Posts Tagged ‘Publishing’

System Does Matter: implications for publishing

Monday, November 13th, 2006

One of the central tenets of Forge-influence thought about roleplaying is the idea that System Does Matter. The phrase can be considered to be derived from Ron Edwards’ excellent essay of the same title: System Does Matter. The idea of System Does Matter arose as a counter to the idea that ‘System doesn’t matter because our group has fun no matter what game we’re playing.’

Interestingly, when examined in light of the most commonly accepted Forge definition of ‘system’ (the Lumpley Principle), this is pretty much a tautological statement. If system is ‘how actual players actually resolve things at the table’ then of course it matters. How could it not?

The real force of the idea that System Does Matter comes from the ambiguous use of the term ‘system’ in play, design, and publishing discussions.  It’s not just that System (what the actual players actually do) matters, but also that they should be doing what the designer tells them.  This shifts everything from the tautology that ‘what people do at the table matters to what they do at the table’ to the more interesting (and more contentious) ‘what the designer has written will (rather than might) matter to what the players do at the table’.

The assumption that players will play the rules as-written is heavily influenced by other forms of gaming, and in all honesty is not a bad assumption in and of itself, though it does raise a couple of questions.  (I’m going to talk about the problems with moving this assumption from other forms of gaming to roleplaying tomorrow.)  Really, I don’t have any problem with the assumption as an assumption, but I do have problems with what the assumption has done to the field of publishing independent RPGs.

Specifically the idea of System Does Matter, combined with the belief that players should play the rules as-written, is something I consider to be strongly involved in driving the indie RPG publishing scene to publish nothing but games.  That’s an odd statement, let me explain: They could also be publishing books of techniques, the things that fall below the level of mechanics, such as Robin Laws’ Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering.  They could also be publishing quick and light rules modifications to existing systems like what I imagined Jonathan Walton’s Lions on the Precipice (a modification of Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard) would end up being when I first saw the idea.

Now, I’m not going to claim that the System Does Matter ideology is the only force driving the idea that full, original games are the highest thing a game designer can aspire to, there’s a lot of cultural stuff involved too, but I do think that it’s a major contributor.  Which is unfortunate because it means that we basically only publish one kind of product when a couple of others could be great for the community.

Hurdles for new publishing models

Friday, September 8th, 2006

I’ve been talking this week about some of the ways that the dominant model of roleplaying game publishing constrains roleplaying both economically (in that there isn’t a solid existing market spot in the mass market for the purchase of rules), and in design (limits on the sorts of mechanics that can be functionally used). In doing so, I’ve been advocating the consideration of other models for publishing.

But there are some pretty big hurdles to new models. The two big ones are that you are starting from scratch, and that they cost more money.

The current model of roleplaying publishing (by which I mean the publishing of rules/procedures and expecting players to provide all other components) has been extensively developed by some really smart and dedicated people. Just take a look through the Forge’s publishing forum to get a good look. The dominant model has been honed over years, with hundreds (if not thousands) of man-hours invested in learning and teaching techniques.

New models are going to lose a lot of that accumulated knowledge. While some of the lessons will still hold, a lot of them will need to be reconsidered, and some of them will simply no longer apply. This means that new models of publishing are going to require significantly more time and effort to work through. This is compounded by the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, there are not analagous communities (at least not in terms of accumulated experience/knowledge) for other models (such as board game or card game publishing).

Second problem is one of money. The current dominant model is basically built upon the sale of information. In the digital age, information is cheap to produce. Publishing a game that includes components is necessarily going to be more expensive to make. It also requires a higher level of capital investment in materials for prototyping. In the current model, all you need is a word processor; but in a more component-oriented model you need scissors and glue and markers and all sorts of other things.

So, while it’s easy for me to advocate new models, I acknowledge that it’s way easier to talk about them than to build them. That doesn’t dent my enthusiasm, but it does suggest that changes are going to be slower than I might like.

That’s it for crazy publishing models for a while.  Tune in next week for an exciting discussion of why low-permanency mediums of play (such as face-to-face play) are amazingly cool.

New publishing models allow for new games

Thursday, September 7th, 2006

Continuing with the theme of what, precisely, we are publishing in roleplaying, today I’m going to suggest one reason I consider extremely powerful for trying new ways of publishing games: adopting new models allows us to publish games that we can’t publish in the current model.

The publishing model that is typically used for roleplaying games acts as a constraint on design in similar ways that games act as constraints on fictional input.  The constraints can foster creativity, but in doing so they place limits on creativity.  That is, the constraints are powerful tools, but they are artificial ones that sometimes need to be discarded.

Consider Joshua Newman’s Under the Bed as an example.  It’s a game that is practically unworkable within the traditional roleplaying publishing model.  Sure the rules could call for the player to write down the various traits on their own, but that’s not going to fly with most gamers.  And look at Jason Morningstar’s Shab al-Hiri Roach, with its roach cards.  Both of these are games that don’t work in that traditional publishing model.

