25 February 2007

Great Reckoning in a Little Room

    When a man's verses cannot be read, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.
    -- Shakespeare, referencing the killing of Marlowe
Here's the usual suspects of 1593.

The Men in the Room

Ingram Frizer: The one who stabbed Marlowe. A servant and spy for Thomas Walsingham.

Nicholas Skeres: Servant and spy for Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Involved in investigating the Babington Plot.

Robert Poley: Servent and spy for Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. Involved in investigating the Babington Plot.


Thomas Walsingham: Cousin of Elizabeth I's deceased spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. Marlowe was staying at Thomas Walsingham's house when he was summoned by the Privy Council to be tried for Heresy, mere weeks before his death.

Frances Walsingham: Only daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen. Widow of Sir Philip Sidney, killed in fighting in the Netherlands. Wife and later the widow of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex: Second husband of Frances Walsingham. Later executed for treason in 1601.

Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury: Elizabeth I's new spymaster after the death of Sir Francis Walsingham. Rival of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Sir Walter Raleigh: Former favorite of the Queen. Fellow atheist and friend of Christopher Marlowe. Imprisoned in the tower after the Queen's death in 1603. Executed in 1618.

Thomas Kyd: Fellow playwright and friend of Marlowe, worked with him as a part of Lord Strange's Men. Produced evidence, under torture, that incriminated Marlowe as a heretic.

Arabella Stuart: Tutored by Marlowe. Potential heir to Queen Elizabeth. Later involved in more than a few plots. Dressed up as a man and attempted to flee. Died in the tower in 1615.

Mary Queen of Scots: Catholic! Potential heir to Queen Elizabeth. Subject of most of the plots of this era, including the Babington Plot for which she was executed in 1587, five years before Marlowe's death.

22 February 2007

Slippery Kit

Another conversation about the game-in-progress. One of these days I'll figure out a good format to repost chats. By the way, I think the female character may end up just being called "The Agent" or "The Agent of the Queen."

- i kinda suspect that i want the second character to have a hand in his death
- or to ultimately be responsible
- but maybe it should end with things unclear as to whether he's actually dead
- so it's not clear who triumphs
- that makes it more interesting
- maybe Marlowe's last letter is "to be read on the event of my demise"
- and anticipates it

that's pretty exciting

- hmm, i'm thinking maybe that the female character's letters are all to various people, trying to arrange Marlowe's death
- and the other player plays all these people who keep being baffled when Marlowe slips out of their hands
- so like "sorry, mistress. we tried to poison him, but the poor sod didn't seem affected in the slightest"
- so like Kazekami Kyoko in that way
- with one person concocting plans that the other challenges
- but eventually, they get him

- dude
- yes
- that's um really weird
- but in a cool way
- i want to play it

- so is the final letter pre-written?

- hmm
- could be
- i wonder if play could continue even after his death
- "to make sure we got him"

- haha

- i just don't want it to become Kill Doctor Lucky

The Untimely Demise of Christopher Marlowe

So I finally have a premise and a title for the game for Josh's girlfriend (to go with the basic rules which have been done since Sunday). As a bonus, The Untimely Demise of Christopher Marlowe sounds somewhat similar to Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan -- they are both flowery and both about a famous man's death -- which reflects their interconnectedness.

The game will concern itself with the events leading up to the mysterious death of "Kit Morley" as he was often known, supposedly in the scuffle over paying the tab. However, since said scuffle involved several known spies of Lord Walsingham and Marlowe was about to go on trial (being -- according to various accounts -- an atheist, a Catholic, a heretic, a counterfeiter, a spy, a conspirator, a lover of attractive young men, a hedonist, and/or William Shakespeare), it seems unlikely his death (or the staging of it) was entirely accidental.

