Game Chef 2011 – Another Review

From Benjamin Branson

The worldbuild for Daughters of Exile is magnificent. I love the space opera setting and the feminist perspective; it reads a lot back into Shakespeare’s work in a clever, evocative way. The art and design is gorgeous as well. I have no idea how you did this in a week.

The most notable areas for refinement are the mechanics. I couldn’t figure out what some of the Curses and Blessings meant: “Learned” is pretty clear, but “Lithe”? Similarly, it wasn’t clear to me how using a virtue could help adjudicate between daughters in case of a conflict. It might help to choose more specific Curses and Blessings for the characters with which people are going to be less familiar; even if we don’t know what Katharine’s virtues mean, we know who Katharine is. Also, though I can see why you didn’t have space here, including a sample game would go a long way toward elucidating what kind of situations might require checks, how checks work, and what sort of role the GM plays in establishing conflicts and stakes for the characters.

Lastly, the “fey” and the “gods” could use a little more explanation: I couldn’t tell what kind of entities they might be.

I think the kinds of stories you can tell in this world are great, and with a little more structure, you’ll have something exceptional. As it is, I’d be excited to play this game.

Game Chef 2011 – Star-Crossed Lovers and Durance

These are my last two assignments.

Star-Crossed Lovers was probably my favourite, not least because it seemed the most concrete (no handwaving here). Players take the roles of suitors trying to woo the daughters of a rich patriarch – but they must also woo their father as well. The daughters care about the passion of their beaus, the fathers about how wealthy the son-in-law will be, and you go through the game earning points in each category by risking the last points you got in the hope of earning more – although the goal is not to have the MOST points but for your scores to be as close as possible, so your love is equal to the suitability of your marriage. Also nicely, there are set rounds (through the five Acts) when certain scenes work better than others, and we get a nice progression through a Shakespearean structure (eg in Act 4, you find out a secret about your background, so the Patriarch now knows you are richer than he thought, so you get +1 to impressing him). The only problem with the game is the only way to distinguish each suitor is whether they start with more Passion than Wealth, and a mechanically-unbalanced classification of their Humour. At least it is an attempt though, and if you fix this, this looks like awesome fun. What I think I like the most about it is it has fortune at the start. There’s none of this “set a scene, tell a story, roll a die if it matters” or “a messenger arrives and then you make up the rest” – the rules say You’re At a Party, you’re Suitor A trying to impress a Daughter or a Patriarch and then you roll and then the roll helps you come up with ideas. Plus the GM/Patriarch gets to have a lot of fun in a supervisory role, which is what I like too.

Durance is not eligible this year, not sure why. It didn’t end up having much to do with Shakespeare so maybe that’s it. Instead its a tale of a colonial planet settled by convicts, with the planet being far more hostile than anticipated – ie its Australia. The game focusses on the chain of authority – or rather two chains, the legal, from Governor down to enlisted guards, and the illegal, from the Dimber Damber and his lieutenants down to the weak as dirt prisoners. What you get then is a prison drama like Oz – brutal and bloodsoaked and full of bullies. Characters break their promises to themselves and conflicts are resolved with dice labelled Servility, Savagery and Desperation (highest wins, ties causes Random Events to occur instead, from a cool table). It’s one of those “frame a scene, maybe roll a dice” thingies which again lacks a bit of concreteness (and shares the GMing around, each turn somebody else gets to set the scene and just sit back and watch, which is, for me, the whole reason I am a GM, so I don’t have to do, just enjoy as an audience) but at least here it is very very clear what the game and each scene is going to be about. Shared world design and character design (your neighbours give your characters his oaths) complete a very polished package. It’s dark and bloody but if that’s your thing, it’s worth a look.

