(Warning: This entry is very game mechanics-centric, so I apologize for those who were hoping for more information on the setting and story. I’ll cover that in a later post.)
So I have gone through a couple of play-tests for my Peculiar Tales RPG and it has been a very productive and enlightening endeavour. I'm going to try and share my findings.
For those who aren't in the loop, Peculiar Tales (PT) is set in a 1920s fantasy world with Decopunk influences. Players take on the role of intrepid adventurers and investigators who take it upon themselves to probe the mysteries of the world.
The game mechanics themselves are light and simple. I did not want to make an overly complex game like newer editions of Dungeons and dragons or Shadowrun, preferring instead the rules-lite approach adopted by many indie writers. The main difference is that PT uses standard playing cards instead of dice. This allows me to add some fun effects with card suits and jokers.
Now onto my findings:
1- The meta-game experience
There’s a world of difference between how the game plays out in your head and how it plays out in practice.
In my original play-test version, players had a hand of cards for resolving tasks. As I was writing the rules, I imagined it being a fairly straightforward affair: choose which cards to play and tally up the total; the higher, the better. Instead, what I found out was that each task was bogged down by the players strategizing over which cards to play. It had all been due to little variations on the rules I had introduced: play the right card suit to gain a bonus, play face cards to replenish your hand, play the right number to score a critical success.
On their own, the rules were innocent enough, but added together and with clever players, it became obvious that it was too much to make for a smooth process.
Lesson learned: The number of variations on any given application of a rule will exponentially increase the amount of time needed to accomplish said task.
2- The paradox of choice
Related to the above, I couldn’t help but remember the paradox of choice. It’s a concept that’s very common in UX Design to the point of being a mantra to some. Essentially the more choice you give a user (or player), the longer and harder it will be to make a decision. There were too many factors to consider when resolving tasks, so it ruined momentum.
Now, having lots of choices can be fun, but you have to pick your battles. Choosing from a list of special abilities while you’re creating your character is fun, but having too many choices on how to accomplish a simple task because certain combination of cards give better results just slows everything down for no reason and ruins the drama.
Lesson learned: If you want to heighten the tension, limit and simplify choices.
3- Variations on core mechanics
There’s this extra rule in the game for high-stakes threats, be they people, things or events. When the characters are acting around a threat, there would be passive effects in place. The biggest effect was that face cards were worth fewer points than normal.
The problem, however, is that everyone kept forgetting about it. The threat rule modified the firmly established core mechanic of the game, so you needed to break an established habit to make it work. It was awkward.
Lesson learned: Try not to mess with core rules. Instead, it’s safer to have add-on or secondary rules that elegantly (but obviously) come into play at easy-to-recognize moments.
So this has been a sort of negative recap, but the play-test was incredibly helpful! I’ve adjusted the rules and, moving forward, expect the next play-test to run much more smoothly.