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Author Topic: [Cranium Rats] RPG Design Pattern Analysis  (Read 5572 times)
John Kirk
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« on: June 16, 2006, 03:53:27 PM »

A few weeks ago, Guy Shalev asked me to perform an analysis of his role-playing game Cranium Rats.  This posting is a result of that effort.

In performing a detailed analysis on any game, my general practice is to diagram out the currency flow of the game, and I did this for Cranium Rats.  You can download the Cranium Rats diagrams from here.  The primary purpose of creating these diagrams is so that I can form a clear understanding of the game rules and so that I can compare the game structure to other games I have studied.  For those of you that have read my RPG Design Patterns book, the diagramming technique in that book does not perfectly match the diagramming technique I used on Cranium Rats.  Since writing the book, I have found some deficiencies in the technique and have improved it to more accurately show currency flow.  In fact, I added some new elements just to diagram Cranium Rats correctly.  You can download a brief description of the new enhancements and alterations to the book’s techniques here.  Guy and I went back and forth quite a few times creating these diagrams.  So, I think they are reasonably accurate.  But, it’s quite possible that a few mistakes slipped through the cracks.  If so, my understanding of the game is flawed and some of my comments below may be off base.

Okay, on with the analysis.  I found a number of things to praise in Cranium Rats as well as a number of things to criticize:

Kudos
1)   The three attributes of Rat, Water, and Dirt are conflicted.  This makes a nice basis for a challenging game, potentially one without any obvious dominant strategy.  This is very, very good.  I would even go so far as to say that it is the defining characteristic of the game.

2)   The game sets up Rat, Water, and Dirt as Idiom attributes.  This is also quite good, in that it gives direction on what kinds of narration is required to use a given attribute.  It will also have a huge impact on the kinds of role-play it will get out of players.  Players will role-play appropriately in order to be able to actually use those attributes.  I would recommend you delve more deeply in your writing into what each of the attributes means, though.  I pretty much understand Rat (instinct), but I’m still uncertain how to play Water (fluidity) and Dirt (stability).

3)   That game has nice reinforcing loops in the “Real World” and “Flood Scene” conflict diagrams where winning a contest gets players more dice added to their dice reservoirs.  If your goal is to encourage players to focus most of their attention on winning these kinds of conflicts, these loops do a fine job.

4)   Character attributes values are set up well, using the Point Spend Attributes pattern.

5)   The game does a pretty good job in keeping the currency flow exchange rate 1-to-1 between gauges.  There are a few places where it doesn’t, but I’ll discuss those later.

6)   The game has mechanics that give very strong incentives for players to occasionally help one another.  (I’m referring to the fact that if an Aspect would drop to zero, the highest-valued Aspect must sacrifice one of his own points instead.  This gives the highest-valued Aspect a good reason to help out the underdog.)   This is an impressive feature that should be preserved.

7)   The game has a nice balancing loop implemented with a Failure Reward in the “Real World” conflict diagram.  If a dice reservoir exceeds its limit, it “overflows” into the Tokens resource of the other players.

Criticisms
1)   I’ve expressed this opinion before to Guy, so I won’t dwell on it, but the text is difficult to understand and needs more work.

2)   The game has a number of reinforcing loops.  This is good.  However, it also means the game is likely to have “steamroller” effects.  In other words, once a player starts tipping the balance in his favor, he will be more and more likely to continue winning conflicts until the other players have little hope of stopping him.  This might actually be what you want.  If not, you can counteract this effect with more potent balancing loops in the conflict diagrams.

3)   The rewards for “Bidding” conflicts are insufficient.  In fact, the diagrams show no rewards (success or failure), other than the fact that one player may wrest “Active Status” from another player.  I would recommend adding some other mechanical rewards to increase player interest in these kinds of conflicts.

4)   I like the balancing loop you introduced with the Dice Reservoir overflows that appear in the “Real World” conflict diagram.  However, I’m wondering if the failure reward is too weak.  It may end up having a negligible impact on play.  I don’t know for sure, only play-testing will determine that.  But, that is my impression.  If that’s the case, you should either beef it up somehow to the point that it has a real impact on how players make decisions or get rid of it altogether.

5)   The game is a trifle complicated.  Not grossly so.  But, I think it could do with some simplification.  To perform “Real World” conflict resolution, the players must determine 8 intermediate gauge values on every dice roll.  Triple that, if you count all three sides.  While that would be just fine in a computer game, it is a bit much for humans to deal with.  The same goes for the “Bidding” and “Flood Scene” conflict diagrams, which require a total of 20 and 19 intermediate gauge values, respectively.  Now, there are a number of ways in which things could be simplified.  We would need to tread carefully here, though, because many of these calculations are what give Rat, Water, and Dirt their nice conflicted natures.  But, that is, of course, your call.  I can make some recommendations if you’re interested.