Most board and card games have components that act as short-cuts and reminders more than they act as necessary elements of play.  Games with scoring tracks, or fake currency allow you to track important numbers without relying on memory or scribbled notes.  Contrast this with roleplaying games in which you are forced to rely on memory or scribbled notes.  This limits how complex you can make the game.  Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard is a great example of this: there’s a practical cap to how complex a character can get and how long a conflict can go based on how many traits you can track in your head.  A character should never get so complex that players might forget whether they have used any given trait in the conflict yet or not.  This is fine, but it’s also limiting; there’s nothing wrong with having characters who can be played completely mnemonically, but there’s nothing wrong with having characters that can’t either, as long as you have the tools to make that possible.

The current publishing model for roleplaying games, with its focus on publishing texts and not components, must therefore rely on ‘found’ or ‘common’ components for play.  This, in turn, forces an interesting inverse consideration on publishers.  Games can be published that require relatively common components (d6s instead of d12s, for instance) in order to target a wider market, but doing so inherently limits the design.  In the current indie roleplaying game market, if it requires anything more esoteric than a polyhedral dice set, some glass beads, a deck (or two) of playing cards, a pack of poker chips, or a print-out of a provided PDF file then it’s hard to sell.

I’d love to see some of the ideas that would surface if we weren’t so constrained by our ‘selling books’ publishing model.

Publishing procedures vs. publishing components

Wednesday, September 6th, 2006

Building on our discussion from yesterday in which I suggested that the model that is generally used for publishing roleplaying games is similar to the model used for publishing card and board games, today I want to discuss a fundamental, and possibly important, difference.

Publishing roleplaying games is about selling procedures and rules. When you think about it, this is not the model employed by other forms of games (with the possible exception of CCGs, which I’m hoping to go into more depth on tomorrow). Board and card games are about selling components not rules. In fact, most game publishers have their rules available online for free.

Most roleplaying games don’t provide components at all. You are required to print your own character sheets (though the resources to do so are generally provided), and you have to bring your own dice/cards/whatever to the table.

This puts roleplaying games in an odd position commercially. They don’t fit into the conceptual slot for games because what is being ‘sold’ is fundamentally different. They don’t quite fit into the traditional how-to model (things like cookbooks), at least not in the Forge paradigm, because it is expected that you will follow the directions provided precisely, and not change things up.

The question that comes to my mind when considering all this is: must we publish roleplaying games in this idiosyncratic manner? Must it be about selling procedures? Could a workable model of roleplaying publishing be built around selling components? What about selling teaching texts? Would those still be roleplaying games?


What is it that we design?

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

The Forge philosophy of roleplaying game design resembles philosophies of board, card, and (traditional) video game design.  That is, the product is designed to be played as-written.  All rules-changes are intended to be front-loaded as a design consideration rather than a play consideration (rules variants, video game mods, etc.).

This is a very workable model.  It has resulted in some extremely tightly designed and very fun games.  However, as we are constantly reminded, gaming is really all about actual play.  And it turns out that designing games isn’t the only way to impact actual play.

It’s not like this is all that revolutionary: I know people who own libraries devoted to improving their chess and/or go play, and there’s always Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (by Robin Laws).

But let us consider another potential model: the model of hobby crafts.  While there are many publications that are simply step-by-step instructions for hobby crafts, they tend to be written in a slightly different tone.  It is not expected that readers will duplicate your steps precisely because it is assumed that their needs are at least slightly different from the writer’s.  Thus it is expected that the reader will take your instructions, and tweak them to get what they want out of them.

Further, there are many publications in hobby crafting that are focused purely on techniques.  Articles about a cool new material, or about a neat way of accomplishing useful effects, or a cheap solution to a complex problem are extremely common.

I’m not advocating that we give up our games model of publishing roleplaying stuff, but I am suggesting that we consider interesting new ways of publishing.  Just because we have traditionally worked within the game design paradigm doesn’t mean that there aren’t other really cool things we could be doing.

Transparent mechanical purpose

Thursday, August 31st, 2006

All this talk of social hacking actually does have some application, and that is what we shall discuss today.

The Forge design philosophy is closely tied to its play philosophy which, over-simplified, is that you play by the rules precisely as they are written.  You do not tweak them, at least not without playing them as-written enough to understand what those rules do.

There is, however, an extremely common opposing philosophy which I shall call the ‘pick and choose’ model of play.  This model is built around the idea that every play-group is playing a game that is ultimately idiosyncratic.  They are constructing their own procedures of play by pulling useful tricks and techniques from myriad other games to support whatever the group’s play goals are.

In some ways, the Forge model is an interesting sort of shortcut for writing roleplaying games.  (Note that this is not a bad thing, merely the way things are.)  Specifically, writing for people who utilize the Forge model of play allows you, as a writer of games, not to explain yourself.  You can include a rule that is designed to (say) control pacing of the game, without explaining that that is the purpose of the rule in the text.  (Note also that this is the model of the vast majority of board games.)

This works because you may assume that the players will play the game as-written and thus learn, through play, the purpose of the rule in question.  They will experience the ways in which that particular mechanic impacts pacing, and with that experience will come some ability to modify the mechanic to alter its effects.  Also with experience comes evaluation: it may be decided that the group does not require a mechanic to regulate pacing, perhaps they can handle pacing better on their own using their own procedures.

This model teaches players and groups how the mechanics impact play based entirely upon using those mechanics in the real world, with little (if any) exposition within the game text.

