Metatopia 2014 Recap: Part 1, Friday Panels

Metatopia has a surprisingly robust panel track because of its strict focus on game design, development, and play testing. When I sat down to arrange my schedule, I found myself filling in something for every hour of every day. The panels were that good. Given that I only played in four short sessions of RPGs, there were a lot of panels I attended. 

Panel Recap

How to Make Hacking Interesting in RPGs

Presented by Shane Harsch, Clark Valentine, and Tim Rodriguez

Shane happens to be an IT security professional working for one of the larger firms in the industry. He brought a lot of real world knowledge and a no-nonsense approach to the panel that kept it grounded. His argument was that hacking should not be a a subsystem in a game, should not isolate one character/player, and should have consequences in the fiction.

Two definitions of hacking were presented: pushing boundaries of form or art; and, making something do things it was never meant to do. These are interesting definitions if you consider their scope and how they apply to game design as well as computer intrusion.

Hacking presented in popular media is mostly about fame and glory. It’s focused on the renegade, punk hacker sticking it to The Man. In real life, most serious hacking is done to achieve economic parity or simply for money; fame and glory doesn’t really enter into it.

He outlined the components of an attack: time, skill, and tools. The time necessary for a hack can be surprisingly high. It requires persistence and often multiple attempts are made over the life cycle of an attack. Skill is largely operational rather than engineering. It is the skill of knowing how to use software and not necessarily creating one’s own exploits. (Repeated mentions of zero day exploits being crafted and sold on the black market were made over the course of the panel.) Lastly, tools are the software and hardware a hacker uses to access a system.

One of the slides contained a full outline of an attack that I didn’t write down but it was very similar to the stages of a battle: reconnaissance, incursion, seizing control, and finally victory. There were probably ten steps of a hack and it was all very goal oriented. This was not really that gameable, in my opinion, because it’s very process oriented and doesn’t focus on the fictional outcomes.

Shane also presented us with a quote from a notable hacker/security professional: “A motivated, skilled, well funded hacker will get in.” This is great fodder for games as the meat of the hack can be attaining the states of motivated, skilled, and funded. Particularly if you loop back to Shane’s earlier points about skill and tools.

Clark posited that the reconnaissance stage of a hack is where the fun in a game is. This means that any character, even the bard, could be a hacker because it’s about gaining information. The old adage that the weakest part of computer security is the user was brought up and suggested as a game hook

The closing discussion involved Shane explaining that the sophistication in any hack comes from the user (that is, the hacker) and that the big hacks are all objective based: hackers are seeking specific information. The best part of hacking in a game is dealing with the consequences. Highly secure systems will know they have been hacked, what happens then?

This was an excellent panel that could have easily been very dry but Shane kept the pace quick and din’t get bogged down in the technical minutia. It was one of my favorites.

Adventure Design as Technology

Presented by Rob Donoghue and Cam Banks

Rob and Cam approached the idea of adventure design from the perspective that different processes and presentation can greatly improve the games people play. This is only partially best practices from GMs because that sort of thing is fraught with pitfalls of misidentification and misapplication.

The conversation began in earnest with the premise that dungeons have been popular for so long because they constrain the fiction and make it easier to maintain the flow of the game. The downside to it is that dungeons are very easy to design poorly and attempts to make them filled with more meaningful choices often results in the dungeon being filled with false choices.

GM Railroading was discussed briefly and was defined as a style of gaming where the players are the audience. This can be powerful for short term games, specifically convention slots, but is problematic in longer term games not only from a lack of player agency but also from GM creative burnout. However, it may be most useful as a learning tool and aid for developing system mastery.

“Adventures are the UX of your game.” This quote really resonated with me. To the average player the adventure is the game. Having solid adventures needs to be a focus if you are going to publish adventures. To have a successful adventure it must: 1) Be fun to play; 2) Give the GM the needed information; 3) Showcase the coolest features of the game.  Rob makes an argument that the people who design and publish the game need to also be responsible for publishing the adventures because it will by its nature be a reflection of what the designers think is cool about the game. If anyone else designs the adventure it becomes a reflection of what they think is cool.