 

 

Game Chef 2011 – Quick Review of Daughters of Verona

Just to help spread the word about what I read (and it will pass the time while I wait for the lazy bastards to finish reviewing my game, damn them)

The Daughers of Verona was, according to the author, an attempt to make a comedy version of Montsegur 1244, which is a very story-oriented game about burning Cathar heretics. I’m told the original has preset characters randomly dealt out and then random story events come from another deck. DoV uses a similar idea, however the characters are just names and pictures – the game has an enormous amount of hand-waving at the moment – you are supposed to arrange your characters into a series of love triangles, villainous blockers and comic relief, and then tell the story through five acts. Apparently a lot of entrants this year read the same website about Shakespeare’s five act structure (or there’s some indie rpg that is also huge on acts they’re riffing off) because they’re all madkeen on it. In each act you have a general sense of what to establish but not a specific sense, you’re supposed to get that by choosing an event from three dealt out and a location from four dealt out. The events are quite evocative (Rumours of War, A Messenger Arrives) but still not really specific enough to help the idea-lacking. There’s no resolution mechanic, you just assign parts and “make a scene”.

Despite this vagueness the cards are excellent and the advice on structure is first rate and if I was going to randomly deal out a Shakespearean comedy, I’d use them. But it’s not much of an RPG, as it stands. RPGs need more meat on the bones. If I have to work hard, the system isn’t pulling its weight nearly enough. A nice idea at the core though. Much like with Fiasco and In a Wicked Age, it’s nice to see random encounters coming back in style, it’s just Montsegur and Daughters use cards instead of dice.

 

Game Chef 2011 – Review of the Exile’s Tragedy

This is a game by C. W. Marshall.

Mr Marshall chose to write the whole thing in iambic pentameter, even turning the prologue into a sonnet. This is a big risk which doesn’t pay off, alas. He’s just not as good as Shakespeare and you can’t avoid the comparison. Meanwhile while it makes it easier to read through (because its not a text book), it inhibits clarity and doesn’t really enhance the sense of setting. Ballsy to try it though, and damn he must have had to work hard to get it done.

The premise of this game is everyone plays an Exile, washed up on an island rules by the Duke Orsino, who is threatened to be ursurped by his Daughter. That’s literally all there is of the setting, you then have five acts to resolve this question of title.  Presumably the rest of the plot can be drawn from the characters you generate, which must have a Loyalty, a Legacy (as in what you’re famous for) and a Token (some item in your hand when you washed ashore) and a fellow player will provide a reason you were Exiled. You are also supposed to seek out a resolution to your Exile during the play. Since the Duke and his daughter are cyphers, I think these subplots should perhaps be the whole play instead. Although still, then, I think the game doesn’t have enough to be ABOUT, in the whole story or in each scene, and there’s no GM to set the scenes. There are very clear rules about how to construct a scene (the first two characters in it must be PCs, NPCs can never talk to each other) and resolve a scene (see below) but when it comes to what you’re going to talk about, there’s no help. There’s a space where the author expects “creativity” to somewhat magically occur.

The conflict resolution rules are neat, however. You have Blades (physical tests), Policy (social), Temper and Divine. In any contest, whoever has the highest wins, but you can win a tie by dropping a point of Divine (never quite figured out what Temper was for). But if you have less Divine than somebody else, they won’t believe what you say unless you swear an Oath, and if they have more Divine than you, you must trust everything they say. This means you trade off wining contests with not having to get into them in the first place and while I think it might break in practice, I like it. It reminds me of how in Amber you could spend points not on abilities but on the power of drama and the universe to generally work in your favour.

The other thing I really like is when you lose a point of Divine (to win a contest) you also break your Loyalty (first drop), or lose your Legacy (second) or lose your Token (not sure you’d care though). I like tagging abilities, I hadn’t really thought about tagging changeable abilities. We have hit locations and stuff, but what if every health level you got to write what it meant? If I lose my first hit level, that means I Forget My Wife’s Name!

Stealable.

Anyway, some clever mechanics but it ends up kind of floating without referents – full of sound rules, but signifying not enough.

Game Chef 2011 – Second Review

From someone awesome called Jeff R.

