31 May 2006

The Written World

I just stumbled across this amazing quote by Imre Galambos in Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present (2006):
    People talk about this idea of literary worlds. There are certain cultures, like the Byzantine and the Chinese, in which the written documents create a world that is more significant than the real world. The officials who ran the country in ancient China -- they were selected through exams, through this process of memorizing the classics. They lived in this quazi world of letters. Whoever came in from the outside became a part of it. Even the Mongolian tribes that eventually became the Yuan dynasty -- for God's sake, they were complete nomads, with very little written language. But they became like the Chinese for a time; they assimilated themselves. I think this literary world is the link in time that permits this thing we call "Chinese history." It's not the number of people or anything like that; it's the enormous written world that they produced. They produced this world that's so big that it eats them up and it eats up everybody around them.
Awesome. Not sure what this means for The Game I Can't Write Yet, but it's definitely closely related.

Traits Become Keys: Dharma Paths

Jason Morningstar wanted to see a filled in sheet for the Avatar game, which I'll try to get up soon. However, the sheet itself is not nearly as cool as the process you go through to fill it out. Sure, you add a few traits and fill in basic information in the beginning, but over half of the sheet should start out blank, to be filled in through play. Additionally, The process of play is the process of changing the information on your sheet, the process of becoming a different person. You do this by completing Dharma Paths.

You can have up to four active Dharma Paths at one time, linked to each of the four elements of the Avatar universe (water, earth, fire, air). Whenever you have an element open, either because you just completed a Dharma Path or because it's early in the game and you haven't filled your elements up yet, you can declare a new Dharma Path. Dharma Paths are filled out on little slips of paper that looks something like this:

To declare a Dharma Path, you pick a trait you already have or, if you still have any, a blank space on your character sheet. This is the trait you are hoping to change. Traits come in various type, including Bending/Martial Arts, Relationships, Possessions, and Personality Traits (I'm still kinda sorting those out), so you also write the trait type down. You also note the element you're associating it with and, most important of all, declare what you're intending it to become. So if you start with a trait like "Sokka is Dismissive of Girls" maybe you want to change it to "Sokka Has a Girlfriend." Declaring your intentions helps structure play and gives the other players (including the GM) a sense of where you hope to go with the character.

To fill out the Dharma Path, you "collect" scenes which are relevant to pursuing your goal, writing down a short summary of what happened in each scene, so you have a record of Sokka progressing. But play may not lead you to your expected result. Sokka might get his ass handed to him by a group of warrior women and, instead of finding a girlfriend, develops a major unrequited crush on one of them. This would be recorded on your Dharma Path card as "Sokka gets beat up by girls" + "Sokka plans revenge on girls" + "Girls get the best of Sokka" + "Sokka asks to train with the girls" + "Sokka develops major crush on head girl" + "Girl goes off to fight" + "Sokka leaves," based on how the scenes end up playing out.

So, at the end of this process, your declared trait changes, but not to the trait you were hoping for. Instead, you have to rename your trait (or add a new trait) based on what actually happened in play. So instead of changing "Sokka is dismissive of girls" to "Sokka has a girlfriend," you end up with "Sokka is crushing on a warrior woman." Yay, Sokka is no longer dismissive of girls, but not in the way you necessarily intended. Renaming the Dharma Path, changing your original intentions to match what actually happened, is what closes the path, allows you to change your trait, and lets you start a new Path if you want.

Dharma Paths are generally arbitrary in length, closing when players feel like they've reached a sort of cathartic point where they're ready to assess how things have changed and how a character is different.

Details I'm still working out: Dharma Paths can change type too. There's an episode where Aang tries to learn Firebending and instead learns the consequences of being an impatient brat. Or where Katara tries to fight sexism and instead learns Waterbending from a master.

Also, completing Bending/Martial Arts/Possession paths changes what your character is capable of doing in the game world. So I need to find some semi-equivilent importance for Personality Traits and Relationships. Shreyas and I were talking about having those be the traits the GM created conflicts and obstacles out of, pushing players to either 1) change the problem into something that's not a problem, or 2) change themselves so that the problem is no longer a problem, or 3) a combination of both. We'll see.

One Reason This Game Will Rock

Jonathan: ALSO: dig the revelation I just had.
Jonathan: One of the main ways of surmounting obstacles in this game...
Jonathan: ...is going to be CHANGING YOURSELF.
Jonathan: you don't solve the problem. you change yourself so that the problem is no longer a problem.
Shreyas: oh yes
Shreyas: very nice!
Shreyas: you're such a cocktease. i want to play this game yesterday.

28 May 2006

Avatar Character Sheet

Shreyas demanded that I work on this before finishing the sex pirates. So, like with the pirates, my take on an Avatar: The Last Airbender game is basically finished. I just have to write down the stuff in my head. Hopefully I'll get a chance to do that soon, so we can playtest it next week.

It makes good use of all the neat "character development arc" stuff that I've been going on about. And the graphic design of it is gonna be very pretty, like the stuff above. It's gonna be short, though. Like 10-15 pages, I expect.

26 May 2006

Basic Character Arc Mechanics

Last night, I was thinking about how you could do character arc mechanics in a kind of object-oriented computing format. Normally, I'm not this much of an uber-dork, but I do have some background in JavaScript and a little Java, so go with me here.

So, like all games, you have mechanically supported play and non-mechanically supported play. For now, let's leave the actual enactment of links as completely freeform (mechanically unsupported). You declare that you're performing the "get my ass handed to me" link, but it's entirely up to you to decide how you wanna hand yourself your ass. This will probably get its own mechanics later.

