Nov 242010

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So, Daniel recently reposted his thoughts in response to my Bandwidth idea from December last year, and it’s gotten some interest stirred up on Twitter and his blog. Daniel’s 5×5 notion is solid, but it also cleaves close to the kind of design he prefers: interesting word-game mechanics which build towards the collaborative creation of a story. My angle is usually much more inhabit-a-character oriented and as such Dan’s designs — while good! — aren’t always in the pocket for me in terms of the designs I personally want to play. [1]

As a designer, I’m more interested in creating interesting dynamics of choice and tension through the numerical operation of the game mechanics, and THEN fitting theme and story to that. Bandwidth comes from the other direction, however, by saying “here’s some general themestuff and a setting concept” and then looking for system pieces that fit that. So as I back-of-the-brain tinker with this concept, I discard a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit the mechanical motifs that I find interesting. It’s a process of finding the Venn overlap between my system preferences and the setting conceit. At present, here’s what’s left after that vigorous flensing.

So here are words and phrases from the theme (radio broadcast superpowers) which I find interesting and which I think can be tied into system:

  • 5×5 – Strength and Clarity
  • Distortion
  • Static/Interference

Here’s how I’d systemize these concepts for something interesting-to-me.

Tuners (or Receivers), the folks who gain powers by listening to the right signals, list the various signals they can pick up on their character sheets. They’ll rate these in terms of maximums — how much signal power they can handle (Strength) and how clear of a signal they can manage to achieve (Clarity) with their natural equipment. Strength will correspond to the magnitude of the effect the power can have, while clarity will correspond to how finely controlled that power can be utilized. Maybe the system will value clarity more than strength, if there’s a point-buy gig going on here, making it cost, say, 3 points per point of clarity but only 2 points per point of strength. [2]

Six sided dice, maybe as few as two (and definitely no fewer) get rolled when resolving an action. The goal is to get two numbers, each equal to or less than the strength & clarity numbers the character has for that signal, hopefully exactly equal so the character performs at peak ability. (Stay with me here.)

The player rolls the d6es and allocates two numbers from the results, one to strength, one to clarity. The more clarity (beneath or at your maximum), the more control you can exercise over the effect, the more delicate, the more complex. The more strength (beneath or at your maximum), the more power output you can achieve, covering a wider area, a more potent hit, etc.

If you can’t allocate a number that’s less than or equal to your target strength, that creates distortion, like what happens when you try to play something too loud through speakers that can’t handle it. In the game, distortion is a measure of unintended side-effects — extra bits of power that spew out the sides of your ability, increasing the level of (unintended/undesired) property damage and bystander casualty for example, or changing the nature of your power (it doesn’t sound the same!) in this instance.

If you can’t allocate a number that’s less than or equal your target clarity, that creates static; static builds up over time and (perhaps) reduces the number of dice you can subsequently roll, until you get a chance to squelch it. In play this may feel a bit like hit points: if you can’t roll at least 2 dice because of the static penalties you’ve accumulated, you aren’t receiving any signals. You’re jammed.

Even when generating static or distortion, generally your character successfully does something — assume that your power operates at its max level in something you can’t allocate, it just has some nasty side-effects, so long as you’re not allocating a 6. If you can only allocate a six to something, that should be a significant screw-up.

Let’s talk a few scenarios.

I’m playing a Human Torch type dude, someone who can dial in a lot of pyrokinetic power (Strength 4) and is at least middling good at mastering it (Clarity 3). Let’s say the default number of dice I might be rolling at the moment is 4 d6es (the number rolled needs to be examined but the idea isn’t far enough along yet to be sure of the ideal quantity).

Case 1: I roll 6, 5, 4, 2. I need to allocate that 2 to my Clarity, and that 4 to my Strength, to get close to ideal: I don’t have my ideal level of finesse with how I use the power this time around, but I am able to dish it out at my maximum power level (4). So maybe this is a quick-from-the-hip burst of flame tossed at my target: it burns what it should burn, but it’s not as selective or well-targeted as it could be [3]. Or maybe I could decide I’m willing to take a burst of static in order to get the higher clarity result, allocate the 4 to my Clarity (it’s over my 3, so I get a 3 clarity result) and the 2 to my Strength (I didn’t need that much power in order to pull off the effect I’m going for).