Now I just need to find a female character as devious and interesting as Marlowe. Right now, Arbella Stuart, who Marlowe may have tutored at some point, looks to be a promising candidate. She was potentially next in line for the throne after Elizabeth I, which gives her more than a few reasons to be involved in Walsingham's espionage activities. And just because she was 18 when Marlowe died (at 29) doesn't mean there couldn't have been some romantic or sexual tension going on there.

The other option is, of course, the imprisoned Catholic monarch herself, Mary Queen of Scots. The only problem was that Mary was dead 5 years before Marlowe.

Or I could have the main characters not include Marlowe or anyone else especially famous at all, and instead simply be conspirators involved in the mysterious events surrounding his death. Hmm. Still some thinking to be done, but I'm getting pretty close now.

Oh, one other thing.

Kit Marlowe died -- and I'm not making this up -- from being stabbed in the face. So, basically, it's an indie game waiting to happen :)

21 February 2007

Focusing the Game

Last night, Josh hinted that he might prefer a more focused game than the open-ended system I was writing. So now I'm thinking about making the letter-writing game be about espionage, either the Walsingham conspiracy (Elizabethan spymasters!) or Civil War-era spy networks (which involved numerous notable women). But I guess I'll need a new title, then. Maybe The Greenhow Ring or The Babington Plot.

Bonus: Just got off the phone with my dad and he said that noted playwrite and general rapscallion Christopher Marlowe was reputed to be part of a Catholic conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth (organized by Mary Queen of Scots), hence his mysterious death in a London barfight. Hmm...

20 February 2007

For the Right Reasons

I was thinking today that there are two approaches to gamethought.

1) Thinking and posting about games to gain the attention and respect of others for being gosh-darned smart, interesting, and sexy.

2) Thinking and posting about games because you're actually working on a project -- whether for publication or your local gaming group or for yourself or for someone else -- and gamethought is the byproduct.

I suspect that online forums -- the Forge, Story Games, etc. -- even if they start out with other goals in mind, gradually tend to drift towards the former. Or maybe, those of us (including, of course, me) who are easily seduced by the instant gratification of [1] do that so much that those forums aren't great environments for [2].

Thing is, people's attentions are ephemeral. The "Hey over here! Look at me!" thing might work in the short term, but in order to really gain people's respect and long-term attention, you really have to put up AND shut up. You have to stop tooting your own horn in their faces and just quietly do your thing in the corner. After all, if you and your ideas are as awesome as you think they are, people will be drawn in without you doing a whole lot. And that's real gratification.

Really, this is a marketing lesson. If you're all hype and no substance, people will get bored with the hype pretty fast. But if you have a lot of substance, a tiny bit of hype will blossom into a huge hype machine run by other people, as your admirers tell other people how cool you are.

If you can't tell by now, this is an attempt at self-criticism. Sure, I've been around long enough to have slowly earned the respect and admiration of some pretty cool people. And I'm really grateful for and humbled by their support. But I really only started feeling productive, as a designer, when I left the Forge and started this blog. So now I'm thinking about spending less time on Story Games and more time on my new Wordpress blog.

Instant gratification is hurting my productivity, basically. I need to get away for a while and finish a few things. I'll still need support. But I need to write games for some long-term awesomeness, rather than writing posts for some fickle attention. I need to sit down and write games for myself or for specific people. I need to finish Gridiron Gods for John Harper. I need to finish The Good Ship Revenge for Mike Sugarbaker and Andrew Kenrick. Right now, I need to finish While You're Far Away for Josh Kashinsky and his girlfriend and Mo.

So I guess you folks are stuck with me here (and here) for a while. Hope my explosion of productivity on the blog side of things won't overwhelm you.

19 February 2007

Wordpress Retrospective

So, based on advice from tons of folks, I'm planning to eventually move this blog over to my new Wordpress blog which just went live (at least, officially).

