Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Gaming, Rules and Natural Language

LARP, Tabletop

Gaming, Rules and Natural Language

(Writer's Caveat: I discuss some tidbits about specific LARPs in this article. All the LARPs I mention by name are fine games that I attended and provided enjoyment. If I seem to pick on these games it is only because they had specific mechanics that happen to make good example of concepts I am trying to get across. Although I might state my personal preference for alternates to specific mechanics, I want to make it clear that I played these games and found them to have many redeeming qualities and fun times.)

As a gamer, the term "rules" always had a definition, as least for me, that the systems defined by those rules were intended as a simulation. When you are playing a war game like Squad Leader, for example, the rules are intended as a simulation of the battlefield, not in so far as to make the game realistic, but instead to create an artificial environment where the actual strategies to win the game are as close as possible to the strategies that the game writers understand are needed to win a real life battle. The goal of the game, in other words, is to validate decisions that mirror real life strategic concepts. If a war game is consider broken or unbalanced, sometimes it is because the win conditions for the possible sides are unbalanced, but many times it is because the strategies for winning are actions that would not work in real life.

As tabletop gaming has its roots in wargaming, a lot of the stigma of "simulation" was carried over. It took a long time for tabletop rules to expand upon simulation and begin to have goals that are customized to the social aspect of gaming. The goals for tabletop rules slowly changed away from rules that reward tactics and into rules that reward storytelling in addition to simulating fantasy combat.


Before I continue, indulge me in a tangent about simulation. In the tabletop space many gaming groups have experimented with or adopted systems that have moved away from or abandoned simulation rules. The groups have essentially moved away from rules heavy systems and in many cases they have moved towards styles that focus more on storytelling and game master fiat. I don't prefer these systems.

One thing I have found that leads to unsatisfying gaming, at least for me, is when it becomes increasingly clear that success in a game is based too much on game master fiat. It's not that I am concerned with the game master having too much power or abusing that power; in that case I'd just eventually walk away from the game. The bigger problem is when I have the distinct impression that I can succeed at goals and do well in combat based entirely on my ability to convince the game master that my strategy is sound. I don't find games where my ability to be persuasive has a lot of sway on combat to be compelling. Worse is when I become familiar enough with a game master that I already know before I attempt something what will work with that game master and what won't based on experience at their table.

Instead, I enjoy a system of rules where the game master is responsible for setting the stage and creating balanced and fun encounters, but once the combat starts the rules simulation provides a buffer between the player decisions and game master fiat. The players (and the game master) can make tactical decisions based on a rich set of rules that act as a neutral party. On other words, once the minis are down the game master is just as much along for the ride as the players, other than officiating rules questions and disputes. The game drifts at this point into a state not unlike a war game, except the scenario is (hopefully) balanced so that the PCs who make sound tactical choices will likely win.

In this way the tactical aspects of the game are once removed from game master fiat. I feel this strengthens the player and game master bond and helps retain a healthy balance of a game where the success does not come entirely from game master fiat. Player can have a healthy sense of accomplishment from successes in the game because they are not entirely based on convincing the game master strategy is sound, and a level of tension remains because the dice can still make the story veer into success or tragedy that was unexpected.


As games involve storytelling, social interaction and community the rules of those games begin to change over time to have multiple roles. Once a high level of social interaction is present the game rules not only provide a simulation to resolve conflict, or even to determine a "winner" but also to act as a way of communicating about the game itself. Each activity and the rules surrounding that activity naturally evolve from strictly tools of simulation to become tools of communication. In other words, the rules of the game evolve into the language of the game.

As games add more and more community and social aspects the rules set becomes more ingrained in the language of those participants. There is a language used when masters talk about chess that might sound unfamiliar to people unaccustomed to that crowd. There is a language used by fencers and people who follow that sport. There is a language used by football fans, golf fans, and any sport that develops a social following that incorporates the rules and the language of the rules into the language. Basketball fans talk about dunks and rebounds and triple doubles. To someone who didn't follow the sport at all listening to fans talk about a game might be baffling.

No where is this more prevalent than LARPs. The more I develop LARP rules and work with those rules, the more I am seeing them not as a set of rule that simulate combat, but instead as a language which players use to describe their interactions during the game, and a language to tell war stories after the game. I think the strongest systems recognize that they need to evolve into a language.

As such, the rules should evolve to support these interactions. As games mature and players have more and more reason to talk about the games, it is important for game designers to design games to use a flow of terminology that is closer to natural language to support this function of the rules. This is not only true of LARPing, but of tabletop as well. The people who design rules for continued games are well served by designing those rules both as a simulation and as a language that those involved can use to talk about the game in a natural way.

When looking at a tabletop game, one reason I like to see a character sheet when deciding whether I am interested in the game is that I like to see how well authors use natural language. While there are aspects of White Wolf games I don't love, one thing I admire them for is they generally have a very good ability to adopt names and terminology that not only flow like natural language, but the terms themselves inspire a certain flavor and in that way supports the game.

One reason I feel Champions, on the other hand, fell out of use is because while the rules might have a certain mathematical charm to them, the language of the that game is arcane at best. Rather than using names that evoke flavor the entire game relies on a slew of acronyms that are terrible for natural language. The system might appeal to math types, but the reinforcement of that aspect of the game through the game's language invites the players to think of the gameplay as a simulation and awkwardly reinforces the game's heavy use of math. It also makes the character sheets readable only to people who have mastered the system since everything uses blocks of somewhat obscure acronyms to describe statistics and powers.


One thing I have tried to do when designing both the Accelerant system and games that use that system is to design those rules to have verbals that sound more like natural language. Not only does this feel more intuitive to players, but it allows players to talk about the game in a language that can be understood and it helps new players more quickly grasp the language the players use both in and out of game.

I have played games, for example, that impart additional information to attacks by tacking on traits to the verbal. LIONE Rampant, for example, was a fine game and the balance was no unlike my own Accelerant games but their rules tended to steer away from natural language flow and instead used verbals that relied on straight trait and effect stacking.They also tended to stack those traits in a reverse order from what I would naturally expect.

Here is an excerpt from their rules:

Here are some examples of game calls using this form:
"Aura" "Magic" "Lesser" "Slow"
"Skill" "2"
"Voice" "to Realm of Seasons" "Magic" "Greater" "Resist"
"Sun" "2 Healing"

I've participated as a PC and as an NPC and mechanically, once you get used to them, these calls work fine. They are perfectly acceptable in rules intended as a simulation. In games I play, however, I prefer verbals that flow like natural language even if it adds a bit to the length. In Accelerant, for example, the wording of similar verbals would sound more like a phrase or natural language snippet.

"Short Reflect by Magic"
"2 Damage by Skill"
"By My Voice, Grant Defense to Elf: Resist Magic"
"Heal 2 by Sun"

The intention of the Accelerant verbals and the way they are formatted is to make the rules sound as much like natural language snippets as possible. While I am sure that the Accelerant rules calls would sound strange to hard core LIONE fans, and that some people used to LIONE calls might prefer them, I still think it's valuable to approach either rules set as a language and write the rules to serve that purpose.