The mechanically-supported stuff goes like this:

Characters have to be working through at least one link at all times. If they have no declared link, they cannot be in a scene. So players should probably declare a new link for any character that have just completed one, unless said character currently has a lot of links "open" and the players are trying to resolve some of them and simplify the current drama. Characters do not have to be actively working to complete their current links at all times, but open links provide guidelines for what a character purpose currently is. If a character has no purpose, why the hell are they in a scene?

This holds true for major characters (in the case of Avatar: Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, etc.) as well as minor characters (Apa!) and guest stars (Random Hot Boy #7, Element Master #3, Wacky Villain #26). A character like Apa can go through several episodes without resolving a single link. That's okay. They still need to have one open so we know where they're going, development-wise. That way, if the group decides they suddenly want to do an entire episode all about Apa (which would be awesome), they have some support.

There are things besides individual characters that can have links. Groups of characters can collectively possess links that they are working through. I'm not sure if episodes or locations can have their own links, because I tend to think that episodes and locations are driven by the problems of the characters in them. If you want to have the characters deal with a problem, either give them a related open link or create a character for them to encounter who has a related open link.

Links do not form "chains" (or development arcs) on their own, because they are not necessarily thematically related simply because they all belong to the same character or group. Sokka might have the open links "prove I am worthy of my father's trust" and "win Yue's heart and physical affection." These could be part of the same chain (a chain about Sokka growing up and becoming a man, perhaps) or they could be a part of two different chains. Or both could be true. One link can be a part of several chains, if necessary.

Chains have to be declared and defined, just like links. Here's where the Java stuff comes in. Imagine:
    new Chain [scope][name]
    add [link 1]
    add [link 4]
    add [link 5]
    add [link 7]
    Chain completed
The scope of a chain is who it belongs to, a group or an individual. The name of the chain is the theme that you're expressing with it. And then you add relevant completed links to the chain until you complete/resolve the chain. Then you set it aside, it becomes a record of character development (and might be connected to mechanics where you gain new powers or abilities), and work on your other chains and links.

I'm imagining, if you're playing something like this in IRC, you'd keep an extra chat window open for people to declare new links, new chains, completed links & chains, and the like. So part of it might look like this:
    Jon: new Link [Sokka][get Yue to admit she likes me]
    Jon: completed Link [Sokka][get Yue to admit she likes me]
    Jon: new Link [Sokka][figure out why Yue won't go out with me]
    Jon: new Chain [Sokka][lovers seperated by fate]
    Jon: add Link [Sokka][get Yue to admit she likes me] to [lovers seperated by fate]
    Shreyas: completed Link [Katara][get rejected for being a girl]
    Shreyas: new Link [Katara][find a way to learn, despite them]
    Shreyas: add Link [Katara][get rejected for being a girl] to [win respect as a waterbender]
    Shreyas: add Link [Katara][get rejected for being a girl] to [fight sexism]
    Jon: completed Link [Sokka][figure out why Yue won't go out with me]
    Jon: new Link [Sokka][convince Yue to follow her heart]
    Jon: add Link [Sokka][figure out why Yue won't go out with me] to [lovers seperated by fate]
Sometimes you may have some completed links that are not part of a chain yet. That's okay. If you don't immediately have a good idea of a chain for them, make note of them, but let them sit around for a while. You may discover that, by piecing some of your unchained links together with some links that are already in chains, you can create a new chain that connects several development arcs together. Or you may be inspired to create a new chain or add the unchained links to existing chains somewhere down the road.

I'm considering the possibility that each episode is constructed from a limited number of links, say 40 or so. And these links can mostly belong to a single character or group, or may be divided evenly or (more likely) unevenly between several characters/groups. And when you've completed 40 links, the episode ends. There would probably need to be other pacing guidelines in place to make sure that worked, or maybe it could just be a general guideline for episode lengths.

Other things to consider:

Be like Vincent and get rid of strict player control over character. Now every player can declare and resolve links and chains for any character or group. Shreyas may be responsible for playing Katara in this particular scene with Sokka, but I could pick up on something Katara says or does and declare or resolve a link. Maybe I need that link to complete a chain about Katara and Sokka's relationship, so I was trying to push Shreyas into having Katara do something. If you want more Pull, I could declare a new link for Katara or Sokka, based on what I wanted to have happen in the scene ("Katara Slaps Sokka"), and then, depending on how Shreyas wanted to play it, that open link may or may not ever be completed. If we did something like that, we'd probably want some way for excess open links to be declared "no longer valid" after a certain amount of time.

Okay, I think that's all for now.

25 May 2006

Avatar Development Arcs

These are my notes on some of the major, repeating character development arcs that take place in the first Season of Avatar. Vladamir Propp, eat your heart out.

Sokka Learns a Lesson
- Sokka Does Something Reckless
- Sokka Fails Miserably
- Sokka is Pouty
- Sokka Does Something More Intelligent
- Sokka Succeeds

Being the Avatar Isn't That Bad
- Being the Avatar Sucks
- Aang is Sad
- Avatar Powers/Social Position Save the Day
- Aang is No Longer Sad

Katara Crushes on Random Hot Boy
- Katara Meets Random Hot Boy
- Random Hot Boy Does Random Hot Things
- Katara Swoons
- Katara and Random Hot Boy Flirt Shamelessly
- Plot-of-the-Day Resolves Itself
- Katara and Random Hot Boy Go Their Seperate Ways

Bending Can't Solve Every Problem
- Problem Encountered
- Attempt to Solve the Problem with Lots of Bending
- Bending Fails to Help or Makes Things Worse
- Disbelief
- Lateral Thinking Used to Find Non-Bending Solution
- Solution Works

The Power of Fun
- Aang Encourages Some Weird Dangerous/Fun Thing
- Lots of Other Stuff Happens
- Dangerous/Fun Thing Used to Save the Day

Don't Judge a Book By It's Cover
- Characters Judge Some Person/Situation
- Characters Are Completely Wrong
- Characters' Mistaken Views Lead to Badness
- Characters' Mistake is Discovered
- Characters Express Regret
- Characters Use New Knowledge to Triumph

Katara Changes Peoples' Minds
- People Are Acting Foolishly
- Katara Gives an Inspirational Speech
- People Are Skeptical
- Karata Is Disappointed/Frustrated
- People Decide She's Right, Goshdarnit

Additional suggestions are welcome. There's also one about the characters getting angry at each other or being jealous, but I need to watch a few more episodes to nail that one down. And there's the arc used in Aang solo episodes, where he discovers something about himself and his Avatar-ness.

