Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Talking Ponies with Mike

Last night I stayed up far too late, because I was deep in discussion with Mike Pondsmith about how to make Unknown Ponies a better game. It was a good discussion, filled with lots of great feedback and insight on how game design works (hint: make it as idiot-proof as possible), as well as a very nice compliment that I had talent and that talking to me was preferable to grading papers.

Well, maybe that last part isn't much of a compliment. But still, I got one-on-one feedback with an Actual Game Designer, which is always awesome.

Here are the lessons I took from our discussion:

  1. Know who your audience is. Mike suggested I make the game simpler so as to appeal to a younger audience; I posited that I doubted the target audience for the show would be interested in role-playing, and instead aimed at the much larger, much more active, more net-savvy Brony fanbase. However, as the discussion went on, I realized that A) Not all Bronies are gamers (and therefore would want a simple game), and B) Don't alienate a potential segment of your player base. 
  2. If I am serious about making Unknown Ponies into a work I can be proud of -- rather than just a fun little experiment I cobbled together in a few days -- I need to stop using the Unknown Armies mechanics and come up with a system of my own. Not only would this address the problem with #1 above, it would also make the game more "mine."
  3. This, however, leads into a problem, specifically: I suck at game mechanics.  So clearly I need to find a way to un-ass myself ricky-tick and get cracking on unique, flavorful mechanics...
  4. ... without completely destroying all the previous work I've done. I really don't want to come up with a really elegant system for skill resolution only to find that I can no longer use the "Failure is Awesome" mechanic which is central to the game.

So, you know, no problem. I just need to create an entire game engine from scratch while still maintaining that specific fast & fun experience and not losing any pony flavor.



    1. I obviously don't know exactly what you're going for, but I'd argue for the simpler is better idea for a different reason.  Yes, a MLP RPG might appeal to yoounger folks, but I agree with you that a good bit will probably fit into the broney category.  Even then, though, I would guess that those folks would be more in the mood for more of a quick and light hearted game than serious number crunching, since... well... they're playing an MLP RPG.  This can be done well.  Knowing that you're in RPGs, I'm guessing that you've at least heard of Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and QAGS, A Kobold Ate My Baby, and possibly Paranoia also come to mind for easy rules.

      There's also the advantage of the GM being able to play fast and loose with the rules if they're set up right in a fairly "rules light" system.

      Oh, and I don't know about your "Failure is Awsome" mechanic, but you should look up the Horrible Baby an Kobold Death Charts for Kobold Ate My Baby.  They're hysterical.

    2. Um... you kind of miss the point.

      For one, the character generation rules in BESM are 10 times more complex than anything UA has.

      For two, I'm supposed to create my own rules, not copy someone else's.

    3. I get the feeling Mr. Pondsmith is testing my game design chops by challenging me to come up with something on my own. Yeah, I still can't publish the RPG for profit because of the IP, but it could make a dandy resume-builder. 

    4. Oh, the Friendship Track is completely fine and doesn't need changing.  It's just the stats and skill resolution mechanics I need to invent. 

    5. Wooo.  The Track seems to be a good core with the character development/leveling

      Hmm,  for skill resolution. What's the bare minimum you could do?

      Dare I suggest but look to some Larp Mechanics for inspiration. Those have to be dead simple and done without any props.

      From there can get some ideas to add a bit more complexity and bare bones dice work.

    6. I have a bit of experience with homebrewing. If you need help, you can contact me via Skype.

    7. I'll be heavy on theory, light on specifics, so hopefully  I'm helpful here.

      I first got into serious Pen-and-Paper RPGs with 2nd Ed D&D.   I learned the basics of game play.   But then for actual play the GM would tell us what he was thinking about for a quest.   I'd mull over what kind of character would be fun for that setting.   I'd then sit down with them and give my ideas, and mostly they would write up the character sheet to my specs.

      Then when it came to playing I'd essentially roll what they told me when they told me, and keep track of the numbers.    But essentially I played for the story and interaction not mechanics.

      Then I met this guy

      His games are VERY simple.  When you buy a game you get a 25-50 page book, and templates for character sheets.   That's it.   All you need is to copy up sheets and buy six-sided dice.

      The driving elements are always story-telling.   (one Mechanic he's fond of is you roll to see who decides the outcome.   A good roll means what you want happens.  A Bad roll means the GM decides.   Something in between means you both get some input)    His big theory is that consistently rolling bad shouldn't mean doom for the player.   He cites Indiana Jones, and Ghost Busters as two movies where the main characters consistently roll poorly.

      Instead good playing should mean good outcome, and nobody likes a lame player.

      So yeah,  I'd make sure to center all game engines on mixing of story-telling elements, and VERY simple rules as well as equipment (anybody can raid their boardgames and come up with a few 6-siders...or just buy a pack for a few bucks at the local drug store).

