Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Salience of challenge types

So yesterday, Dan finally succumbed to my pestering and ran an alpha playtest of Parkour Murder Simulator From the Shadows for us, because I really wanted to try it before fleeing the continent. And much fun was had.

A recording is in the bag and will hopefully turn into a podcast over the next few months; I have a bit of a backlog, and what with liking to comment on episodes and not wanting to run short of stuff, even if I get the editing done this week it'll still be a good while before it surfaces.

Anyway, something that came up during play and we discussed at the end was the role of magical obstacles. To explain a bit, we'd decided to test the game out using the classic assassin-prostitute trope beloved of fantasy, and devised a death cult within an order of temple prostitutes. So magic was definitely a thing, and I took my character specifically in that direction: I invented a part-dragon called Elspeth Salamander* and ran with the hacker thing, making a sorcerous hacker/investigation/security fixer archetype who would be able to magically overcome obstacles, break through wards, scry out secrets and so on, as well as kicking people in the face and vaulting small buildings. It's worth emphasising that all PCs are automatically well ninje, so character definition specifically establishes what your flavour of ninje and role in the team is.

*For which The Dragon with the Girl Tattoo is probably to blame. No, that isn't a typo.

Although we played in a fantasy setting, we didn't actually run into any pre-existing magic. When we got into the mark's house, I actually ended up specifying that I would scan for and disable the wards in his private chambers, flipping them to keep the guards out rather than to trigger when we attacked - essentially creating an obstacle for myself to disarm. As far as I know that was the only lot of actual magic in the game (Dan may have devised more that didn't come up). Your skills are defined by the kind of obstacles they tackle, not by the kind of thing you do, so unless skill-appropriate obstacles are present, a skill is not relevant.

This is absolutely not a criticism of Dan. Running first games is hard, running a game you're writing and that partly exists only in your head must be even harder, and keeping track of exactly what abilities PCs took is a lot on top of that. It's also very much the kind of game where players create most of the gameworld - there's world creation phases, plus some very fun flashback mechanics where you add elements that your character researched or scouted out earlier, and I took extensive advantage of this. It felt very natural for me to suggest obstacles to my own goals, so this was just one more occasion.

The aspect of this that I actually thought was postworthy is the relative salience and organicness of different types of obstacles.

Physical obstacles are very very intuitive. We automatically think about them when considering the difficulty of doing something in real life. Stretching that consideration to cover imagined situations is very little effort. At the most basic level,** if you want to get inside a building, there are walls and things in the way, and we have to consider how easy it is for us personally to enter through the door - are we just allowed in?, is the door locked?, do we have a key?, and so on. Distance is another obvious obstacle. We assume that important buildings will have guards and locks, and that valuables will be stored in safes. Patrols must be hidden from, and noises not made.

**I massively overuse this phrase.

Social obstacles are also an ingrained assumption, because they are again a very real day-to-day issue. If we're playing beggars, we don't tend to assume that they can go and talk to the king. If we want information about an NPC's habits, we assume it will take effort to get that information out of their servants or business contacts. We assume that guards must be distracted or charmed, and that planting useful lies requires some skill. These parallel the real-life difficulties of negotiating with colleagues, asking favours, booking appointments and so on.

In a modern-day or sci-fi setting, we tend to bear technological obstacles in mind, though maybe a bit less automatically than physical or social ones. Surveillance devices, alarms, firewalls and passwords are easy enough to slip in. We're familiar with the sorts of places these appear, both in real life and from fiction, so I think these feel natural. It would seem strange if the bank vault didn't have security cameras, or there was no hacking protection on the EvilCorp servers.

In contrast, I think that even in a highly fantastical setting, it's quite easy not to think about general supernatural obstacles. Magic can very easily exist only in the form of monsters and of specific spells used by wizards during combat encounters. This reminds me somewhat of my posts about magical castle defences. Essentially I think the difference is that we don't deal with magic in real life, so aren't used to thinking about it as a systematic, holistic thing.

This isn't necessarily a problem. In some circumstances, as in our game above, it can mean that some skillsets don't get much airtime. I partly noticed this because I repeatedly realised that some social skills would have been useful in the things I wanted to do, whereas there weren't obvious obstacles to test my sorcerous mettle against. What tended to happen was that I'd actively think up magical things to do to further our agenda, often in the form of research; however, the more defensive uses of my abilities were always on social (not giving the game away) or physical (hiding, fighting) skills. While I didn't suffer in practice, this could have disadvantaged my character compared to those focused on those skillsets, and is definitely something worth attention during game design. Dan mentioned having ideas for slot-in defenses that could have been occult wards in this case, and something like that seems promising.

It occurs to me I write quite a few posts about ways in which my characters are disadvantaged, which I think says something about the kinds of characters I tend to make...

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