Approach and RPG Design

I was talking the other day with some RPG design nerd friends (let's be clear, they're nerds about a lot of things, this was just the overlap we were talking about) about items and what makes items in RPGs fun. We've all gotten to the "because they let you do things you couldn't otherwise do" part, even if we're sure there's something else we're missing.

I pointed out that in the real world, technology (usually) gets invented to do a thing we already do better in someway, and then we figure out the new things it allows us to do. W said I was looking at broad technology, like computers, where they were looking at Joe PC's L33t MaGIc Haxxzor Rig. which got us to looking at the forest to figure out how to implement the trees, "Needs moar tree.", and the design failures of writing the forest, i.e. interchangeable and uninteresting items.

All of which has me thinking about the approach to RPG design issues. Is it better to start from the tree level: what do you want X to do in your game? Or is it better to start from the forest level: what makes X fun? How does that integrate and impact the other aspects of the system? How does X actually work in the real world and how are we importing it into the game?

... As you might be able to tell from having more forest questions, when approaching an abstract question like this, I default to 'forest' mode.

That said, my personal opinion is it depends. I know, real useful that. But I don't think this is something you can look at in isolation. A systemic, big picture approach is probably going to work better for a more narrative heavy system, one with more abstraction up at the systemic level. A deep dive into individual components, a more 'tree' approach if you will, is going to work better in systems where you want the difference between different items of the same type matter to game play.

Also, in my ideal RPG design scenario, you have multiple perspectives. Even if you're the sole designer for a product, being able to bounce thoughts and ideas off of someone who approaches things from a different perspective (writing groups are great guys) is going to get you a stronger product. 

That's the whole idea behind play testing, isn't it? Hand off your project to someone who only knows what's on the page (instead of what's in your head) and see if it works.

Scenarios and Systems I will probably not write

I've been immersed in the tabletop RPG world long enough that random things get my brain to churn out an idea for a scenario or a system at a distressingly regular rate. Distressing not because I dislike feeling creative and having ideas. But because, despite writing down the better ones to come back to later, I am fairly sure I will not find (make) the time to turn them into usable things. Because the editing and general fiction writing I do is a) more satisfying and b) expands to fill the available time, if allowed. I could fix this by just setting aside some time every week to just. freaking. write. these things. But then I'd have more projects in various states of incompleteness and each one would make less visible progress on a day-to-day basis. Which I would find more frustrating than having lists of scenario and system ideas I know I probably won't get to. It's entirely in my power to change the dynamics and make the time. I've just calculated for myself that the trade-off, right now , isn't worth it. Maybe that will change in the future, maybe it won't. But if it does, I've got my list of ideas I can use.

Scenarios ideas:

Giftschrank: I've written about this one (and the next one) for this blog before, but I haven't written the scenario yet, so it belongs on the list. The original posts went up March 14th 2016 and March 24th 2016 but the summary version is that Giftschrank literally means 'poison cabinet' and, in German, refers to the cabinet the controlled substances go in a pharmacy or, in a library, refers to a biohazard zone for information. Which just screams for a scenario in the Eclipse Phase universe about information escaping/being stolen from a research facility located on an exoplanet only accessible through a Pandora Gate with the players unsure which side they are or should be on. If I ever actually start writing scenarios, this will probably be first, just because it was the first one I wrote down and I really like the name.

Courrières Mining Disaster: I've also written about this idea, back on the 31st March 2016, but. In 1906, a very large mine in France exploded and then caught fire. It was an awful disaster that killed more than a thousand people, but the part that caught my attention was the group of miners trapped underground, in the dark, for more than a month  before rescuing themselves. To which I said, 'damn that would make a terrifying Call of Cthulhu scenario, the system already had a sanity mechanic.' Writing this one up would involve really learning the 1920s era Call of Cthulhu system, researching mining equipment, technology, and practices of the era, finding a map of the actual site (shouldn't be too difficult...), and building the characters, because no way in hell an I going to let the players build some insanely broken character taking a gun and no rope into the mine for some reason.

Base Raiders: I also have an idea for a base to loot. Well, more like a scene within the base. Let me give y'all the backstory first, because the idea came from understanding the Base Raiders setting. Base Raiders is a Fate system by Ross Payton where the players are in a world where superheroes existed before suddenly disappearing on a day. Left behind were are those superheroes' and supervillains' hidden bases, which you, as PCs, go raiding. Also, lots of the PCs are turning into superheroes themselves.