Case 2: I roll 6, 5, 5, 3. I go for 3 clarity, and 5 strength, over my 4, which gets me some distortion. Bam! I fry the target, but (distortion) I fry it a little too good and a fire begins to spread. Or maybe instead (distortion) I throw my flames at the target but it comes out as more light than heat — I overload its optic sensors, but I don’t do lasting structural damage.

Case 3: I roll 6, 5, 5, 4. I can’t allocate any proper number to my clarity, but the 4 hits the target for my strength, so I put that there (I don’t want any distortion). This does mean I end up with one or more points of static (do I have to allocate a 5, and subtract my 3 clarity rating, to take 2 static? or do I just call this a burst of static and make a single tick mark?), which will reduce my subsequent die pool. But I get a clarity 3 effect and maximum power, and grit my teeth through the painful static.

Case 4: After taking some static I end up rolling only 2 dice. I get a 6, 3, and now the pain really sets in. First off, I have to allocate a 6, and if it’s clarity then there’s a complete lack of control, a true miss; if it’s strength, then I simply have no juice, a straight up fizzle. Where I put the six matters more than color, though. If it’s strength, then I’m looking at distortion, pure distortion as my power runs away with itself and does something really unintended. If it’s clarity, then I take static again, which would take my die pool down to 1 die — removing me from the fight as I get jammed. It’s likely I’ll choose the distortion, but what if my Aunt Mae is in the crowd?

So that’s the rough draft start of the direction I’d take the idea into system. It likely has some deep flaws to it, but it’s a start, and the dice allocation and shrinking pool elements mean I get the effects I’m looking for in a design: tension as the pool shrinks due to static [4], and interesting choices as the player decides how to allocate his numbers.


[1] Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s something interesting in the word-game ideas that Dan has, but I also find myself squinting a bit when a sentence like “I kill you” is easier to build than “I kill your dog”. Yes, I’m oversimplifying his ideas here, but hopefully you get my point. [back]

[2] So, the Hulk’s superstrength signal might be high strength, low clarity — not a lot of control but a hell of a lot of power. Dazzler’s lightshow ability might be low strength, high clarity — a lot of finesse in using the power, but not a ton of punch. Magneto would be a classic 5×5 guy, tons of power and a lot of deliberate versatility in its use. [back]

[3] I’m imagining the existence of tables for both Strength and Clarity that give examples of what a use at levels 1 through 5 of each might look like. Today, I’m handwaving it a bit. Bear with me. [back]

[4] “Interference” is probably a term I’d use to describe static that’s inflicted upon you by others. Maybe that points at a “contested roll” situation where the strengths and clarities generated are compared to one another as you try your Superstrength signal against my Forcefield one. Other axises may exist on the character sheet as well for each signal, such as a Bandwidth rating that suggests how broadly your power can be applied — Telekinesis being potentially much broader than Heat Vision, thus being a greater bandwidth power. That kind of thing. [back]


  23 Responses to “Bandwidth II”

  1. This two-trait representation of a character’s ability reminds me of a system I tinkered with in high school and college, and a little bit earlier this year. In it, a character’s likelihood of success is separated from her quality of success, so you might have a character who is a genius newbie or an experienced but unremarkable practitioner. Sure, that character succeeds almost every time, but it’s seldom spectacular. That sort of thing.

    Using the strength/clarity metaphor is a great idea. I totally dig how it leads naturally to notions of amplitude and distortion—clear, vivid, and nuanced. Rich with information and jargon (for better or worse), too. I’ll be contemplating this post for a good long while, I think, Fredly.

    • Thanks, Will. I’ll admit I’m a little overfond of in-system jargon, for sure — I think once the jargon’s mastered it becomes a feature, at least, in terms of shaping how the play of the game sounds. I dig the thought that this game might be played with folks shouting “jammed! squelch! static! distortion! dial it in, dial it in!”

