It’s a Game You Build Yourself

In yet another attempt to make Risk actually likeable, Hasbro has actually done something interesting. The new version of Risk is customizable, and changes over time. You not only get to name cities, determine faction abilities (by choosing from stickers and applying the stickers to the faction) and high value territories at the start, but as wins and losses accrue you open sealed bags in the box set for new rules and cards – with new rules being stuck down in appropriate sections in the rulebook.

There’s also nice thematics here: the world in question is an empty alternate earth, waiting to be named, and if you blow up a city enough, it stops being fortified, and so forth. In the end, your game reflects past plays with your group, which is fun. It’s still Risk, but it’s a good idea and I hope we’ll see more ideas building on this. Full rules (minus sealed rules) here.

A Very Long Discussion of Daughters of Exile

Ms Tam’s excellent Actual Play has inspired Regis to email me his deep ponderings on the setting, and I could do no less than put my ponderings alongside, and post them back – here, for all to see. We go into the subtler questions of what the Daughters actually are and what they can actually do, and why we might come to such conclusions.

It’s quite long so I’ve attached it as a pdf rather than post all the text here. Read on, if you have the stomach for such trifles!

What I’m Doing At AusCon

So AusCon – or rather the roleplaying edition thereof, or rather the roleplaying plus cosplay plus burlesque plus console gaming plus orktoberfest plus boardgames event thingy – is now coming upon us quickly, ie the 1st and 2nd of October, or in about a month. Naturally you want to fill your weekend with the most amount of Steve possible, so here’s what I’ll be doing:

SATURDAY 1st of Oct

9-10am: Seminar: Taking the Plunge! If you’ve always (or almost always) been a player and are timid of GMing, this will help push you over the egde into the deep, yawning chasm of awesome.

10-11am: Seminar: Televisual Roleplaying. What can gamers learn from television? Everything. Come and find out how.

11am-1pm: Seminar: Tipping Point. Got ideas but never get them out the door? This seminar talks to various game writers and publishers about the line between enthused amateur and published designer, and how to cross that line.

2pm-6pm: Event: This is some kind of GMing competition called Legend of AusCon. I’m sure it will be interesting. I think I’ll just secretly bring candy and bribe my players to vote for me.

6pm-Throwing Out Time: I’ll be near the board games acting as an AusCon Gamer Guide, ie teaching people how to play everything and anything. Or just playing stuff. Heck, if bribed I might even GM something.

SUNDAY 2nd of Oct

9am-1pm: Event: Three Hours to Midnight. Can we design an RPG from nothing to finished in three hours, with a small break for tea? Probably not. But it will be fun either way.

2pm-6pm Roleplaying: I’ll be running Smallville, with once again generating setting from scratch and using the awesome pathway sketching chargen system.  Forget the TV show, this has nothing to do with it.

 

And as always, the WHERE IN THE CON IS STEVE D? competition will be in effect. If you

  • Find me, some time during the con and
  • Are holding a copy of something I wrote (printed PDFs are fine!) and
  • Ask me to sign it and
  • Have traveled from outside Brisbane to get to the con OR have never laid eyes on my before (or both) and
  • Shout “Found You!” then…

…you win a free copy of something! Maybe a game book or a card game or something. Prizes will depend on what I find in my cupboard. First come first served although I’ll try to have at least one prize per day for those who can only come one day.

More news as it happens.

 

Game Chef 2011 – Last Reviews

As promised, the reviews of the other three finalists. Bit short because well, life has not been kind to me of late.

Globe Records by Mike Olson is basically a freeform/LARP, as in it’s about pre-written characters with differing agendas. It’s set in a record company where the major players are all Shakespearean characters – Lady Macbeth the current big star, Juliet the new talent, Hamlet the flakey poet, Richard III the power-hungry boss. This is a fun twist on Shakespeare, crossing the familiar with the new for both fun (grungey Dane’s band is called Sea of Troubles) and good drama (who wouldn’t want to see Tricky Dick go up against Lady Mac?)

It uses a cool mechanic like Smallville’s where the strength of your relationship determines how many cards you draw (and thus how likely you are to succeed) and also uses Smallville’s relationship statements.  The values of relationships can shift back and forth as the game goes on, allowing for a nice organic LARP flow, although like most LARPs I imagine it wouldn’t play out much differently each time – EXCEPT for a lovely little mechanic that generates three different plots each game. What’s clever about this is the authors model soap operas by having one plot just starting, one developing and one hopelessly convoluted. I really like the idea of starting with some stories already well underway, and drawing not just a random event, but what happened next, and then after that. Classy and stealable!

