Grappling with 4th Edition--Part III (cont.)
PART III (cont.)--Social Agenda
3. Clear gamist priorities cast a wider net. In play, D&D4 presents to each player a range of clear, simple choices. On your turn, you get one minor action, one move action, and one standard action. You've got a handful of powers that fit in those slots. You've got your little token on the map showing you what kind of opposition you face. Because of niche protection, you know what your job in the party. Making that choice is usually pretty simple. Anyone who's played a board game is familiar with the concept of "you can do one of these three things on your turn." It allows some of our group who don't have a lot of role-playing experience (like a 13-year-old boy and a longtime WoW player) to meaningfully contribute, and learn role-playing skills while they're at it. Dropping these guys into a game where they need "frame a scene that addresses the thematic problem" just wouldn't work. While I agree that everyone instinctively knows how to tell a story, not everyone knows how to talk about telling a story.
What I can steal for my own game design: Clarity and simplicity, above all. Every moment, players should know what their options are, and what those options mean. Concreteness in situation (e.g., maps) is valuable because it syncronizes the SiS better than anything. Streamlining and structuring the avenues for player input into the SiS lays out the welcome mat for beginners (as well as for experienced players that that like to find interesting combinations).
4. Quick prep time leads to greater scheduling flexibility. Once character creation is done,* prepping for play is dirt simple. I can prep an encounter, including drawing the map, making little tokens, and writing out initiative cards, in about 15 minutes. This has meant that sometimes when Michele has come over for dinner, and we'd normally crack out a card or board game afterward, we play D&D instead--on a weeknight! It also meant that the two weeks when half the players couldn't make it to the regular Sunday Shadowfell game, we were able to throw together a group of 6th level characters and have them storm an orc encampment in the same afternoon. These ease of prep also allows the game to fill the times when we're too tired to meaningfully contribute to something more narrativist. I should note that this quick prep is due almost entirely to the wonderful design of the Monster Manual and its premade encounter groups. Just scan the index in the back at the party level and a few levels above until one of the monsters grabs you. Then, look up that monster, find the appropriate pregenerated encounter group, print out the stat blocks for those monsters, make tokens for them, draw a map, and roll initiatives. It does help that I'm pretty fast with the map-drawing.
What I can steal for my own game design: Quick and easy wins the race. Just like gameplay is broken down into a series of managable, bite-size chunks, the same applies for prep. The lower the time- and energy-requirements of prep means the more varied real life circumstances that prep will suit (I recall only once that we had to cancel a game because we were "too tired to play"--something that's happened far too often with other games). I think we've nailed this pretty squarely with Serial Homicide Unit (due before the end of the year--fingers crossed), but I've got to keep it in mind for future game designs. With Great Power... has quick and easy prep for Kat and I, but not so for other people. That's a sign that I didn't explain the procedure in as smooth a way as I might have.
I've got the last, most difficult piece of Serial Homicide Unit that I'd like to finish up soon, so I'm not sure when I'll get back to this. I do have some more notes, though. Rob & Bill--is this analysis the kind of thing you were looking for, or did you want more "tales from the table"?
If I'm not back soon, Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!
*Character creation is its own can of worms that I'll talk about more in a later entry on the problems of D&D4.