Revisiting the concept of a play pyramid for game design recently helped me focus my editing process for game mechanics.
Crossing Worlds is going to be a new game based on mechanics developed for Karma in the Dark. But just hacking Blades for a Shadowrun inspired setting (Karma) required mechanical adjustments; taking Karma into a game world about Cherokee futurism in a off world sci-fi setting would definitely require mechanical adjustments. I also learned a lot in my three years of designing Karma, so many of my mechanic choices now seem...questionable.
I've been grappling with this pretty massive revision project, and not well. My direction for tackling the revision drifted over the past few months as I struggled to find a good way to making editing decisions.
Then I watched Cory Barlog's GDC presentation on reinventing God of War. As he described the process of moving from the original franchise to pitching a new game to actually developing that new game, one image stood out: the play pyramid for the new game.
Thinking about pilars of gameplay isn't revolutionary (I've even looked at it before for Karma in the Dark) but this image struck me for two reasons:
This dynamic appealed to me because Karma (and by extention, the first draft of CW) had begun to feel unwieldly. There were too many ideas, too many systems, too many rules to learn. I wanted something more streamlined.
I stepped back and asked myself what the play pyramid would look like for Crossing Worlds.
In an oppressive world, there is the temptation to sell out for an easier way forward. I knew I wanted this tension to play a central role
I wanted people to feel like they can craft their own unique character, narratively and mechanically. And rather than fill the book with gear, people would have tools to craft their own.
The game would be designed to have a sense of story-arc and development, with a defined conclusion.
Relationships at the Center
All of these play elements needed to feed into the core: relationships. I wanted the game to be about connections, between players, characters, with individuals, factions, and the world itself. Everything in the world of CW is related. I knew all the mechanics needed to serve this premise.
I've taken this play pyramid and used it as an editing lense for all the existing game mechanics. I won't go into an exhaustive review of the changes, but I want to highlight two.
In Karma, certain actions increase your team's conformity level. When you cross a threshold, you gain a corruption power as a team and you also trigger a narrative twist in the campaign. The GM would roll randomly or choose a twist, then tie it into play. When the tracker filled, you conformed to the world and your team's rebellion ended; you then played out a final phase to cap off the campaign story. However, you could also take certain actions to reduce conformity. So the tracker had an ebb and flow.
The mechanic as originally written had a few problems, but the biggest one is it dictates the length of your campaign. You could theoretically play forever if you don't take corrupt actions, and that would stall out the game's narrative engine. Or, what if you know you only want to play a one-shot? Or a limited number of sessions? Why bother with the tracker at all?
I realized the tracker represented corruption and campaign, but it didn't really feed into my new core of relationships. How could I tie the tracker into relationships?
Instead of connecting the conformity tracker to this stand-alone narrative/campaign engine, I decided that increasing conformity ties into the existing faction system. Specifically, faction goals.
Every single faction has an active progress clock as they work towards a significant goal. In Crossing Worlds, every time the team earns a segment of conformity, the GM gets to fill in a segment of a faction's goal clock. And the GM will weave this shift in faction politics into the game.
Narratively, this means increasing conformity is reflected in the shifting stance of factions as they advance their own corrupt goals. Mechanically, it means the more the team conforms, the less control they have over the factions and their goals. In both cases, conformity ties into relationships. (This also means conformity can be relevant regardless of campaign length, as it will always drive changes in the fictional world).
The second example is perhaps more drastic (and still in development). One of the tangles I've been trying to unravel is the advancement system. In Karma you can advance PC playbooks, PC professional skills, advance by using professional skills to craft advanced gear and cohorts, team special abilities, team upgrades, and safe house upgrades. But you also can invest in PC contacts and faction agent relationships, which can be used in a variety of ways. Oh, and pursue special contracts with factions to earn new faction abilities and increase your team's social standing.
In summary, it's a lot. I decided to ask myself two questions:
Since I introduced "team ambitions" (basically campaign goals) to Karma, almost every group chose the same one: change the world to be better. And before these campaign goals, players often engaged the most when they were meeting (or creating) new people and building up relationships with notable PCs and factions.
So I wanted to find a way to focus advancement down to improving the world and meaningful relationships.
There are now 3-ish paths to advancement, but all support each other.
1) PCs and teams can improve their skills and special abilities. This makes them better at missions and able to take on more difficult missions. (Also people like gaining new shiny abilities).
2) The team will have a shared goal to change the world in some way, represented by a project clock. This clock will generaly focus on factions or world building (e.g. create a new faction, make an existing faction weak, alter a social relevance factor, alter a law in the world, etc.). The team is taking missions (in general) and working towards this goal which lets them change something fundamental about the world. However:
3) The team needs the help of factions to make progress on their goal. The team themselves can't move the clock forward, they need more powerful factions to do it. So the team goes on missions, earns favors, and invests those favors in their relationship with the factions of their choice. During a certain phase of the game, those factions can roll to make progress on the team clock.
(This roll uses the same contact roll rules as Karma: the relationship ranges from 0 to 3, and your dice pool for the roll is based on your relationship level, meaning the better the relationship, the better the dice pool. On a 1-3, the roll fails and the relationship worsens by 1; on a 4/5 the roll succeeds but the relationship worsens by 1; on a 6, the roll succeeds and the relationship is unchanged).
And that's it. That's the core advancement loop. The team wants to change the world. They complete missions to earn favors. They invest those favors into more powerful factions. Those factions attempt to push forward the team's change agenda. And this continues until the goal is achieved, the team conforms, or your group decides to end the campaign.
I still need to finalize revisions and return to playtesting, but the design of Crossing Worlds has a much tighter focus. It helps to streamline my editing questions because I can always ask, "How does this fit the play pyramid? How does this feed into relationships?" Also, hopefully, it will help streamline rules to make them easier to use, remember, and feel more cohesive.:)
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.