6)   Allowing the GM to spend tokens to help out one side or the other destroys all hope of GM impartiality.  I believe the GM must be unbiased in this game, especially since it is competitive.  If the GM spends tokens, the other players will feel cheated.  Hurt feelings and anger will result, which is never fun. 

7)   The option to allow Magicians in the game seems a little tacked on.  It doesn’t really seem core to your game concept.  In my opinion, it acts as a distraction.  I recommend dropping it.

8)   There are a few places where the exchange rate between gauges is not 1:1, such as when you replenish dice reservoirs with tokens.  One token buys two dice.  This is not necessarily a bad thing depending on your design goals.  You might want to play-test a 1:1 exchange rate in these cases anyway to see if it works out, because 1:1 exchange rates tend to cause fewer unanticipated problems in play.

9)   Given the magnitude of the dice reservoirs and the Aspects, the fact that Specialties only add one die to a conflict makes them seem lame.  You might want to consider giving ranks to Specialties, especially since characters don’t have any other defining characteristics that I can see.

10)   The game doesn’t give much guidance on how to frame scenes in the game.  I recommend providing more exposition in this area.  You might also want to consider adding some more mechanics to guide it.

Comments
1)   I wouldn’t mind trying to see if we can make the “Traits” attributes conflicted as well.  Just a thought.

2)   I personally don’t like your decision to call the Physical, Mental, and Social attributes “Traits”.  I am pushing the idea that “Trait” is a term of art in the RPG world with a specific meaning.  I believe that if enough games start sharing a common vocabulary, new players will have a far easier time catching on to new games, which can only help Indie game designers.  Now, I realize that this is just my opinion and whether you call these attributes “Traits” or something else doesn’t affect the quality of your game in the slightest.  But, if I’m successful, it just might have an impact on how quickly players can progress from reading it to comprehension of what it says.

3)   In your examples, it was somewhat difficult for me to keep track of who was a player and who was a character.  You might want to do something to make them distinctive, such as giving all players female names and all characters male names, or some such thing.  Better yet, for the scene in your example, give the player playing Rat a name starting with ‘R’, the player playing Water a name starting with ‘W’, etc.  For example, Raquel, Wanda, and Denise are playing the characters Tom, Frank, and Sam.

4)   I noticed in changing from Beta version 1.2 to Beta version 2.0 that you eliminated players rewarding one another with tokens when another player does something cool.  This was generally a good decision since the players are competing.  Competing players don’t reward one another unless there is a darned good reason.  In a competitive game, the players are out to cripple one another within the rules as best they can.  If you counted on competing players giving each other tokens to generate story (tokens they could use themselves to win the game), you would be disappointed.  It would rarely happen, if ever.  These kinds of reward systems work well in non-competitive games, but you can’t rely on them if the point is for players to compete.  All that such a rule would do is to make players feel guilty for not giving other players tokens.  And, feeling guilty is not fun.

Now, that having been said, there’s nothing wrong with putting this kind of thing in your game if you do it right.  If you still want this kind of supportive, inter-player behavior, all you have to do is completely isolate the currency flow of “story tokens” from the currency flow of the competitive game.  In other words, create two entirely distinct, separate games: one that players compete over, the other in which players cooperate.  The latfer can be very simple.  For example, the GM and players can award each other “Cool” tokens for doing something funny or interesting.  Each “Cool” token can be spent to introduce a single story element into scenes where the player does not otherwise have narration rights.  You should limit this to non-tactical facts, though. Otherwise, the “Cool” tokens would allow players to influence the competitive game, which defeats the entire purpose of creating a separate sub-system.  Doing such a thing would add complication to your game, of course.  You would have to decide if adding such a mechanic was worth the added complexity.

5)   Here’s a thought that might help players that have a hard time playing 1/3 of a character’s personality: You might want to describe each Aspect as actually being a character in itself, with an actual face, wardrobe, and name.  The difference would be that the Aspect characters only exist in a “mega-character’s” head.  Each such Aspect character represents one aspect of the mega-character’s personality.  If you did this, then the three Aspect characters could actually converse with one another in a “room” representing the mega-character’s consciousness.  The room could have windows that the Aspect characters could look out of to give a view of what the mega-character is actually seeing and a loud speaker system that blares out what the mega-character is hearing.  You could even have each of these rooms be decorated with various knick-knacks representing things that interest the mega-character overall.  So, “Bidding” conflicts are those that take place within the mega-character’s “head room” while “Real World” conflicts are those that occur between the mega-character and the outside world.  I could even see fist fights and bloody noses between the Aspect characters.

