Devilry on Stage: MTGS (Specialty) Game Design
(Making Things Blow Up...Responsibly
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
The grandfather clock sits in the corner, its weathered face watching over the room impassively. Everything is absolutely silent, except for that one inexorable sound. At 4:32 A.M., the sharp report of a gunshot breaks the stillness of the morning.
The grandfather clock continues to tick. Axelrod cautiously pokes his head inside the conference chamber. A few moments later, Rafaelk appears in the doorway.
They stare at each other wordlessly. Seconds crawl by. The grandfather clock ticks.
Day 8 of Sin City Mafia has begun.
With 2 alive, it's two votes to lynch.
Broken down to their essence, the most amazing mafia designs are more
than just games - they're theatrical productions, in which the moderator is producer, part-time referee, and ideally, the author of his own world. But unlike a typical work of fiction, the actors in this drama have minds all their own - and the most important task for a moderator is to understand exactly what those authors need and want for the production to take on a life entirely its own.
Fairness, original mechanics, flavor-writing, staying close to the core of the game: all of these are important design elements that any host worth his salt should strive to master, and we'll discuss each of them in turn in the detail they deserve. But even more importantly than these, is the more intangible and difficult task of making a setup that is not only flavorful, fair, elegant, and original, but is also entertaining, suspenseful - even exhilarating.
A setup can be either a lifeless backdrop, or a dynamic environment, depending on the level of dramatic flair the moderator injects into the setup. It can
be a slow and ponderous parade of drudgery and voting - or it can be an explosive battle for the history books where every breath reveals a new and intriguing twist. Or worst of all: it can disintegrate into a flaming pit of infamy. And it all depends on your design.
Chapter 1: Fairness: It's More than Just Balance
Verse 1: Ye Shall Respect Thy Player's Limited Perspective
Verse 2: Ye Shall Not Be a Bastard Mod
The most important thing you can possibly do as a moderator is make sure the game is fair to the players. This is not the same thing as balance, though many designers tend to mistake the two. Fairness is a larger and more inclusive principle, and it tends to be more important.
The concept of balance revolves around the idea that both sides of a team should have equal levels of "power". If one team has a fairly nifty role, the other side should have its own nifty tricks, and/or a way to counter what the other team is up to.
And no role or disposition of roles should be so overwhelming that the game is a foregone conclusion or a handicap match before the players ever take the stage. Most players and most reviewers who've been around the block a few times, can eyeball a setup for balance if they take their time and avoid careless shortcuts.
But fairness is about more than just giving everyone an equal shot at taking down the game. Fairness is about empowering players to make correct decisions, given the limited information and limited perspective of a single player.
Some of the roles devised in the earlier days of the game run completely counter to this principle. Godfathers, jesters, third-party scum, and traitors: generally speaking, are examples of roles that cannot be reliably detected by the players, and so there is no way for the town to intelligently play against them. Instead of edged weapons in the hands of practiced adversaries, they act as landmines, striking without warning regardless of skill. At the end of
the game, the victims of such roles are left feeling as though they were robbed of the chance to play the game - because the host confounded not just their expectations, but their ability to see the danger coming.
The limitations of the players' knowledge and their expectations are something that good moderator not only takes into account, but should deliberately attempt to respect as a general rule. For instance, in the dawn of the game a "mass-claim" could be an overpowering weapon in the hands of the town, because everyone knew that certain roles belonged on the town, and certain roles belonged to the scum. This required designers to find new ways to break this overly predictable template.
Especially in the past, moderators attempted to defeat mass-claims by placing roles they deemed unusual on one side or another, so as to confound the players and prevent the game from being "broken" by mass-claims and role analysis. Unfortunately, "bastard mod" tactics like these
result in the game being "broken" by the moderator himself instead, which can be even more frustrating and disruptive than a mass-claim.
Finding ways to navigate between the twin pitfalls of over-predictability and vicious ambushes of your players, remains one of the most challenging aspects of game design. Various solutions have been tried:
A. Role Randomization: roles are designed to be balanced on either town or scum, and are randomized before the game. As an additional twist, roles belonging to scum are sometimes given extra, pre-determined powers to help balance them out.
