Far West: That’s Why We Have Playtests….

Sorry for the lack of updates. Things have been…. interesting. (In the Chinese proverbial sense.)

Long story short — the playtest sessions for FAR WEST demonstrated critical areas that need a lot of work:

  1. The whole thing just wasn’t coming together. I was having a very hard time translating “cool in my head” to “cool in play experience.” The mix of genres needs to be more seamless. At times, it felt too much like standard Western + kung fu.
  2. The FATE system was the biggest part of the problem, to be honest. There are many things about it that I like quite a bit (The Aspects, for example). However, there were also things about it that just didn’t work for us (the FUDGE core — especially the dice mechanic, the level of abstraction, etc.)

    The main issue was that the way the rules are set up tends to pull the players out of immersive character-identification mode and has them existing in a sort of not-quite Players/not-quite GMs space where they’re equally crafting the tale. Which is fine, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into (a big selling point for the Indie crowd, for example). The problem is, that for a game revolving around action, there needs to be a certain amount of immersion (which is one of the only ways in which the thrill is translated from the abstract to the player’s experience), which just can’t happen if you’re looking at the Big Picture of “Story.”

So, the end result of all of this: We’re back to the drawing board.

If the game progresses, it will most likely take the form of a new rules system, which contains the open-source elements of FATE that I really do like, but wedded to an overall system which better suits my needs. There’s also the chance that I may just end up dropping the idea of the game entirely, and concentrate on the setting as a novel.

I felt that you deserved an update, since folks seemed interested in what was developing. But this point, to be completely honest, I have yet to make up my mind.

Your comments and questions are welcome.

40 Replies to “Far West: That’s Why We Have Playtests….”

  1. I’d really, really like to see this pan out. I find it an awesome setting concept.

    A suggestion for the “Standard Western + kung fu” bit – perhaps asking the players, “Here’s a gang of robbers that has been extorting from peasants.* How would a kung fu master deal with the situation?” Similarly, “Here’s an ancient ceremonial weapon that has been taken by a renegade priest. How would gunslingers deal with this?”

    If you’re having trouble with the mix, maybe start with an artificial initiation of the mix, and hopefully the players will follow suit.

    *I know Seven Samurai was the insipiration, but eh, it’s what came to mind first.

  2. A fair number of people seem to be experimenting with adding FATE 3.0 aspects to various existing systems, such as True20 and Savage Worlds. You might just want to think about how close various existing systems come to handling the core portions of the setting and see if aspects can be added gracefully to them.

  3. Sorry to hear it, amigo, but I’m sure however you wind up using it–game or novel setting or something else entirely–the time and effort you put into it won’t be wasted.

  4. I wish I had something constructive to add… I totally get what you are saying about FATE/FUDGE, but I don’t have any answers.

    I’m still pulling for Far West as an RPG; it’s THE coolest idea that I’ve heard in quite a long time.

  5. “The problem is, that for a game revolving around action, there needs to be a certain amount of immersion (which is one of the only ways in which the thrill is translated from the abstract to the player’s experience), which just can’t happen if you’re looking at the Big Picture of “Story.””

    I’m not sure that I understand this. Spirit of the Century is a game that revolves around action, and it works great with FATE, so I’m not really sure about what you’re saying. A lot of the FATE experiences I’ve had of late involved a good deal of immersion, also.

    I’m not attacking you or defending FATE. I’m just wondering if you’re sure about that statement or if maybe there’s something you’re not taking into account.

  6. I figured that I’d get some flack for that, which is one of the reasons why I’ve been dreading this post.

    FATE, SOTC and other Indie/Forge/Story games blur the lines between GM and Player. The players are required to think in more “meta-game” terms than they otherwise would. In my experience, such thinking pulls the player further away from their character, and more towards the plot/story (at best) or towards the game itself as a construct (at worst).

    SOTC *says* that it revolves around action, but it’s more concerned with the outcome of scenes in general, than with the action itself.

  7. I wouldn’t say this is a characteristic of indie games in particular. Many games that focus in other things beside characters end up having the same “problem”. Still, in my experience, I get a good immersion out of FATE in particular. For instance, my PC for the FATE of the Rings campaign is a soldier-academic. My main skill is Academics, and I make declarations all the time. I find this liberating immersion-wise, since I can play a character that’s a lot more Middle Earth-savy than me without breaking character.

    But maybe your right, and maybe SOTC has changed my play style inadvertently. Still, I’m not sure that immersion=action. I would love to hear why you think it works this way, as it seems that this idea is going to heavily influence your design.