A Midsummer Night’s Scheme by Nat Barmore and Caitlin Doran has a very clever set up worthy of its very own play. Titania and Oberon have come down to check if any of their fairies have gotten attached to any mortals. They must prove they haven’t by playing a prank on mortals to impress their lord and lady. This is done by picking the appropriate fairy magic stat related to the prank and rolling against the appropriate appreciation stat of the lord and lady, and the more you succeed, the more points you get, leading to a final winner. If you’re going against your own favoured mortal, however, you get a lot fewer dice to roll – but if you still win, you get a lot more points. There’s also a few stats that can shuffle up and down, as you get closer to your mortal or to the mortal world.

It seems to work and is nice and complete, but it ended up leaving me a little flat. There are a few suggestions for what your fairy might be and who your mortal might be and how they all ended up together, but it’s all a bit vague in the execution. And you have to do a lot of heavily lifting as a player – invent a fairy, a mortal, a relationship, and then weave every other players’ mortals together at the same time and place and come up with some amazing prank – without any real help from the system, which just does success and failure. It was the opposite of so many others – excellent structure and clear rules, but no scaffolding or verve. But these things could easily be added with a bit more time and of course, space.

The Lost Years by Matthew Nielsen is very clever indeed – it made me smile the moment it opened with an in-setting letter to the new time agent. In another universe, Shakespeare’s life was different, and so were his plays, but that universe never really existed. So some of the characters from those unwritten plays have been recruited as Time Cops to guard the most important person in history from time criminals. That man is Shakespeare, and he’s at his most vulnerable during his “lost years”, when no records exist of where he was. This is a great concept for a game – a clear, direct mission, with obvious badguys, but you can put the story anywhere in the medieval world. Likewise you can play anyone, as long as they are the kind of figure who might appear in an unwritten or changed play. A lot of chargen is “I want to be like guy X in a movie, but if he was Y” and now you can do that. Play Hamlet with less whining or Lady Macbeth after she ruled all of Scotland.

I also really love the mechanics. Of all the games I read they are the simplest and easiest but cover pretty much everything. Every character has three stats: Comedy, Tragedy, History. Comedy is used to make things better, Tragedy to make things worse and History to keep things the same. This is to be interpreted harshly – killing a bad guy counts as tragedy, as it is a destructive and bloody end, even if it leads to good. Players roll d6s equal to each trait to do things, but can also spend traits to do Dramatic Editing, with History modifiying the past, Comedy the Present and Tragedy the future. Tricky to adjudicate but a lovely balance between having better rolls vs making defining statements. Also, characters get bonus dice or points back if they act against Shakespeare’s protection and rather for themselves, because being from plays, they have implicit goals. And there are two types of goals – things they want and things they have been scripted to do. Whining or not, Hamlet has to die, and with such a high Tragedy score he has lots of points to spend but recharging them means taking actions which drive him towards that death.

I have always adored the idea of playing characters who are caught up in stories beyond their control and in the history of gaming, this is the best mechanic I’ve ever seen for it. I am going to steal the hell out of it, combine it with Walk the Line and write a whole game about being stuck between what you want and what the story wants. Which is not to say the Lost Years doesn’t do an excellent job on its own – it’s clever and unique, it works, it’s clear, it’s simple, it’s fun and it’s just full of understanding of the right amount of control/freedom balance to produce excellent gaming opportunities, in both system and setting. Forsooth was probably more shakesperean, but this one I think is the best game. The setting alone deserves the gong, and it may be the heart of my next con adventure.

And we now return you to your regularly scheduled lives, already in progress. Until next year.

The Character Sheet is Not Your Friend

Many years ago, in Feng Shui, Mr Robin Laws told us that the map was not our friend. His point was that you can extemporize more on an invisible space, just as improv actors rarely use props because a mimed prop is much easier to work as it shapes to your needs. Of course the counterpoint is that having something physical to look at and interact with focuses the attention, the mind and the imagination. So the map can be your friend. It depends on what suits you.