      And remember the dice and stats are JUST there to allow chance to fall into play.   The really cool thing about RPGs is neither the game master, nor the players have any idea where they will end up at the end of the session.

      my 2c

    8. Even though you're not willing to take someone else's mechanics, Mouse Guard RPG has an interesting skill advancement system: you need X failures and Y successes to advance in a skill (sorry, I can't remember the numbers now, but Y is smaller than X, for sure).

      Even though it's not the "you need to fail to succeed" initially intendend, I feel like it can be a good alternative. The system demands the right amount of sucesses and failures, so it takes a good time to advance in the skill.

    9. As I am working on a fan RPG from scratch this very moment, I can understand your pain. It's very hard to come with something that is simple, flexible and yet cover enough grounds to be worth better than a pure free-form game. It's like fitting a round shape in a squared hole. A great mind challenge.

      I would say something about your game in his current state, though: what I love so much about it is the spirit and tone of the game. Your game came way closer to the actual show spirit than any D&D clone. Don't change that. The Friendship Track is amazing.

      Now, if you really want to keep the Failure is Awesome mechanic, we're standing in front of a problem. It's all fine to get one point in a skill when it's on a one-hundred scale. But if it's on a smaller scale, like fifty, twenty or even ten, the progression might be too quick. I'd say at least twenty should be used, even if that means characters starts at three or four.

      If you want to keep the rolling simple, make it a simple addition/subtraction operation. It shouldn't need more than a second or two to do the roll. You can go "roll under the stat" with a single dice, the lower being the better; simple, easily understandable, that's what I'm using right now. You could go on the other way, the original d6 system: roll multiple dice to get the highest number, skills and cutie marks would help with the number of dice. You could combine the two: roll X dice and try to do the lower number, and substract/add dice depending on the difficulty, cutie marks and other friendship shenanigans.

      That is, of course, if you want to go down the "classical" RPG route. You could with something different, like cards, tokens (Friendship Tokens?), roll for "who controls the story right now". There is so many options available. (I remember reading about an old Ghostbuster RPG, the system was cristal clear: roll one die for any action, add another if it's your character specialty, and another one if you have a card/item that could be used in this situation, try to roll the highest. You don't need much more!)

      I think, as long as you could explain the rules in less than five minutes, any kid would play it without problems. After all, it takes a lifetime to master Monopoly, but a few sentences are enough to carry the rules. I'd say limit the number of primary stats to a few, use clear numbers that are easily understandable ("ten is higher than six, so Rainbow Dash is quicker than Rarity"), let the people chose their skills like the current version but don't make them too preponderant to the game ("no, you don't have Magic History, you have Unicorn History, that's not the same at all"), and let people play anypony they would want.

      Well, that was a rambling! Have faith, I'm sure you can come with something dashing and fun. And your readers will be glad to add some insight, as you can already see! ;)

    10. Mike is very good about interacting with the gaming community in a positive way.

      But I think his Point 2 may be a little dated, as stated. Back in the heyday Mike was a proud member of, making your game fit into the market meant coming up with new mechanics to make your game 'different', and because any copying was perceived as 'stealing'. But that changed with the OGL-era in the first decade 2k. You don't need unique, never-before-seen mechanics anymore. There are a number of mechanics you can use, in free-as-in-open forms.

      What matters more, and might be more of what Mike meant, is to tailor any set of mechanics to fit your vision, instead of adjusting your game to fit a given existing set of mechanics. Greg Stafford's Glorantha dropped the RuneQuest mechanics and adopted HeroQuest because it fit his vision better -- and our experience of it changed as a result. M.A.R. Barker never settled of a set of mechanics for his Tekumel setting, because he never one found one that was quite right for him. Vision first, then a set of rules to reflect that vision.

    11. Actually, the latter (make your mechanic fit the game setting) is exactly what I'm saying. This is even more important in the digital design side (where I mostly hang my hat these days). I've really never been a fan of new system for new system's sake, but if you're trying to build a relatively light game with fast action and high social interaction, you want that system to reflect that, especially as Ponies is the perfect game for online or chat-based play.

    12. Thanks for the clarification!  As it stands now, I'm working on something that is hopefully fun and pony-themed. 

    13. The Friendship Track is absolutely NOT going to be removed. It's independent of the stat/skill dilemma.  It WILL remain a core of the game. If anything, I'd like to find a way to integrate stats and skills into it, but I don't know how well that'll work. 

    14. If you ever need ideas, mine /tg/'s archive:

      And for a change:

    15. ....so is Failure is Awesome still working with the Unknown Armies system?

    16.  Here's an idea for a unique game mechanic.  Every time you fail, you get an experience point in that skill.  You trade in these experience points for an appropriate die, or trade in twice the points for a bonus to that skill/die roll.

      i.e. You fail at the "flying" skill 12 times, you get 12 XP in flying, and you trade those XP in for a d12 or a +6 to your die roll!  You roll the die against a Difficulty Class or something, and that determines the result!

      Obviously, this is a rough idea.  I'm not in the mood to try to remember enough Statistics to do it properly.  But that's the gist of it.

      Feel free to Skype me if you're interested in discussing this!


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