One of the reasons that Accelerant is a "rich" rules system (and by rich I mean in a nice way that it has a larger set of verbals and effects) is that I want the system to sound like a natural language. I also want to leverage that language to impart both flavor to the game and to impart information to help make the characters make better decisions in combat. This is because I did not develop the rules as a simulation, but rather a language which itself tells a story about the game.

Back in the day I played another great game called Legends. I could go on about the many wonderful advances the game made and encounters the game ran, but one philosophical difference I had with the people who wrote the game is they valued simplicity over flavor and over the ability to impart strategical information. As such, I found some encounters frustrating because the language of the game was not sophisticated enough to impart to me strategic information, nor did it evoke flavor.

As an example, in Legends you only had two real defense calls. Parry only blocked certain weapon delivered skills. Resist simply indicated that the attack was negated. That was the extent of their defense calls, and the only language tools they had to respond to combat. In theory this greatly simplified rule set, was intended to make the game flow more smoothly, and allowed new players to more readily grasp the rules. In my opinion, however, the system failed as a game language because the staff could not impart flavor or strategic information to the players.

In the simplest example, there was no differentiation between the ability to resist one or two attacks, and a creature that was simply immune to that entire range of attacks. Both resulted in the creature calling Resist. If I throw a spell at a NERO creature and it calls "No Effect" I know that whatever specific spell I threw will *never* effect it so I won't waste any more game skills throwing that spell at the creature. That's a pretty important strategic bit of information to know. In Legends, on the other hand, the creature would simply call Resist. Maybe the creature was immune to lightning. Maybe the creature could resist spells one time before succumbing to the effect. I had no information with which to make a tactical decision on how to use my skills. For me, the language of their rules was too simplistic to provide satisfying feedback so I could make tactical decisions.

As another example, Legends had three effective spell levels when it came to damage. Magic Missile did one point of damage, Lightning Bolt did three points of damage, and Death simply killed the enemy. It sounds simple, but the progression was not rich enough to support a higher level combat heavy game. Once Vitality rose above 5 the most cost effective thing to do was throw Death. In response, the plot staff responded by making creatures that were immune to Death, or highly resistant to Death so the lower level spells were still relevant. Of course those creatures could only call "Resist" to impart that information, and the system complexity began to creep into their monster stats.

The same thing happened with the Slay skill which was supposed to kill whatever got hit in the chest with the skill. It became quickly apparent that the plot staff needed enemies that weren't instantly killed in one hit to challenge the PCs, so behind the scenes the plot staff had hidden rules to allow creatures to Resist this skill at the cost of Vitality. Then this hidden skill creeped into the players hands since going down to a single hit is something the players don't enjoy either. This skill caused all sorts of confusion among the players about how it worked, what it did and who had it.

In all these cases the language of the rules that Legends created was too simple to describe that game, both during combat and between games. It was also too simple to provide satisfying combat encounters without rules hackery. The game combat lacked flavor and the game wasn't really any easier for me or my group to pick up than a game with an intuitive set of rules that used a richer language to describe actions.


In summary, any successful game will see the rules it uses to simulate the game play eventually become used as a language to describe the game. The designers I prefer recognize this and write rules that use natural language as much as possible to describe game conditions, effects, attributes, and other aspects of their game. This seems to help the community draw in new participants and help new players understand that language, yet also allows the rule set to inspire players who know it well.

Monday, April 9, 2012

An old interview with LARPmag.


An old interview with LARPmag.

(This is a repost of an old interview I did for LARP Magazine in April 2006. You can check them out at www.larpmag.com.)

An Interview with Rob Ciccolini, Presenter, Madrigal LARP

1. What's so cool about Live Adventures?

The thing that is cool about Live Adventures is that the experience is highly interactive. Most entertainment today is passive. The audience is not involved. They take the role of observers. They watch the action and live vicariously through the characters. Our society
is almost becoming voyeuristic. Live Adventure events are interactive activities. The audience is not only involved in the ongoing process but they are largely responsible for determining the direction of the story, the action, and the medium as a whole. This puts Live Adventure in a space with very few other activities; organized sporting and paintball leagues, community theatre (for the actors and crew), and maybe karaoke.

The people who become highly involved thrive on interactivity. For many of us, passive entertainment is simply not as interesting. When we see something interesting we want to become involved. Unfortunately it is impossible for us to jump into the screen of a good movie. We cannot involve ourselves directly on the stage of a play. We cannot jump up with the musicians when we go to concerts. By attending a Live Adventure we become in part responsible for the emotion, the excitement, and the passion going on around us.

We are involved in the decision making process, and it allows us to learn through trial and error what works, and what doesn't. Unlike most other interactive activities, we are involved on a number of levels. We can be involved physically and competitively like
organized sports, we can be involved as other characters and play out stories like community theatre, and we can perform and inspire passion like karaoke. Live Adventure events encourage players to be involved in many ways. We become embroiled in the game on physical, social, and intellectual levels.

2. You're the father of numerous innovations and attitudes in LARPing. What cool ideas have you brought to the table?

This is a difficult question to answer. Most of the things I have accomplished have been the result of collaboration with the people I was working with at the time.  Many successes came from the ability to know how to use a good idea and modify it to best take advantage of the context of a specific game and player base. Perhaps my
contributions are more a matter of making tremendous mistakes that the community as a whole could learn from. If I could be known for one thing I think I would want people to
remember me because of the passion I have for the art and the desire to inspire that passion in others. If the stuff I have done has in any way inspired someone else to create and execute a cool encounter, rule set, or setting for some game then I am happy to be considered in that light.

3. Tell me about one of the characters you play.

The characters that stick out in my mind are the characters that successfully break out of my typical archetypes. For example at Atlas Adventures I played a character from New Orleans named Remy that was unique for me in two ways. First, he talked with an accent. Second, he was an entertainer. These things were completely new to me. I had never done an accent before, and I certainly had not sung in front of an audience at any LARP. I walked into the first event having no idea if I could pull either off. When all was said and done I was happy with the way the accent came across, and I was pleased that I was
able to overcome my own anxiety and perform. Maybe the other PCs were less than pleased with the singing part, but I was able to experience that aspect of the game. That role added new archetypes to my character repertoire. This also helped me better understand characters who take entertaining skills.

As it turned out, the most difficult thing about running that character was acting against my nature and taking things slow. The character was an easy going gentleman from the south. He was laid back and lived life at an easier pace. The character did everything
in his own time and generally took longer to do it. I tend to be goal oriented and higher strung than Remy. It was actually somewhat difficult to downplay emergencies, move at a relaxed pace, and go off on wild tangents in conversation instead of trying to get to the
heart of the matter.

4. What's the most memorable adventure or scene you've been a part of?

So many … so many. No matter what I say there will be countless scenes that I won't think of until later.

~ NERO Ravenholt: The trial of Capulus. The court of Capulus is brought to trial in front of King Richard, played at the time by the same fellow from King Richard's Faire. Although I only observed the proceedings that trial set the tone of the game for years.

~ NERO Ravenholt: The Introduction of the Chessmaster. The very first appearance of the Chessmaster. The NPC controlled an army of spirits through some ritual and to punctuate his appearance the NPCs slowly marched into town in a long line holding dim lights. That weekend we had 140 NPCs and the players didn't really know that. On Friday night seeing that line march slowly through town and gather on the field was pretty impressive, and seemed to evoke emotion from the PCs who watched the giant  procession proceed through town.

