12 March 2006

Those Who Tarry at the Door

So I've entered the big Game Chef contest again this year. I love these things. They tend to push me to make really interesting design choices that I wouldn't normally have considered, since I always choose overly-ambitious concepts and then spend a week trying to figure out how to make them possible. This year is definitely the most ambitious yet.

I'm writing a game that you play in 10 one-hour sessions, where the session length is measured by a backing soundtrack of modern minimalist composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and early John Adams. Since those guys, especially Glass, looked to Buddhism for inspiration, I'm working on an epic 8-player Buddhist apocalypse about the sum of human experiences being sifted through and gathered into one package which will be taken and used as the seed for the World-To-Come.

It's crazy.

Those who post a lot of information about their game during the design phase never seem to win. I think this may have to do with the impact of being a dark horse candidate and dropping a mind-blowing game in the judges lap. Still, I refuse to do that because I partially see Game Chef as a chance to show other people what my design process looks like. It's an out-reach effort, especially towards the folks who are building yet another fantasy/sci-fi adventure game. And it's also a chance to struggle alongside other designers and build a sense of community. This is lessened a bit this year due to the wide variety of design options available, but still pretty powerful stuff.

Anyway, there's a big design thread for my entry, so you can see the madness I have planned this year (including a really pretty mandala-shaped flow chart I made).

09 March 2006

When the Forms Exhaust Their Variety

(Cross-posted from a Story Games thread about dream games)

A mythopoetic, totemistic cross between JurisFiction and The Matrix, in which you play post-modern punked-out Gaiman-esque personae from classical literature or legends (Scheherazade, the Monkey King, Quetzalcoatl, Don Quixote, Coyote) who hack their way through stories, taking on various roles and playing out bits and pieces of hundreds of different tales, all in an effort to collect various character traits and personality components from the characters whose roles they usurp, constantly reconfiguring themselves in an effort to become the person they most want to be.

I know the first line of the text is going to be "Scheherazade bleeds Baghdad."

The game doesn't currently have a title, but it's been called: Quixote & Coyote, Storypunk, Facedance, and Beneath This Facade. I sometimes think about giving White Wolf the finger and calling it Masquerade, which is probably the most appropriate title.

It is the game I'm not capable of writing yet. Some day.

I have recently considered calling it When the Forms Exhaust Their Variety, a quote from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

08 March 2006

A Chat with Annie Rush

AR: it's funny... the group of players you describe is the one i fall into, but not really the one i write for.
ME: heh.
ME: yeah, i got the sense that you don't really write games that are of the type you really want to play.
ME: i was gonna ask you about it, but wasn't sure you wouldn't take that as a crack.
AR: no, it's rather true.
AR: I want to play the games i write, though.
AR: There's some disconnect because I'm so far out of it, though.
ME: right, i know you like your games, but they're not trying to reach for your personal ideal.
AR: As my stores of roleplay fat wane, i need anything, but primarily storytelling.
AR: It's like I don't know my native language, and have been working with the one that everyone else around me is speaking.
ME: totally.
ME: that's why i thought you might take it as a crack, because i might be implying that you don't know how to create the games you really want.
AR: truth is.
ME: when i don't think any designer really does, actually.
AR: just another fool out searching for some heaven in the sky.
ME: it's just weird that when I write about this kind of stuff, I get a lot of head-nodding from you, Jess, and Mo.
ME: it's like we're working to build the language for talking about what we all should already know.
AR: yeah. :)
AR: overall, you did a neat piece of writing and exploration in that post. I'm gonna take some time to chew it over.

The Beginnings of Structured Freeform (Draft)

These conversations are finally starting, which is terrific, but I wanted to write a substantial post to try to bring a bunch of disparate elements together. Over at Story Games, a portion of the slowly emerging post-Forge indie community seems to be getting serious about trying to do design work specifically aimed at two communities that have traditional been under-supported. One of these are players who see immersion in character as one of the chief goals of play, but that's not the group I want to focus on here.

