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LARP Design Diary: Wizard Dueling

Shortly before our most recent Dust to Dust event, we released rules for wizard dueling. In this post, I want to talk about some of the design considerations that drove this project, some of the ideas we set aside, and some of the problems that we didn't discover until after this stuff was in front of the players. The most obvious form of dueling - two players standing 10-15 feet apart and hurling packets at each other is not as engaging or tactical as we wanted. That is, it doesn't engage the things that wizards should hold up as virtues, such as preparation and forethought. It also doesn't communicate anything interesting about ritualist society.

This led to considerations of convoluted physical maneuvering, marked out by rope laid on the ground. This was more tactical, but very bulky and very public; in all probability it would also burn through huge amounts of Fatigue or mana. Because of the different balance axioms at stake between ritualists and mana-using casters in DtD, it would be very difficult to make a duel between them fair.

From there, we veered into more abstract games, including a modified form of Tsuro and Liar's Dice (Bones). These weren't interacting well with DtD's rules; more powerful wizards either had no edge at all or too much of one. These were our first (and frustrating) attempts at modifying an existing game. The good news for us is that we can revisit them in their original form, because their general style suits the feel of the setting well.

One of our early touchstones in design was Erasmus's challenge in Quest for Glory I. We liked the idea of solving problems through the creative use of spells, as that does communicate one of the intended aspects of ritualism. That line of thought brought us to a single-column boardgame implementation that included creature summoning, walls, damaging spells, and the like. Though I can't speak for my fellow designers, the thing that troubled me about it was the fear that there would not be enough viable strategies, leading to a solved or stalemated game. This design approach was eventually put on a back-burner.

Having already created a custom tarot deck for the setting, we briefly discussed the idea of creating a straight-up CCG, since several staff members are long-time players of Magic: the Gathering and other CCGs. The (staggering) amount of work involved was never something we regarded as a major hurdle; instead, we set the idea aside because playing a CCG in-character would be too jarring for many players.

I don't remember exactly how the design came to us at this point, but when we finally found it, it was as if it had been there all along, almost fully formed.

What we eventually wound up is a system heavily based on chess. Game pieces are readily available, for a wide range of costs; this particular benefit is also what makes ritualism itself viable. The core rules of chess are familiar to the vast majority of our playerbase, and they are rules that have been developed, tweaked, and experimented with exhaustively throughout almost every culture of Europe and Asia for many centuries. Because pieces other than pawns and the wizard marker are summoned, powerful wizards have an edge over weaker wizards, but as long as the two competitors are reasonably close (within 10 bones of one another), superior skill may be able to compensate for the difference. The game requires strategic and tactical thought, while completely dispensing with any element of luck - this felt about right for a wizard's outlook on the world. There can still be surprises, however, as the game's (limited) collectible nature means an opponent may have a piece you've never seen before, forcing you to rethink your strategies quickly. The summons also meant the game was easily incorporated into the campaign's existing research rules, if dedicated duelists wanted to spend BGAs to gain new summons.

In the course of developing wizard dueling's current form, we discarded an idea in which duelists cast a separate ritual (laying out bones, etc.) for each summon. We saw that this would represent an unacceptable amount of "setup time." If the summons required players to expend "real" Fatigue rather than a supply of "dueling Fatigue," we felt that they would not be interested in playing, as they would be sacrificing a large amount of combat capability.

Another design element we dropped was the idea that the game always cost the loser something. This persisted into a late stage of design because extremely early game concepts involved using Fatigue as an "ante," and we didn't want players to be able to transfer Fatigue by throwing the duel. Shortly before the game's publication, however, it became clear that players were excited about purely competitive play, and this would lose much of its appeal if someone in the duel always lost Fatigue.

It was important that wizard dueling allow mana-based spellcasters to play as well, especially given that ritualism already represents a minigame that receives a great deal of attention in the campaign. This presented the serious (at least, to me) problem of finding cosmological space to explain how this could be done, without generalizing to "you can turn mana into Fatigue all the time." The same element that justifies dueling Fatigue is also used to justify dueling mana and auto-success when casting summoning formulas.

We've attached flavor text to each summoning formula, in a natural continuation of DtD's tendency to put text on absolutely any blank surface, including players, and (where possible) using this text to communicate additional world flavor and foreshadow future events and threats. That this flavor text strongly resembles the flavor text found on cards in more familiar CCGs is not a coincidence. ;)

We had a relatively intensive level of volunteer playtesting at the event; fortunately, all players involved understood that it was brand-new and might need significant alteration to work properly. The two major problems we've found so far are that the orthogonal leapers with a large range (4-5 square leap) can actually only reach four squares on the board in any given game, varying by their initial placement. I had been focused on how many defenders that allowed the leapers to ignore, rather than how difficult that made them to use, and thus priced them dearly. Fortunately, it's reasonably easy to correct by offering an alternate form of movement (presumably as a rider) that they can use for positioning; this form of movement would be much weaker if it were their only option, but as an alternate it should make them much more competitive pieces.

The other problem that I have - and have not yet decided how to solve - is that the Praxis of Arcane Prowess is a ritual that requires a nontrivial number of bones, and is intended to be shared between multiple casters. Of course, by the time the players got to the dueling competition, they had prepared their rituals and burned most of their daily Fatigue, and so were too drained to complete the Praxis. I could solve this by reducing the number of bones required to cast, or I could leave it as it is and just allow those players to use the duel-initiating items that exist for mana-users.

All in all, wizard dueling has been well-received by players so far, and we expect a great deal more feedback on this topic over the next few weeks... and years, for that matter. I think that the core of its gameplay is solid even if some of the details need polishing. We've always intended for the campaign to include a number of board games or card games that are significant to the world's cultures, and I expect we'll introduce the second of these at some point early next year. I'm also glad to return to posting in Harbinger after having almost no time for writing here over the course of the past month; I have one other post written in longhand and another percolating.

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