The idea for the base I'd write is that it's a superhero family and friends' ER and hospital.  Family and friends a superhero thought might be a target for hostage situations would be given emergency teleporters paired with medical monitoring devices. When the teleporter detects tampering or the monitoring service detects a problem, the user is teleported to the triage room of the base or, if the problem is severe enough or the facility is marked as currently slammed, directly into cryogenic freezing. This all came from expanding a scene in my head of a dead body on the floor of medical bay, face down in front of a gurney, having obviously bled out, based on the very old, dried pool of blood the corpse was lying in.

As for writing it up, I'd need to read the system (yes again) in order to make sure something like this doesn't already exist in canon, figure out power-levels of gear that could be looted (all of which would be medically based/themed), and see what kind of security other bases use. Then I'd need to figure out what sort of security would be compatible with a hospital. 

Systems: 

The first two system ideas come from encountering the flashbacks in the Leverage RPG (through the Drunk & the Ugly's APs) and Red Markets' non-linear time mechanic with scams in negotiations. Also how much I enjoy cop procedurals and heist films. ... And now that I'm thinking about it to write this post, Shadow Run and the inordinate amount of time I have spent planning how to hack, rob, extract, and otherwise do mischief to fictional corporations in a cyberpunk dystopia.

Any rate. 

The first is a system around criminal heists with Ocean's 11 style flashbacks while the second has cops investigating crimes with flashbacks to what the criminals did as the cops figure it out. Alternatively, combine the two where the players are both a cop and a criminal. The scenarios would start with a crime having been committed so you have the end result and the cops need to work backwards. When they figure out something, everyone switches over to their criminal character and there's a scene of what happened. I don't actually know where I'm going with this one, or really why/how is different than Leverage so there's a secondary reason this one probably won't see the light of day.

The next five are all systems I'd like to write using the Profit system found in Red Markers:

Running a community hospital

Stone Age tribe level survival

1800s escaped slaves survival

1800s colonization of the American West

Modern day survival scenarios  

So... a lot of survival games in there... It fits with the Profit system's focus on trade offs, opportunity costs, and resource scarcity. Which is how health care fits in with the rest of them for me: resource scarcity. What can I say, there's two ER doctors and a health policy economist in my family, I hear and talk about this sort of stuff more than the average lay person. For the community hospital, I think the players should be the administrative heads of various departments in the hospital. Each compete for resources and prestige in order to stay relevant (and an actual department) while having to use the resources to drive value to the hospital (along with all the other departments) so the hospital can keep their doors open.

I'm picturing the Stone Age tribal survival system as a semi-cooperative, narrative game. My idea is that players control a section of the tribe, like the hunters, the gatherers, the shamans, the elders, etc. instead of individual characters. So folks need to cooperate for the tribe and the characters they're responsible for survive but there's room for intra-tribe politics and changing what kind of society you're building. Sessions/scenarios would be things like going on a hunt, gathering resources, dealing with nature, or trying to build up a tribal improvement (like finding a good source of flint so the nappers can make better spears or something). I think I'd handle trying to change societal norms through an altered negotiations mechanic.

For the escaped slaves system, I was thinking of the American South but if I made this work I could expand it to other countries in the Western hemisphere during the same time period. For instance, I happen to know for a fact there are tribes of folks in Suriname (a small country north of Brazil) in the interior composed entirely of folks who ran from the plantations on the coast and reformed societies like the African ones they were stolen from. But the core idea came from a session recorded for Technical Difficulties (which hasn't been released yet) — it was a Call of Cthulhu game where the characters were escaped slaves who headed into the Great Dismal Swamp to escape pursuit. I'd be interested in stripping out the magic and making it just about survival and what risks the players are willing to take. Do you work towards making a life in the remote area you're hiding in? Escape to the North? The West? Canada? Flat out, can you avoid the slave catchers and are you willing to kill to stay free?

Thinking about that lead to the idea for a system in the American West about colonization. I'd want to write it so you could play the Americans pushing west (and stealing land from the Native Americans in the area) or as members of local Native American tribes. As an American, you're away from civilization, in remote areas, how do you survive? You're invading land someone else calls home under the belief of Manifest Destiny, that you deserve it more, that they're 'savages'. How far are you as a player willing to go as a character who believes those things, explicitly or implicitly? As a Native American, do you resist? Adapt to the changing social and political climate?