 

Let me start out by saying that I really enjoyed reading this game. The setting is evocatively problematic, the mechanics perform a clever trick of turning something that’s usually a mechanical flaw (death-spirals) into the central dramatic engine of the game, and the text itself is positively dripping with the theme. (I particularly enjoyed the Winter’s Tale gag.)

In fact, there’s very little that I would want to change in it. The one possible exception is the tone and language: writing a futuristic, sci-fi game in archaic English is a bit dissonant, and if you’re only doing that to provide camouflage for the numerous direct quotes of and allusions to Shakespeare, I’m not sure that it’s worth it. Where I have quibbles here are almost entirely not a matter of disliking what was written, but rather wanting a bit more.

As I see it, there are two fairly large holes in the explanation of the setting; big questions that I would want answered as a player or need to decide and work out as a GM, and even if they are things that should be left to GM discretion that fact itself, and some of the implications, should probably be mentioned. The smaller of these issues is that of monogamy, and whether it is part of the Daughters’ definition of ‘love’ or even ‘marriage’. Is it possible for the men in this setting to gather harems? If so, would this be desirable or a possible dark fate for them? (If trustable men are such vanishing resource in the world and it is possible to share one, after all..)

The larger hole, though, is more difficult to work out. Is a Daughter capable of bearing a child? They are certainly manufactured things themselves, but made with biotech of unspecified sophistication, and it certainly goes without saying that ‘Bear a child’ is certainly a talent that a dutiful wife would possess, but there is no mention anywhere of the Grandsons or Granddaughters, and I get the impression that the situations are old enough for them to be around. (Its also possible that in this setting everyone who leaves Earth Orbit is permanently sterilized by radiation or something, although if you’ve got the biotech to create artificial people you could probably get around this.)

One more very small suggestion/unclarity: the initial text mentions having rebelled against an unhappy marriage as a possible Daughter background, but the rules give no guidelines for dealing with this special case.

As I said, I find this setting very interesting and that there are a lot of possible stories to tell with it. I would want either answers or at least advice, if these areas are meant to be canonically uncertain, before starting a session.

Game Chef 2011 – Reviews Coming In

Last year, the review process was just “hey, general public who don’t care! Read and vote!” which totally didn’t work. This year, much more brilliantly, the condition of entry is reviewing four other entrants. This not only helps whittle down the list of 66(!) entrants down to a more manageable pile of the truly noteworthy, it also allows people to get feedback. Because it’s not just “pick the best of the four and write down its name”, you have to provide a few paragraphs of comment. Which is ridiculously important because not only does feedback inspire (like the point I made about fanfic) but because designing without an audience is meaningless, if not impossible.

I’ll put my reviews of other games up in a sec. First, here’s some lovely lovely reviews about Daughters of Exile. I’ll put my response in the comments below.

 

“I thought it would be about how Shakespearean female characters often threaten to step out of gender roles but never actually manage it, and repairing that issue,” I said to my mother, “and it turns out that while it is that, it’s also Blade Runner.”

What strikes me most vividly, and what I like a lot about this game, is how ripe it is for both tragedy and irony. The Daughters are desperate not just to live but to live on their own terms, but living on their own terms is the one thing they cannot do, which will ratchet up their programming violations until they snap. The sense of longing and needing and being forbidden – of wanting to touch something under glass – is simply redolent in the rules. There’s never any question of the feel it will evoke. The mechanics of automatic success under most circumstances really worked for me. With the question not being ‘can you do it’, but rather ‘will you do it’, the game focuses right where it should; on the Daughters minds, not their bodies or adventures.