6)   You might want to rename “Rat”, “Dirt”, and “Water” to something more people can wrap their minds around easily.  Something like Sigmund Freud’s “Id”, “Ego”, and “Super-Ego” perhaps.  I don’t know how attached you are to these terms.  But, if explaining these terms ends up getting in the way, it just might be a sacred cow that has to go.

Well, that about does it.  I hope you can find something useful in all of this.  If nothing else, I learned a few things along the way and enjoyed doing it!

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John Kirk

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Filip Luszczyk
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« Reply #1 on: June 16, 2006, 09:30:00 PM »

I'll comment point by point starting from criticism:

3.It's actually pretty rewarding, as playtest proved. Gaining control over character's action allows you to move him towards completing your goals. Or put him in a situation that would make it tougher for other players. Bidding for control is a supporting option anyway, so it shouldn't be so rewarding as to overshadow "real world" conflicts and bidding for Aspect dots.

5.I think you are thinking in RPG terms here, while that's not the case. CCG players deal with many more complicated interactions. In CR it all boils down to spending resources and rolling dice - you don't even have too track the progress of the other players. Of course, you are probably going to lose with someone more careful, who in turn might easily lose with someone who grasped mechanical interactions really well. The game can be mastered. Unlike more traditional RPGs, mastering the game is one of the reasons to play here, like in chess or CCGs or soccer ;) And it's important for a competitive game.

Sure, the game could use some streamlining, and more obvious wording in some places.

6.The role of The Enlightened is a problematic issue. I also suggest that advantage dice don't work well here. There is a problem with bonus dice out from nowhere, over which GM has total control. Even if he acts like he - according to Guy - should, and instead of giving bonus dice according to his whim to further his own agenda accepts advantages 9/10 of the time, we effectively wind up with Wushu, without embellishment limits.

I also suggested Guy that the game could work pretty well without the GM at all. He is not engaged in the competition anyway, focuses on the story, and seems to me somehow disconnected with what the Aspect players want and do. It's like playing chess while having the audience constantly rearranging the pieces as it sees fit.

9.Ranks would add too much detail here. I'd rather go for Specialties adding 2 dice, but as I've been suggesting, I would get rid of advantage bonuses other than those from Specialties.

As for your comments:

1.There is no need for something like this, I think. The character is like a playing field for the Aspects, and traits work as pawns. There is already some strategic significance involved when it comes to the traits.

2.I don't want to argue about your opinions here, but I'll comment. Do you recall all that "OMG, they are converting everything to d20!" rants from few years ago? Sure, unified terminology would draw players who like having unified terminology. But at the same time, it would repel players who prefer diversity. A trade-off, rather unrealistic anyway, and I don't think it would be worth the energy.

This is also an aesthetics issue. Terminology affects the feel of the game. Look at computer games - e.g. in fighting games there are things like Rage meter, Tension meter, Fury, Super Bar, Limit, Overdrive, Power and other words all the way to the end of the dictionary. In practice, I noticed most players calling it "Super Bar", or some other local slang name. But the in-game name still affects the feel of the game for them, contributing to the overall theme. It would become dull if every single fighting game had simply "Super Bar".

Now, as for the design area, unified technical vocabulary is very usefull, of course. And for this particular purpose, your book does great job. Although some pattern names you suggest didn't seem to intuitive to me, I wish the terminology emerged more often in the community (I would be prompted to finish reading the book then ;)).

4.Good point. That reminds me of some changes I made in the latest version of my project.

5.Very good idea - that would partially solve some player problems we've encountered during the first playtest. The realisation of the idea could prove problematic, though. Rember that every player controls all three Aspects, but only one per character. This means that every player would have to play three distinctive characters (if the Aspects are separate entities for every "mega-character") or players would have to switch their "metaphysical characters" every turn. More characters or more public characters - identification with the character (Aspect) becomes more difficult. And this misses the point.