    Oh, and I’m still waiting for Far West, ┬íso please don’t give it up!

  8. Immersion does not equal action. Immersion is what makes the abstract experience of tabletop RPG action translate into an actual thrill for the player.

    …and if you’re seriously citing the ability to make meta-game alterations like declarations as somehow immersion-related, then yes, I think we can safely say that we’re not on the same page at all. :)

  9. I was really looking forward to this game. If you don’t end up going forward with it, would you consider releasing a document that compiles what you’ve put together so far?

  10. …and if you’re seriously citing the ability to make meta-game alterations like declarations as somehow immersion-related, then yes, I think we can safely say that we’re not on the same page at all. :)

    Can you expand on this? I’ve never actually played SOTC or FATE, though I’ve read them, and I don’t see how either is more or less immersive. For example:

    The group has finished beating up a bunch of cultists, and the PCs are looking for more info on them. If I understand SOTC correctly, a player could roll the dice, and, if they are successful, say, “Ah-ha! These cultists bear weapons that are only made in the Thought-Labrynths of Del’Mu!” In a more “traditional” game, the player would roll the dice and then say to the GM, “So, what do learn from examining the cultists’ weapons?”

    Why is the latter immersive and the first one not?

  11. Options

    I would say that if you don’t want players to have narrative control, the Far West setting might be better suited to d20 Modern/d20 Past or perhaps Green Ronin’s True20 core mechanics or maybe Savage Worlds.

  12. To respond in the structure of your example:

    Because in one, you break away from identification with your character long enough to dictate facts about the game setting.

    Or, to put it another way, can you really be immersed in something to which you’re also externalized?

  13. I can see how that would be the case in many instances. I guess I just respond to it differently, since I don’t see it as externalizing myself but rather an outgrowth of fully identifying with my character.

    From my end, when I’m very in-character, I find it instinctive to make up details about the world I’m gaming in, drawing on what I know already, whereas having to stop and ask someone else what my character knows takes me out of immersion while I wait for someone else to tell me what I (as my character) should know instinctively.

    Regardless, I hope you’re able to continue with the project in some capacity, as I find the setting extremely intriguing, and it’s extremely rare for me to be drawn to a game based on setting alone.

  14. SOTC *says* that it revolves around action, but it’s more concerned with the outcome of scenes in general, than with the action itself.

    Well, that’s flatly untrue, and I can back that assertion by being one of the guys who formed what the game’s concerned about. But I’m not all het up and emotional about saying that that’s untrue, so please don’t think that I’m getting all flamey here. I’m not, I promise. :)

    If we were more concerned about the outcome of scenes in general, the game would be far more oriented on set-your-stakes type bullshit that — for my tastes at the gaming table — IS immersion-destructive.

    What I think we’re really looking at here is the level of comfort players have with gaining authority over the narration. Fact of the matter is, some players aren’t, and won’t ever be, comfortable with it. That’s cool; to each his own, right?

    And in the end analysis, it’s that discomfort that will break immersion for someone. Discomfort is ALWAYS the enemy of immersion, regardless of system.

    There’s also an element here of how when someone feels like they’re in too much control of their own circumstances that they can’t identify with, immerse in, and enjoy their character’s experience as their character. This is a problem for me too, and I wrote about this extensively in a recent article posted over on the Page XX site: http://www.pelgranepress.com/seepagexx/october2007-FredH.html

    When it comes down to it I think there are at most two or maybe three places in the system which are EASILY modified that would put things more firmly in a traditional-game space where the GM has controlling authority and the players can rest safely and immersedly in the knowledge that they don’t have to pop out a GM brain in order to interact with the system:

    – Get rid of declarations. Any time the game would suggest you can do a declaration, instead make it an assessment: the GM comes up with what the results are instead of the player. (SOTC’s text should pretty clearly lay out that assessment = it came from the GM, declaration = it came from the player; since “it came from the player” is player-authority oriented, it needs to go.)

    – Get rid of player opt-out on compels. The GM is the authority; if he compels an aspect, you’re hit by that aspect, period. This is an optional removal; if you don’t think that the player deciding whether or not to buy out of a compel is anti-immersive, then it can stay. This basically moves compels into a space where aspects are like your standard Disads or Flaws on your character sheet, only you’re getting compensated whenever the GM decides to goose you with them.