Unfortunately, this is pretty incompatible with ‘pick and choose’ style play, in which players will be evaluating whether they wish to utilize certain mechanics before experiencing those mechanics in play.  This a priori (before experience) judgment of mechanics stems from a desire to maximize fun now.  The group does not want to have to test the mechanic over a couple of sessions only to find out that it actually is not as much fun to play with the mechanic.  (Note that this is partially, perhaps even significantly, a function of the staggering length that a unit of play has in roleplaying.  Properly testing a mechanic for group suitability could take anywhere from four to twenty hours.)

Writing for ‘pick and choose’ style players requires an explanation of mechanical purpose.  What does this mechanic do for play?  The group needs to know up-front, at least in outline, why they should bother with your mechanic.  What is it that this mechanic provides that their group would love to include in their play?

One big thing that explaining your mechanics does that can be seen as a negative is that it makes subversion difficult (if not impossible).  If you (for instance) have a game designed explicitly to make people question their beliefs, and you feel questioning beliefs is something that everyone should do (especially people who don’t want to do so), then explaining your purpose will cut out that critical target audience.  You can’t ‘trick’ your audience into learning something that they would not have sought out on their own, which is unfortunate.

I really want some discussion on this topic.  I’d love to hear from both sides of this issue about why one system is better than the other, or even just a list of advantages to be had from one or the other.  I’ve gotten us started above, what else have you got?

The hobby gets bigger, and more expensive

Monday, August 21st, 2006

Today I am going to lament a trend I see in small-press roleplaying publishing, and then try to explain why I think the trend is sadly inevitable.

The trend in question is the publishing of semi-complete games.  This particular rant was kicked off by John Harper’s extremely cool game Agon.  Don’t get me wrong, Agon is one of my favorite games of the year so far.  It’s tons of fun.

But it’s also flawed, and clearly so.  I will not be at all surprised to see a revised edition out by next year (since it’s printed through Lulu, it could be even sooner).  Agon‘s not alone here, either.  Primetime Adventures and Dogs in the Vineyard both did similar things (though the tweaks to Dogs are pretty minor).

This drives me crazy.  When I plunk down my hard-earned wage-slave cash for a game, I want that game to be polished and clean.  I don’t want a work-in-progress game, I want a complete and excellent game.

This is compounded by the nature of the medium of delivery.  I buy books.  Those books are static, and if I want the new and improved version of the game, I’ve got to spend even more money to get it.  Thus rendering my initial investment sort of obsolete.

This sort of behavior is generally not tolerated in console video games, but is in PC video games, mostly due to the fact that you can patch a PC game.  But you can’t patch a book.  Like a console video game, you’ve just got to buy everything all over again.

Sadly, I think this trend will not only continue in roleplaying, but I think that it is inevitable.  As more and more people produce indie roleplaying games, there are more and more games clamoring for attention.  This forces members of the community to apply stricter and stricter criteria to the things that they will spend their attention on.

When there were fewer games, you could get away with just paying attention to the stuff from people who were willing to discuss their games intelligently.  Now, however, there are too many people involved to do that.  This generates some pretty obvious problems for playtesting, especially for playtesting outside of your local group which is a super-important thing to do.

So people are moving to publishing sooner.  Often, one of the big things that will boost discussion and play of a game is having it in print.  Part of this is that it’s an illustration of dedication: you were willing to put in the work to get it done.  Part of this is that it’s an indication of excellence: you feel that your game is, right now, good enough for people to buy and play.  And part of it is added value: people can talk about your layout, cover, form-factor, art, and all sorts of stuff in addition to the content of the game itself.  This means people will talk more about your game.

All of this comes together to make this early publishing phenomenon inevitable: if you want people to play your game, putting it in book form is one of the single most effective pieces of marketing you can do.  And really, I’m glad.  This means that more people are writing (and finishing) cool new games.  But it makes me sad too, because it seems that some of these games really needed another dozen hours of playtesting, but they weren’t going to get it without a book.


Color is important

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006

I do not often talk about Forge theory as directly as I plan to today. Hopefully you can bear with me, I think this one’s important.

Ron Edwards, in his Provisional Glossary of Forge theory jargon defines the term “color” (which we will discuss today” as:

Imagined details about any or all of System, Character, Setting, or Situation, added in such a way that does not change aspects of action or resolution in the imagined scene.

In this definition System, Character, and Setting mean roughly what you would expect. System is (roughly) the procedures of play; character is, well, character; and setting is the English 101 definition of the time and place the action happens at. That leaves us with Situation, which is defined as:

Dynamic interaction between specific characters and small-scale setting elements; Situations are divided into scenes.

This is stuff like “The six fingered man killed my father”. Situation is a fairly macro concern, really.

This is all preamble to my primary point which is: there is some element of play at the mirco level that provides the real meat of play. I have been calling it “color”, but it does not mesh completely with the Forge definition.

The element I am talking about is the one that provides context to the narrative. Does a character undertake an action eagerly, reluctantly, sadly, in anger? This is an important question. In fact, it is key to the way we interpret the narratives we tell when roleplaying.

But remember that the Forge definition includes the clause that color “does not change aspects of action or resolution in the imagined scene”. In Dogs in the Vineyard, whether you gun a man down in anger or in cold calculation matters. In Nine Worlds whether you struggle to win, or win without serious effort matters.