Also, rooms and stuff would increase narration time, giving less time for conflicts. The game needs conflicts more than it needs colour. Nevertheless the idea is interesting and I think something like this should be suggested in the final version, possibly as a dial for the players.
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Thunder_God
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« Reply #2 on: June 16, 2006, 11:06:13 PM »

First of all John, thanks for the time and effort you put into this project! :)

Kudos:
2) Yes, I think I'm going to haven a plain-English description of what each Aspect covers, even if it will be a series of terms free-flowing it will probably help players. Even if it is an added constraint that limits per-party customization.

3) You spend dice in Bidding and Flood Scenes, but you can only get dice back from real world Conflicts. So you have to spend dice in order to gain control/grow, but you need to gain control in order to replenish your pool. If you fail to wrest control then you just lost a bunch of resources.

Criticisms:
1) Yup, Version 2.0 was a big, big step in that direction, seems now I need to expand more on feel and flow of the game, rather than rules.

2) Ah, but so it'd seem on first look! The intended way it was constructed(only playtesting will prove out if it works that way) has some hidden checks and balances. You are more likely to win Real World conflicts the higher you go, sure, but you also need to win more of them in order to go up. The higher you are, the more likely you'll give other players Tokens for Die-Reservoir overflow, giving them more resources to oppose you. Last, and most important, is a change from Alpha and early Beta to where we are now: Everyone has the same Die Reservoir size, so you're not more likely to win a Bidding or Flood Scene.

3) Aside from the feel of things, which Filip pointed out, it does have a mechanical side. It lets you gain resources and Marks, rather than being able to gain Marks only during your turns, you can gain Marks during another player's turn while stopping him from getting them. As well as completing Goals.

4) Need further playtesting to check this, this is however something that I consider and mull over. The reason it is at only lose 1 dice now, is that you usually spend dice to win Conflicts, bringing you low, and if you have to bid for Active status then you spend even more dice, making that "Lose 1 dice" quite influential, especially when mixed with Stealing. We will have to see how it holds up in Playtest though.

5) This is a design goal; to see how complicated I can keep it. I want the game complicated, but not unmanageable. I don't remember between which two versions I streamlined the game, but it currently did undergo one streamlining. I accept this point, in fact, I want to test it, just how complicated it can go without being problematic!

6) He's not unbiased as in, not for/against the players, but unbiased as in not for/against any specific player. This ties in to point #2 on Kudos, once I explain the Enlightened better, it may be understood. The Enlightened is both a player, which should be impartial, and a semi-character, which is anything but.

7) I agree, it is tacked in. Curiously, some people said that what they like best about the game is the Magicians. In the final book it'd be in an Appendix, which I believe is a good place for "Tacked on" material?

8) I am curious to see what problems it could bring. Currently it's there to enforce the importance/power/virility of Tokens.

9) I think I'll go with what Filip said, have Specialties add 2, or even 3 dice.

10) Yes, it needs to be expanded, along with the fact that Conflicts are it(which I curiously thought I did point out several times), I think I'll leave this non-mechanical. There's a distinction between Story and Mechanics.

Comments:
1) How?

2) Pure aesthetic thing, not set down in stone, yet I don't find myself caring enough to change it either.

3) Very good advice.

4) I actually did have two type of Tokens before streamlining happened. Owned Tokens, which are yours, and Given Tokens, which were given to you by someone else. Owned Tokens are used for Story reasons, and then the Given Tokens can be used mechanically. That way only if you did something cool enough that people wanted to get involved in your story you'd get mechanical bonus, it added what I considered an unduly amount of complication though, so it went away.

5) It'd go in an Appendix, nothing stops players from doing it if they so choose, but as Filip pointed out, the game is geared for a scene every 3-12 minutes when playing offline, this will make scene time double that, so purely optional for those who want such a thing. In fact, it's putting the colour before the mechanics and goal of the game, which is something I try to move away from with this game.

6) I plan(ned?) to make mentions of Id, Ego and Super-Ego, Shamanic Spirits, etc in the comments. It may go into the explained Aspects page. Currently it is a Sacred Cow, but it still did not prove the need to be shot. Even if I explain things, I want the thematic feel.
Dirt is the human experience, Dirt from which you came, to which you return, and which you toil during your life. Dirt from which you build your house. See?

Thanks, much to consider.
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Guy Shalev.

Cranium Rats Central, looking for playtesters for my various games.
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Thunder_God
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« Reply #3 on: June 17, 2006, 07:50:46 AM »

Filip, an answer and some musings concerning Advantage Dice:
I also want there to be Story Generation in the game, and Advantage Dice are a way to push towards it; in John Wick's game you work the same as in my game, basic dice and then more dice from Advantages you narrate. John's game is not competitive though, which may create a problem.