24 May 2006

More Character Framing

Christian (xenopulse) picked up some of the character framing stuff from my last post and started a thread on Story Games. For now, any additional thoughts on this topic will be posted there.

23 May 2006

Character Framing: Restrictions, Keys, & the Last Airbender

One of the Nobilis design "laws" is the [Insert Random Flowery Name Here] Law, which goes something like, "strength is gained through adversity." This is the model for the Restrictions system, where characters get a restriction like, "I Freak Out Whenever I'm Around Jell-o" (NOTE: not a real example) and then gain extra resource points when their Jell-o Allergy causes them real difficulties. These are more than just markers that indicate issues a character wants to deal with (which I think is what some people call "Flags," right?), because, in Nobilis, individual players are encouraged to take responsibility for getting their characters into situations where they are trapped in a room with Bill Cosby and a lot of Jell-o Pudding Pops. So Nobilis uses Restrictions as an underhanded way of giving players greater narrative control than they traditionally have, but only to cause a world of hurt for themselves (and gain resource points in the process). Nobilis offers other methods of player empowerment, but that's the one I'm concerned with right now.

Clinton does something equally cool with Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday, which are sorta like Restrictions in that they give you resources points (XP) in return for narrating certain things, but Keys are character development goals that must be met ("Destroy All the World's Jell-o") instead of challanges to give yourself. Still, in both cases, Restrictions and Keys seem to mainly function to 1) provide a unique character identity by giving players goals/problems to invoke regularly, and 2) excuses for players to narrate their characters into a world of trouble. Keys have the bonus feature of facilitating character development as well. If you meet certain conditions, you can complete or invalidate a Key and basically exchange it for a new Key (though the way the rules handle this is a bit more complicated than that).

So I was thinking about Avatar: The Last Airbender this morning, and trying to come up with a way to mix The Shadow of Yesterday, Exalted, Nobilis, and Primetime Adventures to model the show appropriately (which is my next project after the pirate game, I think; before dolphins). I definitely want strong character guidelines (TSOY's Keys), kewl kung fu powerz for the kiddies to accumulate (Exalted's Charm Trees), a rather-fuzzy-but-with-some-structure method for handling the magical element-bending powers (Nobilis's Miracle Charts), and a way of structuring individual sessions so they feel like TV episodes (PTA's great framing rules).

Here's the real revelation, though, after all that build up: character development in TV shows needs to be paced too, just like scenes do. So I'm thinking of creating a kind of "personality chakra" for each major character, which is a string of Restrictions and Keys that are arranged in a certain order and build on each other. So you have to complete one before moving on to the next. There could be chakras of various sizes. The largest one is, of course, the chakra for the whole series, which focuses on one element per Season of the show. All the characters would work together to complete that chakra. On a smaller level, take the character Sokka. His core personal chakra for the first 6 episodes (the ones I've seen so far) might look like this:
    Do Stupid/Stubborn Shit --> Be Humbled --> Stupidly Seek Revenge --> Be Humbled Again --> Swallow Your Pride and Learn a Key Lesson --> Demonstrate Your New Knowledge
Now there would be no fixed pace for you to work through such a chakra but the key characters would each work through at least a few stages of their core chakra per episode. The character that the episode focuses on would probably work through their entire personal chakra. And maybe the more chakra stages you worked through, the more the group as a whole would work through the larger game chakra. And there could be secondary chakras as well, for building up your martial arts or magical bending abilities or completing other side quests ("Discover what really happened to all the Airbenders").

One of the neat things here, as with Keys, would be allowing for the development of personal and power/ability chakras. By which I mean not "progressing along the chakra" but "changing the way you move along the chakra," swapping out one stage for another or rearranging the stages, for example. I'm hoping that, by the Second Season, Sokka will have ditched his need to be humbled twice before he learns anything, but who knows. He may keep the required humblings and change something else. And when it becomes possible for characters to learn new martial art or bending powers, those obviously get added to their respective chakras, so they can get invoked in subsequent play.

Anyways, yeah, welcome to a emerging area of design that's beginning to gain real attention (heck, it even sorta snuck into Exalted: Second Edition) and the tools to match: character framing.

22 May 2006

Things That Make You Go Hmm

From Terra Nova, an incredibly awesome blog about MMORGs:
    Most virtual worlds we know are centered upon clusters of friends in a sea of strangers with whom we have little connection.
Sounds like life to me. Which is maybe part of the reason for the insularity stuff my brother was pondering here. As for me, I'm currently pondering the whole micro-clique, insider/outsider thingee and how it relates to forming communities of practice.

Terminology Change

Instead of referring to my current design/play kick as "girlie hippy commie pinko roleplaying" (which Vincent objected to), I think I'm gonna switch to "new-age GM-disempowering crap gaming." Thanks, Pundit.