What I call “color”, those contextualizing little bits of the narrative, is important for a number of reasons, but primary among them is that players need context. If there is not a shared context provided the players will simply provide their own, not-so-shared context. My post suggesting that Play is Chaos? This is precisely what I was talking about there.

If you fail to point out that your Batman-esque character is a reluctant hero, then in my head I will make him some kind of hero. It is possible that I will pick the same motivations that you do, but it is by no means certain. Maybe I will assign more sinister motivations to him.  This is not necessarily bad, though it can result in me misapprehending the sorts of challenges that you want to engage with,  This, in turn, likely means you will not have quite as much fun as you might if I were on top of things.

One example of different interpretations that really sticks with me is something that Ralph Mazza posted way back at the end of 2003.  While I happen to consider Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring to be chock full of good stuff, Ralph has other thoughts.  And, really, I think this is a matter of pickup up on different bits of color.  Ralph is noticing and remembering certain things while I am noticing and remembering other ones.

And those first bits of contextualization matter.  Once you have it in your head that a character is fundamentally evil (or good, or amoral, or whatever) then every action they take from there on out is going to be interpreted in that light.  And color provides that contextualization.

I fully acknowledge that “color” may be the wrong term for what I am talking about here, but whatever the term is, it is a fundamental aspect of what we do, not only when we roleplay, but when we interpret any bit of narrative.  In fact, without this color stuff, there is not a story.

Consider the fact that most television news channels are not telling stories.  There is not anything to grab onto to contextualize what is going on.  Instead, what they are providing you with is data.  And data is not the same thing as a story.

Color matters because it is what makes stories meaningful, and not just bits of data.

Next week: The long-awaited (by someone I’m sure) discussion of roleplaying via various mediums.

Playtesting cycles: why there are no long-form Forge games

Thursday, June 15th, 2006

Anyone (and everyone) involved in game design can tell you that if you want your game to be the best it can be, you must playtest it. A lot. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule. Most games that wind up being good without playtesting are good because they are A) a statistical fluke, or B) extremely simple.

It turns out that (B) is pretty interesting. This is because, at least at the current stage of game design theory, the vast majority of design is based on trial and error. We only have “laws” of interaction for the simplest of mechanics. This means that we can only reliably design extremely simple games based purely on our understanding of how games work.

But the ability to design without testing, without going through a process of trial and error, erodes incredibly rapidly as complexity increases. Most of the games I am personally interested in are rather compex. Video games and board/card games are already pretty complex, and they have extremely clear boundaries. Roleplaying games not only tend to be mechanically complex, but also tend to have extremely fuzzy boundaries, which adds a level of complexity which is generally unpredictable.

All that is preamble to my main point. In order to make your game fun to play, you need to playtest it. Further, and this will come as a surprise to no one, you need to playtest it as you intend it to be played. This means that if you have a bunch of different systems that are supposed to interact, make sure you playtest their interaction rather than playtesting them separately. And if your game is designed to be played across fifty sessions, you better be playtesting it across fifty sessions, and ideally, you do it more than once.

Now, none of this is news. At least I do not expect it to be. The “playtest, playtest, playtest” mantra has been kicking around game design for a while, and is especially prevelant around the Forge. Which brings me to the point of all this: there are not many (any?) games to come out of the Forge designed for serious long-term play (of 50+ sessions). In fact, the vast majority are extremely short-form: 10 sessions is usually at the upper end.

So, with all this talk of playtesting, you can see where I am going with this: there are no long-form Forge games, at least in part (and probably a major part), because it takes so much time to playtest them. People have many, many great game design ideas, and for each one they want to seriously pursue they have to do a lot of playtesting.

In the time it takes you to playtest your 50 session game once you could playtest your five session game ten times. In that series of playtesting you will end up significantly improving your five session game. While you would definitely improve your 50 session game, it would not be to the same degree. Your 50 sessions of playtesting your 50 session game would teach you a lot about the simpler, more closed mechanics, just as much as if it were a shorter form game. The problem is that there are some mechanics, and some mechanical interactions, that you will only see go off once time during that entire 50 session playtest.

In other words, there are not any long-form games from the Forge because of the incredible time-investment required to develop them properly. In the time it takes to develop and playtest a single long-form game, you could develop three or four short-form games easily. I estimate development cycles near three or four years of constant work for a good long-form game.

That is why there do not seem to be any. It takes a lot of work and dedication to make them happen. And on top of that you could develop three or four or five short form games in the same amount of time it would take you to develop that long form game. And those three or four or five games? Every one of them will be awesome, fun games. Well worth your time to design and play.

There are probably some economic reasons behind this as well. You can sell each of your three or four or five games to your target market, or even various target markets, at a higher profit margin than your single long-form game.

All that said, it should be pointed out that there is a long-form game that, while not originated at the Forge, has drawn a number of elements from Forge-style thinking: Luke Crane’s amazing Burning Wheel. Look around the web and check out any time Luke talks about playtesting. He is totally willing to tell people about the incredible amount of time, effort, and thought he put into that game. Years and years of development. And looking at the game? You can see where it paid off. The game, especially in its most recent Revised form, is shined to near-perfection. And Luke’s upcoming project Burning Empires has me incredibly excited.