The thing is, narration in CR either leads to or comes from Conflict, but what about Narration-in-the-middle(who thought...)? Look at our conflict with Rod, till I added these Advantage dice/details, you didn't know he had a bunch of friends cheering him on in brutalizing Rod, nor that he was drunk!
If you set a ceiling on how many Advantages can be brought to bear, I think players will always strive towards them, even if they wouldn't go as high if there's no defined ceiling. I think this should also be handled like I handled Conflicts. If it takes too long, have the Enlightened and other players cut to the chase.

All in all, something to consider, but I want to have it undergo more testing first.
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Guy Shalev.

Cranium Rats Central, looking for playtesters for my various games.
CSI Games, my RPG Blog and Project. Last Updated on: January 29th 2010
dindenver
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« Reply #4 on: June 17, 2006, 10:22:46 AM »

Hi!
  OK, I have some comments, these are ment constructively. So, hopefully, you will take it as such and think about your design in a different way:
A) Many gamers in the indie community have expresed interest in playing a game where the characters are not owned per se, but shared amongst the players. I think you have tapped into a way to accomplish this that is both structured and interesting

B) You have a conflict of interest in your design that needs addressing. In the playtest thread you have expressed two opposing desires. First you expressed a desire to abbreviate chargen and hash out the details in play. Mind you, this is not a bad goal in and of itself and I know many gamers who would applaud such effort, BUT, you have also expressed a desire to accelerate narration by not twiddling around and getting straight to the conflict. And again, since your game is about conflict, this is not an unreasonable request when considered seperately from the other design goals. However, these two goals are contrary and lead to very shallow characters and an awkward experience. Players competing with each other are not going to feel very collaborative. I think that there could be at least a tolerable level of cooperation/collaboration during chargen. I might suggest allowing for expanded details of the three main characters during this phase of play. In this way, you can give the players details to riff off of for future scene framing

C) You have stated that you are being intentionally vague with certain structures/ideas/concepts in order to allow the players to best interpret the game's use and meaning on their own. I believe this is counterproductive. I say this because whatever is in the book is what the players have to understand what the game is about and whether they like it or not. Making the game mechanics and terminology indefinable and vague does not aid in gameplay, it hampers it. And the reality is that once players play with definitions that are "by the book" they are likely to re-interpret them to suit their own tastes. Look at how many variants of Dogs in the Vineyard there are to see what I mean. The point is, right now, players don’t know if they are playing your game correctly or not because key elements of the design are hard to pin down and understand.

D) Names - I think "Cranium Rats," Rat, Dirt and Water need to go. You are mixing metaphores, being evasive and not serving your game or your players in any meaningful way. I think it will aid your game immensely to say what you mean and mean what you say. If you want the game to be about memory, instinct and adaptability, come right out and say so. And the title of the game should in some way be in context or compelling and I don’t think Cranium Rats is either to be honest. Decision Engine might be a catchy name, or 3rd person perspective, I don't know, I am just riffing, but Cranium Rats makes me think of dead people with rats chewing on their skull. Since your game is not about that, you might want to consider renaming it.

E) The writing is very hard to read. I have spoken with you may times in chat and you are not obtuse nor do you use unusual word choices when you chat. So I am not sure where the odd word choices and unusual sentence structures are coming from. Maybe it is an extension of your policy of leaving it up to the players to define. Or maybe it is because the subject matter of the game is too close to you and your feelings and it is too hard for you to write it objectively. But I read 1.2 and skimmed 2.0 and you seem to be steadfastly clinging to this particular writing style. Maybe you need someone to edit your work for clarity or you need a co-author. Someone who can take a step back and try to write it in a way that is easy to pick up and play. I could be wrong, maybe you just need to decide what the game is about and re-write it with that in mind. I don't really feel that you need to have someone else write/edit it, just that something has to give with the writing and if you can’t force yourself to do it, then you need to bring in a pro from dover...

  Well, that was a lot to say and most of it was negative. Sorry, I do think you have the root of a good game, I hope you will take this criticism in the constructive way it was intended and think about ways to improve your game design in some small way.
  Good luck man, don’t stop writing now, you are in the home stretch!
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Dave M
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Thunder_God
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« Reply #5 on: June 17, 2006, 11:20:48 AM »

First things first, I somehow read your last line like you saying I don't have the root for a good game, three times. I'm saying this so if I misunderstand something, understand that the fault lies with my reading comprehension!