Both the last two systems would require a lot of research for me to feel comfortable contemplating writing. For the American West one, I would want to do as much research as possible before even attempting to approach members of the tribes in question to ask for advice. And I'm not a historian in training nor do I have the inclination during my free time. I mean, I'd do it because I have a specific goal and I'm good about working towards goals. But yeah, I am not unaware of how much work these two systems would require from me. At least I might be able to use the same information on tools and technology across the systems.

The last system, the modern day survival system, seems the easiest of the proposed systems. I'm already familiar with the time period :) Just have to research survival skills and craft a narrative around why the players are in such straits. I'm not saying that's not work, I'm just saying the other systems require researching skills and setting/time period. Thinking about the narrative, it feels like a system build around one-shots — here are your characters, here's the situation, survive. I mean, unless you're a Special Forces operator going through training, I'm not too sure why you'd end up in a series of life threatening survival situations. ... If you do, maybe it's time to look at your life choices. Anyway, I'm thinking of things like 'You're all average people from X country who just survived a plane crash in Y location. Survive until rescue or get yourselves back to civilization.' scenarios.

So there you have it, three scenarios for three different systems and six or seven full systems I probably will never write. Unless someone wants to collaborate on them and kicks my ass. I'm real good at working on things when I'm responsible to another person. ;)

Pulling together a scenario

The other week I volunteered to try and improvise a session of A Dirty World for my gaming group. Pretty much as soon as the words were out of my mouth I realized that a) I didn't have characters generated they could use and b) I really wanted a review of the rules before I ran anything. Luckily for me and my big mouth, the group choose an Eclipse Phase one-shot instead. Which let me tell you, was soooooo much fun; our characters all died horribly!

But, you know, now I really should follow up on making that A Dirty World scenario. 

For those unfamiliar with the system, A Dirty World is a One Roll Engine powered system designed around noir/hardboiled stories. Mechanically, you're rolling d10s looking for matching numbers. Thematically, the attributes that build that pool of d10s you're rolling describe your mental state (mostly), rather than your skills. Are you more observant or more better at demonstrating? Patient or cunning? Because right now, to spot that ambush in time, you're going to have to roll that Cunning Observation. 

Getting back to scenario building, I did quite a bit of editing on Red Markets over the US Federal Holiday weekend, so I had the advice to 'zombify your surroundings' kicking around in my head on Tuesday. Which produced the lovely little reaction of "gods damn it brain: set the scenario in Baltimore, with the PCs as local law enforcement! WTF could go wrong with that? </sarcasm>" when that thought percolated up in my brain. I may have only grown up in the Baltimore suburbs, but still, that's the area that came to mind. Although now, of course, I have to name the PCs off of characters from Homicide: Life on the Street. Could be worse, I suppose — I could be pulling everything from The Wire

The original 'what are we going to play tonight?' came up because one of us is on a business trip for almost a month, in a job that's eating all his free time. So all of a sudden we were  down to two players and a GM. I'd like to have something in my pocket if that situation comes up again. Which says to me the PCs should be partners in local law enforcement. That gets me the structure of a newer, younger partner and the veteran. I mean, it's a trope/classic/cliché for a reason. Then, if we suddenly have one more player, I could add a journalist on ride-along (which should display my influences right there). If I've got two more players (four total), another set of cops makes the most sense. Either set could be patrol officers or detectives, but if there's four players, I should definitely enforce one set of each, instead of letting everyone be detectives or patrol officers. It's noir after all, got to have conflict.

Given the idea of a journalist on ride along (ooh, or I could make them an investigator from the Department of Justice), this is definitely set in the now, instead of noir's usual period of somewhere between the 30s and 50s. Cops suggests investigating a homicide, but that's my bias from TV dramas showing. No reason they can't be in units focused on arson, or burglary, or identity theft, etc. This being Baltimore, and especially with Freddy Gray, race and racism are going to have to be an element in the story. Which would also explain the DoJ investigator. 

Any rate, for the story/mystery itself, I'm either going to pull straight from The Wire or use the random plot generator included in the book. It's called One Roll Legal Problems; I've got to give it props for the name.  Whichever I actually do, I think I'll walk through using the generator and writing up a plot for next Thursday's post. Having the setting, time period, general character types, and an element or two I want to include in the story feels like good progress during the week.