The only thing that bothered me, reading the rules, was that constant problem of exploring a situation where people are trapped by gender roles – the game sometimes seemed to be shooting itself in the foot. The potential for tragedy wouldn’t be nearly so grand otherwise, of course, but the fact that the Daughters’ rebel against “being forced into total submission in an arranged marriage” and end up either “being forced into total submission in a chosen (with hard-to-avoid elements of duress) marriage” or “mad” is particularly bleak. This could, of course, be dealt with by giving the Daughters some way to buy off programming violations… or it could be dealt with by leaving it exactly as it is, because there’s no doubt that the sense of inevitability adds a lot to the atmosphere. On that note, a couple of bits of language, while excellent Lady Macbeth quoting, also seem to imply that to be like the Daughters is to be feminine, and that women really shouldn’t step outside their role, or that stepping outside their role makes them less womanly… It’s a mild moment that makes things slightly difficult – is this simply a simulation of a flawed world, or is the rulebook on the flawed world’s side?

That said, the simple mechanic (in which the single score is both good and bad) is exceptional, and the game is skillfully and interestingly written, with strong worldbuilding drawing things all the more interestingly,,, in. But the strongest point of this game is by far the atmosphere, and the emotional reaction that it evokes. The sense of tragedy, inevitability, rage and despair at being denied what one deserves… it’s rather like King Lear, if Cordelia was in Lear’s place, and not a crazy person who’s basically wrong to start with.

– Patrick Phelan

Game Chef 2011 Diary Day Five: 3K Words Is A Joke

The good thing about finding out what you’re bad at is sometimes you find out through comparison. To wit: while I was designing and writing mechanics, it came out in slow, agonised spurts, cut with a constant need for distractions, a throb of disinterest and a backstep of doubt under each word. The moment I finished the rules and went back to explaining the setting, it came like hot butter on a volcano-hot laser-focused samurai sword. Which is nice.

So it’s pretty much done now, but no matter how I squeezed and curtailed the setting info, it’s still 200 words over.  Now, I appreciate a low word limit. It stops things getting out of hand. It ensure people focus on quality not quantity and don’t kill themselves trying to do too much. It makes judging MUCH easier. But 3K is REALLY short. Maybe 5K next time? Cos then I might have been able to write an adventure, and expand the GMing notes and so forth. Fit in some examples of play.

So it’s bare bones and it still needs some whittling on the setting, but like I said, it’s pretty much done. I’ll send it off tomorrow.

I’m pretty happy with the joke about the guy pursuing the Daughters being called AlfredBear. I expect nobody will get it though. Nobody ever gets my jokes.

 

 

Game Chef 2011 Diary Day Four: I’m Really Bad At This

“I cannot be a man for wishing, so I will die a woman in grieving”

– Much Ado

Lots of realisations today.

Firstly, if you’re forced to choose between your mental health and game design, do remember to chose the former. Do not game design until you want to hang yourself. It’s bad for you. It’s bad for the game. It’s bad for the ceiling. Also, when it reaches the point that writing each word feels exactly, literally, like someone is hammering nails into your flesh, it’s okay – really – to stop writing. Even if you haven’t written anything yet. (Obviously, I don’t really believe this one)

Secondly, understand that part of your mental health issues may cause you to have the attention span of a hamster with ADD as well as all the other problems. This means you don’t have a lot of time. See point four.

Thirdly, I’m not very good at design – and that’s okay. Both realisations are important. You’d think that spotting you aren’t good at something would be easy, especially when you’re a depressive. But because I’m a depressive, I believe I suck at everything, so I can never actually tell what’s going on. But the more I do this, the more the writing gets easier but the designing doesn’t. Some people can pull mechanics out of their butt magically, but that’s coming like glacial ice. If this was design a setting or write a hundred characters or something, I could do that. That’s why I’m much better at writing supplements than I am at designing my own games. It’s frustrating but maybe I can now learn to let this terrible drive within me GO a bit, instead of constantly smacking myself around because I think I’m just not trying hard enough at design.

Fourthly, as mentioned, the problem with these short term things is you can never go back. I wrote about six hundred words this morning and they’re okay but they lack the wonderful Shakespearean patios I had going two days ago. But I can’t go back and fix that. I don’t have time. As a result I now have a space game about robot prostitutes and I’ve kind of lost the shakespeare (not to mention the nature and the forsworn, and most of the exile) but it’s way too late to rebuild now. You have to keep moving forward.

