I want to preface this by saying that I’ve been having some problems with the design behind Night Terrors. The system is good and the mechanics work — I know this. But, the game isn’t coalescing the way I want it to. After spending a lot of time going back over my initial notes, I came to the realization that at least part of the problem is that there’s really not much game to play. I’m pretty sure that any seasoned roleplayer (especially one familiar with games like Dogs in the Vineyard) could pick up the mechanics and use them to play a meaningful game. But, as currently constituted, Night Terrors just isn’t meaningful. There’s nothing about the game that cries out “play me!” Even a game like Sync which has even less character overhead and a simpler resolution system than Night Terrors almost jumps off the page with a game that can be played.

I spend a lot of time on the Forge and while I still struggle with the finer points of GNS and The Big Model, I get the gist. So, I was pretty sure that the problem with Night Terrors was with the color of the game. But, when I went back to my notes, I realized that the color was fine. The players play people who can no longer sleep and their insomnia has driven them insane (or perhaps sane). Either way, they can now seen the terrifying reality behind the reality and the horrible creatures that are feeding on the dreams of all the people around them. The only problem is that those horrible creatures don’t really like being seen and now they’re going to kill the player characters. Seems simple enough – toss the player characters in with some nightmare creatures that feed on loved ones and make the player characters hunted – instant conflict.

But it’s not that simple.

Then, the puzzle pieces started falling together. (Apologies if this seems a little random, it’s all leading somewhere. I promise.)

I was reading Peter’s Molyneux’s interview on Gamasutra (a pretty interesting read, by the way). I was particularly interested in the design theory behind the companion dog in Fable II. But, there was another nugget that stuck in my mind. In the course of a dialogue about critical and emotional choices in the game, Peter says, “…where the real emotion comes is when you really start testing people…There are a lot of philosophical questions that come up in your mind when you’re doing that.” The larger lesson here (to simplify greatly) is that the emotional investment in the game at large is very dependent on player choices and how those choices affect the game world at large.

By coincidence, I happened to be over at Vincent Baker’s site following up on some RPG Theory and I came across this gem:

“Suspense doesn’t come from uncertain outcomes. I have no doubt, not one shred of measly doubt, that Babe the pig is going to wow the sheepdog trial audience. Neither do you. But we’re on the edge of our seats! What’s up with that? Suspense comes from putting off the inevitable. What’s up with that is, we know that Babe is going to win, but we don’t know what it will cost.”

And, it occurred to me that RPGs are exactly the same way (Vincent makes a very similar point albeit less succinctly). When a player makes a roll, the roll shouldn’t merely inform him about the raw success or failure of his chosen action. Instead (and I agree with Vincent here), there needs to be another layer between success and failure. For any game to have a real emotional connection with its players there needs to be some cost or danger (or both) associated with each roll.

[Further reading on this topic is readily available on Vincent’s site, the Forge and elsewhere. In addition, the Otherkind Dice mechanic (described here) does all of the above in a succinct and elegant way.]

Later on, I was reading Powers Volume 12 and during the denouement at the end, right in the middle of the splash page as the plot lines come crashing together, Walker says,

“I knew I might not make it, but I did what I had to do… I have and may again make the choice to do what I think has to be done. Every hero you have ever heard of, in that moment, has made the same decision you made.”

And I thought immediately back to Molyneux’s interview on Gamasutra. The player characters in the typical roleplaying game are a bit more of an ensemble cast than Deena and Walker in Powers, but they are every bit the heroes and protagonists in their own story. So, inevitably the PCs will be in a situation where they’re the only one who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. And, it occurred to me that there’s not reason why it can’t always be that way. Why can’t each and every player choice be about something that has potentially serious consequences and has to be faced at that time by that player’s character?

But, what really tied it all together was a truly awesome talk by Dallas Snell at ICG East. Dallas’s talk was one-half memoir, one-half psychology and all about social games. It was hugely entertaining, but unfortunately it was the kind of talk that loses a lot if you can’t be there to experience it as it was delivered (some good notes on the content here). One of the biggest things I took away from the talk is the concept of “The Four C’s of Happiness.” The four C’s apply more broadly across life, but Dallas pointed them directly at social games and I turned them on roleplaying games.

Choice is the ability to do something the way that you want to. Specifically relating to games, this means empowering the player to conquer challenges using a variety of different methods.

Competence is the ability to do whatever you’re doing well. This means presenting the players with a game that is relatively easy to learn, but has nuances that can be discovered through repeated play. (In other words, a game that can be “gamed.”) But, it also means presenting players with challenges that not only can be overcome, but are somewhat easy to overcome.

Connection is doing something with friends (or people you like). Tabletop RPGs almost by definition are social games that are played with friends (or people you like).

Commendable is doing something that has meaning and relevance on a larger scale. In roleplaying games this means allowing player decisions to make significant, obvious and long term changes in the game world and the characters in the game.

Based on what Dallas said, if the player and his friends have the ability to decide the best way to tackle the presented obstacles and then can overcome them with some degree of learned and applied skill. And the players see that their actions are changing the game world and their characters (for better or worse), they’re on the road to fun. Some basic reading at the Forge will reveal that there are frequently larger issues with creative agenda and shared imagined space involved in tabletop games. But, by and large, it seems to me that designing with the Four C’s in mind will lead towards games that are more fun for the players.

To tie it all back together, I still think that the problem with Night Terrors isn’t a problem with the color or game premise. I think that what Night Terrors needs is a reason for players to care that their characters are taking blood. What Night Terrors needs is some more information about the game world and how to build characters that fit with the theme of the game. Moreover, Night Terrors might need a little bit more character overhead. It might need a small package of character descriptors or some other kind of metagame construct that direct the game plot and inform character decisions. It also might need a plot structure closer to the one in Dogs in the Vineyard with self contained, short vignettes instead of an open ended plot structure. And, Night Terrors definitely needs a solid description of the stock engines of conflict: the nightmares.