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Night Terrors on the surface is very much like the mutant offspring of Dogs in the Vineyard and The Rustbelt. Which, of course, makes sense since both games had something that I wanted to emulate. What I liked best is that the dice mechanic in Dogs encourages almost poker-like play around the table during the conflict resolution phase. I wanted a similar feeling largely because I felt that the card based mechanic would facilitate and enhance it. I just found out that there is an “official” Dogs mod that uses playing cards instead of dice (check it out here). Unlike Night Terrors, it’s almost a direct port. As always, your mileage may vary.

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.

A while back, I mentioned that while designing Counting Sheep (Getting into Bed), I set out to design a narrative roleplaying game that uses playing cards as the only conflict resolution mechanic, but quickly abandoned it when the write-up grew too large to submit to the contest. What follows is a quick look into the guts of the game. Design notes and a complete writeup will also be forthcoming shortly.

The Character

Each character is represented by one of the face cards in a standard 52 card deck of playing cards. Each character has a value (King, Queen or Jack) and a suit (Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts or Spades). The character’s card stays in the deck so it is available during play, but the value and suit give the character bonuses that will be explained later.

The Pools

Characters also have three pools that represent their overall mental health, physical health and fatigue. The pools should be represented by some physical counter (poker chips work well), but in a pinch, players could keep track of the pools on a piece of paper. Each pool has a value of 20, they can never be larger than 20, but during play they will most certainly get smaller.

The three pools are: Blood, Sweat and Tears.

I use red poker chips for Blood, white poker chips for Sweat and blue poker chips for Tears. When using chips, it’s convenient to count the pools from 20 (full) down to 0 (empty). But, a player using paper to keep track of his pools might find it more convenient to count from 0 (full) to 20 (empty). The methods are functionally the same, any difference is one of convenience. If both methods are being used at the same table, using phrases like “I have 10 blood left.” might facilitate player understanding.

Blood is a measure of blood loss, damage to vital organs, metabolic damage due to toxins and disease, and any other damage that is potentially life-threatening. When a character’s Blood reaches 0, they go into shock and become incapacitated.

Sweat is a measure of weariness, stress, soreness, pain, and other fatigue. When a character’s Sweat reaches 0, the character is completely exhausted and may Crash.

Tears is a measure of despair, emotional and psychological damage, pent-up feelings, and inner turmoil. When a character’s Tears reach 0, the character becomes so depressed, distraught, and/or overwrought that he is incapacitated and may Snap.

The Cards

At the beginning of each play session, the GM deals each player a hand of four cards. Between scenes player’s hands reset to four cards. Starting to the GM’s left and proceeding clockwise, players must reduce their hands back to four cards by discarding any cards that they choose. Any player who has fewer than four cards draws enough cards to increase his hand to four. At this time, any player who wishes may refresh his hand by discarding any cards he no longer wants and then drawing his hand back up to four. Players should always keep their hands hidden.

Conflict

To start a conflict, the important questions are the what, the who, the where and the how. The what concerns what’s at stake, why is there a conflict and what is there to be won at the outcome. The where concerns the location of the conflict and what’s around, this helps set the atmosphere and feel of the conflict. The who concerns who has a stake in the conflict, who is participating and sometimes why they are participating.

Conflict proceeds using a back and forth play that’s very similar to betting on poker. When a conflict is started, the aggressor chooses how they are addressing the issue and raises using two cards to back up their action. All of the other players involved in the conflict see the raise using their own cards. Once cards are used to raise and see, they’re gone and are reshuffled into the deck after the conflict is over. After one character raises and all other characters see that raise, the cards are removed and play continues around the table. The next player plays two cards as a raise and all other players must see using their own cards.

Depending how well a character sees, he might have to take fallout from the exchange. Fallout can represent anything from broken bones to cuts and bruises to mental and physical fatigue. The amount of fallout is often a key factor in determining how long a character stays in a conflict.