I want to talk about another group which has a fair bit of overlap with players who love immersion and so is often conflated with them. I see them as pretty distinct, however. The following description of them is a generalization which won't perfectly fit everyone in this group, but I hope it is not an unfair or inaccurate one.

The group of players that I'm personally most interested in designing for wants to see more "low-impact mechanics," game rules that don't require players to deal with many meta/OOC issues once play has begun: including managing game resources, thinking strategically about how best to use the rules, negotiating or competing with the other players to determine "what happens," setting stakes, narrating outcomes not directly related to their character, comparing numbers or fiddling with math to determine results, and the like.

These players want the feeling of being in an interesting story. In fact, among them, there tends to be quite a fetishization of "character" and "story" as high ideals. Many are excited to play every week mostly "to find out what happens next," either to their character or in the overall story as a whole. They are prone to My Guy, not wanting to break their own standards of consistent character behavior even to create more interesting situations. They live for Color. They can often be satisfied with simply being participants in the GM's story as long as they are entertained and are frequently given the opportunity to shine. They thrive in online freeform games, whether play-by-post, PBeM, or chat.

As far as tabletop goes, they have traditionally contented themselves playing games like Amber, Ars Magicka, Changeling, and, in more recent years, Nobilis, Buffy, and Exalted, though you can find them playing anything. In America, quite a few of them have been involved in Mind's Eye Theater at one point or another and, in my experience (though Jere has already disagreed) a large number of them seem to be female, though there are quite a few male adherants too.

They are not necessarily into immersion, but can be. Many simply don't like the idea of breaking the fantasy/daydream to deal with mechanical issues, because this distracts from their experience and enjoyment of the story. They roleplay to listen to and be a part of a story. The fact that they're playing a game is secondary at best. This is often why they end up ignoring most of the rules and largely playing freeform, because the story is more important than the game.

This is the group that White Wolf often tries to play to, with their fetishization of story and storytelling, and their Golden Rule to ignore the rules. Often, game companies play to this audience as a way of targetting female players and mistake their dislike of fiddling with mechanics as a kind of "Barbie says: 'Math is hard,'" and try to streamline or dumb down the rules of existing games, as with Blue Rose. This doesn't really do much to help these players, however.

This group understands that most mechanics can be replaced by a solid social contract, playing with the right people, and building a strong shared history of play with the others in the group. They are less interested in mastering the rules of the game and more insterested in forming a community of practice, most likely with their own idiosyncratic standards and ways of operating.

Many indie designers, even ones that I respect immensely, are frustrated by players with these sorts of desires, because they seem to reject most traditional design work, not appreciating the neat little rules that designers develop to make play more interesting. And they do this from what can seem to be an "allergy to mechanics." Often, to this type of player SYSTEM DOESN'T MATTER and this is antithetical to the soul of the indie design movement. Designers throw their hands up in the air and storm off in a huff. How do you design rules for people who tend to just ignore most of the rules?

I have spent the past year or two trying to answer this question and have had some help along the way from several individuals who've provided exciting insights.

Thomas/Langellier & Peterson: Constraint

Mo: Pull

Me: insights from my 2-player games

Ron says "Brain Damage," I say Cultivation

"Cultivation theory has been around for about four decades now. What is it? The idea is that if you consume some kind of media consistently, you'll start thinking that the real world is more like the media one."

06 March 2006

A Response to Peaseblossom (from Story Games)

Jess, I'm not sure if this is exactly what you're getting at, but I started writing you a response and this just sort of came out of me. I hope it sorta gets at what you're asking for here. I apologize if I'm wide of the mark.

There seems to be a large number of unsatisified players who want play that supports a high degree of negotiation and interaction between players but also very little fiddling with meta-mechanics or resources or tactics or the like. They want some system support but also want to preserve some degree of immersion or don't want to break the fantasy to deal with mechanics or just don't really like fiddling with mechanics. And most of the Forge stuff and even the non-Forge indie stuff tends to create interesting story conflicts by encouraging inter-player conflicts using mechanics (Universalis, MLwM, and PTA being the clearest models here, but even including stuff like Dogs, Mountain Witch, Polaris, and Breaking the Ice).