But there’s another issue about taking away the map, and it’s about the physical space. When you gather around a table to play a game, there are generally three things to look at – the central play area, your playing pieces, and the other players. When we take away the map, and indeed, the GM screen, the central play area becomes empty.

Now some people think this is a good idea, because it encourages people to look at the other players more. Which is sort of true, but we’re still playing the game, and we still want to look at our playing pieces. If, when there is a map, we might divide our eyes between pieces, centre and others 33% each, taking away the map doesn’t make us go 33% char sheet, 66% other players. Our mind in fact wanders because we’re not great at constantly meeting other people’s gazes, or because we have nothing to focus on (especially if our character sheet is hardly being used, or only used in combat).

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ways to command attention to the game space without resorting to game tools, but sometimes those other ways get forgotten. So you get players engaging with the game tools anyway, like scribbling on their character sheet or stacking dice.

Now, my general way to solve this is to realise that if the tools are there, people should be using them as much as possible. I don’t think dice or rules break immersion, so I call for rolls as often as physically possible. That way everyone is constantly engaging with the game tools and thus the game space, together and separately.

But I was thinking about this recently, and thinking about board games, and I realised one of the problems I have with Arkham Horror is although the game is collaborative, you rarely have a good sense of other people’s stories. Or even much of what they’re doing. Instead, you’re looking at your own character sheet most of the time. Whereas in something like Pandemic or Forbidden Island, you have your own hand but they’re played open so everyone can see everything and thus there’s no sense of individual events, and there’s so little sense of individual characters that people frequently forget which playing piece is theirs.

And this applies equally to RPGs.

Whenever I play a con game, I always make a little stand in front of me with my characters name on it, and basic hook. Sometimes I like to do this outside of con games too. The point is I know that when player bob looks at me, he needs to be instantly reminded of who I am – AND HE DOESN’T HAVE MY CHARACTER SHEET TO LOOK AT. But even this, I realise, doesn’t go far enough. I’m currently in a D&D game and was thinking about the next session and one of the PCs is a vampire (but our characters don’t know that) and I was sure there’d be something more in that arc, or in the half-elf’s arc, and it would mean nothing to me, so I could keep not caring about it. And this is why I prefer Smallville’s idea where there are no secrets from the players, just the characters, because then you know what every secret scene means, and you can enjoy it as an audience, not as a character being confused by the meaningless froth and bubble of life.

But I’ve realised now that Smallville goes one step further and it’s chargen is the heart of it. Although you have character sheets, chargen is done collaboratively on ONE GIANT SHARED PIECE OF PAPER. The piece of paper is in the center of the game space and is owned by everyone. THis is very very important because it encourages the idea that apart from your Lead, everything else belongs to everyone. The paper is the SHOW YOU ARE BUILDING. And in the end, the show is bigger and better and more alive than the character you create as part of it. And that – really – is good. A guy who cares about his character will show up and play and maybe even be awesome, but he won’t always be invested in making everyone else show up and be awesome.

But the character sheet hands all the details of a character to one person, and cuts those details off from everyone else – and then pulls the eyes down to that sheet, away from anything shared. That’s crazy. Other people need that info, and they need it where they feel they are part of it.

I’m not sure how to solve this. You could put all the character sheets on a lazy susan in the middle. Another idea is to take Smallville’s chargen further and have a central piece of paper with the characters summarised on it, and perhaps the name of the episode or the current issue at hand. Game contracts are actually a part of this idea, because it is a physical thing which everyone can own that tells them “this is what we are playing”.  Another idea is to design character sheets with space to fill in who everyone else is and what they mean to you (again, this is part of Smallville’s central mechanic, your stats ARE the other characters and you can’t do anything in the game without knowing how you feel about them). Doesn’t have to be as overt as Smallville’s, just a big box for your fellow crew.  A lot of collaborative storybuilding games (like Fiasco, Leverage and several game chef entries this year) also use the central space for putting down index cards with shared ideas or character names, or a campaign document.  Morningstar’s game Durance had a break down of the prison camp’s structure and players take turns bagsing those ranks by filling in their idea of a PC into it. I’d like to see this done for all kinds of archetypes. We often try to figure out, in our games, who is the hero, the foil, the rival, the mascot/comic relief, etc, but we have, as yet, never thought to fill in a sheet about this information. Yet these roles fit across many different genres, and could certainly be tailored to fit the narrowness of a single rpg. Imagine a game of flying a spaceship and the character sheet is a picture of the ship, and people bagsies where they sit and write their name on that sheet.