~ LIONE Rampant: The Arrival of the Dutchess (and the accusation of Myriken). When the High Priest Rexus revealed Myriken to be an ex-slave and the entire town erupted into civil war.~ NERO Wildlands: The Crowning of Deathwatch. Imagine a huge party full of angry PCs and volatile NPCs given free reign to act as their characters dictated, and not knowing what was going to happen at all.

~ NERO Ravenholt: Showdown with the Sessuar. Leave it to Jose to fight a running battle that gave me my only "John Woo moment" in any LARP.

~ NERO Ravenholt: The Bridge of Fire. One of the first modules NERO Ravenholt build with their module facades, the set up was extensive and impressive. I have yet to see another module set up with such an elaborate atmosphere.

~ Legends Roleplaying: The Meeting of Ryan Kane. When Ryan Kane, to make a point to his werewolf pack, killed and beheaded the ambassador of the Wereboar tribe and I spent the rest of the night running from packs of werewolves.

~ Legends Roleplaying: Standing Stones of the Fey. There was no ring of Stonehenge like stones when we went to bed, so waking up and seeing the giant ring of stones in the misty morning was surreal.

~ Madrigal: The Battle Dirge of the Shadowlords. It was the first Shadowlord weekend at Madrigal, when the PCs had to sing the Shadow Dirge to drive the Shadowlords back through the gate while fighting off their Shadow minions. At one point I stood across a misty field and heard the clear dirge rising above the din of the battle while the purple
glowing eyed Shadows moved to stop them.

~ Atlas Agenda: Rocketing the Giant Cockroach. When it comes to devising cool gadgets and devices, Ben Becker is a genius. An air powered rocket launcher is even more impressive when you are on the receiving end of it. His advice to me was, "Make sure you wear a cup."

~ Madrigal: The Darkest Road. The PCs battle for their life the entire length of the Darkest Road to battle and imprison the corruptor that dwells at the end.

I am sure I will come up with dozens more in the days and weeks to come. Oh and realize I missed out Shandlin's Ferry "Guard's on Pikes" scene, Atlas Agenda's Zulu fight, and NERO Ravenholt's multi-level module set up with high and low levels that snaked through the building.

5. What are Live Adventure games going to look like in ten years?

If I knew that then Live Adventures wouldn't be nearly as fun. Some trends I do see however:

~ Many people are opting to run limited scope campaigns with a definite beginning and scheduled end. It allows them to tell a complete story within this time. It is less daunting to many people with busy schedules than committing to an ongoing campaign. I suspect
we will see more of this, and these will splinter the community further making it harder and harder to run really big ongoing games.

~ In order for the Live Adventures community to expand it will have to move to a apprenticed system of some kind where new plot people can learn the art from a mentor rather than learning it through trial and error. This will mean that game owners will need excellent management skills and long term planning to introduce and train new plot people before they are critically low in that area. Otherwise we are doomed to a cycle of game implementation wherein each plot committee makes the same mistakes over and over.

~ The biggest challenge to Live Adventures in the online computer gaming community. It is an interactive and highly visual activity that requires much less preparation and provides a much more consistent entertainment experience. It is much easier for gamers to go online and participate in an interactive gaming experience than venturing out to a campsite to participate in what is inherently a wildly variable and volatile experience. Online gaming provides immediate satisfaction, while Live Adventures provide the higher potential for encounters that are much greater... and much worse. Human nature tends to settle for immediate and comfortable satisfaction. Making Live Adventures compelling and relevant in the face of this will be a challenge for all games.

6. What was the first game you ever ran, and what was it like to run it?

The first event I ever ran was a weekend event for NERO Ravenholt back when it was running at Camp Wing. The game had been featured in an article in Dragon Magazine, a national tabletop gaming magazine, so that next event had tremendous interest. It was one of the biggest NERO events ever, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 players and 140 volunteer staff, or NPCs. The reason the event was so memorable to many people was because the game at the time was largely about inter-Baronial activities. While there was rarely all out conflict between the PCs, the game catered to their rivalries. Mike Ventrella was a master at supporting and encouraging Baronial politics. The plot often took a back seat to this, with plots and modules acting as a backdrop for Baronial interaction.

The premise of the event thrust the entire game into a plot threatened them as a whole. While the details of the event weren't particularly good, the game itself had become complacent about plot because that type of plot had taken a back seat to the ongoing political game for quite a while. The shock of over one hundred NPCs acting as a coordinated invasion on the town was intense for many players. With that many NPCs there was literally danger from all sides. That combined with the hit and run combat tactics of the experienced players that were NPCing for me made for a dangerous weekend.

The weekend was the first "critter" weekend where a large, coherent enemy body foreign to the PCs threatened the entire town. The creatures were giant bugs with a unique name, but they were quickly dubbed "Brood" by the players because of the enemy from the pages of the X-men. People always assumed I stole the idea from the X-men but it actually came about another way. The brainstorm began with Lizardmen. One night while playing I was scared senseless by a group of lizardmen stalking the camp at night. The encounter was memorable because I could hear the hissing of the NPCs in the dark before I could see them. I set out to make another creature with a distinctive noise to it. At first I had a squeaking noise and was considering Were-rats or plague rats as the creatures that made the sound. Two problems came up. First, the squeaking was very easy to ridicule so I was worried any intensity would soon become irritation to the players. Second, after making the sound for a couple of minutes my throat hurt. I knew I'd never be able to have NPCs do this for hours. So I made some noises that involved less of my throat and felt more comfortable. After playing with sounds for a bit I came up with a clicking sound. "Ticka ticka ticka" could be made with your tongue against your teeth. It was also alien sounding and hard to ridicule. It sounded to me like insects. And so the Brood were born.

Most of the really good ideas for the weekend weren't even mine. The Chessmaster was an NPC suggested at a plot meeting by Lonny if I remember and I am spelling his name correctly. Mike V. took to the NPC. Randy Pierce and Brian Donahue really helped me solidify the mechanics of the main plot. Ford Ivey took a big risk allowing me to run an entire event since at the time I was basically an unknown personage.

The weekend was utter carnage. We made tons of now classic mistakes that had never been made before. We relied on a plot that used negative motivation to get the PCs involved. We didn't provide proactive ways to cleanse your self or solve elements of the plot during the ongoing weekend. The large-scale "hell grinder" fight on Saturday night that had all kinds of crowding and delays as the players moved from encounter to encounter. The event lacked additional plot to entertain players who couldn't go into the hive. I swear after that hive module we had to rewrite half the rulebook. That module also marked the demise of the talc powder packet. The white cloud in the module rose to two feet high. We could barely see the floor. We spent four hours trying to sweep it out of the building after the event.

The weekend, however, was intense and had a lot of new stuff and helped break the players and the game out of its complacency so to many people it was memorable.

7. Do you have any advice for people who are new to the scene?

Here are my top ten suggestions on how to enjoy LARPs in no particular order:

~ To become involved, concentrate on interacting with the other players rather than plot.
So many players enter a game and expect to "work" plot to get attention and go on adventures. The problem with this is that plot is purposely trying to spread their attention to all the players. So the more you try to get their attention, the harder they will work to interact with other players. Instead work on interacting with other players. You are more likely to be involved with the game as a whole, you are more likely to be invited into plots and adventures, and your game will ultimately be more satisfying because your involvement won't stall every time plot is looking the other way.