    – Get rid of the idea that the player has to figure out which of his aspects he’s invoking when he spends a fate point. Again, optional, but some players feel it’s anti-immersive to have to figure out which of their aspects apply to a situation. If the GM has responsibility to figure out which aspects apply, then great! But in that light you may want to reduce the number of aspects someone has on their character sheet from 10 to 5.

    That’s really it in terms of system-mandated “the player must step out of a shared perspective with his character in order to think about the story” elements in SOTC, and I think the engine is still strong (though not AS strong) if you implement some or all of those changes.

    I’ve got more to say but I think I’m running up against a comment length limit shortly if not already…

  15. Oh, I also forgot! You can get rid of player control over his consequences. When he takes ’em, the GM tells him what they are.

    Anyway: You’ve also talked nonspecifically about the Fudge core, but there’s not a lot I can say there because it’s nonspecific.

    The level of abstraction … well, yeah — if that wasn’t obvious from the very start, I’m not sure what I can say in the face of the sudden onset of surprise. I also think it’s not that big of a problem, vs. your other concerns, and is something you could potentially get past if other stuff is addressed.

    The dice mechanic — I can talk about that a lot!

    In the upcoming Starblazer game, they’re using the SOTC core but going to a Feng Shui style dice method: d6 minus d6, yielding a -5 to +5 range with a greater frequency of the more extreme results (it’s a teepee instead of a bell curve, and it goes wider). It’s very simple, very fluid, and doesn’t wreck gameplay at all (since Aspect invocations act as something of a corrective on bad rolls anyway: even if you do reduce the number of player aspects, I’d still keep the refresh level at 10 to accommodate this) — if anything, it can enhance it.

    We’ve also toyed in the past with doing something more of a d6 style model, where each level equates to a certain number of d6es you roll. Here, you have something like this:

    Terrible 0d
    Poor 1d
    Mediocre 2d
    Average 3d
    Fair 4d
    Good 5d
    Great 6d
    Superb 7d
    Fantastic 8d
    Epic 9d
    Legendary 10d

    Aspect invocations would let you reroll all your dice, or roll and add 2d to your pool.

    Straight summing up of this gets you this difficulty progression as targets:

    Terrible Automatic
    Poor 2
    Mediocre 5
    Average 10
    Fair 15
    Good 20
    Great 25
    Superb 30
    Fantastic 35
    Epic 40
    Legendary 45

    A “shift” is something you gain for every 5 points (round up) by which you exceed the difficulty target. So, roll your Good skill, 5d, against a Fair target of 15, get a total of 21, and you’ve scored two shifts (6 / 5 = 1.2, round up to 2). This then slots into your stress mechanic, using shifts, etc, very easily. Stress could even be made easier by leaving the shifts out of the whole stress mess and instead lay out the stress track as a range of results, 1-5 for the first box, 6-10 for the second box, 11-15 for the third, etc. Then, you only need to use “shift think” when using them to, say, govern the # of facts determined on an investigation roll, reduce the time factor in picking a lock, etc.

    Finally the -2/-4/-6 consequence thing would simply become -10/-20/-30 and that’s all she wrote.

    (more to come as I talk about another method)

  16. Another method would be to go for a success pool. Here, keep the same number of dice, and say that any 3+ roll on a d6 is a success, giving successes 2/3rds of the time (I am inclined to push for an abundant-success model rather than a rare-success model, but if you lean the other way you’d need to work the numbers on it).

    Let’s think about what this means in terms of range of success and what it takes to achieve a simple success (1+ successes). Simple successes become pretty much guaranteed early into the skill pyramid (you’re past 99% likely once you hit Good, so your top six skills are practically infallible in everyday situations), which feels right to me, in a “a quick success check and you’re past it” sort of way. And Mediocre, the default, still has a better than 1 in 10 chance of total failure, which also feels good to me.

    Terrible 0d — No chance of success
    Poor 1d — 0 to 1 range, 67% simple success
    Mediocre 2d — 0 to 2 range, >1 on average, 89% simple success
    Average 3d — 0 to 3 range, 2 on average, 96% simple success
    Fair 4d — 0 to 4 range, <3 on average, 99% simple
    Good 5d — 0 to 5 range, >3 on average
    Great 6d — 0 to 6 range, 4 on average
    Superb 7d — 0 to 7 range, <5 on average
    Fantastic 8d — 0 to 8 range, >5 on average
    Epic 9d — 0 to 9 range, 6 on average
    Legendary 10d — 0 to 10 range, <7 on average

    Because each rung is 2/3rds of a step as far as the average number of successes goes, you might need to decouple the standard adjective ladder for difficulties, something like:

    Simple: 1 success needed.
    Challenging: 2 successes
    Hard: 3 successes
    Very Hard: 4 successes
    Heroic: 5 successes
    Staggering: 6 successes
    Impossible!: 7 successes (upper bound of Superb, just on the average cusp for Legendary)

    Aspect invocations would allow the reroll as usual, or would simply add a single success.