Box Text was covered as a tool that is often designed wrong in adventures. It should be focused on GM usability but is mostly filled with purple prose. Rather than writing lurid description, give the GM useful information. Related: managing layout so that each encounter is on a single page or two-page spread.

Hard and Soft Points is a technique where major plot points are guaranteed but the interstitial material is optional story content. Cam points out this is how Events in Marvel Heroic worked.

Set Pieces is the idea that the GM thinks of two or three cool scenes and finds a way to work those into the game. See Feng Shui for more information or Dungeons & Dragons 4e: Dungeon Delve for examples.

Fronts seem daunting at first but in reality is just a system for taking notes. Notes are reminders and a way of asking yourself questions. Having Fronts minimizes the disconnect between adventure logic and the emergent story. They can also be set up with triggers or moves coded like so: “When the players do X, this Front does Y.”

Plot Points is a system by which the map has locations and each location has a story element contained within it. Savage Worlds adventures are purportedly arranged this way. Anyone who has played Skyrim knows what I mean. The best example cited for this in RPGs is Savage Worlds: 50 Fathoms.

Island Technique wasn’t discussed much but it was described as having an array of consequences. This was suggested as useful for running a campaign but not necessarily publishing one.

Random Encounters were covered and largely panned because they are typically disconnected from the actual fiction in play. Tying random encounters into the story and drawing connections to the adventure was suggested as an alternative. Cam offered the specific perspective that filing the numbers off the table and using it as a set of soft points would be better.

Welcome to the IGDN

Presented by Mark Diaz Truman joined by Marissa Kelly, Jason Pitre, and Brie Sheldon.

The Indie Game Developer Network (IGDN) is a non-profit organization of game designers who look to support one another and improve the skills, connections, and publishing efforts of the members.

As a professional organization, I really like the sound of IGDN and I am tempted to join. The only reason I didn’t is because I’ve been going through some fairly traumatic institutional drama with my fraternity the past few years and the structure, goal, and organizational culture of the IGDN is just a little too close to that for me right now.

I think they can be a tremendously helpful and empowering organization for their members. I just need to get over my own baggage before I can be one of them.

Adapting Television to RPGs

Presented by Rob Donoghue, Cam Banks, Darren Watts, Ken Hite, Cam Banks, and Chris Klug.

This was one of the grittiest, behind-the-scenes panels I attended. There was some excellent discussion on the challenges and pitfalls of licensing, including amusing, vindictive anecdotes involving WotC in the early 2000s.

The biggest discussion was on staying true to what makes the show interesting. Designing any game requires you to have a list of the beats your game must hit in order to be successful. The benefit of designing a licensed property is that the beats are laid out for you. Leverage had to have heists, flashbacks, and feature super competent PCs taking down complete jackwad baddies. James Bond 007: Role-Playing in Her Majesty’s Secret Service needed to make players feel like a superspy.

Ken Hite talked at length about using the visual material and aesthetic from a property to inform the aesthetic of the game product. Doing so commands an emotional state within the audience.

Visual Design as Metaphor: Evolution of a Character Sheet

Presented by Jason Morningstar.

This panel was a deep, deep dive into the organization and construction of the Night Witches character sheet over the course of twenty-three iterations. My hat is off to Jason. There was a look at how the sausage was made in this panel.

What I found most intriguing about this is how a character sheet reflects the design goal and intent of a game. Ostensibly what is on the character sheet should say what the game is about. To that end, I love that the campaign medals are on the Night Witches character sheet. It is saying up front: this game is about the Soviet campaign of World War II.

Jason walked us through his various mis-steps with the game and what just didn’t work. The character sheet got really, really complicated and bloated around version nine or so with a full page of box text to read. For a long time an element he stuck with was the idea of writing a pulpy story title for your character. This was eventually abandoned. One early change that stuck through to the end was naming the different play books after birds.

Mostly this was an encouraging panel because I got to see a little of how many mistakes, mis-steps, and failures even talented, experienced game designers like Jason make in the course of a game. I’m setting the bar too high for myself. I need to accept that shit’s gonna suck at first and it can be fixed later.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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