What D'ya Know

My bitching about Qin: The Warring States, thanks to a conversation with the very patient Brand (one of the original writers of the French version, who reads my blog!), has turned into an offer to help proof-read their inconsistent and often confusing use of Chinese language terms. I don't know if the editors of the English version will be interested or not, but I've offered to volunteer my time. We'll see if that goes anywhere.

This is an amazing example of 1) the power of the internet, and 2) the great things that can happen when people keep an open mind and stay engaged with folks who seem to disagree with them. I still don't know if the game's gonna really be my thing or not, but every game should at least have the opportunity to not have crappy Chinese.

21 May 2006

Roleplaying's Asian Fetish

With the pre-release rules summery of French publisher 7th Circle's English version of Qin: The Warring States out, I have to do the expected thing and bitch a little bit. This bitching comes in two parts:

1) Playing Dynasty Warriors does not qualify you to write a 200+ page game about the Warring States. Yes, run a campaign about it, by all means. Yes, make up your own house system. Yes, release a little short indie game, sure. But if you're going to spend the time and money necessary to produce a massive, full-color tome, make sure somebody knows what the fuck they're talking about. I mean, if you have that much money, hire a consultant. Warring States my honky white ass.

2) Do we really need another Orientalist martial arts game that fetishizes the rules system and kewl kung fu powers? Don't we already have, like, at least a half dozen that are still regularly played? What does this do for us that Exalted, Weapons of the Gods, Feng Shui, HKAT, Wushu, Legend of the 5 Rings, and the other usual suspects don't already do? I mean, I read the rules system and I am bored to tears. Another use of the 5 elements! How original! Yin and Yang! Nobody's thought of that before! Hey, we can have different abilities tied to different elements! Woohoo!

Yes, I'm sure nobody cares what I think, but, gah! Can we get a game about Asia that is not a walking cliche, please? All I can really think of is The Mountain Witch and the Asian-y parts of The Shadow of Yesterday. Boht of these are MUCH COOLER GAMES.


Ben: Man, if it were like Dynasty Warriors, that would be awesome.
Jonathan: hells yeah.
Ben: That game rocks. But I don't think this game is nearly as cool looking.
Ben: "Pick a historical figure. You're this guy. Now make your character."
Ben: "Okay, so historically I was a failed general. In this game I have bright blue hair and assassinate people with a giant yoyo."
Jonathan: that would be the shit.
Ben: Andy and I wanted to make Dynasty Warriors for the American Revolution.
Ben: With, like, crazy power attacks and such.
Jonathan: that would be even cooler.
Jonathan: I wanna be Paul Revere and kill people by flinging horseshoes at them.


Later on in that conversation...

Ben: We have more myths about the revolution, but the civil war game would sell really well in the south.
Jonathan: or we could mash them together and ignore the anachrony.
Ben: Nah, but then we couldn't draw money out of a sequel.
Ben: Anyway, the Civil War is our three kingdoms period.
Jonathan: i suppose.
Jonathan: we'd have to include characters from that general era, though. because I wanna be Nat Turner.
Ben: Oh, man, you could even do the Indian Wars.
Ben: I want to play John Stark.
Jonathan: or, yeah, Crazy Horse.
Ben: Man.
Jonathan: John MFing Brown.
Ben: This is really a limitless franchise :-)
Jonathan: Fredrick Douglas rhetorical attack!
Ben: Fredrick Douglas has a humongous axe.
Ben: And blasts people with force bolts.
Jonathan: John C. Calhoun Fillibuster Shock Prana!

20 May 2006

Design = Theory Enacted

Cross posted from the Story Games thread, where Thor was asking about putting theory into practice in design.

All of my games are an effort to prove something. I don't write games that I am already capable of writing when I begin designing. Instead, I come up with a really exciting theory that I'd like to see enacted in roleplaying, something that I don't know how to do already, and I use the design process as a kind of "proof" attempt, figuring out how to make something work that wasn't obviously possible before. Whether you view this as a "proof" or just a demonstration of a theory kinda depends on how you're using the word "theory" (Chris Lehrich has a great article on the multiple meanings of "theory" and their applicability to roleplaying, but I can't find it right now).

Often times, the bits of theory I try to prove are derrived from the reading I'm currently doing, whether it's in small group communication theory or the development of arthouse wuxia as a cinematic genre. But they're usually sparked by something outside roleplaying (or at least comes from another branch of roleplaying, like interactive fiction or collaborative fiction writing). For example, my more recent projects set out to demonstrate the following:

Heavenly Kingdoms (Game Chef 2005, finished late)
- players create "what happens" simply by improvizing upon and remixing a fixed text
- players have a sense of character that's not formalized in any mechanical way

Untitled Arthouse Wuxia Game (planned for Push vol 1, unfinished)
- frame scenes on the super-micro level, image by image, shot by shot
- create inter-character conflict without having it be driven by inter-player conflict
- do a martial art game that doesn't require people to geek out over the mechanics

Lions on the Precipice (my Dogs remix, unfinished)
- have a multiple-PC game where the main characters never meet
- structure play so that different characters' actions comment on each other thematically

Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan (lesbianstripperninja, Jan 2006)
- further explanation of semi-mechanical characterization
- have different characters play by different rules
- structure player input as a way to guide "what happens"

Waiting for the Queen/Tea at Midnight (Push vol 1)
- enable interactive fiction ("get lamp") style play in tabletop
- more semi-mechanical characterization, but also allowing for freeform characterization
- focus on the difference between mechanically supported/unsupported play
- a different approach to structuring player input

When The Forms Exhaust Their Variety (Game Chef 2006, unfinished)
- move away from traditional narrative structure
- do tabletop play that's not really "storytelling," more like larp multiplicity
- mechanically require player co-dependency
- be as weird and out-there as possible :)

The Good Ship Revenge (current project, unfinished)
- handle a variable number of players in a fixed-character game
- use a collaborative fiction (online freeform) style narrative authority scheme
- frame scenes at a more micro level, with individual images ("shots"), like a movie
- create a short game that supports play of variable length

Untitled Dolphin Game (upcoming Summer Fun Game Chef 2006)
- question traditional assumptions about the communication and content of play
- be as weird and out-there as possible :)

Also, I think I learn as much (or more) from games I never finish as those that I do. Even failed or abandoned projects are a chance to learn a lot. Especially when things you couldn't get to work in some projects resurface and actually work in later projects.