Of course the second I started going back through this part to add links, I find a free scenario the game designer offers on his website... Welp, looks like I'll have two games to choose from! And a model scenario on how to write one up in-system. On wards! 

System Fluency: Gaming edition

I also have some thoughts on ‘system fluency’ in the context my friend, the Shadow Run GM, used the term. See, roughly two years ago my IRL gaming group reformed after a post-college break of multiple years. The GM hasn't had a chance to fully use the fourth edition of Shadow Run and wanted to run a campaign before he even considered buying fifth edition. Shadow Run is his system the way some folks apt D&D or Pathfinder reasons as their system: he knows the system lore and plot at a pretty deep level and it's his default system to run a campaign in. That's the kind of story he wants to tell (and yes, only tell — I don't think he'll be convinced to play anytime soon, if ever).

We have, on occasion, gone three months between sessions. Just life stuff killing scheduled time.

Ignore the difficulty of keeping a story going and fresh with such big breaks between events. We're having a hard time keeping the rules in our heads. The same things cause us to stop and look specific, fiddly rules up from session to session, players and GM alike. We aren't gaining system fluency. Our 'speech' in the language of Shadow Run is still halting and dependent on dictionaries/grammars. The rules and our lack of fluency in them is placing a barrier between us and the story we're failing to craft.

I honestly think system fluency (or lack there of) can play a big part in how enjoyable an RPG system or campaign is. How often have we heard 'the rules got in the way of the game'? Time spent looking up rules is at the table is time not spent interacting with friends or the story. Unless your type of fun is studying RPGs to gain system mastery, that's not fun. (And if that is your type of fun, you can do that in between sessions, yes?)

All of which got me thinking about system design and how the system can aid or hinder gaining system fluency. And how I can pick up new systems faster. Especially since I've been playing a variety of systems with Technical Difficulties.

Rules light, narrative systems seem, to me, like they should be the easiest to pick up. There aren't a lot of rules to remember and what there are should be core mechanics. Things that apply across a spectrum of situations. For example, in Monster Hearts, everyone had four basic moves; the trick was figuring out how you wanted to apply them to this situation and what they said about your character. The difficulty with narrative systems though can be the lack of rules. If the system doesn't do a good enough job conveying the expectations of the system, the type of story it's supporting, I at least can end up flailing, feeling like there's no direction to go and unclear even on what tone to take.

Take, for example, Fate Core and Monster Hearts — Fate Core seems like an awesome system, one I could see using for a sword-and-sorcery epic fantasy and for a gritty investigation. So unless the GM has a clear vision of the world they want to build, the genre of the game to play, conveys that to the players, and gets buy-in from everybody, I'd be flailing as a player. This is not to say I don't like Fate Core — I do, have read up on the system for it's own sake, and would be willing to play in a campaign (or one shot) of Fate or its derived settings (which I haven't read up on yet). But only with a GM who has a clear idea on a campaign. It's a broadly applicable narrative system.

Meanwhile, Monster Hearts has one story it's designed to tell: teens/young adults growing up. You can layer all sorts of stories in that, but that is the core story the system is built for. I've got a direction to take my character and a tone expectation built in. So the system is doing the tone and expectation setting, before the GM ever needs to communicate with players. Gods help you if you want to do a different type of game or campaign with the system though.

In terms of learning these types of systems, I try to focus on core mechanics and narrative feel. So I pay more attention to included fiction and rules examples. 


On the other end of the spectrum are crunchy systems, things like Shadow Run and Eclipse Phase. My main attraction to Shadow Run used to be the cyberpunk setting, but over time the density of the rules and different systems for different classes (the magic system is different than the hacking system is different than the drones is different than...) has eroded my desire to play in the world. One of the things I think Eclipse Phase learned from Shadow Run is to keep the system flat. The magic system in Eclipse Phase is, fundamentally, the same system as performing any other skill: percentile dice under a skill rating target number.

Another thing the EP team is doing differently from SR is that the metaplot is not advancing — whether or not this is a good thing is more individual choice, but personally I'm in favor (and will get to why in a bit). In Shadow Run, there was a story line that canonically happened, lots of which were available to players as modules or campaigns, and then the world changed. It was time for the timeline in system to advance by five years and the next edition of the system to come out. Eclipse Phase is keeping the 'official' clock at AF 10 and diving deeper into various aspects of the setting — what would be the Monster Manual in D&D just came out (it's called X-Risks). 

