Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Worlds Unbuilt

Recently I threw out an idea for running a D&D game over VOIP, since I'm finding it difficult to travel to see the usual friends. Someone else suggested running some Wild Talents, and that got some traction (including that all of us are playing a certain amount of D&D anyway), so tonight we attempted to put together the basis of a game, also on VOIP (Ventrilo, specifically).

It really didn't work.

Basically I just wanted to waffle a bit about why that might be.

So Wild Talents is more or less a GURPS for superheroes. It's more or less completely customisable - even the superpowers are build component by component using a point-buy system with benefits and flaws that modify cost, although there are a few samples in the book. It has no default setting. Although they talk about different takes and tones in the game, like full "four-colour" spandex-wearing romps, the base assumption is still clearly a fairly gritty one where supers might get their head shot off and collateral damage exists. I'm actually inclined to place it near The Authority in terms of superhero takes, although there's a wide variety of possible power levels, including the ability to snuff out the sun. It's actually not that difficult.

One of the problems was absolutely that I wasn't particularly enthused to begin with. I don't have a problem with superheroes, mind. The fact that I'd proposed a different game was undoubtedly part of it, and I'm not going to dismiss that. To a large extent though, my apathy was down to Wild Talents, and the fact that my head began to hurt quite a short way into reading it.

Wild Talents

It's probably not super-complex when you know it, but the game felt very front-loaded with stuff I, as a person wondering what this game would be like to play, really didn't want to have to care about. I think this is a problem with being generic. A White Wolf game does at least tend to start out (okay, once you either read or skip past many pages of gamefic) by introducing you to the setting, style, assumed tone and context of the game. Heck Demon: the Descent (about which I have been very mean on several occasions) does this really quite neatly on Page 20, after a mere 17 pages of fic. D&D does it. Shadowrun does it.

Because Wild Talents is generic, though, it can't do that. It doesn't have a setting, style, backstory or anything like that. It can't tell you what sort of person you are, or what sort of world you live in, or what kind of challenges you'll face, because that's up to the group. It can't even tell you whether this is an action-adventure romp, a tough military sci-fi game, a detective adventure with superpowers, or a White Wolfy game of interpersonal drama and angst.*

* and of course, doing arbitrary missions for mysterious people.

Instead, you begin with 20 pages of explanation about their dicepool system.

You might be thinking that's a lot, but because they need to explain the differences between human and superhuman stats, human and superhuman skills, how the dicepool determines both the magnitude and the speed of your effect, the shorthand they use for that, rolling single dice, not rolling, several completely optional rules, bell curves, two special additional kinds of dice that work differently, variable difficulty, negating dice in two different ways, giving up dice to modify your roll in some way, doing several things at once, those two special kinds of dice again, opposed rolls, fixed rolls, cooperative rolls and long-term actions, it takes quite a while.

Of course, that's not necessarily more than any other game, but it felt more somehow.

Even the character building section is dense. It doesn't actually feel to me like it walks you through building a character, and it certainly doesn't provide any kind of inspiration: it's a big checklist with some quite high-level discussion thrown in there, like the types of genre you might play in.

At this point, I desperately flicked to the Powers section, in the hope that like most games, a luscious set of superhuman abilities would inspire me. This was not to be. The problem was that powers are also custom-made. You don't simply have laser vision, for example. You build a Laser Vision power from the ground up, going through a series of steps that can approach Mandelbrot* levels of complexity. They have Power Qualities, Power Capacities, Extras and Flaws, and just introducing these takes ten pages. There's a big list of Extras and Flaws. The examples seem to spiral into things closely resembling the circuit diagrams I remember from school, or possibly a particularly challenging 20-man raid on Deephole Shrine or something.** They're stacking up things so you have an Always On power with an If/Only contingency so it triggesr when something happens and then that has an Attached rider so it actually acts as a switch for a completely different power that summons minions and you can attach powers to the minions that are your powers mechanically but only they can use them and when they use those something else happens and actually that power has a Variable Effect and it ignores things that ignore it and everything is MATHS.

Why can't I just have laser vision?

* I'm sure I'm misusing that, and maybe someone will explain how.

** Guess who never played an MMO.

Let me just say, I'm pretty sure you can get an infinite recursion loop of powers going.

But okay, breathe, this post is not about analysing Wild Talents, it's about worldbuilding.

Getting back to the point

Okay, so my lack of enthusiasm aside... while I didn't get the game, I was prepared to put that aside and make someone else do the rules for me. Shouldn't be a problem in my group. It did mean, though, that I didn't go in with any character ideas, which is somewhat unusual for me. I don't necessarily use them, but I like to make a couple of characters first so I get a feel for a game.

I think the difficulty with Wild Talents is that because it doesn't have any really core elements other than Being Superhumans (and even that is optional if you want to play Batman or something), there is basically nothing at all to riff on. As various creative types have said before, it's a lot easier to improvise within limitations that it is to create things out of whole cloth. D&D and many other games have an assumed setting that's relatively specific, and lean towards particular kinds of tones and themes. FATE is generic, but it's clearly designed for you to play action-adventure, so we went though a fairly straightforward process: what genre? how silly? and so on.

In Wild Talents, we tried to do this by deciding on various assumptions of the superheroes genres. Do we want to be shiny spandex, or gritty leather? Do we want to be the JLA or the X-Men? How heroic do we want to be, or would we rather be morally dubious, or basically we're the problem here? How much is the existence of supers public knowledge? How common are they? How much weird stuff goes on in the world? Why do we hang out together anyway? Are we punching bank robbers or stopping World-Eater, Eater of Worlds?

Problem was, that's really far too much freedom. We'd barely settle on one thing before another axis would tilt things in a different direction entirely. It's hard to imagine a party without a world to build them in, but we needed a subgenre to make a suitable world. We didn't have any inspiration to come up with specific characters, which means we had nothing to base those genre ideas off, and so on and so on.

If we'd seized on something to build on early on that might have worked, but the only semi-solid idea we had didn't enthuse everyone, so it wouldn't have been a great starting point.

At the moment, then, my view is that very generic games are actually quite difficult to worldbuild for.


The other problem is Vent itself. I think we tend to underestimate just how much communication we lose when we're not face-to-face, even though I've talked about it before. That's on top of the actual practical difficulties, like loads of awkward pauses while everyone waits, followed by everyone talking at once.

Feedback is really important in brainstorming, and I think it was far harder to get a sense of how enthusiastic people were about various ideas, when we weren't sitting round a table together. No faces to show enthusiasm versus resignation, no way to tell if X is uninterested or just waiting their turn, or indeed has dropped out of the VOIP server.

So, yeah. Our take-home message from tonight was:

  • Don't try to brainstorm over VOIP.
  • Don't try to brainstorm without structure. You need either built-in structure, or initial ideas of your own to riff on.
  • Go in with a pitch.

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