    Also, the number of successes different in contested rolls will be slightly troublesome, as the range on those may be different. A reduced stress track length and alteration of the -2/-4/-6 model for consequences may well be in order, possibly dropping down as far as -1/-2/-3.

  17. Fred– I appreciate the thought that you put into this. I’ve spoken with Lenny via email about some of the other issues that came up, if you’re curious.

    If I decide to go ahead with the RPG (rather than a novel), I’ll most likely just design an original system specific to my needs. It will allow me to flex the ol’ design muscles.

  18. You’re right to pass. The brief few responses you got over on story-games on the Far West thread were utter bullshit, seeing as the Far West thread was in the DIRECTED PROMOTION forum where “plugging your own shit” is exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

    I just went in there and said as much.

  19. I’m sad, but unsurprised. Still, I wish you’d give it a crack; I think a Skarkafied Fate engine would enhance the system as a whole. Evil Hat remains committed to supporting BOTH the traditional gamer and the story gamer, and I think this trajectory for Far West would be an exciting exploration of the traditional side.

  20. Thank you for saying so.

    I’ll be completely honest with you — running headfirst into the Righteous Zealots of the Church of Indie Purity has contributed additional less-than-positive flavor to the entire experience, which I do think had an affect upon my decision to throw my hands up and scrap the project as-is.

    Going with my own design would largely alleviate those issues, and I think it’s something that, for better or worse, became a factor.

  21. Hm, I should also add: even if Far West isn’t it, I’d love to see you take on SOME sort of SOTC or Fate derived project at some point, even if it’s a thin little PDFlet of some sort, say, 16-32 pages, where you can feel free not to worry about SOTC’s level of player-authorial control and just rock the house with some interesting stunts, adventure ideas, etc…

    So, hm, maybe that’s a salvagable thing: one of the things that excited me most about Far West was where you were going with the stunt ideas. Maybe you could shanghai some of those into service in a Spirit of the Far East type PDF supplement? I’d be happy to support that in a “same terms as the adventure omnibus license” fashion.

  22. Well, let’s be honest, this was entirely foreseeable. I’d hasten to encourage you not to view Story-Games as the prime locus of Fate fandom. We have plenty of folks in the Fate community who aren’t churchy zealot types. Remember that Fate comes out of the Fudge community, where hackery of the system to fit your needs isn’t just encouraged, it’s fucking mandatory. Too many of the zealots live in a space of “the system cannot be touched!” and frankly, that’s not how I roll, and not how I EVER WANT to roll.

  23. Actually, the first four responses (including my own) were pretty benign. I found the whole thread exchange rather surreal in that you (GMS) indicated your hesitancy to discuss further which precipitated Andy’s over-the-edge response, thus fulfilling the self-fulfilling prophecy.

    GMS, you’ve only started new threads at S-G. Can I humbly suggest you provide your viewpoint in other peoples’ threads over there? I ask because I think your contributions would provide a valuable voice. Ryan Stoughton, myself, and a few others have done a good job of “braodening” the discussion over there.

    In any case, based on what I’m hearing, go with your own system. Once that itch hits, you can’t stop it ’til it’s scratched.

  24. Actually, a homemade system sounds awesome. And given your passion for and knowledge of the background of Wuxia (I remember reading your reports of the CTHD novels on RPGNet back in the day, at least I think that was you), you’ve pretty much got a guaranteed sale here.

    Also, I do hear you on the “external/internal” thing with FATE/SOTC. We’re having some difficulties with it at times with our current SOTC/Crimson Skies campaign. We have scenes of definite in-character immersive roleplaying. But when the dice come out, we end up going into this tailspin of re-telling the rules and the like (shifts, aspects, temp aspects, etc). We probably just need more practice plus a cheat sheet (or perhaps hack it a little).

    Still, I hope exploring FATE shook loose some ideas for what you would do with your own system.

    -Andy

  25. GMS, you’ve only started new threads at S-G.

    Patentedly untrue, as a brief search would demonstrate. But it’s become the Conventional Wisdom of the site (you’ve said it, Andy has said it, etc. etc. )

    I’ve posted in other people’s threads. Not many (I have less than 100 posts overall), and, to be honest, a lot of the reaction I got from my post-GenCon thread (“We Don’t Want Yer Kind…”) soured me on participating further — I’ll totally cop to that.