  2. This is cool. I’m feeling a little DRYH here, of course, which is a good thing.

    Have you played anything with Otherkind dice, Fred (Bliss Stage, Psi Run)? They use “roll d6s and assign them to stuff” and it’s pretty fun in play. Those choices can be agonizing. I think it’s a really good fit here.

    • I’ve had zero chance to actually PLAY a game with those sorts of allocations, but I am at least familiar with Bliss Stage and the idea of Otherkind dice. Choice is key, here — even if I don’t push this one further, I definitely need to come back to this notion of stats getting multiple ratings and your choice of allocation having meaning in interaction with them. Tasty.

  3. I crunched some of the numbers for this system, with the results viewable here. Because you can’t use the same die twice, you often have to choose whether strength or clarity gets satisfied. In my chart, the player always choose ‘blue’ over ‘orange’. Underneath the percentage chance of satisfying that stat, it also lists the average value chosen for successes. (It chooses the highest value less than or equal to the stat, unless it’s been taken by the other stat already.)

    When the preferred stat is higher, the chance of overall success is equal to the chance of success of the less preferred stat. If the less preferred stat is higher, the overall chance of success will be roughly equal to the two probabilities multiplied together. E.g. for (2,4) and 3 dice, there’s a 70.4% chance of satisfying the first stat, 85.2% of satisfying the second, but only a 59.3% of getting both. (70.4% * 85.2% = 60.06%, so really close.)

  4. I dig the thought that this game might be played with folks shouting “jammed! squelch! static! distortion! dial it in, dial it in!”

    That is what I love about the premise, too. There’s a whole vocabulary you can tap into that is relatively untouched in gaming circles.

  5. I keep reading this and seeing my usual hacks of ORE for d6. Basically, you roll a pool and look for matches (or straights). Number of dice matching is the Width (strength?), number showing on the dice in the set is Height (clarity?) and a straight of at least 3 is W1xHN, where N is the high number. Some special variants allow matching of outliers after the roll (trump dice), setting values of dice before the roll (expert dice), squishing & squashing of sets (changing W or H to better fit declared actions), and swallowing an opponents’ dice (your set has greater H than theirs and at least the same W) to nullify their action.

    So, how does this fit? A Tuner would roll Xd6 for Strength and Yd6 for Clarity. Rolling a set of W<=Y or H<=X means Power activates and Awesome ensues. No set (or straight) means there’s too much Static for the power to activate properly – every other full power trumps them. Rolling W>Y or H>X is Distortion – power artifacts start to kick in. Another player can swallow another’s roll (Jamming) if they can pull it off with their roll without Distorting. If they can’t, then both characters get something new and random from the Feedback that ensues (random power chart? effects such as the old Unlimited Mana Effects from Fudge?). To prevent this, a player could choose to set aside a number of dice as Wagers for later (cf. Houses of the Blooded)…

    Difficulties could be brought in as minimum Height or minimum Width, which would be a truly brutal thing to do to avoid Distorting in those cases. A more novel solution might be in order than the one on the table.

    This strikes me as being pretty gritty and granular… and somewhat up my alley. I might actually sit down to play this as a supers game, especially as modified as a low-power cyber-supers crossover. Which sort of fits the premise…

    • Go to it! This is the sort of concept that may work best if there are multiple implementations rather than one, each fulfilling some different part of the theme/premise…

  6. How about the ability to use artifacts/items for modification of either base stats or individual rolls? Antennas, amplifiers, Faraday cages, dummy loads, tin-foil hats. Radio operators are well-known for being hackers. Radio-based supers could totally build their improvements into their costumes!

    I’m really loving this concept, from purely a player’s point of view.