~ Join or form a group.
So many players are gun shy about joining a group or creating a group for the game. Some imagine influential solo characters that aren't tied down to any one path. Some don't want to commit to a group. Some are intimidated about approaching other people about involvement in a group. Players hope that going at it solo will allow them to do everything. It rarely works out that way. Characters who are involved in a group get to experience most plot targeting any member of that group. They can pursue their goals much more effectively with the backing of a strong group. They are much less likely to take deaths because there are people watching their back. Most importantly, they get to play with their friends.

~ Don't play a character that will prevent you from doing fun things.
If you find that you want to go on a module but "your character wouldn't do that" then either your character should have a life changing experience or you should make a new character. For a long term game you want to devise and play a character that is fun, and that means the character should like doing the things you like to do and should not like doing the things you don't like doing. It sounds obvious but I am amazed at how many people develop long term characters that prevent them from doing the fun stuff they want to do. If you enjoy fighting don't make a cowardly scholar. If you hate politics then have a reason that your character doesn't do that. I understand and applaud people who want to break the mold and develop new types of characters to play. There are plenty of times to do that when you are playing a short term character in one shot events or when you participate in the game as an NPC. Your long term PC should have compatible interests with you as a player.

~ Help other players look cool.
If they do something that's cool tell them so, in game. If they have an opportunity to look cool support them in that rather than trying to jump into their chance to shine. If you do this successfully not only is it rewarding, but people will want you to be involved in their plot and you will have more going on than you know what to do with.

~ Be forgiving of mistakes. 
Players will occasionally stumble. Plot will make mistakes. Staff will screw up in combat. Unforeseen circumstances will occasionally make things difficult for you. Understand in your head and heart that this stuff happens and laugh it off. Know what your tolerance for mistakes is and plan to make the best of these. It's fine to tell plot you don't like that type of encounter in a summary letter after the event. If you are prepared for some level of tolerance then your event will be much more fun. I am not saying you should wildly subject yourself to a poorly run game. Everyone has a different opinion of what is fun and have different levels of tolerance. Knowing what you will tolerate up front will make it easier to wave off the occasional mistake and prevent them from destroying your enjoyment of an otherwise good event.

~ Be bold. Take chances. 
Many players have an excellent instinct for staying safe. Sometimes the more memorable encounter, and the action that will be more fun, is to take the chance and go for it. If you really want to destroy that critter chase it into the woods even though it's dangerous or people say it's stupid. Speak up against the powerful NPC. Will you die more often? Yes. Will you have more fun and end up with more stories that are memorable? Almost certainly.

~ Don't skimp on preparation and involvement.
If you are going to play a game, then *play* it. Prepare for it, stay the entire event, stay on site, and bring the things that will make it fun and memorable. The more preparation for an event you do the more fun you will have. Make sure you have a good costume that is functional. Check your costume pieces before the event. Bring good, well kept weapons and bring an extra weapon in case one breaks. You shouldn't be stressed that your weapons will fail weapon check. Bring and use your cool props. Decorate your cabin with cool props. Don't be afraid
to set up a tent camp if that will be more fun for you. Make sure you have comfortable and proper bedding. Bring an air mattress if you have found the camp bunks uncomfortable. Make sure your make up and elf ears are in good shape and well stocked. Have extras. Make sure you have good food. If you like cooking, bring some way to do that. Bring extra socks and extra boots. The more prepared you are, the more you will enjoy the entire event experience. The more you put into an event, the more fun you will derive from it.

~ Make your own fun. 
Have other things to do. Bring activities and have goals that don't rely on plot. Organize a card game with decent stakes. Run a fighting tournament. Have a sing- a-long. Plan a walk through the woods to discuss some philosophical game topic with like-minded characters. Plan to take the time to introduce yourself to other players you might not know and find out something about them. And of course, be prepared to drop your plans when something big and icky comes to eat your head.

~ Be uncomfortable.
Live Adventure is gloriously uncomfortable. During a great event you might be tired and sopping wet. You might ache and get too little sleep. You might be too cold or too hot. You might have to wear bug spray because it's the time of year for insect swarms. This is part of what makes live action glorious. It makes those comfortable moments when you get home and can put on a fuzzy set of slippers all the more wonderful. Once you put it in your head that you will be cold or wet or hot then that is no longer a factor that mitigates the fun of the event.

~ Be prepared physically.
Live Adventures as we run them provide wonderfully active and physical encounters. If you come to an event lacking sleep and nutrition you won't have as much fun, especially since the event will likely add to those stressful conditions. Sleep well before the event and eat properly as you would for a sporting event. If you want to be good at fighting and running around then you will have to practice and get exercise. Stretch before the event to prevent injury. Even characters that focus on role playing will likely get in plenty of walking, standing, debate and passionate discussion and proper sleep and nutrition will help you enjoy these things.

8. Do you have any advice for LARP veterans?

You are a veteran so you think you can ignore the advice for new players. You shouldn't.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Immersion in the 3D World


Immersion in the 3D World

As I was playing Star Wars the Old Republic and running around the world, a growing discontent had me thinking about two stories. In one story, my friend Bob described to me his World of Warcraft healing set up once he added all his add-ons for raiding. In his description he has add-ons that basically display his entire raid as a big grid on his screen, and he simply hovers over a raid member and presses an ability key to cast a curative or healing ability on that person. In contrast, just after that discussion my friend Jesse described to me his experiences with a later iteration of Fallout, where a lot of the interface short cuts are non-existent and the enemies have long fields of vision so he had to watch the 3D world screen very carefully and constantly scan for enemies and resources.

Both of these experiences involved the design of a game's interaction with the 3D world.

As I play more and more games, I am becoming an evangelist for 3D immersion. I want a game, its controls, and its interface elements to draw me into the 3D world and reward me for watching the actual 3D environment and its characters rather than shuffling information off into side panels, side interfaces, or even HUD read outs overlayed on top of the screen. As I examine the design of games I play I find more and more that the games that are most memorable not only have a rich color palette in its vistas and characters but they have a set of interfaces that draw my eyes into that vista rather than away from it.

This discussion came to a head when I was running through one of the SWTOR zones and my attention was taken away from the game because of a trifling real life matter like having to eat or a similar silliness. When I went back to the game I was struck by a completely unfamiliar landscape. As I blinked and looked at the screen I realized that since reaching this planet I had pretty much only watched the map overlay so I could run my speeder to the quest dots, and the minimap so I could see where crafting nodes were.


In Star Wars the Old Republic once you defeat a creature it sometimes has loot. The visual indicator for a creature with loot is a ground glow under the creature that extends as a beam of light straight up and out of sight. This glow effect has different colors for different types of loot. If you see the purple loot glow you immediately get this ping of excitement knowing that epic loot has dropped. (Hey it turned out to be a Diplomacy mission but you're still happy, right? Right?)

In contrast, instead of using this mechanic for crafting nodes these nodes instead have a subtle glow and appear on your mini-map as dots. This mechanic immediately draws your eyes away from the screen to fixate on the blue and black mini-map for a majority of your travel time. Not only does this interface force you to keep your eyes off the 3D world, but it completely takes away any reason to scan the environment or search the nooks and crannies of the landscape.