B) I think this will be a non-issue offline. Offline narration would be much faster. Also, this game is meant to be played in real-time, where people can interject constantly, text chats are NOT real time, even though they're close to it.
Also, the characters are the playing pieces for the Aspects, not fully fleshed beings. They're a semi fleshed beings.
Last, and most importantly, I think it's not exactly right. Look at Annie's Conflict. So she's a semi-senile Tarot reader, 68 years old. Once you set the Goal relating to her daughter-in-law you know she has a son who is married, the moment the scene was narrated, in the first line, we've learnt the name of said son, and we could learn the name of children or lack of them just as well, or it could be defined as an Advantage Dice bringer.

C) This had been brought up several times before. This is akin to the Singularity episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion and what Selene had said. Freedom is good, too much freedom leads to paralysis.
I will define these things, as I said before. This takes freedom from the hands of players, but so be it.

D) Cranium Rats brings up memories from D&D players, it's a catchy, visceral name. But all names are temporary. As to Rat, Dirt and Water, they each mean several things(this ties to C)), whereas Memory, Instinct and Adaptability each mean much less(and are your interpretation!).
I think this is shooting a milk cow too soon. First, let's see if the issue can be fixed with clearer definitions and roles of the Aspects. Shooting Sacred Cows had become a Sacred Cow around here.

E) See this thread where I ask people to tell me exactly what is unclear with Version 2.0, so I could make it clearer!
I tend to write in a semi-obtuse manner. The instruction I received for my English Finals was: "Don't use terms the test-checkers(who are English teachers) don't know."
Also, the rules are crystal clear, they're just not comprehensible. Version 1.2 was almost as clear as it can get. The more words you add, the easier it is to understand, but the less clear.
Anyway, tell me what isn't clear, when you just say it's not clear, I can't change it.
I still feel it's much much easier to understand than 1.2.

Home stretch? For the rules, and then more playtests to see it is indeed so..
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Guy Shalev.

Cranium Rats Central, looking for playtesters for my various games.
CSI Games, my RPG Blog and Project. Last Updated on: January 29th 2010
John Kirk
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« Reply #6 on: June 17, 2006, 10:26:29 PM »

3.It's actually pretty rewarding, as playtest proved. Gaining control over character's action allows you to move him towards completing your goals. Or put him in a situation that would make it tougher for other players. Bidding for control is a supporting option anyway, so it shouldn't be so rewarding as to overshadow "real world" conflicts and bidding for Aspect dots.

Excellent.  My only real point is that that the gauge diagrams do not show any feedback loops for Bidding.  Now, winning a Bidding conflict allows you to progress to other conflicts that do have feedback loops.  If the rewards for those conflicts are strong enough, then the incentive for Bidding conflicts will be sufficient.  If that's so, great.  But, the gauge diagrams do show that this is the only form of reward that Bidding conflicts produce.  I felt this warranted comment.

5.I think you are thinking in RPG terms here, while that's not the case. CCG players deal with many more complicated interactions. In CR it all boils down to spending resources and rolling dice - you don't even have too track the progress of the other players. Of course, you are probably going to lose with someone more careful, who in turn might easily lose with someone who grasped mechanical interactions really well. The game can be mastered. Unlike more traditional RPGs, mastering the game is one of the reasons to play here, like in chess or CCGs or soccer ;) And it's important for a competitive game.

Sure, the game could use some streamlining, and more obvious wording in some places.

I understand all of this.  And, I did say that the game is only a little bit over-complicated.  But, it could do with some simplification.  The rules, as stated, do require 24, 20, or 19 intermediate gauge values to be calculated per conflict, depending on the type.  By "intermediate gauge value", I mean a value that must be calculated on the fly (i.e. it isn't written down on the character sheet anywhere).  If that's what Guy wants for his game, fine.  It's not so much that the game is unplayable.  But, the hallmark of an elegant game is a combination of flexibility and simplicity.  The simpler a game that retains good gamist options, the more players will applaud the design.  I personally think these intermediate gauge values can largely be eliminated without harming the game potential.  Such a thing won't be easy, but creating simple designs is always difficult.  Simplicity largely distinguishes good game design from bad game design.  I think Cranium Rats has a lot going for it, but could be improved in this area.

6....I also suggested Guy that the game could work pretty well without the GM at all. He is not engaged in the competition anyway, focuses on the story, and seems to me somehow disconnected with what the Aspect players want and do. It's like playing chess while having the audience constantly rearranging the pieces as it sees fit.