And, honestly, a large number of the players interested in high collaborative, low meta-mechanics play seem to be female and on the edge of both mainstream and indie roleplaying (the indie crowd, as different as it is from the mainstream, can still be a boys' club), so their interests aren't really being taken into account by recent design and theory work, unless it's being done by folks like you, Jess, or Mo, or Annie Rush, or Meg Baker, or Emily Care Boss.

And, while most male designers really respect, enjoy, and want to support the kind of work the indie women are doing, I get the sense that most of the indie crowd aren't really interested in that kind of play or don't think that it's really possible to have some serious system that doesn't require messing with mechanics or fiddling with resources or creating inter-player conflicts through reward systems or whatever. This seems too much like freeform. Or like Amber. But when you drop something like Neel's Lexicon or Shreyas' Mridangam or my KKKKK on them, something that reframes things completely differently than other RPGs, they go "Oooo, that's neat," but it becomes a one-time thing, an experiment. Nobody is picking it up and running with it and really playing in this sandbox yet.

Still, I think the interest in this kind of collaborative, low-impact play, potentially (and once we actually figure out how it really works), is HUGE and I sympathize because I often feel that way and have been trying to get at how to best support play in that style. Unfortunately, most of what I have to show for it are my 2-player experiments and not real solutions yet. But it's definitely something that I hope to continue working on.

So that's a long response to say, basically, I don't think the style of play you are looking for has really been formalized in a game yet. There are games that do some of that and there are games in development that will hopefully do a lot more, but I don't think this area has had sufficient attention put to it yet. I've been trying and so have a few others, but this is not where most people's attention is right now (where is it? I don't really know).

Maybe you'll be the one to really make it work.

Action/Expression Revelation

me: i have experienced revelations about Waiting/Tea
JP: Do tell
me: there are two types of things that characters can do.
me: they can EXPRESS things and then they can DO things.
me: expressions would be saying stuff, yelling stuff, smiling, frowning, pointing at stuff, sighing, etc.
JP: What is the difference?
me: actions would be like picking up a bucket, going to a different location, making tea, etc.
me: so I think I'm gonna give players a large degree of leeway in character expression and very little leeway in character actions.
JP: Ok, I guess I can picture that.
me: so expressions are really how you get from action to action.
me: they're what provide context to things that the characters actually do.
me: so you could say, "Chema laughs at Gai Zheng, 'I can't believe you just did that.' "
me: freeforming the expressions.
me: but if you actually want to DO things, you have to select an action from a list based on your current location.
JP: Now I can picture that ;)
me: i think that'll give the system both flexibility and structure.
JP: Sounds like a good plan
me: Thomas wanted the system to "get out of the way," supporting stuff that needed supporting and not restricting stuff that was actually good for the game.
me: and limiting character expressions was pretty limiting.
JP: Something easier said than done
me: it's also got me thinking about the difference between acting and expressing in other games.
me: like, in Nobilis, killing an entire nation of humans can be an expression, because it doesn't actually DO anything. you can just do it because you're in a bad mood.
* JP nods
me: whereas, an action actually does something that affects what actions can be taken later.
me: like insulting the Power of Fluffy Bunnies might be an action.
JP: Kind of like actions that change color vs. ones that change situation.
me: very much so.
me: expressions of color don't create new situations like actual actions do.
JP: Yea
me: though Waiting/Tea's expressions don't necessarily line up with how I feel about expressions overall. for instance, saying "I hate you and hope you die" will often cause new situations, but, in W/T, that would still be an expression.
JP: Yea, that does seem a bit strange
me: maybe it's just because Waiting/Tea is a single scene long, so, if you create new situations, you don't really get to deal with them.
JP: Like ordering another dish when all you have time for is already on your plate :)
me: right.
me: like ordering 3 desserts.
JP: Heh