18 May 2006

Piratey Design Doodling

17 May 2006

The Pirate Game

Ben said I wouldn't be able to write it quickly. Well, exams are stopping me from writing the entire game text. I explained the whole game to Josh & Shreyas, though, with almost enough details to actually play it.

jonathan: well, there's this crazy pirate game i'm working on.
jonathan: i'm glad you asked, Shreyas.
jonathan: so it's a variable player game.
jonathan: for at least 2 and probably no more than 5 or 6 players.
jonathan: there are 3 key characters by default.
jonathan: Mary Read, cross-dressing pirate lover of Anne Bonny.
jonathan: Anne Bonny, cross-dressing pirate lover of Jack Rackam.
jonathan: and Jack Rackam and His Amazing Calico Dreamcoat.
josh: I just want to point out Jacks fondness for young boys, which could possibly have completed that love triangle.
jonathan: yes.
jonathan: all of these three are getting it on with lots of people of both genders.
jonathan: it is a kinky pirate boat full of sex.
josh: it totally was
jonathan: so these are the only characters that HAVE to be in the game.
jonathan: in a two player game, the players mostly play any two of these characters, and the third one is a major NPC.
jonathan: so you can have a story about Anne & Mary feat. Jack.
jonathan: or a story about Mary & Jack feat. Anne.
jonathan: or a story about Jack & Anne feat. Mary.
jonathan: in a 3 player game, one player plays each key character.
jonathan: in a 3+ player game, you invent additional key characters: Anne's ex-husband, Mary's ex-husband's ghost, Anne's rich lawyer father, the boson, Mary's pirate lover.
jonathan: each character is represented by a chess piece.
jonathan: Anne is the Black King.
jonathan: Mary is the Black Knight.
jonathan: Jack is the Black Queen.
jonathan: pirates are represented by black chess pieces.
jonathan: law-abiding people, or people opposing the pirates, are white pieces.
jonathan: the chess pieces move about The Broken Wheel.
jonathan: shown here:
jonathan: The Broken Wheel
jonathan: all major pieces have to stay on the Wheel at all times.
jonathan: pawns usually cluster around the outside of the Wheel and can be moved on and off as needed, since they represent minor characters.
jonathan: black pawns are junior pirates, ship hands, cabin boys, casual lovers.
jonathan: white pawns are soldiers, sea kracken, ghosts, bartenders, casual lovers.
jonathan: because you can never have enough casual lovers when you sail on the Revenge.
jonathan: so, play proceeds by turns.
jonathan: each turn is a little micro-scene in a movie.
jonathan: you get a handful of shots with which to depict a short situation or encounter.
jonathan: during your turn, you can move your piece and any pieces not directly controlled by another player.
jonathan: you can also move other players pieces, but only with their permission.
jonathan: in any case, each piece can only move once in a given turn, except for pawns, which can move as much as needed.
jonathan: you move one space at a time around the Wheel, or into the center LOVE/WAR space.
jonathan: you have to cross the center in order to get to Sex and Death, which are broken off from the rest of the wheel.
jonathan: okay, in any case, when you move your own PC piece, or declare that you're staying in the same space, you begin describing your little micro-scene.
jonathan: you can move other pieces before, after, or during the scene.
jonathan: but once you put your fingers on your piece, your scene starts.
jonathan: say I'm playing Jack, so I move the Black Queen into the "See" space. there's currently no other pieces there.
jonathan: I say, "Good gracious Lord 'av Mercy, what be that black smudge of turd on yonder far horizon?"
jonathan: "Boson! Get you scurvy arse over here w' me spyglass!"
jonathan: and then I move the piece for the boson, a Black Bishop, into my space.
jonathan: and i narrate the boson's arrival and his conversation with Jack.
jonathan: and then I ask Josh, playing Anne, if he'll let me move her piece.
jonathan: he says yes.
jonathan: I move the Black King into the same space.
jonathan: before I say anything, Josh says, "What the devil are you fellers staying at, ay?"
jonathan: having joined the scene, he is now an active player, though he can't move pieces, since it's still my turn.
jonathan: eventually the scene ends, and control passes to the next player.
jonathan: i'm unsure about the scene ending yet.
jonathan: but i want turns to be rather short.
josh: so pieces can move around at will? Except if they have to go through the center?
jonathan: 1 move per turn, except for pawns.
jonathan: that's important.
jonathan: so you can't have people wandering in and out of scenes, unless it's a pawn fetching something.
josh: right, but I mean they can move more than one space
jonathan: no.
jonathan: one space per turn.
jonathan: so if the Black Queen isn't on a neighboring space, i can't move her in.
josh: aha, okay
josh: could you move her closer?
jonathan: yes, with permission.
josh: cool
jonathan: so you can team up with other players to have your pieces move two or more times a round.
jonathan: this encourages people to work together.
shreyas: good so far
jonathan: each space is a general subject for the scene.
jonathan: not an actual location.
jonathan: so you can stay on the same space and have a scene on the same subject in a different location.
jonathan: you can also extend scenes by say, having the next turn be Josh's and have him choose to continue an earlier scene.
jonathan: the only time you can have sex or death occur to a significant piece (not a pawn) is on the Sex and Death spaces.
jonathan: pawns can be killed or sexed up on any space.
josh: woo!
jonathan: also notice that Sex and Death are non-coincidentally close together.
jonathan: just like in a horror movie, you may try for Sex and end up with Death, or the other way around.
jonathan: other people can only move your piece with permission.
jonathan: but, for example, the Death space doesn't care who dies there.
jonathan: and the Sex space doesn't care who has Sex.
josh: is their scarcity of pieces? Like are there only 32 character possible? Does killing off a pawn mean there are less to go around?
jonathan: however, notice that your piece cannot end up on any space that you don't want to be on.
jonathan: Josh, i don't know if there are infinite pawns or not.
jonathan: i kind of like having each piece be unreplacable.
jonathan: makes an eventually blood opera likely.
jonathan: okay, i think that's everything except the LOVE/WAR space.
josh: yes
jonathan: the LOVE/WAR space is hot.
jonathan: in the LOVE/WAR space, you have to have at least one PC character.
jonathan: if there are no PC characters there, no one can be in the space.
jonathan: lesser pieces have to be escorted there by bigger pieces.
jonathan: in the LOVE/WAR space, you are either preparing for LOVE or WAR, which is to say, Sex or Death, or, more likely, both at the same time.
jonathan: it is the most emo of spaces.
shreyas: *prepares the eyeliner*
jonathan: this is where people beat their hearts to each other, break the hearts of others, backstab, double cross, or otherwise emotionally and physically destroy other characters.
josh: so you don't do that elsewhere?
jonathan: well, yeah, you sorta can, but this is where, in Dogs terms, you actually roll dice and have a conflict.
jonathan: with the results meaning a move to Sex or Death.
jonathan: you can do that stuff in other places, but it doesn't have real consequences.
jonathan: you can't kill major pieces in other spaces.
jonathan: and you can't Sex them up.
jonathan: LOVE/WAR is a means to an end.
jonathan: it's also a shortcut to any space you want to go to.
josh: major pieces ared efined as?
jonathan: major pieces are anything that's not a pawn.
josh: ah, okay
josh: but wait
josh: when you move to love/war are you automatically going to either sex or death?
jonathan: no.
jonathan: but it's a possibility.
jonathan: where it wasn't before.
jonathan: which is what makes it exciting.
jonathan: it's risk.
josh: what be the purpose of the other spaces, if this be the only one where consequential story unfolds?
jonathan: well, imagine a movie that was just people being emo.
jonathan: that would be a sucky movie.
jonathan: so you have moments of high emo broken up by manuvering and seduction and the like.
jonathan: LOVE/WAR is the camera zooming in for a close up and people screaming their heads off in joy or pain.
josh: okay
jonathan: LOVE/WAR is the combat system analogue.
jonathan: you don't want combat ALL the time.