Imagine if SWTOR had used the loot indicator for available nodes instead of the mini-map. That one change would mean that people speeding through the outdoor areas would be constantly scanning their camera looking for the beams of light. This would not only draw the player back into 3D world but it would greatly increase the feel of searching for resources rather than the run to the dot and click exercise they have now. I think the element that makes this work is the fact that the glow extends way up into the sky; as I travel and scan I can see the position of nodes hidden behind trees and small objects by looking up to the sky for the tops of the light beams. Although this certainly makes gathering resources less efficient I believe this would add to game immersion and thus make the game areas more memorable.

Going back to Bob's healing set up, my dislike of the set up is not that healing is easier or more efficient. My problem with a game that allows or requires this set up is that its existence basically destroys the player's immersion in the 3D world. A player using a set up like this is no longer participating in the shared experience of the 3D environment. Instead they are performing in their private isolated mini-game, looking at the screen only long enough to get out of the fire.

(Edit: This is by no means a dig at Bob or players that use set ups like this. I have no issue with that playstyle nor do I in any way think less of the person using them. I am only using it as an example of something that interferes with immersion in the 3D environment.)

Compare this to the Tidy Plates tanking add-on. Tidy Plates essentially re-organizes the health plates above each enemy so they don't stack on top of each other and so health, cast bars, and threat appear in each bar. Since they don't constantly shuffle around it makes it much easier to click a target to regain threat with a Taunt or Shield Slam. The beauty of this add on (as compared to the healing set up) is that my eyes are drawn *into* the 3D world instead of away from it. Yes, the plates can get a little busy in situations where the screen is crowded with enemies but the plates exist in the 3D world instead of on a side panel. I don't have to take my eyes off the 3D world to "play tanking tetris" like I might if I was selecting enemies based on a threat meter on a side panel.

(I find it ironic that one of the few add-ons that World of Warcraft squashed was was a Boss mod that placed 3D elements into the world to show you where to go and what to do. The was one of the few useful add-ons that drew a player into the 3D world instead of onto side panels, and was one of the few add-ons that WoW explicitly killed off.)

More and more I am thinking about how to create interfaces that bring me back into the 3D world instead of away from it. Let's take the simple example of "whack a mole" abilities. I use this term to refer to "proc" abilities that light up when certain conditions are met, like Overpower for warriors. It's not an ability that lights up in response to something you do, but rather an ability that lights up based on something that happens externally. If your character gets multiple abilities like this your DPS task becomes rather like the "whack-a-mole" arcade game because you are hitting the buttons as they light up.

Anyway, the reason I don't like whack-a-mole abilities when I play is because they are by definition unpredictable, and therefore I have to take my eyes out of the 3D world and watch my ability bar for them to light up. World of Warcraft addresses this, as an option, by firing red floating text when an ability becomes available. This is an improvement, but it still takes my eyes out of the 3D world to focus on the flat text overlay, and reminds me that the game essentially exists on a 2D plane where the text scrolls by. A better solution for me is to either use an add on that fires off a distinctive noise when one of these abilities lights up, or make the indicator something that appears within the 3D world so I am rewarded for keeping my eye on the action. If an indicator appeared over my character's head within the 3D world, for example, that would draw my attention into the environment better than scrolling text. I would even go so far as to suggest a graphical particle effect on my character, but most of the MMOs I play are already too busy with various particle effects and the indicator would likely just get washed out.

One of the worse offenders of this phenomenon is the quest finder. Many modern MMOs throw quest dots or lit areas on your 2D world map to show you where to go to find a quest objective. Before you cut me let me say that I too love this addition when I am in a goal oriented frame of mind. The prospect of killing my experience gain because I spend 30 minutes wandering around trying to figure out where the questing happens is maddening to me as well. In looking to improve on this, however, I think I'd like to see interface set ups that pull this off the flat 2D map and put it into the world.

In City of Heroes when you select a quest a marker appears in the 3D world with a distance readout telling you how to get to the mission door. This works fairly well. I know where I need to go, but I don't take my eyes off the 3D world to get there. Sometimes I will reach a space close to the marker and I will have to explore to actually reach it. I feel this adds to the game, even though my XP efficiency is occasionally compromised by the search.

For World of Warcraft, I would much rather see something like this. Another option would be a "Go Arrow" interface where the arrow turned within the 3D world to lead me to the quest objective rather than throwing dots on the 2D map. I can also envision a system where the beam of light particle effect I described earlier (which is already used for festival quests to search for elders and get coins) appears in the 3D world at each quest area, so I can scan the sky and horizon and decide where to go by looking into the 3D world rather than popping open a 2D map and spending the majority of my travel time looking at that. This would work particularly well with WoW because a lot of your higher level travel is done with flying mounts so the beam of light particle would be very distinctive.

As server-client technology improves, I hear a lot of talk about FPSMMOs and how awesome they are. Although FPS is generally not my thing, I suspect that one reason these are so compelling is that they are extremely good (if they are designed well) and drawing the player into the 3D world rather than focusing on panels that live outside of it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Confessions of a Melee Junkie


Confessions of a Melee Junkie

In my ongoing quest to find fun and satisfying LARP combat experiences, and to implement fun and satisfying LARP combat experiences, I have found two things. I really love melee combat, and running good combats is both easier and harder than it might appear. I wanted to take some time to talk about what I like from melee combat in LARPs, and how the things I have done have screwed me out of a lot of good combat experiences.

As a melee junkie, I find the straight five hit contest with another skilled fighter to be immensely compelling. Sometimes an intense fight is good because after all the stats and special skills are boiled down it essentially comes down to a five hit contest. Sometimes a fight is good because, even though I as a player character have enough defenses and staying power to outlast five hits from a particular NPC, a long recycling combat essentially boils down to a series of five hit combats where, if I lose, the resulting strain on healing resource can endanger the fight. In either case the joy comes from the mental and physical chess game of delivering hits while defending against the same. It doesn't have to be five hits; I just have to be able to, for the most part, enjoy the actual melee combat with my opponents.


One big problem with the Accelerant system and its ability to easily implement a wide variety of melee attacks with special effects is, well, its ability to easily implement a wide variety of melee attacks with special effects. Many times, and this can be a problem in my own games as well, the core combat experience is diluted or washed away by melee attacks with special called effects. In Accelerant games and other games with a rich LARP syntax it is not uncommon to add a wide variety of special called melee attacks to creatures to give them flavor. This often makes combat less interesting and less fun.

One common dilemma facing a staff member is the desire to add flavor to critters to make them feel different when fighting. The result of this is that the plot staff gives each critter type their own special attacks to add flavor and make the fight feel distinctive. My combat junkie advice is don't do this. The most compelling combat comes down to the chess game of delivering and trading hits. That itself is compelling.