When a character is losing a conflict – they’ve taken some fallout or they’re running out of cards – they can push (essentially volunteering to take fallout) or escalate the conflict. Because, there’s nothing that ends an argument like pulling a gun.

When a character gives or when a character doesn’t have enough cards to see a raise and they can’t or won’t push or escalate they’re out of the conflict. Whoever is left when a conflict is done gets to decide the fate of whatever was at stake in the conflict and narrate the outcome appropriately.

Using the Cards

Once the important questions are dealt with the conflict starts and all players draw an additional four cards. While all players can discuss the stakes of a conflict, only the players directly involved in the conflict and draw cards and play cards during the conflict.

Generally the player who starts the conflict gets to choose what type of conflict is taking place. The type of conflict governs what suit is the trump suit. When the suit of the card that represents a player’s character matches the trump suit of the current conflict, that player gets to draw an additional card at the start of the conflict. The same holds true when the conflict escalates and the trump suit changes. For instance, if a player’s character is represented by the king of spades and the guns come out, that player would draw five cards instead of the normal four.

  • If the conflict involves just talking? The trump suit is Diamonds.
  • If the conflict involves doing something physical, but not fighting? The trump suit is Hearts.
  • If the conflict involves fighting hand-to-hand or with melee weapons? The trump suit is Clubs.
  • If the conflict involves fighting with guns? The trump suit is Spades. (Spades should also cover anything that’s likely going to result in serious injury or death, like battle magic, running someone over with a car and other things like that.)

The player whose character started the conflict must raise with two cards (whose values are added together). All other players in the conflict see with two cards, the total of which must equal or exceed the value of the raise. If any player can see with one card, it’s called a reversal. A player who plays a reversal does not lose the card he plays, instead, he may use it as a third card in his raise (if he acts next), or he can use it to see (if he doesn’t).

If any player cannot see with two cards and has to see with three or more cards, their character takes fallout equal to the highest middle card that they have played. If any raise contains a trump card, the all players who see must also contain play a trump or their character takes fallout equal to the value to the trump he can’t see.

During play, face cards double the value of any card that they are played with (ex. a six and a king equals 12). If any two face cards are played together, their total value is 20. In addition, if the face card is also a trump, the trump carries over to the other card (in the previous example, any player who couldn’t see with a trump would take 6 fallout). In the case of two face cards where one is a trump, the players who must see the raise risk taking 10 fallout.

At any point when a player can’t see a raise, he has three options:
1) Give and accept the consequences of loosing the conflict.
2) Push and accept a price equal to the difference between the played cards and the value required to see.
3) Escalate the conflict.

When a player chooses to escalate the conflict, all players in the conflict draw four more cards (or five if the trump switches to your suit), the trump switches to reflect the escalation and play continues.

Fallout and Price

When a character is forced to take fallout, or chooses to push a conflict and accept a price, the payment depends on the trump suit of the conflict.

If the trump suit is Diamonds, price or fallout is paid in tears.
If the trump suit is Hearts, the price or fallout is paid in either tears or sweat.
If the trump suit is Clubs, the price or fallout is paid in either sweat or blood.
If the trump suit is Spades, the price or fallout is paid in blood.

This is where the value of a character’s card comes into play, since the card value changes the type of price or fallout a character has to pay.
When his Price includes Sweat, a King can trade up to half of his Sweat for Blood or Tears.
When her Price includes Tears, a Queen can trade up to half of her Tears for Sweat or Blood.
When his Price includes Blood, a Jack can trade up to half of his Blood for Sweat or Tears.

Narration

This, of course, is just the raw mechanical method for resolving conflict. There’s nothing in this post about the themes of the game, there’s nothing about healing all that fallout the characters took as they escalated their way from stern words to a deadly shootout and there’s nothing about how the game is supposed to play around the table. In short, each player narrates his action as he plays his cards. What the character says is what happens, the cards just back up the actions. And, to a certain extent, inform the actions of the other characters. I’ll be going into much greater detail about narration methods and play styles in the more complete writeup that will follow.