15 May 2006

Pirate Design Goals

Design goals for the short-form game The Good Ship Revenge, or, Black Flag Heartbreak, or, Mary, Anne, & Jack:

  1. Write a game about the three-way, bisexual, cross-dressing, possibly trans (in Mary's case), torrid, tragic pirate romance between Mary Read, Anne Bonny (or "Bonnay"), and "Calico" Jack Rackam, who conveniently sailed on a ship called Revenge.

  2. No attributes/skills. No GM. No resource management. No character sheets (except for maybe some TSOY-style Keys?). Characters are defined by the limitations they put on player choices. This is kinda my design default lately.

  3. Make a game with a strictly limited set of roles, but one that's able to support a variable number of players. So, like Polaris, or Breaking the Ice, or Kazekami Kyoko, or Waiting/Tea, but have it be more flexible. The number of players can vary between 2-5, say.

  4. Use framing techniques at a sub-scene level, framing shots as if in a movie. Steal from the ashes of the failed-but-educational "arthouse wuxia" project.

  5. Create a game that is wildly variable in length, depending on player preference, suitable for both one-shots, short story arcs, and, possibly, open ended campaigns; something that can turn into a one-session blood opera, but doesn't have to.

  6. Mimick, in tabletop format, the character/narrative control scheme commonly practiced in online collaborative fiction writing, where each player is responsible for "writing" a particular central character, can write for other central characters with their players' permission, and shares almost complete control (as long as no one objects) over minor characters, setting, situation, and color with the other players.

  7. Practice and learn stuff to implement in Vesperteen and other projects. My short form games are the training ground for bigger stuff.

The game is basically already written in my head and uses the "Broken Wheel" I posted recently as a kind of simple "battle map" in the manner that Shreyas wrote about here. Players move chess pieces (representing major and minor characters) around the wheel, which creates "shots" or "series of shots" in a cinematic sense, combining a grouping of characters with a general type of behavior common in the pirate genre and creating opportunities for conflicts. I'm hoping to write it all up later this week.

Dev, you said you were looking for a pirate game to play. This could be it.

14 May 2006

The Broken Wheel

12 May 2006

Summer Fun Game Chef

Also known as lesbianstripperninja II.

Design a roleplaying game to be played by dolphins. Better yet, since dolphins are known to practice both complex play and creative behavior, they probably roleplay already. So tell us about one of the roleplaying games played by dolphins. If you want, provide optional conversation rules for land- or water-based play by homo sapiens sapiens.

For inspiration, I suggest checking out Wikipedia's excellent summery of bottlenosed dolphins (probably the most well-documented species). You'll learn exciting facts! For instance, did you know that male dolphins are bisexual and enjoy lots of hot dolphin-on-dolphin action? I didn't! Also, it has a nice description of dolphin brain capabilities (there's more detail in the first article I linked) and dolphin social groups, which might be helpful in this project.