I agree that Cranium Rats could be redesigned to eliminate the Game Master without too much difficulty.  Whether this fits in with Guy's vision for his game, though, is another matter.  My opinion is that the Game Master role needs to be as much fun as that of the other players.  In the past, Guy and I discussed the possibility that the Game Master could actually win the game.  This is an interesting idea, but also strips the role of its impartiality.  In effect, the GM would be just another competitor with different game mechanics.  I'm not sure where I'm going here, other than to say that the game needs to convey a clear picture of the GM role, and that it needs to be both meaningful and fun.

9.Ranks would add too much detail here. I'd rather go for Specialties adding 2 dice, but as I've been suggesting, I would get rid of advantage bonuses other than those from Specialties.

You might be right.  The idea of ranks was just a suggestion.  Beefing up the dice allotted to them would also work.  Here again, only play-testing will tell what works best.  It's quite possible they won't need to be changed at all.

This is also an aesthetics issue. Terminology affects the feel of the game. Look at computer games - e.g. in fighting games there are things like Rage meter, Tension meter, Fury, Super Bar, Limit, Overdrive, Power and other words all the way to the end of the dictionary. In practice, I noticed most players calling it "Super Bar", or some other local slang name. But the in-game name still affects the feel of the game for them, contributing to the overall theme. It would become dull if every single fighting game had simply "Super Bar".

I entirely agree.  When an author is trying to convey a particular mood or aesthetic in his game, he should use whatever term he wants to use to convey that mood.  My point is that the vast majority of terms used in games aren't doing any such thing.  The term "Trait" is so generic, it really doesn't convey any particular mood at all.  It's just a term that is used to distinguish one set of gauges from another.  In such cases, I think a game author should either pick a term that does strongly convey a mood or seriously consider using a standard term.

But, this whole topic could easily be the subject of an entire thread.  I don't want to divert this thread away from more important design considerations, so this is the last I'll be saying about this issue here, especially since Guy is disinclined to change it anyway.

5.  Also, rooms and stuff would increase narration time, giving less time for conflicts. The game needs conflicts more than it needs colour. Nevertheless the idea is interesting and I think something like this should be suggested in the final version, possibly as a dial for the players.

For conflicts to be meaningful, they have to be about characters and their inter-relationships.  You might want to minimize the descriptive characteristics of the game and emphasize the gamist aspects, but you can't eliminate the descriptive aspects entirely.  That is what distinguishes an RPG game from a simple board or card game, and CSI games are a subset of RPG's.
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John Kirk

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« Reply #7 on: June 17, 2006, 11:35:32 PM »

First of all John, thanks for the time and effort you put into this project! :)

No problem.  I was glad to do it.

5) This is a design goal; to see how complicated I can keep it. I want the game complicated, but not unmanageable. I don't remember between which two versions I streamlined the game, but it currently did undergo one streamlining. I accept this point, in fact, I want to test it, just how complicated it can go without being problematic!

I don't have a problem with complexity.  I have a problem with unnecessary complexity.  You should squeeze every ounce of game potential out of every gauge and relationship you add to your game.

1) How?

Oh, I dont' know.  I'm sure there are a number of ways to make the "Traits" attributes conflicted.  One of the best ways is to assign multiple design patterns to individual gauge values.  That is, make a gauge play double or triple duty. Often, this results in eliminating gauges altogether.

Here's a possibility (Note that this is just an off-the-cuff suggestion.  I'm not actually recommending this, but only providing an example to get you thinking): 

First, let's tie the "Traits" attributes more closely with the "Aspect" attributes.  Let's say that in character creation you spend points to set the values of Rat, Dirt, and Water just like you do now.  But, the values of Physical, Mental, and Social are calculated directly from the Aspects.  Say, Mental = 11-Rat, Physical = 11-Water, and Social = 11-Dirt.  These formulae are always honored.  So, if Rat, Dirt, or Water change, then so do Physical, Mental, or Social.  Instead of trying to roll values under a Trait value, now we're trying to roll over a Trait value for success.

Now, suppose we only allow each Aspect to use 2 of the 3 "Traits" in conflicts.  Rat cannot use Mental, Dirt cannot use Social, and Water cannot use Physical.  If you do this, an Aspect that wants to improve his own odds of winning conflicts by lowering a Trait value can only do so by helping another Aspect raise his value.