Both the crunchy systems I know are heavy on rules and setting (Shadow Run more on the rules, Eclipse Phase more on the setting). Shadow Run feels like it has just the one story to tell: go do an adventure from the perspective of people outside the power structure of the world. My GM has played at least one adventure of Lurg, the combat medic mercenary, but the campaign we've been trying to do as a corporate black ops team is the one that's not working so well. And the GM has quietly been doing a lot of work in the background to keep the system balanced (not that he really has that time to spend). Eclipse Phase, I've run a dungeon crawl, I can see a long political intrigue campaign, I've heard an actual play adventure quest, I wanted a different actual play campaign to stop  play the war scenario they touched briefly, I could see running an investigation campaign. Heck, I could see running a police procedural. What I'm trying to say is that, like narrative systems, crunchy systems can range in scope of stories they support playing. So, you know, I think that's the place to start — figure out what type of story the designers expected folks to play in the system and use that to direct you to the rules to learn first. But for me, once I get the first set of rules, I really need to try an adventure or two. One, to figure out if things move fast enough that I want to keep playing and two, to figure out what set of rules to focus on learning next. Setting wise, I limit my dives into the sourcebooks to the areas most relevant to whatever we're playing next.

You know, if I don't have time to read them for fun.

I think that went all right

Not unexpectedly, last weekend's gaming session did not wrap up the plot – part two (of two, hopefully) is this Saturday.

And yes, I did steal shamelessly from Gibson's story Burning Chrome, just not as I expected to. I honestly thought I'd be snagging plot elements and instead used some of the setting places as starting points for my own plot elements. So the shameless stealing (homages...) were for the names of a couple characters and one place. Considering that Partner is the only one who's already read Burning Chrome though, I'm pretty sure I haven't given the other players any undue hints or accidental bum steers, which is a good thing. Now if I could just keep Partner from snickering in the background of the recording...

I'm finding that, when it comes to gaming, I'm much more of a pantser/improvisor than I expected. In this case, I came up with a basic setting and inciting action to get things started and after that... just went with off of what my players did. There were two options I could see them going in and, while I didn't have anything exactly planned for either, I had ideas on what could happen. But nothing set. Which might explain why I cut the session when the second major NPC showed up on screen but before they could speak – I've got to figure out what they'll open the dialogue with.

That said, I like running pre-made one-shots. I've felt like I know what I'm doing more and I've certainly been better about including more description... which might be an artifact of the different systems those games have happened in. All the pre-made one-shot's I've run have been in Eclipse Phase which has a very rich and deep setting description. This one was in a system which, as we've learned, wants the players and GM to collaborate together before hand to build aspects to the world and how it feels. But, yeah, either way, I need/want to work on improving my descriptions, both for gaming and in my writing.

Next week, thoughts on how my game finished and on the system we used in detail.

As promised

Shadows over Camelot, Arkham Horror, and why my partner won't play Arkham with me EVER AGAIN.

Let's start with Shadows over Camelot. Shadows is one of those games I can look at and say are very well designed and good games while not being for me. I like pure cooperative games – when I play, I care more about playing better than I did the last time than winning. I'm always in competition, but it's always with myself. Sure, winning is a nice indicator that I did well. But I've been pleased as punch at coming in second or third in a game where I feel I developed a better grasp of the mechanics or better strategy than last time. As well as utterly bummed out by winning a game I felt like I made a lot of massive mistakes during but got rewarded by randomness or other folks' bigger mistakes into a win.

Right, Shadows over Camelot.

First, Shadows forbids telling other players information about your hand directly. But they totally encourage putting on 'ye olde' speech patterns to exchange information. Because it's totally cool if you're speaking like the Hollywood stereotype of a knight. As cranky as that last sentence sounds, I actually did like that rule, it got me to exercise some linguistic trickery.