New publishing models: Agora

Monday, June 12th, 2006

The first in a possible irregular series. In today’s babbling piece I’m going to discuss a radically different publishing model for a game. Today’s game is, interestingly, not mine. I’m going to be talking about a game originated and written by someone else, and how I would consider publishing it were it mine.

Joshua BishopRoby has this game that he’s working on called Agora. Go read the little blurb, it’s a dang cool game concept. I’ll be here when you get back. I suppose that it’s only fair that I’m using Josh’s game as an example here since it was a blog post of his that this little article is in response to.
Okay, this next part could give you some context, but it’s not necessary: Josh has this playtest document. I’m going to say some things about the game to prove my points, but I’m not going to justify them with text. You can do that yourself.

Okay. I’ve gotten in a single playtest session of this with Josh via the Foundry MUSH. That means I’ve only ever played this in a synchronous text-only communication medium. I stored my character on my wiki (which is something I do with my characters in any online game, so nothing new there).

Here’s where we start talking about Agora specifically. The way the game is written, most conflicts involve to players: whoever’s turn it is to play their faction, and someone to play opposition. Now, the conflicts, once you get the system down, are pretty quick, so no one ends up idling. Further, the rules for Faction Lieutenants allow you to slot other players in pretty organically so that they can participate and contribute to the scenes fictionally and mechanically.

So you’ve got a system that has at its core two players. If you have those two players you’ve got enough to play. But at the same time it scales up rather smoothly if you have more.

Further, the resolution system has some important similarities to the See, Raise, See, Raise rules in Dogs in the Vineyard. Specifically, one player puts forth a Challenge to which the other player must Stand. Then the next player Challenges and must be met with a Stand, and so on. This works extremely well in the text-based environment because it nails down turntaking. When you play more traditional games online, it’s not always clear who’s turn it is to “talk”, and you will sometimes talk over one another, or worse, one player will type a big carefully worded bit to put into the game, only to have it obviated by someone else’s big carefully worded bit that gets put in five seconds earlier.

This problem isn’t a real problem in Agora because when it’s your turn to Challenge, then it’s also your turn to talk. And I know that my turn is coming up next, so I don’t have to worry about getting stomped all over and having no chance to contribute.

Further, the way the Obstacles and Factions change and are recorded are incredibly cool, and don’t require everyone to be there to pick up at least some of the significance of the changes. Every time an Obstacle is used it gets bigger, every time a Faction wins a conflict it gets bigger. Look over the playtest doc for yourself, but basically you could play with a group of ten people, and people could be missing for any given game and lots of fun could still be had. Then when whoever missed a session showed up and looked through the Obstacle list, they would get at least some sense of how things have changed.

So, to the point. I would write (or, more accurately, hire someone with the appropriate skills to write) a net application for the play of Agora. The game would be centered around a database of Obstacles and Factions, and have some sort of chat client (maybe a modified IRC or Java-based chat program). The chat-client would be preferrably web-based. It would have integrated tools for searching the database for Obstacles, and for handling all the mechanical stuff for the game, including the ability to click on dice to re-roll them, and the ability to roll in entire abilities by clicking on them, and the ability to create new Obstacles if there isn’t an appropriate one in the database.

The big draw for people is the Demo Game. Run a single game of Agora that resets every month or two. Anyone can make a Faction for this game (which means, yes, hundreds and hundreds of Factions and Obstacles in a single game). The time between resets should be calculated to let most people get just enough play to be invested and thirsty for more play before the reset happens.

People can log in at any time and play, as long as they can find someone to play their opposition. Hopefully people try to meet up with the same people over and over, where they have a shared history, and where they can build a community of specific investment.

But all of this so far is free, where does the money get made? Custom games. You let people pay you a flat fee of, I don’t know… let’s say $5, to start a new game. The game runs perhaps indefinitely, perhaps for a month or three (with the option to extend the game for another payment). If you’re the one who paid for the game, then you can authorize other players to join. Each new game gets a unique database for storing Factions and Obstacles, so only people in the specific game in question get to use the items created for that game.

Again, creating player accounts is free, you charge by the game. You bring them in by giving them a little demo of play, and then get them to pay you to get the full experience. People may play multiple games at once, nothing wrong with that. I’m not sure if it would be a good idea to have a system set up so that each player can only get one account or not.

I would also consider, though I don’t know if this would be good/necessary, tweaking Agora so that it had an end condition. At some point the game ends based on mechanical accumulation, or maybe there’s a game-winning goal all the Factions strive for. If such a mechanic was introduced then a flat fee per game (rather than some sort of monthly/quarterly/whatever upkeep fee) would probably work great.
So, that’s it. That’s how I would publish Agora. I’d be curious to hear comments on this model. What do you lose from the game (or roleplaying in general) when it’s played like this. I’d be especially curious to hear what Josh thinks of my butchering of his game.

Designing and writing are two different skills

Monday, May 29th, 2006

If this entry were a book chapter, or an essay, there would be a subtitle: “Duh”.

I don’t pretend that this is anything brilliant.  Of course designing and writing are two different skills.  I mean, some people are really good at writing, but can’t design worth a flip.  That’s fine, not everyone has to design stuff.