  7. I’m really liking this. I’ve been compelled most strongly lately by extremely simple systems, such as ‘Warrior, Rogue, & Mage’ or ‘Arcane Heroes’ by Michael Wolf. I like Bandwidth too, at least the way you’ve set it out Fred, because chargen could conceivably be simply assigning Strength and Clarity and then fluffing out a PCs actual superpowers/flavor. That seems ripe enough to encapsulate complexity while being itself very elegant and unburdensome, ie very easy to learn. Of course there’d have to be some mechanical/mathematical rules about opposed powers and how they turn out, how to impose interference on another but this could stay very elegant.
    I also really like the disjunct between radio health and physical health. If I’ve accrued enough static, or been given interference by my nemesis so that I’m jammed, I may still be perfectly healthy, just no longer Super. Meanwhile, the world around me may be bursting out in massive fireballs or buildings may be collapsing left and right, or just a big strong super nemesis may be swinging stoplight poles at my head. On the other hand, assuming a PC doesn’t have an ‘unbreakable’ power, the Tuners themselves could take physical hurt to take them out even if their radio signal is still strong and clear. I can see dramatic sacrificial moments when a super has to scrape and crawl their beaten body to a good angle to let off their laser eyes at a key moment.
    Yes, I’m a big fan of the significant and meaningful decisions that this dice/theme combination gives players at every turn. I would definitely want to play this, and I’m not even normally a supers fan.

  8. I commented over at Fred’s LJ entry with some thoughts.

    Interestingly, this system also hits a lot of the same issues that came up when I tried to work on a Matrix hack for Spycraft several years back. How do you deal with slottable powers?

  9. Quick note, partly just to myself — some good stuff happening over in the comments on my LiveJournal echo of this post:

  10. I have started jotting down the bits that I can from the brainstorm that you have stirred up in my head.

    • Interesting stuff! I’d originally been thinking of tying this back to Tesla, having him do something crazy that altered the earth’s magnetosphere, which in turn started emitting these signals around that Tuners are able to pick up on.

  11. […] @fredhicks “Bandwidth II; Awesome superheroes idea: radio broadcast super powers […]

  12. I wonder if crafting the flavor of particular super powers could follow a customizable point-buy system like GURPS and advancement could give more points. Then powers fit the structure that the player crafted them, but the expression is on a 1-5 scale continuum of power depending on signal strength.

    What other ways could various power-types be comparable? (super strength, speed, durability, elemental affinity, psi-power) Following a GURPS model, PCs could choose weaknesses (like their opposite element, kryptonite, or even attractive instances of the opposite gender) that could give them more power points, and who wouldn’t take that option? Supers are much more interesting with exploitable weaknesses.

  13. So I keep trying to think how to combine the Bandwidth premise with the movie Inception. It just seems like such a great combination.

    I realize it doesn’t really lend itself to the premise of super powers, but it could be sort of more in the vein of the Matrix movies as well. The signal gives you abilities beyond the normal realm of human ability. If you want to be a pyrokinetic and you can pull of your Strength and Clarity rolls, then the dream doesn’t think it strange.

    The more Distortion you cause the more the dream starts to recognize you. The more Static you cause, the more things in the dream begin to go against you.

    • I’m not sure I want to make it an all-a-dream or all-fake-reality premise for my own purposes, but you’ve got me thinking of an implementation where everyone who’s a Tuner can tune in *any* frequency, they just happen to be better at a certain subset of them.

      I think I’d also need to think about establishing what all the “stations” are, rather than necessarily making them player-authored … which has some interesting ramifications of its own.

  14. Extending this idea:

    If you wanted to emulate the notion that Metropolis has very different heroes and villains than Gotham City, you could tie stations to geography. So a certain station (superhuman skills and insanity) gets better reception at Gotham while another station (cosmic powers and steadfast morality) gets better reception in Metropolis.

    Extending that even further, you could say that Gotham gets better reception at night, while Metropolis gets better reception during the day. So any stories set in Metropolis are generally going to be in broad daylight while Gotham stories are set in the shadows of night.

  15. One thing that keeps popping up in my mind is to make this whole thing a system for fantasy magic. The signal can be the magic emanating from the planet, divine, elements, stars or whatnot. Probably a combination of the above. Characters may even choose the power source. Then you have them roll their strength and clarity to create magic effects rather than choose from lists of spells.

    That said, I love the original bandwidth premise. If you had kept the FDA as the founding organization, I would assume an additive in our food was responsible for limiting our powers but you could buy drugs from the pharmacy that canceled out the additive for a while and let you use super powers. “Buy your super powers here! Side effects may include…”

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