The Mindstorm Weekly, Dec 20–27, 2021

A roundup of the things I was checking out this week.

Skill Challenges, The First Part

A Thorough Look at Skill Challenges (Part 1: the Rules), by Dwiz

This is a big one. A chunky one. A real hefty sack of words. Dwiz outright suggests reading part 1 in two parts, so I’m working my way through. Part 1 is a (very) thorough look through what skill challenges are, and all the variations of them. It’s a deep read, written for mechanically inclined game designers.

If you’ve ever been curious about the many varieties of a skill challenge, this is the deepest dive I’ve come across.

Mechanic for Good, Fast, Cheap—Choose Two

The Iron Core, by OpalBreeze Games.

I love this little piece of game tech. Essentially, there’s three vectors to the roll: efficacy, speed, and quality. When you want to do something, roll 3d6 and assign values to each of those things: higher is better. It’d be very easy to modify the mechanic to various needs and situations, including buffing it up a bit with more tech.

Skill Challenges, the Second Part

A Thorough Look at Skill Challenges (Part 2: Analysis) by Dwiz

Another huge one. It’s broken into three main sections: skill challenges as a concept, in-depth review on the specific mechanics, and Dwiz’s best version.

I think I have the same fundamental problem with skill challenges as outlined here:

My main issue with SCs is that they ultimately abstract and systemize actions and challenges that, to me, would be more elegantly resolved through intelligent use of imagination and simulation-minded GM rulings.

There’s a point where he goes through and essentially lists as many examples of skill challenges as possible, and in doing so recognizes just how useful having a module / book / supplement that contains procedures for all of those things would be… and I felt the exact same. And, like he says: this is the draw of the skill challenge itself. To ease the burden on the GM.

Most approaches to running SCs are, like, literally the definition of training players to look at their character sheet for answers instead of using their imagination. If you tell the players when they’ve entered a SC, they instantly begin to think within mechanical terms and earning successful checks, ceasing to conceive of the hypothetical situation as something analogous to real life.

Yup! This is such a huge thing to me too. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, because overall, I think games are fun, but when you enter skill challenge mode, it’s essentially entering a little mini-game with your players.

So my ideal version of the Skill Challenge would be one where the DM has full control over what can happen, but more importantly, that the players never feel the need to just “make up a problem they can solve.” Where the skill being tested is their problem solving abilities, not their creative writing abilities.

This is why I spoke so highly of both Saga Edition’s advice to fill the SC with gameable details as well as DM David’s alternate model of the “obstacle course.” Rather than being a way to abstract challenges, a SC should have a pretty well-realized setup for exactly what the challenge consists of. What the SC system instead provides is a standard for the DM to measure progress and a format to follow for adjudicating actions and consequences in a rapidly-developing situation.

I think the “players make up a problem” is one of my pet peeves too, when it comes to skill challenges. Dwiz talks some about how he doesn’t really like the “writer’s room” approach to narrative games, but I actually don’t really have a problem with that, nor am I against narrative games. (I actually like them quite a bit.) But, that said, making up a problem in a skill challenge, just to then go on and solve, has always felt strange to me.

I think my dislike of it comes from how quickly a skill challenge can break down into this nebulous, esoteric playground, where nobody really has a firm grasp on the world, and everyone’s just shouting out imaginary things that they’ve defeated. For a skill challenge to hit, everyone at the table needs to be on the same level, with an understanding of the situation and the stakes. We can’t just be in a white-box simulation, summoning things into existence. That goes for the GM too—making up new problems, just to hit quota for successes feels odd to me.

This makes creating skill challenges harder. It’s easy to just say “let’s begin a skill challenge” and then let everyone start throwing out ideas and problems.

In the end, the entire post is worth reading, but I really like what he’s boiled down as his bare bones version of a SC:

  1. The GM announces a skill challenge is beginning.
  2. The GM states the goal(s) of success, and what variables are in play. This usually means communicating each obstacle to be solved (thus, the number of successes required.)
  3. The GM also states sources of pressure (countdowns, rivals, unstable situations, etc.)
  4. The GM gives a timescale of the SC, so that there’s an understanding of how long each point of progress can take.

I think this is my favorite version of the SC I’ve seen, mainly because of the obstacle and pressure declarations made before the challenge begins. The players are given essentially an outline of the situation, and they can ask clarifying questions before the mini-game begins. This method requires more fine-tuning for each SC, since each situation is different, but I think that a place like that is a very solid area to spend your prep time on.

To boil it down even more, I think this method has essentially turned skill challenges around a bit: give the players a list of the problems, let them find solutions. When you have things like “acceptable skills,” you can easily slide into a situation where the players have a list of the solutions, so you let them invent problems as needed.

(I, of course, have summed up a post that is… many words long, and probably am missing some key things. I think it’s a good series for mechanical tinkering, though, because of how well Dwiz goes into the whys of what he thinks works and doesn’t.)

Station Eleven, the Show

I read Station Eleven back in 2016, according to Goodreads. I remember seeing it on the shelves, back when I used to walk around the bookstore and look for new books in the physical space rather than wading through digital archives. In this case, it was the cover art that captured me—I think I must have looked at it on three separate trips to Chapters, and finally picked it up.

I’m 4 episodes into the show, and I think the biggest flaw it has is that the timing of it is unfortunate. A show where a global pandemic threatens the entire human race, released now, is… well, a bit on the nose. But everything else is fascinating, and beautiful. The performances are captivating, the cinematography is stunning, and the story is unfolding slowly, carefully, and with a soft touch.

I think that sort of slow burn is a bit of a lost art in modern western shows, where it seems to be a sin to linger on a scene, to get to know a character, or to draw out a clue over the course of multiple episodes. But Station Eleven breathes, and it’s a breath of fresh air for me.

Maybe most importantly, it is not purely grimdark post-apocalypse. I don’t think everyone can enjoy this show, just because of the subject matter. But if you can, I’d recommend checking it out.

Rimworld GDC

RimWorld: Contrarian, Ridiculous, and Impossible Game Design Methods by Tynan Sylvester

This GDC talk is a bit more video gameplay focused, especially with how much Tynan talks about the intention of Rimworld—as a story generator, not a game. There’s still some neat gems here, though.

He talks a lot about optimized task selection, instead of satisficing task selection. With optimized task selection, you’re thoroughly weighing your options on what to work on next, instead of looking at your task list and choosing the first acceptable option.

There’s a detailed slide on the company’s task process, too: every idea goes into a massive ideas reservoir. That reservoir is sorted, regularly. And then, from there, tasks are doled out to personal todo lists. This provides some advantages:

  1. Retain inspiration. All ideas are captured, and you can review ideas from years before that suddenly seem new and exciting. You can combine them with other ideas as you have them. Ideas are not just captured from “brainstorming” sessions. Capture everything.
  2. Reduce bias by confirming choices over time. Since you make decisions over and over again about what to prioritize from the idea reservoir, you’re not forming a bias on ideas that you made a single decision on. A bad decision one day can be course corrected.
  3. Future knowledge advantage. Since you only decide things when you need to, you always know as much as you need to about that decision, since you’re making the decision with the knowledge gained from your recent decisions.
  4. No status quo bias. If you make a long term plan, you create the bias. The bigger the plan, the less you want to change.
  5. Asynchronous work. This method doesn’t require lots of meetings or brainstorming sessions. If you have an idea, it goes in the reservoir. Save on communication time.
  6. Ideas fight their way to the top. Since the reservoir is so large, ideas must be really good to get to the top. Every idea at the top is a champion idea, creating a very strong final product.

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