I don’t have a game to do this with now, but I will be including the “show sheet” in every game I run now. Hopefully, some great designer will or already has done more with this idea. The map may not be your friend, but the center of the table IS, and we need to make friends with it again.

And once again, for the record: Smallville was robbed at the awards this year. Robbed.

 

Game Chef 2011 – The Judge’s Analysis and My Replies

Found a moment to go through the analysis from the excellent judges, which may provide insight into the design process. Or something.

Dr. Walton says: I am drawn to his clever concept, though it seems much more born from sci-fi film than from Shxp plays. The presentation effectively employs quotations from key characters and plays, as well as apt and articulate allusions a couple of times. The use of constables and clowns and curses feels Shxpn. But here is a major problem for me: though his list of female names reveals familiarity with the host of women characters in the plays, it is not clear to me that the traits identified really match the characters presented in the plays. At this point the Shxp names seem more like window dressing than based on the true nature of the cast in the plays — a disappointment.

Shaving a thousand words off a document is not easy. One line I lost explained that you rolled three times on the table, not once. This is why the 3K limit was pissing me off so much, because I had to constantly gamble about what might be obvious and what might not. It is no surprise this confused Dr Walton as experienced gamers were also confused. It is fair that the Shakespeare fell away as time went on, because I couldn’t reconcile being a shakespearean woman with being able to be sufficiently awesome, because he doesn’t write them that way. However, I think doing a thematic approach rather than a literal one is a good way to make a Shakesperean MMORPG. Some kind of Elizabethan Disneyland where you meet Mr Romeo and Ms Juliet does not a good game make, it feels contrived and controlled. What you want is a free and open space that intersects with Shakespearean themes and language so his world doesn’t seem alien. Baz Lurhman’s R&J is a fantastic example of this: he creates a world where everything shakespeare says makes sense, because guns are made by Longsword gunsmiths, so characters can say “Hand me my longsword” and sound like gangsters. Alternate settings, for me, are a better way to engage with the language then explaining what medieval England was like (because who cares?).

Master Chef says: Overall, I’m more positive on this game. I think dad read each line of the table as representing a single character, not names, curses, and blessings that you mixed and matched when creating daughters, but his concern still stands, I think, because you could easily generate a Juliet that was “Wicked” and “Musical,” for example. In my mind, the main difficulty on the game side of things is that so much of the wordcount is spent on describing different aspects of the setting that it’s less clear what the daughters actually do: what play actually consists of. If the daughters are rare and often traveling alone to avoid notice, how do the PCs interact with one another? How is play structured? Who determines what the next scene or focus of play is about?

This is kind of what I was talking about in my previous post. Most of these questions can be answered “in the way they normally are in roleplaying games”. I should have mentioned (rather than implied) that the Daughters team up because rebels often do, for strength in numbers, but play is structured like 99% of rpgs – the players say what they want to do, and the GM responds. Did we forget this somehow? Or was I wrong in my conclusion that I should design for experienced roleplayers, and thus avoid the “how to play an RPG” section? I’m not whining here, I’m trying to figure out if perhaps the judges should be explicit about the audience the author should address.

As for what the daughters do, I did end up a bit short on that, but I figured the genre selection would help, as would the list of story hooks: “Like any rebels of the space lanes they elude their pursuers, free captives, aid other rebels, seek resources, smuggle cargo, help the stricken and defenceless, strike back at their enemies and generally seek adventure where’er it may be found.  ”

In some ways, I really like that this is an outline of a game that players can build on, something like Ghost/Echo or Lady Blackbird, but I kinda want less description then — if the players are going to be responsible for putting the game together — just a sentence or two on each important bit of setting and the instruction to cut loose and have fun with it.

Well, with 3K words you have no choice but to summarise. I wasn’t going with fill in the blanks, of course, except about the interpersonal issues that Tam so wonderfully spotted. I perhaps need to be less detailed on my settings but I wanted to cover all the basic questions of what Daughters can and can’t do, because I find restrictions make good gaming. An interesting quandary that a lot of my fellow designers simply avoided by making their setting implicit or very simple or already established. World design and Game Chef are rarely friends, methinks, looking back on other entries…

Or, if that’s not what’s intended, maybe some more concrete suggestions on what to do once play begins. A few more specific thoughts: If numbers below five are frustrating to play, why create a rule that makes them pretty common?

