM's assessment. Maybe strengthening the use of zero bids could do - basically, I need to stress that the GM should zero-bid every time the player does something interesting. It may also be better if the player keeps his tokens in case of a zero bid, as this would remove the GM's temptation to use zero-bidding tactically and not as a reward. At the same time I can safely block zero bids for players. Michal pointed out there is some potential for abusing the rule in player vs. player conflicts, and almost the same tactical effect can be achieved by bidding a single token anyway. It's probably better if zero bids remain exclusively as a reward mechanic in the GM's hands.

I'm not sure if this alone solves the "figuring out..." issue, though.

I'm satisfied with how Peril works, only if I get rid of Methods or change them into resource pools I'll have to base gaining Peril on something else. Also, it seems most of the shaping attempts are challenged anyway, so I can go with Spooky Fanboy's suggestion and make every shaping challenge produce some Peril (reducing amounts of Peril at the same time). After all, if there is no reason to challenge something, there is probably no reason to bother with Peril. I'll probably make it 1 Peril for subtle shaping, 2 peril for blatant and 3 for blatant with witnesses (and no Peril for approaching the challenge in a "mundane" way - this has an additional merit of clearly differentiating it from overt shaping).

So, I see a lot of changes to make, and I'm still not perfectly sure about all the specific solutions.

Christoph Boeckle

Hi Filip!

I sympathize with your "this is another game" revelation, happened to me as well. I guess it's a good way to learn, at the least, even if it can look like a waste of time at first.

I'm not at all up to speed with all your developments and your game, but seeing this post I was wondering if you read Vincent Baker's Fruitful Void idea, or Ron's "Incomplete Cube" analogy.

In my case it helped me streamline my design, focus the game and make it work better in actual play.


Hi Filip:

After reading through your post on your blog summarizing the rules as they were at that moment, I am interested in what you perceive as the role of Paradigm (to use the old Mage term) in your game.  That is, within the character's minds, do the game mechanics (substances, methods, etc.) of doing crazy mojo have a real meaning, or are they simply a mechanic to allow the players to do stuff and unconnected with whatever "reality" might mean to the characters. 

It seems, from reading your summary, that Vision is in some way analogous to a mechanical implementation of Paradigm.  In my own GM'ing of Mage, I found that Paradigm was just about the most important element of character conception, because it was Paradigm that differentiated in the fiction the various uses of magic.  Paradigm was a major way to avoid blandness.

On a separate issue, some rambling thoughts you can take or leave at your leisure:

Quote from: Filip Luszczyk on January 04, 2007, 10:52:06 AM
I want Illumination to have this element of "figuring out how to use reality shaping powers in an interesting way". This is very important to me, since more than half of the fun I had with Mage came from maneuvering in the Sphere system and exploring the possibilities. This includes, to some extent, figuring out how to do things coincidentally.

What makes "figuring out" possible and fun in a freeform magic system is at least one of three things: opposition, permission, or reward.  Lets say it is possible, mechanically, to strengthen another character by both the Method of Making and the Method of Changing.  Unless those two Methods differ vis a vis strengthening, either in the opposition that will be faced, or the difficulty in getting permission to use them, or the reward you receive by doing so, then it really doesn't matter which one you use, as the only difference is one of colour.  There is no "figuring out" necessary.

By opposition I mean that another player can determine the level of mechanical resistance to the magic you are trying to do based on the way you are trying to do it.  By permission I mean that in order to do things by magic in a certain way, you must have permission of some other player.  By reward I mean that another player can provide you a mechanical incentive to do magic in certain ways, or can provide you with a mechanical reward after the fact. 

Donjon and Zu magic in TSOY are heavy on opposition as the way to spice things; you can TRY pretty much anything with your magic words, but the GM sets the difficulty.  Mage, as well as TROS and Ars Magica, are heavy on permission.  Much of the permission is granted explicitly through a written document a priori (the sphere descriptions and paradox rules for Mage), but ultimately it all boils down to asking the GM "May I?"  I can't think of any freeform magic system that uses reward as the ONLY method to spice up the system, although all the above have elements of reward (in the form of extra dice or lower difficulty equivalents) for doing things in certain ways.

All three things are mechanical ways to encode another thing; entertainment.  A free-form magic system is only fun in so far as it allows you to ENTERTAIN at least one other person at the table.  No one is interested in playing a game where a player's use of magic only has to entertain that player; what about the rest of us?  The "figuring-out" you talk about above is, ultimately, figuring out how to entertain those players who are empowered to do so (typically the GM) so that they will reward you, give you permission, and/or minimally oppose you.  I use entertainment here in a very broad sense; realism, drama, humour, cleverness, absurdity, and other concepts may be a factor in how entertaining a particular action may be at a particular moment during a game. 