Actual research for your game is encouraged (yay, learning stuff!) but not required (boo, extra work!). Any games submitted by the end of the summer will be accepted for judging. Any human-playable games will stand a good chance of being playtested at or before GenCon, assuming you finish them by then. I will find and supervise some judges, but won't be one myself, because heck if I'm gonna be left outta this fun.

What do you win? Well, I'd love to have a dolphin game published in Push, especially if it has conversion rules for humans. Or you could publish it yourself and get a million bucks. Your choice. In either case, you keep all rights to your game. And I'll find you a real prize too. Something good and shiney. Dolphins like shiney!*

* DISCLAIMER: I actually have no clue if dolphins like shiney. My dolphin knowledge is based on Flipper and SeaQuest. But that will change soon.

10 May 2006

Please Oh Please

Can we not turn Mo's "Push/Pull" into specialized jargon terms with super-specific meanings? I can see it happening already and dread it like the plague.

So what if Mo's original articulation was trying to do 12 things at once? There's nothing wrong with that. By all means, let's break down Push/Pull into various aspects and components, but let's not work out every single detail and preemptively declare "Mission Accomplished!" Let's not label the 7 different sub-categories of Pull behaviors. Let's not replicate the Forge's steady accumulation of jargon at Story Games, which has, so far, remained rather accessible.

Push/Pull are general categories, like "roleplaying." There is not a limited number of ways in which they can be done. They are relative and relational concepts, relying heavily on context.

Also, I tend to think that if you don't feel the general distinction between Push and Pull in your gut, after reading the basic descriptions Mo originally posted and the various discussions since then, that Push/Pull are not going to be especially helpful or interesting to you.

When I read it, my reaction was "Yes! This is what I've been trying to say FOR YEARS!" If you don't feel that way, I don't think there's anything you can really do about that. You can enjoy games that are based on Push/Pull ideas without digging the theory, just like with GNS/Big Model and the Forge games. Maybe you'll eventually have an "OH!" revelation. Maybe not.

In any case, remember that jargon terms are icons: they indicate and point at a real idea, but they are not the idea itself. Use the icon well, as an arrow. Don't let it become an idol. Let it point you towards bigger and grander ideas, not tie you down in the nitty gritty details.

05 May 2006

The Game I Can't Write Yet

The game I can't write yet is about creating a persona, a person to be, by arraging and layering various masks. At different moments, in different situations, different masks come to the forefront and become your primary face, but your other aspects are always hovering in the wings or in the background. You are vast; you contain multitudes. One of the most valuable skills is to be able to rearrange your masks to adapt to the needs of the present. Perhaps you should display The Mask of the Mother Bear more prominently than The Mask of the Angel of Death to tackle your current predicament.

The game I can't write yet is also about building this persona based on exising masquing traditions. You are not the first person to ever wear masks. You are most likely wearing several masks that you inherited from others, only some of which you have used up to their full potential. Some of these masks you took up willingly. Others were pressed upon you. Some masks may be old and tattered. Some masks you may have made yourself, in homage to the more splendid masks of your heroes, hoping to live up to them. Together, your set of masks represents your history, your heritage, and your future. It is the faces you've worn and the faces you may some day be ready to wear.

You will gain masks and lose them. You will outgrow some. You will cast some aside. Some you may burn or bury or tie to a stone and throw into the ocean, to keep others from ever wearing them. Some you will take from the dead bodies of your foes or friends. Some you will fish from the bottom of the ocean, rocks still tied to them. Some you will piece together from tiny fragments that have been scattered to the four winds. Some will be given to you by lovers or life-long friends. Some you will be tricked or cursed into carrying. Some you will make yourself, using bits and pieces of other masks, to pass on to your own children, lovers, friends, or mortal enemies.

The game I can't write yet is about being part of a small community of people, all of whom carry and wear a variety of masks. They are your family. You love them but you also hate them, because they are so much like yourself, but also so different. This community changes over time as the people in the community change. They will not always carry the same masks. They may change into someone that is harder for you to love or hate, or someone you will have to love or hate in a different way. With the changing of masks, the community and the social rules that bind it together will change as well. And you'll have to adapt to the changes because, like it or not, this is your family. You can run away for a while, but you can't change where you came from. You carry each others' masks and that binds you together. You are the person you are partially because of them.

Just had to get all that down. Thanks.

P.S. And if you say, "Masks sound like they are sorta related to the Keys from The Shadow of Yesterday," your mind is working in the same direction as mine.

03 May 2006

Final Bits of Push Text (3 of 4)

Planning Volume 2

Next time, Gadget. Next time.

This is an invitation. God willing, the next issue of Push will be two or three times thicker than this one. And that requires the help of people like you, people who care about what roleplaying might be becoming.

Push is primarily looking for the following:

1) articles describing newly emerging or less well known varieties of play and design (which also includes, at least for the time being, just about any variety of roleplaying disconnected from traditional or indie Anglo-American tabletop roleplaying),

2) articles describing new opportunities for play and design within existing roleplaying traditions (since there are always opportunities to do what we already do differently),

3) complete and playable short-form games that demonstrate new play possibilities (especially those written as if roleplaying evolved from something other than historical and fantasy miniatures wargaming),

4) something else that pushes the boundaries of roleplaying while remaining fun, informative, and not overly academic,

5) you. We want you. Enlighten us; surprise us; delight us. Tell us something we don’t know. Make us want to play right now. We are your peers and your audience. We are hungry. Feed us.

Push is not an academic journal, though we have a fair number of graduate students and PhD candidates among our contributors and commentators. If you want to write a paper about Foucault and roleplaying, I definitely want to read it, but unless you can make it accessible and exciting to people who are more interested in fun stories than discourse analysis, it belongs in a publication other than Push. We have a different mission and a different intended audience.