Before I go ahead and give some pieces of advice for running combats for junkies like me, I want to try to explain my philosophy on the difference between Attacks to Defeat and Attacks to Pace Combat. I divide almost all attacks into one of these categories. (There are also Attacks to Show Consequence but let's skip those for now.) Attacks to Defeat are the attacks given to an NPC to allow them to defeat players who perform poorly in combat. These attacks make up the meat and potato of your fights, and in fights where there is a good ratio of player to non-player numbers and out of game skill these are probably the only attacks you really need. Attacks to Pace Combat are special attacks given to NPCs that aren't meant to defeat PCs directly, but rather to help pace the fight, make up for low NPC numbers, or make up for superior PC skill.

To illustrate with example, the iconic Attack to Pace Combat is probably "By My Voice, Agony." Accelerant games are probably not throwing this attack to directly defeat players. Instead, this is probably being used to counter PC numbers, to prevent the PCs from using a sheer rush of bodies to substitute for skilled fighting, or to provide Panic Moments to increase the desperation of the combat. While this attack can lead to PC defeat, it does so by messing with the pacing of the fight rather than defeating the PCs directly. Weapon delivered Agony effects are also often intended as Attacks to Pace Combat, although when players or creatures chain them in succession they often drift away from that role. The ability to Disengage is another example of a pacing effect. Weakness and Maim can also be used as effective pacing effects.

On the other hand, Attacks to Defeat should be designed as block or dodge type attacks that are meant to defeat the players directly. These attacks should be designed to eat away at resources that the PCs cannot refresh during the course of a particular combat, or if you like, eat away at resources that can be renewed such that if players don't perform well the incoming damage will overwhelm the ability for the PCs to refresh it. Unlike Attacks to Pace Combat, these attacks, if not countered, will cause the players to be defeated.

Having said that, let's look at initial advice on statting creatures for the combat junkie:
~ Attacks to Defeat should entirely consist of blockable melee attacks or straight packet attacks.
~ The melee based Attacks To Defeat you give creatures should overwhelmingly be straight damage.
~ If you have a good ratio of NPC to PC numbers and skill, you don't need Attacks to Pace Combat.
~ Attacks for Defeat should require three hits to be successfully delivered before a PC goes down.

One reason NERO combat worked so well early on and was extremely satisfying was that an overwhelming majority of melee attacks were straight damage and they were blockable. Not only did this mean that people could actually defend themselves, but Attacks to Defeat naturally fit into the entire system of the shared pool of hit points and healing. The basic combat rewarded player skill instead of trying to circumvent it, and the combat resolved nicely into mini-combats that boiled down to X number of hits.

Many times the lines between Attacks of Defeat and Attacks to Pace Combat become muddied. I have run combats, for example, where a large spider creature and its minions throw a lot of Poison attacks in an attempt to overwhelm the ability of the PCs to protect against Poison attacks and to Cure those attacks. Essentially the whole fight is designed with the ability to defend against and cure Poison effects as the source of attrition rather than the usual hit point and healing pools. On the flip side, I have played large creatures that swing very high damage knowing that the PCs have a large pool of available healers and, at times, healing pools that can be reset nearby. In this case my attacks are actually being used as Attacks to Pace Combat since the goal of the very high damage strikes in this instance is to knock PCs down so their line has to shift to get healers in a good position to pick them up. I have even given the PCs access to Attacks of Pacing Combat (in this case, a limited use of "By My Voice, Agony") and have watched all the tactical gymnastics implemented to use these as Attacks to Defeat.

The ultimate answer to whether a creature attack is an Attack to Defeat or an Attack to Pace Combat is the intent of the designer in giving them to the creature and the execution of the combat where they are used.


Having written all that, here is some advice for running combat for combat junkies like me.

~ Melee combat is, itself, compelling.
If your goal is to entertain the combat junkie like me, you are probably over thinking the combat design. The very act of fighting is compelling. So long as you can maintain an enjoyable fight pacing and provide a lot of opportunities to engage in straight up melee combat without distractions I am probably going to have a great time.

If, on the other hand, my attempts to engage in melee combat are thwarted by "Massive" melee attacks and other effects that can't be blocked, too many packets, take outs, special delivery attacks, and other effects that don't appear to have any pacing value then I will probably have a less enjoyable time.

~ Only use special attacks if necessary for the combat design.
Each decision to give a creature a special attack should be done to create an enjoyable and challenging combat experience. Don't give your creatures random melee and packet attacks unless you have a specific design reason to do so. Don't randomly assign special attacks to try to give creatures flavor. If you need Attacks of Pacing Combat because you are short on NPCs or are faced with highly skilled PCs then that's cool. Design them that way. Just don't throw creatures into the mix with random abilities that circumvent blocking and normal melee combat unless you have a reason and need to do so.

As a corollary, if you maintain a monster book with monster statistics and you have a lot of creatures with special pacing mechanics don't have your plot staff pick creatures out of the book for flavor. Make sure each flavor of creature has a lot of options, including a base melee option with only damage, so plot people can create good fights in the flavor they need without adding unnecessary special attacks into the mix.

~ Defeat me with blockable melee attacks or packet attacks. 
You want me to be challenged. I want to be challenged. You want me to feel the fear of defeat. I really hate being defeated. If you are going to defeat me, please have the decency to hit me with a legal melee attack or a packet attack. Preferably the former. Don't use "Massive" attacks, "Spell Strike" attacks, Disarms, Destroys, Reflects, By My Voice attacks, By My Gesture attacks, or any of the other myriad of plot deliveries meant for other things.

It's fine to use the other stuff to pace the combat, especially when you are low on NPCs. It's cool to use the other stuff in encounters that aren't really designed as combat encounters. If you goal is to use a gesture to stun me so you can drop me in a module building for the real fun, then that's cool. That's obviously not intended as a combat encounter. If you want to defeat me in an encounter intended to be a combat challenge, however, hit me in combat with a legal weapon or packet attack.

Now, if your champion NPC can spell strike Repel effects, or reflect Fire effects to shut down specific PC skills, or throw Shield Slams to get PCs off them when they are overwhelmed that's cool. Those attacks are not only meant as pacing mechanics, but they don't contribute directly to the attrition of the combat.

~ Learn to balance fights with straight damage.
The first thing a staff person needs to learn is how to run a fight and get across a certain pacing using only effects that contribute to or diminish the game's collective hit point and healing pool. If you cannot do this you are going to always have problems balancing fights. Yes, this can be a difficult task to balance and find the sweet spot in games with certain effects such as the exaggerated healing pool from the NERO cantrip system. In my opinion that makes it all the more important to learn to run fights this way and find the relative sweet spot of challenging a game using only damage and healing from legal weapon strikes and packet attacks.

Once a staff person can run compelling fights concentrating on damage as the main source of balance then they will have a much easier time, and be much more confident, in running a fight where takes outs, special deliveries, and other pacing mechanics are in play.

~ NPCs need to earn their coolness, too.
I know you are trying to make your latest NPC really cool. You picture Darth Vader and you don't want the players to see Rick Moranis. I get it. When it comes to combat, however, your NPCs need to earn their coolness like the players. Don't try to manufacture coolness with big stats. Give the NPC only what they need to get across the fight flavor. If the NPC fails to look cool, then let it happen. If the NPC manages to wreck the PCs with limited stats and escape or even win the day the PCs are much more likely to respect that NPC and what they are capable of.

The best way to determine if an NPC is statted too high to earn their coolness is when you see the NPC able to wade through combat delivering hits. Once an NPC can eschew active defense to find a hole in a PC's guard then they are probably statted incorrectly. (It is for this reason that I try to have a 5 or 10 point step back rule for my big NPCs.)