If you did something like this, Rat, Dirt, and Water are inherently conflicted (as are the "Traits" that are directly tied to them).  Because of this, we could eliminate the Rat>Water? / Rat<Water? / Water>Dirt? / Water<Dirt? / etc... formulas from the conflict system while retaining the nice conflicted characteristics of the core Aspect attributes.  You could, in fact, simplify your system to having zero intermediate gauges in this way.  And, I think it would retain a lot of gamist potential.  If you want even more complexity than this in your game, then the simpler design would allow you room to add complexity back in that provided even more gamist opportunities.

Now, whether this particular design would satisfy your design goals, I have no idea.  It's quite likely that this change would have a significant impact on other areas of your game.  I'm not sure, because I haven't put much thought into it.  This is just something to mull over.

See this thread where I ask people to tell me exactly what is unclear with Version 2.0, so I could make it clearer!...Anyway, tell me what isn't clear, when you just say it's not clear, I can't change it.
I still feel it's much much easier to understand than 1.2.

Guy, I think you're making some of the same writing mistakes I made when I first starting writing games.  You have the whole game in your head, and you want to describe it to others in terms of how the various conceptual pieces fit together.  For example, you have an Aspect Ratios section, where you discuss the various relationships between the Aspects.  You have a Tokens section where you discuss the various ways in which tokens can be gained or spent.  From an outline standpoint, this is indeed modular in that you are covering one topic at a time.  The problem is that your game has three different conflict systems.  Each of these systems has formulas that are covered in the Aspect Ratios section.  Each has ways in which tokens can be earned and/or spent, etc.

This is the wrong approach to explaining your game.  Players that are initially just trying to understand your game do indeed need to be told up front that each player has a "Tokens" resource.  But, they don't need to be told up front all the ways in which tokens can be earned or spent.  Players also need to be told that they have various Aspects and generally what they mean.  But, they don't need to be told up front all of the ways that the Aspects relate to one another.

What you should do instead is provide high level descriptions of the Aspects and Tokens, and then explain that there are three distinct conflict systems in the game.  Then, create very crisp distinct boundaries between the three conflict systems in the text.  Explain how the Aspects relate to one another and how Tokens can be earned and/or spent within each conflict system individually.  Do not allow one conflict system's description to "bleed over" into the descriptions of the other systems.  Partition them and cover each one thoroughly before moving on to the next.

Since Flood Scenes are a special case of Bidding, it is okay to first explain Bidding and then start your explaination of Flood Scenes by stating, "A Flood Scene is just a special type of Bidding conflict, with a few additions..."  Then, just explain the additions.

If you modularize your text in this fashion, I think people will be able to understand your game much more easily.


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John Kirk

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« Reply #8 on: June 19, 2006, 07:39:14 AM »

Having taken the time to digest this all in, I'd reply again(I decided not to reply yesterday, having been ill)!

First, if you'd have a discussion regarding terminology, I'll be happy to participate! However, as you noted, this is probably not the place to do so.

Second, your example gave me some ideas, I may or may not start a new thread for them, but as is it creates a truly horrendous death-cycle, so it'll require some more thought from me. Also, seeing as how it's not the Aspects who pick the conflict type, but the Enlightened, prohibiting players from using some Traits at all, is, well, very problematic as well. It did however lead me to having some very interesting thoughts!

Third, I believe this is one of the places where Gauges and Reality depart, due to how we operate: There is no need to check for Rat>Dirt, Dirt>Rat 3 times, Dirt:Rat is one calculation, and it is enough to undergo it once for all participants. Also, the question of spending dice/Tokens is asked once(per semi-phase(you can react)) from each player, so no need to posit it as a "Side" question, as it is only asked per player. However, this amount may still be too high for the feel I'm going for.

Fourth, leading directly from the third point; I did not remember to check the Aspect Ratio conditions during the playtest! This may not be a problem in and of itself, as many players sometimes forget to call for AoO, Knockdown/getting up rules and so on and so forth, but this points this area as problematic, at least in the "Getting Attention" section, if not the "prohibitively complex" one. This, combined with the call for Tables by Selene gave me an idea:
A table, one section has the If Condition in mathematical terms, the next section would be the mechanical effect. The third and fourth section would please John, as they would mark whether this condition has any effect on Real World and/or Bidding/Flooding, the 5th and 6th Section would be tactile and thus will draw attention. You'll have a place to place a physical Chip/Die/Mark to note whether this condition is met or not met. One look and you'll know if this applies or not.
I also think it'd work as a back-cover for the finished book, though it'll act against the act of selling the book.

Thanks folks, this is providing big help! :)
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Guy Shalev.

Cranium Rats Central, looking for playtesters for my various games.
CSI Games, my RPG Blog and Project. Last Updated on: January 29th 2010
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