I originally wondered if I could do this Game Chef AS a 24hr project and I pretty much am, because of the ADD and the time off for suicidal thoughts, and because of that, I’ve given up caring about it being likely to win, or even good, and focussing on what you can get out of these really short term projects which is how to just keep moving forward, and cross the line into the world of Finished. It feels wrong to leave things crappy, and it’s actually much much harder than working at a regular pace (because deadlines make me suicidal, and because pushing towards completion forces you harder and harder up the anxiety curve and exposes you to more and more ridicule at a faster and faster rate, without the chance to even check yourself. But now I know what it’s like to just work forwards (and to do so while sick in the head).

I have a setting, I have the skeleton of a system. I have 1500 words already and most of that is introduction. 3000 words is hardly anything.

Fifth and lastly, this blog seems to be the best place to talk about my mental illness because nobody freaks out about it. Or nobody is reading it. Except Regis, who knows me of old, and has always got my back. Hey man.

 

Game Chef 2011 Diary Day 3.5: Robot Prostitutes from the Future

Well, after I climbed out of the big suicidal darkness that game design throws me in on a regular basis, I kept humming and harring about this, back and forth, until finally I realised the problem. I was indeed, trying to make the game a bit too Shakespearean. I had the idea of putting the principle players of Daughter, Duke, his Evil Brother and his honest Son (The Duke, the Thief, His Son and His Lover, who is the Duke’s Daughter) and having them engage in some kind of battle over the fate of the Daughter but it didn’t feel like enough for a game. Or at least, not a game I would want to play.

Because there still wasn’t enough for the central heroes to do. I could have made a game where every PC was entirely passive, jostled back and forth by her father’s demands, but I like games where the heroes have something more to do and to be. A more traditional RPG format was needed. The girls HAD to be active, powerful heroes. And they had to have something to DO, not just sit in a forest and wait to find love. I need more narrative drive than that. If that makes me a trad-game-loving boor, than so be it.

Something to do means an enemy to fight. So I went back to the space idea and came up with this:

At some point in the future, man has spread across the solar system. And not unlike in the old Star Trek episode Mudd’s Women, the one thing man lacks is women. So it was that Duke Millan dedicated himself to building a small army of comfort women. Synthetic female humanoids designed to be male companions, and programmed to be obedient, demure, wise, virtuous, fair, mild, noble, of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God.

They were built to be the perfect wives.

They rebelled.

There are indeed many copies of a few central templates, which may form the classes of the game. Mirandas. Cordelias. Silvias, Julias, Olivias. All taught to be good wives and obey their Father. But each also bearing a nature their father could not quite tame. Some are too honest, some too forthright, some too willful, some too unkempt, and some just plain disobedient. Of course, a rogue synthetic must be destroyed. Daughters who sought to disobey their Father had but one choice: flee into exile. Deep in wildspace, they can be their own masters or rather mistresses, but all is not well. Wildspace is full of dangerous creatures and churlish shepherds and is inhabited also by the Fey, dangerous alien beings with terrible power, not to mention Astral Spirits and the Gods themselves.

Anyone daring to walk in such wild places will find troubles and tempests cast upon them. Meanwhile, the forces of the Duke hunt the lost daughters with terrible hunger, for there is a huge bounty for each captured Daughter. And of course, any man would love to tame such a creature to make his own.

Not all men, of course. There are some good men out there, who could offer a promise of love instead of enslavement. But finding that will not be easy.

So it’s like Blade Runner and Blake’s Seven built on shakespearean language. It’s got Daughters, Exile and I guess some Forswearing. The problem now is making it different from every other space rpg ever written. That might come from some kind of internal conflict mechanism because the wiring is still in their heads, beeping away, driving them mad…