I bring it up because, in the land of self-publishing of games (of all sorts), especially under the model most people from the Forge adopt (specifically: one person designs and writes the game text), we often gloss over this fact.  We talk a lot about design.  A whole lot.  And that’s well and good, design is a huge part of games.

However, it strikes me that there’s another extremely important skill, and that’s writing.  It’s possible, probably even common, for someone to design the structures of their game in such a way to foster a specific sort of interaction in the players, but then fail to write in such a way as to express the rules clearly.

But I figure we’re all familiar with poorly written rules.  The sort that are difficult to parse, or ambiguous.  The rules themselves are sound, but they are conveyed poorly.  However, clear rules isn’t the only thing that good writing skills bring to the table.

I’m specifically talking about evoking specific moods and mindsets in your readers which will, hopefully, influence play to tend toward your vision.  I point you at “Moments frozen in the flow of time” (I think that’s what Ben calls it) in Polaris, or the short introductory bit in Dogs in the Vineyard.

These sorts of textual bit shape play in subtle ways, and the in ways that have little (if anything) to do with your skill as a designer of rules and structures for play.  This is a situation in which being a skilled writer makes you better at communicating your vision.  Again, not much surprise that this is the case.

With all that said, there’s a surprising lack of discussion of good writing of games.  There’s tons of discussion of good design, and playtesting, and that sort of thing.  Yet I don’t recall any discussions of how to organize your text to achieve certain ends, or how to effectively evoke certain emotions, or anything of the sort.  We present one another with rules, and discuss how to improve them, but we don’t do the same with text.

To be fair, writing is a big field, and there are plenty of places to get this sort of help.  More people are giving pointers on how to write than on how to design games, so it makes sense to talk more about rules.  Yet I feel we’ve sort of forgotten, at least some of us (read: me), that writing is an important skill, and one we need to talk about and promote in the context of publishing games.

So, in the interest of doing something other than whine: what are some good resources for learning to write 1) Teaching texts, 2) Reference texts, 3) Evocatively.


Meeting your market: thinking about The Suburban Crucible

Monday, May 15th, 2006

My primary roleplaying game design project at the moment is The Suburban Crucible (alpha version). This is a game that I wrote for the September Ronnies in 2005. It’s a project that I’m still pretty excited about, even though it’s pretty discouraging.

It’s a game about racism, especially subtle and institutional forms of racism. Living in the U.S. deep south, this is an issue that’s pretty close to my heart, and one that often hits uncomfortably close to home. It also turns out that it’s incredibly hard to design for. I mean, how do you develop game structures that model the incredibly complex social issues tied up in institutional prejudice? It’s tough.

But that’s all background for what I really want to talk about. I see The Suburban Crucible as a game designed to educate and raise awareness. Yes, I want it to be a game of powerful stories, but I want those stories to be about exploring and better understanding racism. I want people to walk away from any session of play with a new way of looking at racism, and some new tools for identifying it and fighting it.

And my game calls for d10s.

Now, at first glance, that’s no biggie. I mean, d10s are pretty common in gaming, probably the second most common die-type after the d6. But, man, I don’t really want to write a game for gamers. I want to write a game for people, and most people don’t even know that polyhedral dice exist.

So I realized that I’d need to either shift target audiences, or find a new prop for play. I considered d6s, which are significantly more common and easy to come by than d10s, but the mechanic I’m currently using is pool-based, and not everyone has a handful of d6s lying around the house.

Which brought me to cards. Standard playing-card decks are even more familiar, not to mention more common, than any form of dice. I took a look at my core mechanics, and figured out a way to make them work using a deck of cards instead of handfuls of dice.

And while the probability curves change, and some of the interactions shift, the change to cards allows for a couple of new interactions that dice wouldn’t have allowed for. At this point I’m not sure I like the mechanics more this way, though I think I like them at least as much, but the important part for me is that the game becomes more accessible this way.

This realization was important more generally than The Suburban Crucible. In fact, it made me think about some of my other games-in-progress. I know think that Vampiric Flying Lycanthropic Catpeople Demigods (working title) will use d10s, for instance, because it is something of a commentary on the White Wolf paradigm.

Anyway, the lesson I learned, and that I think is important is to consider your audience. Not just in how you present and promote your game, but in the design. Think about what props you’re requiring, and what sorts of game structures you’re utilizing. What things are going to be familiar, and what things are going to take some learning? Are you making your target audience learn things that aren’t important to the game, or are you restricting the learning to the stuff you think matters?

Nine Worlds – As a game; as a game in action

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

Some of you may remember Matt Snyder putting together a voice-chat game of Nine Worlds. We played our first actual session last night (wiki here) and Matt said something to the effect of “Hey, if you guys get a chance generate me some buzz.” So this is me doing that, hopefully Matt doesn’t hate me when this is over.

I’m dividing this entry into three sections: 1. The game itself, 2. Actual play of Nine Worlds in general, and 3. The session we played last night.

Section 1 – Nine Worlds as a book and a game

I’ve got a copy of the Rush to GenCon 2005 edition, so it’s a bit tough to judge the physical quality of the book. I can say that the layout is solid, the play-aids are good, and the cover art is highly evocative. More than that, I don’t know. But I can speak of the content of that book, and that’s what I’m going to do.