  26. Speaking of which, usually “I want to make my own system” comes on the heels of “This is how *I* would have done this in a system of my design, therefore…”

    So… based on your previous playtests, have you had any such thoughts? That is, have you come up with any cool/quirky ideas that prompted you to think about your own system? Like something that came up in play, or combat, etc?

    -Andy

  27. Actually, there’s no way to search for that (posts by a given user). In any case, I didn’t think to look at your user profile. I was going on my anecdotal evidence, and I take you at your word. I haven’t been on S-G too long myself, but the only two times I had recalled seeing you there were the Post-GC thread and the Far West thread. (It’s certainly possible we’ve just passed like two ships in the night.)

    It’s neither here nor their. Selfishly, I think you’ve got a lot to add to a lot of the conversations over there, and would like to hear your views.

  28. >> Patentedly untrue, as a brief search would demonstrate.

    I, too, was working off of my perceptions (and being pissed off of course clouded that). I would have said “90% of your participation was in promoting your game and nothing else”. I would have been wrong.

    Having a few secs of free time, I took a peek. And this is on a half charitable/uncharitable reading:
    97 posts
    —–
    23 were in the “We don’t want your kind” thread (which, honestly, I thought was awesome. Shit needed to be said.)
    36 were directly related to Far West
    38 posts were contributing to discussion.

    So yeah, my assumption was ass, and for that I apologize.

    All of the post-GenCon flamey thread posts were on plugging your stuff, which I think was why my perception was off.

    >> to be honest, a lot of the reaction I got from my post-GenCon thread … soured me on participating further — I’ll totally cop to that.

    And that makes total sense. It does.
    I just wished you could have… no fuck it, I hope you *do continue to* participate in threads. In discussions and stuff. Reading what others post, responding. Or posting your own ideas, including the problems you saw in working with SOTC (or your followup stuff). Cause when I was looking at the search results above, I was like, “Shit, he was really rocking out here. Everyone was talking. What the fuck happened?”

    Sorry that the GenCon thread chased you off a little: It was a sensitive subject, and not all the folks think alike (which that thread proved). I mean, unless every thread you post is another thread like that, I don’t see a flamewar. Because none of your previous “participating in discussion” posts generated a flamewar.

    So, tempers flared, I came off aggressively, and that sucked, and I’m sorry for that. I hope that this doesn’t mean we have to spend the next 5 years pacing around each other growling, because that would suck. I hope that you do now (or eventually) decide to stick around, because again the pre-GenCon stuff, when you participated in discussions (before your flamewar), was pretty good stuff.

    -Andy

  29. > Actually, there’s no way to search for that (posts by a given user).

    http://www.story-games.com/forums/search.php?PostBackAction=Search&Advanced=1&Type=Comments&Keywords=&Categories=&AuthUsername=GMSkarka&btnSubmit=Search

    You have to go to “Advanced Search”, then “Search for Comments By”, then put in the username, and leave the search string blank.

    I did it on a lark, and basically proved my suspicion wrong. That was a jerk move on my part (see apology, below).

    -Andy

  30. best of luck. I’ve been missing the Far West entries of late.

    Just a random thought: Ever consider a system-less setting release for Far West (ala Star System)?

    You’ve got a lot of people who are enthusiastic and excited about “the nifties” (as you called them on the Digital Front podcast) you’ve developed.

    I know for me, personally, system is a secondary consideration to a cool world to run a game in – I suspect I’m not alone.

    I’d love to pick up a Far West sourceback (regardless of how your crunch the numbers) to find out more about that world.

    Just my two cents. YMMV. Can’t wait to see what you decide to do.

  31. I suppose I’d rather see a system-less release than nothing at all, but I’d really love to see the interesting setting stuff AND find out what sort of rules stuff you’ve been cooking up. Actually, I’ve got nothing against Fate, Fudge, etc. but I’d love to see what you come up with from scratch.

    As a consumer and someone with a very, very tangential relationship to small press D20 the whole Indie vs. Main Stream thing is just laughable with all of its hyperbole and misguided fist shaking.

    Actually, it would be funny if it didn’t lead to the sort of mean-spirited posts I see too often in forums. I’d hate to see Far West become a casualty of some kind of RPG wars. I’ve never been to Gen Con, but I’ve started imagining that meetings between EnWorld, Forge and story games members would look like the newscaster street fight in Anchorman.

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