Second, the betrayer mechanic to Shadows is much more subtle than Dead of Winter's. Dead of Winter encouraged the betrayer revealing themselves in a sudden burst of destruction designed to wipe the other players out and win the game in one move. Shadows over Camelot encourages the betrayer to try to work the long-game, to survive undetected until the end – if they aren't found out, two out of twelve of the win mechanic are flipped from winning to loosing, so really big incentive there. The game is rather un-winnable unless everyone contributes everything they have and plays near perfectly every turn, so the best strategy my group developed as the traitor was to play just sub-optimally enough that entropy was winning, but still enough that it looked like you were giving everything you had. Not my desired play experience, but a well done game if that's what you want.

Arkham Horror

Believe it or not, this game was my first introduction to the Cthulhu mythos. Slightly ironic given how much Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green actual play podcast episodes I listen to (and play in) now, but I've never read H.P.Lovecraft's originals. Also, I have no plans to – I don't feel the need to subject myself to the racism, xenophobia, and sexism that were apparently a little much even for Lovecraft's day but spawned a mythology which still survives. I'm not going to get on anyone's case for making a different choice – time, place, and historical context after all – I'm just choosing not to imbibe from that particular fount myself.

Any rate. Arhkam Horror, the board game, is a purely cooperative board game. One of the Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time and space is trying to break into our reality and do whatever it is Great Old Ones do, inevitably spelling doom for humanity. You are investigators running around a little town called Arkham, in Massachusetts, trying to collect enough clues to close the tears in space and time to send the Great Old One back beyond time and space or build up enough weapons to induce a terminal case of kinetic lead poisoning. Because while they can tear your brain into a gibbering, weeping mess merely from looking at them, Great Old Ones will die to bullets. Who knew?

The game is hard, folks. During the first couple of months playing the base set when it came out in 2005, my group was winning by the skin of our teeth about 50% of the time and getting curb-stomped the other 50%. Time and movement are your most precious resources. Having the character who can deal with the problem that just popped up be stuck behind a monster on the other end of the board can spell your entire party's doom. But here's the thing – the game rewarded learning how to play, cooperating, and thinking about strategy. We really liked the game and played it pretty frequently. And started winning about 80% of the time. So we took out our preferred win condition. Our win ratio dropped back to 50/50. And then we started to creep back up to 80%. And figured out two mechanical hacks around Azethoth's three 'game over, you loose!' mechanics. By which point, the first expansion had come out and was promptly purchased.

You could play it like an RPG where your characters know what they know and don't have cell phones to coordinate with the other folks on the board. But my group always played like we had TacNet – think augmented reality tactical situation overlays where folks can share information back and forth, including getting a smart-link target lock for the person around the corner, in the other room. I use that comparison rather than the cell phones because the college gaming group I played with developed something of a hive mind about this game. Three of us could set up the entire game – base set, all three big box expansions, and all 4 little box card adders – in 15 minutes... That probably sounds more impressive to folks who've already played the game. But trust me, Arkham Horror takes a stupidly long time to set up.

So, we acted like a hive mind. 'Hey I think you should do X', without having to explain the rationale behind why, because as soon as it was pointed out, the other person saw the logic. Talking in short hand. Knowing which characters worked well off each other, which were under powered, and who's plot line you immediately went for and who's you ignored. 

Then we tried to play a game with my partner, newly back from the Peace Corps.  And forgot to slow down and explain what the heck we were doing. Didn't explain any of our strategy in order to teach what we had learned. More or less turning their character into a pawn we were moving on the board...

So yeah, partner will NEVER play Arkham with us again. Whoops... Don't be like us folk, remember to be inclusive of the new players. And go kill today's Great Old One, Arkham Horror's a lot of fun with folks who like cooperative games.

More on Dead of Winter

From @unsatisfiedkitty on tumblr last week:
Hi! I've been skimming your blog from reblogs by Ross & friends, but I'm very selfishly sending an ask about the Dead of Winter experience. I am 100% enthused by purely co-op experiences; is covering the changes you discussed within the scope of your blog? 

To everyone, yes please send me questions and thoughts y'all have from my blog – if I wrote about it once, I'll probably want to write about it again!