If you’ve got a cool setting, and you want to know how to present it to other people to play in, I recommend this book. I liked the way Vincent Baker did stuff in Dogs in the Vineyard, but there aren’t really any story-seeding characters or locations in Dogs. Matt has taken a different route in which he presents a whole bunch of short, sweet descriptions of people and places.

The reason I suggest Matt’s work to you in this regard is that he provides just enough information about each element he records to be great inspiration for stories in play. At least, if not more, important is the fact that he doesn’t provide so much information to the reader that you end up telling Matt’s stories instead of your own. There are hints of stories all over the place, but they’re just enough to set your own imagination off instead of tying it down. If you’ve got cool stuff to share, this is the way to do it.

Overall verdict on content: The entire book is shapes your imagination in a positive way. It provides you new ideas, and constrains the directions of play just enough to help keep everyone on the same page.

As a game, I am sad to say that Nine Worlds doesn’t shine as brightly. There are some extremely cool ideas at work in the mechanics, but ultimately they are too flawed to get excited about. Still, there are some really cool things going on.

First, when you look at a Nine Worlds character sheet you’ll probably notice the Muses. If these look a bit like Spiritual Attributes from The Riddle of Steel, that’s because they’re closely related. Except that Muses are a much more mature imagining of them. In once sense, Muses work in basically the same way as Spritual Attributes. That is, they add directly to you chances of victory during resolution, and they’re a significant bonus. However, the way that Muses contribute to experience is very cool.

The way it works is that any time you use a Muse in a conflict and win, you make a little mark next to it. You note whether this victory used Arete or Hubris (more on these later). Then, whenever the narrative reaches a point where the Muse is either resolved or becomes unresolvable (your Muse might be “Save my girlfriend” and you might fail) you gain experience from it.

Here’s where things get cool: you get the experience whether you succeed or fail and you get experience in the thing you use the most (more on this in a bit). The first part is great for narrative freedom because you don’t have to “win” to get more powerful mechanically. This turns out to be a big deal, and it allows you to do some really cool tragic stuff. Also of note is that you only get to resolve that Muse (and get the mechanical advantage) when you reach a milestone in the narrative. You can’t just spend it down on the fly like you can with Spritual Attributes.

I mentioned Arete and Hubris earlier. These are the two really big stats for characters in the game (called “Virtues”); if either one goes to zero then the character dies. In-game the two represent a number of opposing ideals. Arete is excellence according to the laws of the universe, not mundane, but supernatural in the strict sense. This is the Virtue you use when you want to be the Champion of the Gods, or when you just want to be a really cool human. Hubris is individuality, often expressed via breaking the laws of the universe. This is the Virtue you use to challenge the gods themselves; magic and unnatural power.

Whenever you start a conflict you pick one of the Virtues to help you win. What methods are you employing for victory? If you do win, then you mark any Muses you used with the Virtue you used. When you finally resolve a Muse, you get one of two types of experience: Valor or Pride based on which Virtue was used most with the Muse. This turns out to be pretty cool since a glance at a character’s experience levels quickly indicate preferred thematic choices.

Also cool is that the two types of experience are used in different ways. Valor can only be used to increase your own stats while Pride can only be used to increase the power of “Talismans” which are statted items that your character can use (after a fashion) which aren’t actually your character.

But it’s not all shining brilliance. Each of the four suits is linked to an Urge. This is cool because each Urge is evocative and provides some great (again, non-stifling) direction for narration. Unfortunately, the Urges are clearly unequal in power. Thus specialization in the more powerful Urges is mechanically encouraged. This isn’t cool. Further, the Urges provide a potential for some really excellent mechanical variation among characters, but in action they end up being mechanically similar while providing simple narrative color variation. This is the big miss for me.

Specifically, the mechanical differentiations for four different Urges boil down into two categories: changing stats, and making short-term changes to stats last longer. Of the Urges three change stats, and one is clearly better than the other two at doing it. This means that optimal characters are good at Metamorphosis and Stasis. This could have been a lot cooler than it was, and ultimately disappointed me.

The other big mechanical problem is in the Virtues. While they provide great color, and a really cool differentiated experience system, they’re hard to work with in play. Since the Virtue you use at any given time determines the number of cards you draw for a conflict. You then get to add appropriate Muses, but that Virtue is where you start. Since narrative power is strictly gained through the conflict mechanics, winning here is a big deal. There’s no “You lost, but you still get more power” in this part of the mechanics like there is with resolving Muses, so players will always want to win. This, in turn, means that you always want to draw as many cards as you can. Since, other than color, the two Virtues work identically, you basically always want to utilize the one you have a higher rating in.

This turns out to be a devestating slip in the design. It ripples into the experience system such that having a lot of Pride isn’t so much a statement about your in-game choices, but a statement that you have a high Hubris value. This robs the game of the potentially interesting Arete/Hubris conflict to a very large degree.

Ultimately the combination of a set of mechanics that encourages players to build their characters with roughly identical Urges and the fact that players are encouraged to pick one Virtue during character creation and stick with it throughout play make the mechanics of Nine Worlds a bust. There are tons and tons of super-cool ideas in there, but as Nine Worlds shows us, it only takes a single slip in design to rob them of their power.

