Sunday, October 11, 2015

Playtest Findings: The Web of Fate

Today, we're going to talk about an issue that isn't so much a play problem as an administrative one. A problem with the books, if you will. (Not the game books. More like mob books.)

Playtesting Issue: Keeping track of players' locations in the Web of Fate and Sphere trees is challenging, and gets more difficult the more players are involved in the game.

Honestly, we were expecting a lot more problems with this than we've had, but in spite of the general playtesting quiet on this front, it's still an issue we want to head off as much as possible. The problem is with these bad babies of graphical design right here:


Pretty awesome, aren't they? And, we're very excited about them because of all the different ways they allow players to customize within the same areas, and because they give the game a lot of flexibility when it comes to spending XP and moving between different specialties. However, they do have one very obvious downside, which is players keeping track of where they are on the darn things.

One player can manage it without too much of an issue; they just keep one copy of the webs with the nodes they've purchased marked, and while that is a little bit of annoying bookkeeping, it's not all that hassley since it doesn't come up during gameplay, just before or after. The more players are involved, however, the more complicated it can get; at that point, the options are either to keep everyone's progress on the same web, or to have everyone maintain their own. The first one is more convenient for the GM, since they can always reference it, but more annoying for players, who either can't plan in between games unless they happen to be at the same location as the web is kept, or have to all constantly update their own copies for their friends' progress as well as their own. The second one is better for players to work on their own characters and advancement plans individually, but prone to mistakes (and, for those less ethical players, possible node-stealing). And any combination strategy runs the risk of mistakes as the webs are re-copied or added two piecemeal.

There's a reason that advancement webs like this are traditionally only done for video games, like Path of Exile or Final Fantasy X; they have a database that conveniently keeps track of where the player is, and all you have to do is visit the screen to see everything neatly and graphically laid out for you. Pencils and paper don't have that advantage, so there's more effort on the part of the players to make sure they know where they are on the Web and trees - which, depending on how wide-ranging and eclectic they decide to be, could be anywhere from three or four to twenty-one different advancement tracks.


(These aren't ours, they're PoE and FFX. I'm just including them for reference. Don't panic.)

For those wondering, the playtests have used a centralized approach - we have one hard copy of the Web and Sphere trees for each playtesting game, and all players are being kept track of on it by just putting their initials next to the nodes they have. When it's time to spend XP (which is actually called Renown, y'all, but I keep typing XP because I can't remember if I told the community that yet), the master copy is passed around so players can each take a look and weigh their options, and new purchases are added to it before it goes home with the GM each week. A couple of players also keep their own copy for their own reference in between sessions, but they can always refer to the master at gametime if they make a mistake or aren't sure where they are, and the GM can then use the master for reference when planning obstacles and challenges, since it provides a handy list of which Blessings all the Heroes have.

Possible Solutions:

As I said above, we've known this would be an issue for a long time - since we decided to do it, in fact. We knew it would be a challenge when we designed it that way, and decided that it was worth it for the good things it's doing. So, how do we make this easier for players to use, and mitigate the possible annoyances we know they might face?

First of all, we're in the process of creating and providing some helpful worksheet-type pages, both to be printed in the back of the core rulebook for those who want to make photocopies and provided online as downloads for those who prefer to use computers or mobile devices while playing. We're hoping to provide enough options, in enough different formats, that individual games can find the way that works best for them and have the tools to do it within easy reach. (I can't show y'all a sample right now, I'm sorry, since they're still being finalized pending the last augments being completed... but I promise, they're coming!)

Second of all, we're also considering how to provide good advice on using this system for players who might need it. For whatever reason, our playtest games actually haven't reported much trouble using it; we're pretty sure that's because the majority of them are either being run by us or run by people we coached, so it was an issue we started with and intentionally worked to handle. But that won't be the case for most people, so we're considering the best place to lay out options and provide support if needed. Is it in a section in the GM portion of the book, or the appendix? Do we leave it out of the book, saving page space, and instead make it something we discuss on the site and blog here?

Finally, we're looking at creating some other useful aids to make tracking things on the Web easier - or, dare we say it, even a fun part of the game in its own right. These are things we probably won't have available at release, and couldn't promise or give you great future projections for at this time - for example, something we'd love to do someday is a giant wall poster of the Web that could be put up wherever you play, and kept track of with dry- or wet-erase markers or stickers or something. (Of course, we know you don't all have wall space for that kind of thing, but we have to assume someone else would find that as much fun for the game room as we would!)

There's also another thing that we want to do, which would be good for accessibility and mobility and ease of use, but all I can tell you is that it starts with an "app" and ends with a "Stephen told me not to under any circumstances tell anyone this would be happening any time soon", so that's all I can really say about that.

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