Somewhat off topic, if you need a way to represent some kind of overwhelming threat to the PCs (a cosmic being, a corruptor, some kind of avatar) the best way I have found to do this is create a horrible, horrible pacing mechanic that the PCs have to overcome before they can really successfully engage in combat. If the PCs have to do three modules to find a way to become immune to a Banshee Lord's death scream, for example, the NPC will probably still seem epic even if the actual fight is slightly under statted since the NPC would, on a normal day, just kill them all with By My Voice effects.

Layers and Layers


Layers and Layers

While I started this blog with the intention of writing about all game design topics that interested me, I must admit I expected to write a lot about LARPing. I envisioned a blog where posts about LARP would be easy and plentiful, while posts about tabletop and MMO design would be harder to write. In practice I am finding it to be just the opposite.

Each time I begin to write down my thoughts on some LARP concept the advice quickly demands some tangential discussion that is well beyond the scope I had planned for the initial point. That's the nature of something as complicated as LARPing, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating to have a growing number of half finished LARP essays lurking about waiting for attention.

One issue seems to be that no matter how good I consider some piece of LARP advice to be, there is someone somewhere who had a positive LARP experience that is counter to that advice. This is because the art of running a LARP is really about managing player expectations. As such, each piece of advice comes with a myriad of exceptions and special cases. To put it another way, the very fact that a piece of LARPing advice is sound and good is the exact reason why a rare encounter that ignores it is memorable.

As I struggle with these concepts, and as I work on creating written pieces dedicated to LARP theory, the one constant piece of advice I can give about LARP advice is this:

When running a LARP, know when to ignore advice and common wisdom.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Initiative Systems


Initiative Systems

I can tell whether I will like a tabletop game by looking at three things. First, how the injury system works and whether it uses a shared resource. Second, how the character sheet reads. Third, what it uses for an initiative system.

Initiative systems are very important in a tabletop game. They are largely responsible for defining how a player interacts with the game. They are largely responsible for the pacing of the game. They are also largely responsible for keeping the attention of the players.

I really dislike initiative systems that are predictable, repetitive, and non-interactive. I can work with them; I enjoy running Pathfinder games for example, but these initiative systems work against me rather than with me when trying to keep the players engaged in combat. I tend to look for an initiative system that accomplishes several things:

~ The players don't need to roll initiative for every action.
~ The order of the combat actions are hard for the players to predict.
~ The players can take some actions on other players' turns.
~ I can keep the pace going using a quick countdown method.

The first point is obvious. Having players roll for initiative for every action slows down the pacing of the game. It's unnecessary and take away from the game. The main problem with this system is that the order of player actions is still predictable, it just changes from round to round.

Having a system that requires a roll for every 3 actions, however, seems to be the sweet spot. The new initiative throws a bit of chaos into the mix and the rolls aren't so plentiful that they become annoying. I find that an initiative roll every 3 or 4 actions generally means there are two initiative rounds per combat. Sometimes long combats require three rolls. The initiative rolls give a better sense of how many actions have passed in longer combats than round robin in an initiative order. The round also gives me a convenient set of actions with which to limit abilities. That seems to work best for my style of game.

The second point is a little harder to explain. One would think that being able to predict upcoming actions would be a benefit for a game, but I find just the opposite. If initiative moves in a set pattern, like in d20 where initiative is rolled once and then goes in that order for the length of combat, then the players tend to become complacent and inattentive when it isn't there turn. To wit, if a player looks up and says "Sorry it's my turn" then someone has done something wrong.

Instead the players should be listening to a fast initiative countdown to get their next action. Since they don't know the order of the current round until players speak up they have to pay attention. More importantly, there should never be a initiative mechanic that makes it seem like it will be forever until their next action. When that happens players start futzing with their laptops, start researching alternate builds, and generally lose interest in the combat until things come around to them.

Yes, a big part of this is the pace at which the gamemaster calls out and executes actions, and the pace at which the gamemaster expects players to do the same. But the initiative system itself can be very helpful for this, and it can also make this process more difficult.

The third point is very handy if you want to encourage players to pay attention, and probably the biggest omission of most systems I play. If you want the players to pay attention to combat, you have to give them some actions they can take in response to what is happening in combat. You can't have them take their one action and become inert as you work around the table and expect them to have a vested interest in all the other actions. If they can take minor actions to hamper enemies or aid friends, even when it's not their turn, then the initiative system is encouraging the rewarding them for staying engaged in the combat flow.

The fourth point simply means that the initiative totals should not be so high that it's awkward to count down the totals. I would rather start a quick count from 10 to 1 then counting down from 33 down. Yes, I can accelerate the countdown (and I do) by calling out the initiative countdown in larger increments. I ran many games of Villains and Vigilantes and early Shadowrun. I just prefer lower totals.

Let's assume I have more players than I intended and I am game mastering for 9 players. The players are reasonably well versed in the game system, but let's face it with 9 players a game master will probably be challenged keep them all engaged and moving combat quickly.

My favorite initiative system uses individual dice to create a random spread of actions. As an example let's look at 7th Sea. You get one ten sided die for each action your character has. Throw them all and set aside each individual die (or at least its value) to determine the phase during which you can act. The values range from 1 to 10, thus the game is designed with 10 phases.

The average NPC and the minions have two action dice, the combat capable characters have 3, and the fast or very capable characters get four. If a PC with three actions rolls a 9 and a 4 and a 2 then those are the action phases they will act on. If I start counting down "10..9..8.." that player would call out 9 and I'd direct them to briefly describe their action.

With this system when I start the countdown no player knows how many people are before them unless they are trying to observe all the initiative rolls of the PCs to see how they all did. That's fine, since those players watching all the initiative rolls in engaged in the game.

If someone rolls doubles in my system they get a special "double action" so even though doubling up reduces your actions you at least get to use special attacks during those actions. I like this system because it provide natural opportunities to use special heroic actions. I also like this system because the number of actions can also vary. As an example, it's possible for someone with 4 actions to double up twice and only get two actions. As the game master I only have to count down 10 numbers regardless of what the players roll.

The key to this initiative system, however, would be if the players have a few "interrupt actions" or perhaps "open actions" that they can take any time, even if someone else is trying to describe their own action. These open actions cannot be complicated since they would bog the game down. They just have to be interesting and beneficial enough to warrant paying attention.

As an example, let's say a player had two open actions per turn. Through various character options the player has the following open actions.

~ After another character declares an attack you may use one of your open actions to give them +2 to hit for that attack.

~ After another character declares an attack you may use one of your open actions to give their target +2 to defense for that attack.

~ If a character moves through your threatened space you may se an open action to take a single attack against them.

With these simple options the players will probably be paying attention to the combat even when they are not up for an action so they can make good tactical decisions about how to use their open actions. So long as I keep a brisk initiative count, and I will in fact keep the count going if a player is not ready to act when I call out their number, the combat moves along and players are rewarded for paying attention.