Section 2 – Nine Worlds in play

In play Nine Worlds ends up being a mixed bag. The mechanics and the setting presentation provide rock solid color direction and narrative fuel. There are hundreds of cool stories just waiting to be told, and you’ve got all the tools you need to jump in and tell them.

The world you get to play in is superb and evocative, and that’s always a big plus for stories. Further, the world is thematic in such a way that it encourages certain types of stories, which I also find to be a big plus.

As I mentioned in the mechanics discussion above, this winds up not really mattering that much. The mechanics of the game hamstring a player’s efforts to address themes. Specifically, since narrative power (and thus ability to address theme) is derived from victory in the conflict mechanic, players must always strive for victory in the conflict mechanic. This means that thematically appropriate losses may not do what you want thematically.

In some ways this is a feature, and not a bug. That is, it makes all the stories about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. Since you can’t get ahead by failing, victory for your character is what you as a player strive for. This pushes the stories in a specific direction: a constant striving for dominance over everyone else. Unfortunately, the player can not effectively make negative statements about this striving within the mechanics.

The ultimate result is that the majority of theme is addressed at a level outside of the mechanics. While I do admit that a functional social contract is necessary for any functional roleplaying, Nine Worlds seems to rely more heavily than many games upon this social contract. It restricts player choices in such a way that many statements and cool stuff come from outside the mechanics and setting material. This indicates that the game isn’t facilitating play nearly as well as it could be, which is a tragedy.

Ultimately, what Nine Worlds does do right, it does very right. Further, I can’t think of another game off the top of my head that is doing the same thing, even badly. This leaves you in a position such that, if you want to do what Nine Worlds does, then Nine Worlds is better than any option out there (even not using anything), but you will also notice that the game could have been much better than it is.

Section 3 – Nine Worlds in this instance

The specific instance of play I’m discussin here is one that Matt was recording. When I see a link, I’ll put it here. He had mentioned, either in his recruitment post, or in alter discussion, that he had some intention to use the recordings for marketting purposes. That is, to show the game in action. I mention this because it has some bearing on the way I ended up playing.

Interestingly, I didn’t really think about the recording when it came to making revealing personal statements. This is probably due to the fact that I’m basically equally guarded around just about everyone, so I don’t feel the need to put up extra layers of shielding for some unknown listener.

The session in question was good. It was Matt, Fred, and I since Ben is on some crappy dial-up connection and couldn’t join us. I’ve played with Fred for over a year now, so I’m pretty familiar with his play style. On the other hand, I’ve played with Matt precisely once: a ten minute demo of Nine Worlds at GenCon 2005. This was a good chance to get a feel for how he thinks and plays.

The game ran smoothly, with a few hiccups when we tried to frame new scenes and weren’t entirely sure what we wanted to do. Beyond that, things went roughly as I expected them to: Every conflict I was in I used Hubris (since that was what I had the highest rating in), and Fred always used Arete (again, his highest Virtue). Even drawing huge stacks of cards, the Urges we had rated highly were always the ones we used because the cards never came out in such a way that we could score higher Fate values with our non-specialized Urges.

The mechanics channeled us into a very predictable set of behavior. While this was okay (maybe even straight-up good) in the first session, since it helped us get a solid feel for the characters, I can see that it has the potential to get old over more sessions.

At the same time, the Urges provided some truly kicking narration. Thinking within the constraints of a Stasis play, or a Metamorphosis play, or a Chaos play really gets the creative juices flowing. The Arete/Hubris split on methodology also made for some cool distinctive color, though the lines did blur once or twice.

The world definitely followed through on its promise. It was rife with conflict, and the book provided just enough material to propel us directly into cool stuff. Definitely a positive. There was, in play, an interesting tension between resolving a Muse now, and holding onto it for the bonus it gives you while it’s still on the table. That was pretty cool.

Another interesting thing about being recorded is that I made an intentional effort to do as much mechanical stuff as possible. I scored some points, I used some Muses, I created a Muse with Points, I boosted stats with Points, I created a Lock on some stats, and I intentionally resolved a Muse.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been so aggressive with the variety of my actions if this had been a regular, unrecorded game, but I’m not sure that this was in any way a negative thing. It helped me get a grasp on some of the mechanics which might have taken a bit longer otherwise.

Of course the ultimate question that arises is: was it fun? And the answer is, in spite of its flaws, this is one dang fun game. Its imperfections are somewhat saddening, but it still delivers a fun experience. I recommend it overall, but be aware that it could (and honestly should) be a better game that it is. On the bright side it does deliver on a lot of its promise, and ultimately points in some cool new directions for play.

ADDENDUM (20:06): This post is terribly schizophrenic. It’s well below the standards I’d like to think I have when it comes to editing and clarity. In case it’s not clear, I really enjoyed the game and anticipate continuing to enjoy it. It is just that it seems extremely clear to me that I could have been enjoying it a whole lot more than I am, which would have been simply phenomenal.

ADDENDUM (Jan 28, 2006): Matt has made available the first scene from our game. There are some volume equalization problems (that is, my voice projects a little too much), and it is just on scene, but it’s good stuff. You can find it on Matt’s blog.