Because some people don’t mind having low stats, of course. And actually, rolling less than five on 4d6 add the highest two is pretty unlikely, not common.

What happens if you fail to make your roll? You can’t violate your programming? So…nothing happens?

The attempted action fails. You cannot punch the guy (effectively) or steer the ship away from the asteroid.

Or you have to do what people tell you to? What happens to daughters who have violated all their programming? They become NPCs, but what does the GM (there is a GM, right?) do with them? I’m not sure the tension between wanting to rebel and wanting to avoid violating all your programming is an interesting one because it’s unclear what violating all your programming actually means.

Now that’s an excellent question that I should have fleshed out a bit more. I’m guessing that Daughters consider the Unsexed to be a kind of enemy, and vice versa. I think the Unsexed probably end up not unlike the Reavers of Firefly too – so devoid of any mercy they become self-destructively savage, or so determined to exterminate all men that they are hunted on sight. Shall have to think about it.

Finally, it’s the GM’s job to make the PCs fall in love? How do they do this?

An excellent question that I ran into with about half an hour before the end of things. I realised I should have had a mechanic for it, and had no time to design one, nor space left to fit one. But again, this happens “in the usual way”, ie by the GM going “you fall in love”. Well, usual for my table.

What do you do with the enemies and foils?

And again, the answer here is “what you normally do with enemies and foils in an RPG – use them for plots”. I’m not whining, it’s just striking to me as a rpg writer that people might not know what to do with these things.

I feel like, if some of the extensive description was cut down, some of these more concrete details could have been addressed.

Absolutely. In hindsight, as mentioned, detailed setting design is a dangerous trap; it eats your word count without providing some fundamentals.

Overall, though, a very strong submission (that’s already being played, excitingly enough!) and one that gets major props for trying something outside the Elizabethan milieu, which was much more common in this year’s entries than I was expecting.

That’s interesting. Given the paucity of non-period versions, I was actually surprised so many WERE Elizabethan. Although I was amused when somebody wrote “The Tempest in Space” as an entry, because after Forbidden Planet I can never think of the Tempest as being in anything else BUT space. But I’m weird.

In our recent phone conversation about the games, both dad and I thought that, for this game to move forward, it might be better to cut free of most of the Shakespearean trappings and just go for it. I’d definitely be interested in playing it sometime, in any case.

I’m glad my game was thought-provoking. That really is an incredible, flattering thing. And I think yes, some of the language will fade away as I finish developing it. That’s the thing about design – you can’t always control where it goes, especially when you have no time to go back and try a different path. You go where the river takes you, even if it takes you away from the conditions of the contest!

And seriously, this is excellent, thoughtful feedback that will help me build a better game – as will the fact that it keeps making people want to play it. Thank you once again Johnathon and Dr Walton, for your comments, your time and thought, and for running the whole thing as well!

Making A Scene

Tension is great. Tension is the heart of all creation, really. Tension between characters, between worlds, between mindsets, work to create narrative and drama – not to mention comedy. Tension between the intent and the object, the paint and the frame, the creator and the viewer and the object and the depiction – these create the genius of painting. Tension between the thing and its referent make language. Tension between the stage and the audience creates theatre.

I think one of the things I like most about RPGs, the reason I can’t get them out of my head, is because they are so full of tension. There’s tension between player and GM, between what the player wants and what the character wants, between IC and OOC speech, between the avatar, author and audience stances, between the real world and the imagined, even between game chatter and social chatter. Most importantly, RPGs are at their conception a tension between improvised shared storytelling and indiviudal-level skirmish miniature wargames. Pulling on these tensions doesn’t just make RPGs work and excel, but the very tension between the last two defines the very existence of RPGs.

This is not news. Nor is it news that much of RPG design has been pulling backwards and forwards on this tension in order to squeeze new angles out of it. However, sometimes I think people are so busy pulling it towards their direction they forget that a lot of those elements were already in place before they started pulling, and rather than add new elements, you’ve REPLACED old ones, and not always successfully.

