Theory: Non-Simulative Minis Game Rules

Occasionally I return to the idea of a story-driven, Dynasty Warriors-inspired minis game. Here’s an interesting way to think about the goal of that design:

RPGs fall, roughly, into two categories. In some, the rules are a simulation of the physics of the universe. FFG’s Warhammer 40K RPGs work this way; when a player rolls to hit, the target number is based on in-world factors like distance, visibility, and the characteristics of the weapon.

Other RPGs direct the rules toward the narrative rather than what’s happening in the fictional world. A lot of indie RPGs (without trying to get into a debate about what counts as an “indie” RPG) are of this school. Polaris’ rules, for example, are all about which player gets to decide what happens rather than whether her character can then carry out the decision.

Current minis games fall into the former category. The rules are designed to simulate the in-universe rules of the world. Admittedly those rules might be strange, because the world is a magitech kingdom or an alternate dimension, but they’re still meant as a simulation.

The proposed minis game takes a completely separate tack. The rules aren’t about simulating a character’s attacks. They’re about driving the narrative forward and wrestling for control over the story.

Something Completely Different: Design Rules

With the current playtesting project underway, I feel like it’s safe to talk a little more about the idea of a Dynasty Warriors-themed miniatures game. Playtesting can be somewhat grindy; a mental break can only do us good. 😉

If we were to pursue this game, the first step would be to come up with the core rules guiding the design. I can’t imagine not starting with:

1. The decisions must be interesting.

Part of the original idea was to use the game’s elements–its rules, its components, its play, everything–to put across emotion, much like how authors use words and sentence structure. That kind of guiding principle deserves to be a rule:

2. All aspects of the game must help convey an emotion.

In that formulation Rule #2 is question-begging: what’s the emotion in question? If this is a Dynasty Warriors-esque experience, there’s only one good answer:

2 (revised). All aspects of the game must reinforce the players’ feelings of might, prowess, and general awesomeness.

(Wait, this is really interesting–how do we reinforce competing players’ positive feelings at the same time, given that one of them is probably losing? So tempting to spend time on this . . . this is why it’s dangerous to work on other projects during playtesting! 😉 )

That wasn’t all the game was trying to do, though: it was also trying to create a sort of story arc. I don’t feel qualified to delve into what a “story arc” is, but I feel comfortable saying that a three-act structure counts.

3. The game experience must involve three acts, as in a three-act story.

I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it sounds like a lot of fun to think about.

Something Completely Different

The playtesting project is winding down, just in time for the group testing I’m hoping to get in this weekend. On Friday I’ll have a couple of fixes for issues that have arisen, along with a bunch of playtest data and some thoughts on the results.

Since Over the Next Dune will really be taking over soon, I wanted to take a moment to talk through an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head. I’m always a little wary of working on a second project when the first is at the difficult testing-and-refining stage; it’s easy for the new project to become an excuse for avoiding the grindy part of game design. However, I think it’s safe if we all agree to keep this brief for now. 😉

The idea is this: in writing, one can use things like sentence structure to make a point. In Frankenstein the main character tends to use long sentences to describe nature, giving a sense of the natural world’s power and constancy, while using shorter sentences when describing what he himself did, suggesting his agitation and hurry. Can the same thing be achieved in game design? How far can one use the structure of the game, not just to make the game work, but to focus attention and bring about a reaction in the players?

I’m envisioning as a test case a miniatures game patterned on the Dynasty Warriors series of video games. In those games one plays a character who fights his or her way through hordes of trivial and easily-defeated opponents on the way to a final one-on-one confrontation with a villain. By hordes I mean hordes–tens of people attacking all at once. There’s a clear break between the waves of thugs, who are not especially dangerous and are mainly there to be swept aside in ways that emphasize how mighty the player is, and the “boss” at the end who is a legitimate challenge.

The game would be built from the ground up to create that sense of escalating tension and player empowerment. Everything, from the rulebook to the rules themselves to the playing field to the miniatures, would contribute to it. For example, each player might control some thugs and a major warrior. The rules for the thugs would be brief even to read, inculcating from one’s first exposure to the game the idea that these pieces aren’t important and that the player can dispatch them quickly. By contrast, the rules for doing battle with the opponent’s leader-warrior would be much lengthier, so that before one even begins play one has the sense that that battle will be more involved–that it will deserve more focus.

It’s just an idea, but it’s one I think could be a lot of fun. Dynasty Warriors games are rarely critical darlings, but they have a devoted fanbase; for all their technical sins they work as power fantasies. A minis game aimed entirely toward delivering that same sense of I am awesome could be a blast. Perhaps the next project after OtND?