B. Dual-purpose roles: roles that are fairly effective under either alignment. However, an element of "gaming the mod" can still intrude, resulting in the players matching wits with the moderator instead of one another in applying role analysis, or bastard mod countermeasures that handicap the participants.
C. Vanilla roles - a limited number of vanilla roles can permit the scum to camouflage their
true, anti-town capabilities with an innocuous claim. However, vanilla roles are often rather unfun for those who receive them, and scum claiming vanilla often come under additional suspicion anyways, which reduces their value as camouflage for the scum team.
D. Original mechanics - if the roles in the game defy players preexisting expectations of what a scum role or town role ought to look like, there's little risk of the players being misled.
E. Hints, instructions, and flavor - sometimes, the moderator will choose to give clues to the town or scum as to what they're facing, and who they're looking for, often through the use of flavor. Flavor clues have the advantage of rewarding studious players, who take the time to faithfully read mod-posts. Explicit explanations of the disposition of scum teams, and/or surprising and novel mechanics, are also an excellent way to provide guidance to the players and potentially defuse game-ruining landmines. However, moderators relying too heavily on cryptic
or obscure flavor hints to balance a game, can expect toxic fallout. In addition, a moderator should never count on his players acting exactly how he would expect them to act, in order to balance out a role. If there is a golden rule in mafia, it is that you should plan for the unexpected.
At the end of the day, the objective is to be the very opposite of a "bastard mod". Instead of going out of your way to emplace hidden traps for the unwary, for one your own enjoyment, a good moderator seeks to empower the players to reasonably understand the setup, eventually - or at least see the dorsal fin of the shark coming at them.
Chapter 2: Originality: Shiny New Toys
Verse 1: Ye Shall Reward Thy Players with the Shiny
(Individual Role Design)
The limits of game design have come a long way from the basic mafia setup of yore. While the core of a mafia game should always revolve around behavioral analysis and voting, most of the players who
join more advanced game types are looking for a high-stakes thrill ride that gives them the chance to be wicked to the enemy. A vanilla role? Pfft. Like any actor, they're after leading roles that are fresh and interesting, and have the potential to play a decisive role in the outcome.
Oftentimes, that may wind up meaning you're out to find ways to pour old wine into new and weirdly-shaped bottles. Investigations, kills, roleblocking, protection, information, communication, roleblocking, redirecting, voting: there are virtually endless ways to tweak the traditional categories of mafia roles into permutations that no one's quite seen before.
It's also quite possible to create whole new categories whatsoever. For instance, roles that change the rule structure of the game, blink in and out of existence, gimmick accounts, backup or triggered roles, lynch thresholds, post-count mechanics, "time travel/post erasure", or the infamous hidden player from Sin City's endgame. With a little
creativity and willingness to break design conventions, there's no limit on what an intrepid designer can come up with.
But aside from simple newness, and the ability to be decisive in the outcome, there are other factors affecting the shininess level of any given role: such as the surprised reactions of other players, and/or a role's dramatic flair. For instance, the ability to daykill another player is a classic "dramatic" role (Loran16: Plan on giving any content, CC? *CC Daykills Loran16*). Other examples of dramatic roles would be the "vote machine gun" of World Domination 2, which gained an extra vote every time the user posted on a multiple of 40 - resulting in extreme hijinks. Interesting post restrictions are another popular method. Which leads us to our next point.
Verse 2: Let's Give 'Em Something To Talk About
(Individual and Mechanics Design)
This principle of design goes beyond just individual role design, to have implications for
mechanics design as well. If mafia is a game of drama - and it feeds on the conversation and involvement of its players. In a game where there's nothing particularly special or interesting to talk about, the momentum of the game can flag, and the players can become bored or restless. Alternately, in a few rare exceptions, the setup can become such a convoluted monster that the players are overwhelmed by everything that's going on, and unable to tackle the information overload.