Continuing on from this thought, the system can be fun regardless of who is being entertained; it just takes at least one other player.  In both Mage and Donjon, that player is the GM, but that is certainly not a requirement.  It could be, from the use of the word "veto" in a couple of places in your summary, that you have already hit upon this idea, in which case I have wasted your time.  In the context of your summary, you could mechanize the entertainment feedback through permission (any player or combination of players can veto a particular use of magic), opposition (other players can contribute to oppose you somehow through bidding), or reward (some kind of PTA fan-mailish feedback loop, where players who do the most entertaining things with magic get the most of some resource). 

The reward concept seems to me fruitful ground for creating a truly unique free-form magic system, as I am not aware of anyone who has tried to use only reward for that purpose.  "Sure, you can do anything you like, but I can try to BRIBE you to do it in ways that I think are cool."

Like I said, rambling...
* Want to know what your fair share of paying to feed the hungry is?
* Want to know what games I like?

Filip Luszczyk


Although I haven't seen that discussion yet, I was familiar with the concept for some time, especially when it comes to its gamist application. One of the problems of my design is probably creating the right arena when it comes to using dynamic powers - the void I had in the playtests wasn't exactly the void I need.

Also, it's not that I'm totally dissatisfied with those rules. They were pretty workable, and with some tweaking I certainly could base a fun game on them - only, it's not what I currently want to design.


QuoteIt seems, from reading your summary, that Vision is in some way analogous to a mechanical implementation of Paradigm.  In my own GM'ing of Mage, I found that Paradigm was just about the most important element of character conception, because it was Paradigm that differentiated in the fiction the various uses of magic.  Paradigm was a major way to avoid blandness.

Yes, that's it, more or less. (at least as much as the old rules are concerned)

Vision is basically a Paradigm, and it's there mainly to produce fun color. Mechanically, if doing something can't be squeezed into the boundaries of the Vision somehow, it's not possible for the player (but then, this is mostly a matter of narrating the process of shaping, and I'd say quite an amount of "stretching" is certainly acceptable). Also, Vision may be a food for the philosophical talk, but this is a secondary role for me.

Substances and Methods are tools for the players and there's nothing like that acknowledged in the character's mind. So it goes a bit further than Mage, as there is no concept of "Spheres" in the setting - only a multitude of crazy Visions.

One thing I want from the Vision is that it changed in play. Color it may be, I want it to be an evolving color. This is something that I didn't have with a purely descriptive Vision, and the new rules I tested in the last two sessions didn't really produce that effect. At this point I want to make Vision more central mechanically, so that it's not only the basis for shaping color, but also for the character color in general.

QuoteLets say it is possible, mechanically, to strengthen another character by both the Method of Making and the Method of Changing.  Unless those two Methods differ vis a vis strengthening, either in the opposition that will be faced, or the difficulty in getting permission to use them, or the reward you receive by doing so, then it really doesn't matter which one you use, as the only difference is one of colour.  There is no "figuring out" necessary.

Yes, this is the problem I've been getting whenever I tried Mage with some conflict resolution - no mechanical strengthening for "figuring out...". Since I don't want to delve into detailed mechanical differentiation of the effects (this would invariably led to some effects being more attractive than the others, and diminish a need to try anything new after finding the "dream combo"), I'm analysing those freeform games I've been in and looking for a way to create mechanics that would produce similar experience.

So, I have permission on the Vision level, but this is a minimal thing due to the "narration stretching" possibilities.

My initial approach, when I still worked with those task resolution concepts, was heavy opposition - but during the playtests I found myself instinctively bidding depending on how much I wanted to block player's intent, not how difficult I've found the feat itself. So, I ditched those concepts, as it obviously wasn't a natural way for me to go. Actually, now that I think about it, adjudicating difficulty is one of the most troublesome things for me, whatever I run - hence my preference for games that don't require it or budget the GM.

What I currently have relies strongly on reward, indeed, and I intend to enforce it more. Even if in those freeform sessions everything hinged on permission/opposition, I've been probably getting the "sense" of rewarding going on (the whole "assessment" thing I've been writing about). The reward I think came mainly from other players ("wow, cool!") and probably from myself (I think there was some projecting involved), rather than from the GM.

So, I have zero bids that amount to rewarding the player with an automatic success and an amount of "xp", and a fanmail mechanic that gives other players an option of rewarding cool stuff. Whether that's enough, I'm not sure, and only further playtesting can tell. I certainly need to make those rewards stronger than they are currently, but I'm reworking the whole game anyway.