What am I talking about? Well one simple example is how a lot of indie games – like the Diana Jones winner Fiasco – have rebirthed the Wandering Monster Table. It’s a little different but the idea is the same – thematically grouped but randomly assigned plot elements engage into the narrative space, with nobody’s consent and nobody’s control. It’s striking that it took us thirty five years to come back to exactly the same mechanic – and then mistake it for being revolutionary.

A deeper example comes from something I’ve also encountered lately, wherein many indie games divide the game up into Scenes. A Scene is set by a GM or a narrator for the round, or the fellow players, with certain elements stipulated by certain parties based on certain rules – perhaps only X characters can be in the scene, or perhaps only the narrator can determine the theme of the encounter, or whatever. Then the scene plays out.

Of course, this is how roleplaying has always worked. When Bob says “Thungar is going to the bar to see if there’s any rumours about the dungeon”, Bob the player is immediately demanding a scene. And we also suddenly know a lot about this scene. We know where it will take place (a bar), the primary characters (Thungar and a Barkeep), and most importantly, the central tension of the scene (will Thungar find something out?) and when that tension is resolved. We can also imply a lot from the statement – the GM, in most traditional games – has an implied ability to describe the tavern, but the PCs generally have input as well. Bob may ask if there is a barwench instead, knowing his comeliness will give him a bonus to his rumour gathering, or because it fits the keys of his character. And so on and so forth.

My point is this: a lot of design is making explicit things people are doing implicitly, and that’s fine, but you need to be careful that in doing so, you don’t end up producing something that is less useful. That is, some of the “A Scene Happens” mechanics I’ve read don’t give a clear idea of who is in a scene, or where it is, or how it starts, ends or what the central tension is. They also don’t help provide ideas of what kinds of scenes there are, whereas a well -established genre like D&D has a lot of such implied scenes in our mental quiver. Other times, they do provide all the information but they make it a lot more formalised and controlled, so that now Bob can’t ask about the barwench, or he can but he needs to spend a Plot Point to do it, or the GM must do the same. Now don’t get me wrong, making a rule explicit can totally encourage people to do it – but at the same time, having to spend a resource to do it can discourage what came easily.

Likewise, some explicit rules put control in the players hands, but again, we already had that. If the GM tried to set a scene like “you’re riding down the road when…” and Bob said “hey, no, before we go, I want to talk to the barman”, then Bob would get to do that. Obviously, this sometimes led to conflict about whether Bob could do that or not. Obviously, making these things explicit allows for new ideas about game design. But not so obviously is they very often take away Bob’s already implied freedom to insist on going to the bar, and that there be a barwench there.

To summarise: sometimes we are trying to reinvent the wheel so it is much more clear and easy to see who has repsonsibility for what. But in doing so, some designers forget that people already know how to set up scenes because we’ve been doing it since Gygax first went into Greyhawk, and you have to be very careful not to make what we’ve all been doing more difficult or complicated than it was before. That can be interesting but it can also be frustrating.

It also can end up changing things you don’t intend. For example, as a reactive GM I tend to let my players define the scenes they want. In a game which shares around GMing responsibilities, I have to frame scenes MORE often, not less, making me work harder as a GM. And I have to play as well. It’s lose-lose.

One final example: in OctaNe, a great game, the mechanic centres around not on success or failure, but on who describes the outcome. But at my table, we look at the die rolls and let everyone suggest what it means, and the most awesome description was the one we go with. So OctaNe’s mechanic makes my games less awesome.

Now, again, this does not stop OctaNe from being a good idea. Indeed, all of this wheel invention is good precisely because it throws what groups do implicitly into stark, explicit focus. And sometimes what groups do is very different, and no designer can account for all of that. But surely we know about how D&D players set a scene, and surely we can see that that standard works, provides huge amounts of information, and allows heaps of freedom, and thus be mindful that our mechanics that do it differently never provide less information, nor permit less freedom.

On the other hand, maybe we have forgotten. DoE has a task resolution mechanic, and one reviewer asked what happens if the roll fails. Now, it’s all well and good to go “hey, failure can mean anything” but at the same time, perhaps not forget what failure traditionally means (ie your attempted action fails). The old fundamentals don’t HAVE to be thrown out to make room for the new, not when they a) work, and b) have always included scene-setting and other improv and narrative devices.

Anyhoo. Just a thought.