So the co-op experiences. First, Dead of Winter has five variants written into the rules book:

  1. Co-op Variant
  2. 2-player Variant
  3. Betrayer Variant
  4. Hardcore Variant
  5. Player Elimination Variant

Most of these are very simple rules tweaks to the main game. 
5.       Player Elimination just does what it says, if a player's last survivor dies, the player is eliminated from the game instead of drawing a new survivor with different gear. So an escalation in difficulty, but I haven't played this variant, so cannot report on how much of an escalation. Considering that in the four or five games I've played no one has lost their last survivor, I don't think this would alter play that much. 
4.       Hardcore uses the harder variant of the main goal, which is already written on the cards in use for the game's objective. Again, haven't played this variant myself since every game so far has involved new people learning the game. Throwing them against the extra-special-hard mode before anyone feels like they have an inkling of how to play is a great way to convince them to never play again. Either the game or maybe with you. 
3.       The Betrayer Variant alters the number of betrayal vs. non-betrayal secret objectives to make it more likely there's a betrayer in game play. Enough of an increase in odds, assuming I'm parsing the statistics correctly in my head, that you should play just assuming there is a betrayer and working to ferret them out. Instead of keeping an eye out for maybe there being a betrayer. In practice, I'm not sure how much this would alter game play for the betrayer, if they know what they're doing. The best strategy I've seen/thought of for the betrayer is to play perfectly, like they're not a betrayer, until they're the last player in a round, and then set up all the characters in locations to be eaten by zombies, cratering the morale track. 

Finally, Co-op variant. I think the 2-player variant is just a specialized version of the Co-op variant, so I'm going to fold it into the Co-op discussion. So choosing to play co-op alters the game from set-up on. Instead of dealing out secret objectives (betrayer and non-betrayer alike) everyone is working towards the main objective and only the main objective. That objective gets bumped up to the hardcore variant, the mechanisms for dealing with the betrayer (i.e. 'exiling' a player) are stripped out, and a set of 'no co-op' cards are eliminated from the game. The only difference between co-op and 2-player is the number of starting item cards and survivors everyone starts with.

Having played the base game where everyone cooperated anyway (only way we've ever won), I have hope that the designers got the difficulty level for the co-op variant balanced. It was difficult to win without the hardcore main objective, but we were a bit distracted with our personal secret objectives, wondering if so-and-so was a betrayer, and cards that would never be used (because we were cooperating) clogged up our hands a bit. Eliminate the cognitive load of the first two issues and increase the usefulness of your cards and the game absolutely will need a harder main objective to remain difficult. Given how much the co-op parts of the game work well together already, even if the competitive parts work less well, I do think the hardcore objectives will balance the game well.

End verdict: If you want a purely cooperative game and like zombie theming, Dead of Winter is a solid choice to play. Prefer Cthulhu Mythos and have a large board game budget? Arkham Horror. Want a competitive-cooperation game? Try Shadows over Camelot. 

Tune in next week for Shadows over Camelot, my absurd experiences with Arkham Horror, and why my partner won't play Arkham with me EVER AGAIN.

Should have seen that coming

So I was board gaming with some friends a couple weeks ago, playing a game called Dead of Winter. Adam and I had played the game a few times with other friends and at conventions, but this was the first time for our friends, so they had some thoughts.

Dead of Winter, as we played it, is a cooperative game with a traitor mechanic PLUS not everyone who cooperated will necessarily win. And yes, it's skinned as part of the zombie apocalypse, but that's not really important, not to the game play. And for the first time in my experience, we a) had a traitor and b) lost hard to said traitor. Let me be clear, the traitor played extremely well – it was her first time playing and she saw about three different ways to simultaneously screw us all over. It was extremely well executed game play. And I was enraged. Not at her game play, but at how effective it was.

So that day I learned I don't like the traitor mechanic in my cooperative games.

But any rate, one of these friends didn't like that the game wants you to finish the main objective as fast as possible, whether or not all the other people have completed their secret objective. Because the game didn't, in his opinion, present itself as a competitive coop game. So you had a competitive coop without enough rules support for that type of play. And he felt like the special things happening card deck (called the Crossroads deck) wasn't triggered often enough given the expectations it set (by existing and being drawn every turn). And then he felt like the traitor mechanic was too powerful. That the designers had overcompensated for the traitor being all alone by making it so their actions were so powerful there was no way for the rest of the players to recover.

"So... you wouldn't play again, would you?"
"Not unless we play a purely cooperative game."
"There's rules for that."

This is what happens when I talk game design with a second generation science-fiction/fantasy fan who's been playing Euro-style games since their teens with an eye on how the mechanics work so he can win. It's a like a college course on game design stretched over a decade with practical applications. And I love it.