However, generally speaking, most designers err on the side of insufficient conversation pieces. Roles or mechanics that raise players' eyebrows not only are fun for the player in question, but they're fun for the town to figure out, and aid the ability of the town to formulate wagons and read the other players.
Of course, a good storyteller knows not to put all his cards on the table right away. If every surprise is presented to the town at the beginning of the game, the players at the mid-game or end-game may run out of
new things to talk about, and there may be far less suspense as the game approaches its climax. In that respect, a role such as the hidden player in Sin City, or DesCoures' escaping role in Inheritance Mafia, or the "red button" in Inheritance Mafia, are examples of how to space out flashpoints throughout the course of a game.
Verse 3: Ye Shall Present a Cunning Puzzle - But Not a Giant Headache
Central mechanics, for those games that use them, are the meat and potatoes that determine much of the tone of the game, and so a good central mechanic can either carry a game on its back, or break its back.
Typically, a strong central mechanic is one that presents the town with an intriguing strategic choice of how to use it. Common examples are "resource management" or "resource coordination" type setups, such as tradeable items or cash/points-based systems. Others seek to reinforce the game's central mechanics, by having the
town choose to reward or punish certain players in various ways.
Sometimes, however, a mechanic may wind up being more of a whimper than a bang, in execution. Alternate win conditions, for example, are notoriously hard to balance, and typically wind up being next to impossible to achieve. Or, if the mechanic simply makes more work for the town, or encourages/fails to prevent convoluted schemes to abuse the mechanic (devising a communications system based on sending points, or a resource-claiming/allocation plan), it may wind up being more parts trouble than fun for the participants.
Chapter 3: Flavor-Writing
Verse 1: Ye shall write intriguing and detailed flavor, and possibly allow the flavor to have in-game application, for this makes the game more fun for the participants and adds to the suspense
Occasionally, a game comes along where the flavor alone makes the game epic and memorable. MTGS Mafia Redux, for instance. While the roles
themselves could have gone into any given game and been fairly unremarkable, Arimnaes seamlessly integrated many of the site's most notorious or hilarious moments into role design and into flavored vote-counts.
Even where flavor isn't the only attraction of the game, it's hard to underestimate the impact that good flavor can have on the player's perceptions. It can add to the suspense, drama, and mystery, or make the players smile - or simply be so beautifully crafted that players sit up and take notice. Many moderators also enjoy hosting precisely for the opportunity it gives them to bust out their writing chops for an appreciative audience. Whether or not that's your cup of tea, dedicating time and thought to flavor is an excellent way to push a game over the top.
Chapter 4: Elegance And Idiot-Proofing
You know that game where the megalomaniac with a vig role completely tossed the game out the window for the town? A lot of the blame for that goes on the Aezwolger.
But it's also the kind of problem that the designer should take into account.
There are a number of core principles to the game, such behavioral analysis, and teamwork, that a good designer can reinforce through his design choices. If you want to emphasize teamwork on the part of the town, a good way to go about that might be to put the brakes on an individual vigilante going on a power trip by using a mechanic like the red-button from Inheritance, distributing vig power evenly throughout the town, or requiring individuals to work together to complete a kill.
One example of an "elegant" setup that sought to reinforce the core of the game was Ghost Town mafia, a setup in which players could continue to speak after death, where alignments were not revealed on death, but players could vote to investigate the alignment of dead players each day. It had a few conceptual flaws - the town would almost always want to reveal the alignment of its lynches, and it cut down on information flow, while
increasing the level of "noise" from dead players, and side-lining them from decision-making power. It also disfavored the mafia, by preventing them from removing troublesome analysts. Still, it was an uncommon instance of a host consciously seeking to reinforce some of the game's core principles.
Fairness, elegance, creativity, and detailed flavor are all important aspects of good design. But for a design that truly stands out from the crowd, hosts should look beyond these bywords to seek to understand the reasons why they're important: to improve the game experience for the players. The surest road to making a great experience is to keep your audience in mind at all times, and deliberately design for the x-factor, the human element.
That's all for now, folks. Happy designing!