Likewise, Push is specifically intended to be a progressive publication, interested in pushing boundaries and speculating about the future of roleplaying. We are appreciative of the roleplaying’s heritage, but this journal is about looking forward and the content reflects that. Draft your proposals accordingly.

That said, write about what excites you. What are you most looking forward to? What can you see hints of in the play experiences you’ve had recently? What is roleplaying in the process of becoming? There is no correct answer to any of these questions. There is no single answer either. Roleplaying is blossoming in many different directions at once and in the process of becoming things we can’t even currently imagine.

How awesome is that?

Final Bits of Push Text (2 of 4)

This Volume

Aside from Clio’s cover and this introduction, Push Volume One contains the following:

Emily Care Boss, in Collaborative Roleplaying: Reframing the Game, provides an overview of games which seek to distribute control of the play experience more evenly among the players involved and speculates on the future of this type of play.

John H. Kim, in Immersive Story Methods for Tabletop Roleplaying, describes his own experiences planning an on-going game in which each player’s character was the protagonist of their own story and offers advice on how others can do the same.

Shreyas Sampat’s game, Mridangam, draws on the vocabulary of classical Indian dance, handling all out-of-character negotiations and narrative structuring through the silent exchange of gestures between players.

Eero Tuovinen, in Against the Geek, Choice, expresses his concerns about the rampant Americanization of Finnish tabletop roleplaying and explains how his small publishing operation is working against the current trend.

Finally, there’s me, Jonathan Walton, and my game, Waiting for the Queen/Tea at Midnight, which is inspired by early computer games of the “get lamp” variety and strictly limits character choices while not limiting expressions of character.

The end notes feature hat other journals dub a “Call for Papers,” encouraging clever, witty folks like you to propose content for Volume Two. The next book will indubitably be twice as exciting as this one, featuring many new friends with bold new ideas.

A Diversity of Perspectives

I hope the practice of inviting less familiar faces to participate in Push continues in subsequent volumes, so that our circle of comrades will never become too comfortable and the Push community will continue to grow in size and the diversity of backgrounds. Additionally, I hope that Push will quickly expand its focus beyond the boundaries of tabletop roleplaying to examine how other communities are roleplaying. That will, of course, require people doing other kinds of roleplaying to come write for Push, so one of my major tasks before the next volume is to begin tracking likely candidates down.

I Cast Magic Missile on Mo

Push had been in the works for a year and a half when Moyra Turkington, now one of our Guest Contributors, published a blog article which categorized different kinds of player interactions as “Push” or “Pull.” That wouldn’t have been a problem except that Mo, being a very intelligent gal, said some really great things and the terms actually began to catch on. This, again, wouldn’t have been a problem except that I’m personally much more interested in exploring Pull-oriented play techniques, which renders the title of this journal completely antithetical. Sigh.

But instead of hating Mo forever or changing the title of this journal back to the one I originally proposed (“Magic Missile”), I decided to get over it. So if you see mention of “Push/Pull,” whether in these pages or elsewhere, don’t be confused. Push was here first. Mo is the imposter.

Feeling Groovy

I sent the semi-final Push PDF off to the contributors (Emily, John, Shreyas, Eero) tonight, reading for proofing, basic compatibility checking, and, eventually, special guest commentary.

It's finally gonna happen.

02 May 2006

Busy Tonight

So, I didn't get the last bits of Push finished up tonight, which was the plan, but I was pretty amazingly productive anyway, so I don't feel that bad. I managed to:

1. Dork out with Jess Hammer (who is awesome!) on the phone
2. Figure out that having our own GenCon booth won't work this year
3. Chat with Annie & Thomas about Game Chef LIVE!
4. Chat with Annie & Thomas about Game Pizzaria
5. Decide to do both of those at our booth next year
6. Write a long post about "communities of practice" on Story Games
7. Write a short post about Game Chef LIVE! on Story Games
8. Get to bed around 11:00pm (right now!)

Game Pizzaria

Of course, now that it's probably too late to organize something, we (Annie Rush, Thomas Robertson, and I) have stumbled upon the hottest idea for a GenCon booth ever:

AR: I've considered doing custom at-con game comissions. ^_^
ME: that would be hot.
ME: you should write people a custom game for $50 or something :)
AR: w00t. I might set up a sign.
TR: We should so do a booth that designs games for people!
AR: rock!
ME: and then sell our games on the side.
ME: and if a bunch of us are working on games together, we can throw crazy ideas around and stuff.
ME: and, like, get you to do little illustrations for the games.
ME: so like a collaborative game design booth, but with lead designers on each game.
ME: and we'd have to play it with the people who ordered it when they came to pick it up.
ME: so we'd have a sign that was like "Elizabeth Ross, your game is hot and waiting"
ME: so people could know to come get it.
AR: xD yeah.
ME: we wouldn't be a brewing company, we'd be a game pizzaria.
TR: That'd be cool.
TR: And if we retained rights we could publish a book at the end of the con :)
ME: "what do you want on your game? aliens, cowboys, and cheerleaders? can do. that'll be $22.95, extra if you want it delivered"
AR: snicker
AR: I really like this
AR: games written as comissions are published for charity.
TR: Like, charge different prices for different sorts of games. Have a menu of "toppings".
ME: yeah.
TR: "Cards? What about dice? A board? Playable online?"
ME: like the Game Chef ingrediants.
ME: and you could have a "two-topping special" and then "specialty pizzas" based on the current design interests of various booth members.
ME: "I'd like an Annie Rush special with extra robots and cookies!"
AR: I write more than robots and cookies. ;P