Depth of Gameplay Does Not Equal More Buttons


Depth of Gameplay Does Not Equal More Buttons

I have recently reworked my MMO button scheme. I will admit it; in the past I found it very awkward to use the Shift and Alt modifiers in combat to increase the number of keys I can use quickly. I have large hands, but even so I found shifting my hand to use modifier keys cumbersome at best, especially since I like strafing a lot and need a finger on a strafe key most of the time, especially while tanking. This proclivity also means that using the double mouse buttons for forward movement isn't as useful for me since I prefer strafing when I can. As such, my left hand is usually busy with a movement key, and I find dropping a finger to a modifier key to be cumbersome.

My newest scheme is to remap (with various mouse driver support) one mouse button to be the Shift modifier key. This works well for me as it basically doubles my combat buttons. Once I relearned all my button habits I began remapping certain functions.

I can now use the following buttons in active combat such as tanking and PvP.

A-W-D: Left Turn/Strafe, Forward, and Right Turn/Strafe.
Q: Target Closest Enemy
E-R-T: Mapped to abilities. R is usually my CC break and T is usually taunt or CC.
Shift + E-R-T: I try to make these the AoE or extended version of E-R-T.
1-2-3-4-5-6-7: Mapped to abilities. 6 is usually an interrupt
Shift + 1-2-3-4-5-6-7: Mapped to abilities. Shift 6 is usually my main AoE.
F1-F2-F3-F4: Mapped to abilities, usually my proc abilities so I can quickly see if they are lit.
Shift + F1-F2-F3-F4: Mapped to my "oh crap" buttons like Evasion, emergency heal, etc. Sometimes these are stances.
F: Usually Charge, Sprint or similar movement ability.
Shift F: Mapped to ability, usually a ranged attack to "pull" mobs when I can't charge.
~: Usually to go in or out of combat.

For numpad button use I usually hit them with my mouse thumb. Thus only the outer rim are used for in combat abilities.

Numpad Subtract: Usually used as my "Needs Rage" button like enrage or Energy replenish.
Numpad Add: Mapped to oh crap ability.
Numpad Enter: If I can get it to map separately from Return I'll use it for an oh crap ability.
Numpad 0: Usually a healing potion.
Numpad Decimal: Mapped to an "oh crap" ability.
Numpad 8: Mapped to our of combat rest or food.
Numpad 9: Activate a mount.
Numpad 1-7: Various out of combat abilities like toggles and buffs.

Why am I telling you this?

Well as I was perusing my latest keymap schema I asked myself why am I playing games that require me to keymap 40 buttons. These are not my buffs or toggles, but a layout of actual game abilities I use in combat situations that I feel must be on demand. Some are attacks, some are stances that I need to change on demand, some are abilities that light up under certain circumstances, some are defensive cooldowns, some are agro control, and some are obscure special case abilities that are only accasionally useful. Why do designers feel the need to create so many buttons? Surely they can create depth of play without adding 30+ separate abilities to each character.

One problem with MMOs is that players like getting new abilities. They like a sense of progression. As a result once levels climb the number of abilities that accumulate grows with it. Designers are also loathe to retire abilities as players level as it seems clumsy to just have players drop previous abilities off their bars.

For me the sweet spot seems to be 6-12 active combat buttons. I am not counting buffs or toggles that are hit to prepare for playing the game. I am only talking about active abilities. Fewer and the game seems boring.

As an example, Champion Online is a beautiful game, I love the animations and comic book art style. I love the costume options. The characters have a better look than City of Heroes and I can actually make more of my tabletop characters in that game than in City of Heroes. Why don't I play it? Well, when I log in to my main characters I find I complete most of the content by hitting two buttons; I either hold down my cone ability until the current pod of enemies dies or I hold down my single target attack until the stronger opponent goes down. Occasionally I will hit a defensive cooldown. Yes, I can create a build that chains buffs to increase my damage output but even with that my ranged game play boils down all too often to holding down one button. I understand that the mantra of Champions is to have no cooldowns but this is not compelling gameplay to me.

On the other hand, there has to be a better way to design that having 40 buttons worth of fringe abilities meant for special case situation. On my Juggernaut in SWTOR, for example, I have a 60 second cooldown attack that only works on minions under the influence of a CC, and another 60 second cooldown attack that only works on minions that are affected by a slow effect. And yes, I can find situations where they are useful such as chaining a Force Charge Stun on a minion with a followup attack to reduce the initial spawn, but seriously? Do either of these warrant extra abilities?

In my opinion designers need to pare down abilities to a core set of buttons that provide game play depth. Although League of Legends isn't my thing, it does do a good job of providing a very good depth of play from a smaller set of button mashing abilities. A designer can add a lot of depth and a lot of abilities with a much smaller button set. Designers don't need 40 buttons, and they don't need a player to watch three or four different "proc" abilities light up to make game play interesting.

If game play is such that a player gets bored with a basic 4 button rotation, one proc ability, combos, and a defensive cooldown or two maybe a more complicated rotation isn't the answer. Maybe the basic game play of the game is lacking. That player should get enjoyment from looking at the screen and reacting to the environment rather than looking at their bar for the next proc to light up. This is my problem with typical tank-healer-DPS design. At it's core it's boring to DPS a boss that is totally focused on a tank. As a result designers come up with more and more complicated scenarios to try to add twists and make this basic premise more interesting rather than questioning the premise in the first place.

(As an aside, I am excited to see what Guild Wars 2 does to avoid the "holy trinity" design and I hope they stick to their guns with that.)

So what is a designer who has to fill 90 levels with cool abilities to do?

Ability Upgrades:
Instead of giving a new ability, upgrade an existing ability in a meaningful way. As an example, if a player has a basic reliable AoE then that ability can progress in a meaningful and satisfying way as the player levels.

As an example, in addition to getting an increase in damage, a basic AoE can be upgraded.

Level 10: Player gets a basic fireball that can strike 3 foes.
Level 20: The fireball gets a DoT component. The particle effect is upgraded to be more intense.
Level 30: The fireball particle effect is upgraded and made larger. The radius increases and it now can hit 4.
Level 40: Another bump in radius and damage. The particle now has a swirling maelstrom of fire.
Level 50: The maelstrom is more intense, and AoE can now hit 5.
Level 60: The maelstrom now shows a Phoenix briefly appearing in the center. Allies get a small heal.

I feel that each of these simple upgrades would be a welcome addition to the character progression without throwing a new ability blindly into the mix.

Rather than giving new abilities each with their own button, introduce new combinations that result in using abilities in different combinations. Let's say you have a dual wielding melee character with only 4 abilities. you have a basic double thrust, a slashing combination, and three part slashing animation, and a spinning AoE. Even with only 4 buttons you could introduce combinations as the character progresses through levels that have different special effects. While I wouldn't go so far as to add in Street Fighter level of combos, having each combination end with a different special buff or debuff could add a lot of gameplay depth.

This could work well with spells. I can envision a spell casting system where the player only have a few abilities (each a rune) but they need to be pressed in a certain order to get certain spell effects. Creation + Fire + Power might be a fire based heal spell, while Destruction + Water + Persistance would be an Ice Bolt with a freezing damage over time effect.

Using these design principles a talent tree could be used to buff you basic abilities and provide new effects for your abilities instead of giving you new buttons. I feel that resisting a design where talents provide more abilities to press is cleaner anyway.

These are just a few upgrades games could adopt to avoid button bloat.