Now, this change isn't going to happen immediately. I still have that series on "Traitless games" to finish here. However, in the meantime, I'm going to try to collect links to all the game design work I've ever done and turn them into a retrospective that's going to kick off the new Wordpress blog. So if you want to hear about We Regret to Inform You the Gamemaster is Dead and other obscure, older projects, subscribe to the new feed and then you won't have to worry about missing stuff when the true switchover happens in a few weeks.

There is a LOT of ground to cover in the design retrospective (I have accumulated dozens of half-finished projects over the years), so I'm going to try to post about one project every day or two, with links to all the old stuff and some commentary on what's important about it and what might happen to it in the future.

Anyway, see you there on the new blog and I'll see you here as well as we wrap up this one.

18 February 2007

Humble Mythologies d20

So back in... I don't know, 2004 or something, Eero Tuovinen and I were discussing this game concept called Humble Mythologies. The idea was to write a game about the real world, in which normal people did normal things, but have game events be driven by a secondary, abstract layer that was superimposed over the top of normal life. I think it was going to be kinda Tarot influenced. So that businessman might be the Knight of Pentacles. And he might try to capture The Star, which would mean reaching some personal or professional goal. I hope you get the sense of what the premise was.

Anyway, Ashi apparently invented the same game with a few of her friends, though using d20 as a base and set during the protests of 1960s America. Very cool.

Games Without Traits: Part 1

What was going to be a single post is turning into a series. I discovered I have a lot to say.

Ninety-five percent of all published roleplaying texts and, probably, eighty percent of all roleplaying groups presuppose an artificial divide between the rules of the game and the content of play. Not everything that happens in play is considered to have "weight" when it comes to resolution systems, the mechanical core of ninety-nine percent of all published games. Instead characters, events, situations, locations, items, and the like are distilled into lists of descriptors, measurements, resources, and the like. It doesn't matter, mechanically speaking, if a given character has a competitive relationship with her sister if that is not somehow embodied in a Trait of some kind (though, occasionally, Traits are improvised on the spot).

The storytelling movement in roleplaying, to which the indie roleplaying movement is closely connected, tries to make heretofore mechanically inconsequential details more important by turning them into Traits. In Vampire, characters have a Humanity score that measures how well they are able to maintain their composure and morals despite being blood-sucking monsters. Games like Sorcerer, Riddle of Steel, My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Breaking the Ice, Polaris, and Shadow of Yesterday to name just a few, are clearly part of this tradition, turning things like "Attraction," "Self-Loathing," "Light," "I Will Rule This Land," and "My Daddy Used To Whup Me Good" into Traits.

Games that turn really interesting and unusual things into traits are sweet. My last post talked about different ways to represent traits in play and many of those representation methods arose, I suspect, from trying to represent things that are sometimes awkward to contain in a description, a single word, a number, or a die roll. Having many different ways to represent Traits and being ever more creative with Traits, picking fascinating and non-obvious things to give mechanical weight to, enables us to explore a nearly infinite range of potential play content.

However, in other ways, thinking of game content in terms of Traits has the potential to limit roleplaying's development. Roleplaying groups develop rich symbolic languages in the course of building communities of practice, and the nuances and depth of these languages is not always reflected in Traits. My own dissatisfaction with the focus on conflict or task resolution in most game design discussions may really be a dissatisfaction with Traits. After all, why do we describe game entities in terms of Traits?

1. To summarize things to make them easier to remember (like taking notes).
2. To enable things to be processed or compared in traditional resolution systems.

I tend to think that [1] can be accomplished in plenty of other ways, without requiring Traits. But [2] is a big deal. Traits are in bed, effectively, with traditional resolution systems, which in turn trace their roots back to wargaming. Now resolution can do a lot. I'm not trying to suggest otherwise. As Shreyas just commented to me, "It allows you to do a lot of neat stuff: compartmentalize things, manipulate them abstractly, etc." But, like Traits, it's not the be-all and end-all of roleplaying and, in the next post, I'll talk about a few alternatives.

17 February 2007

Representing Traits

One of the lessons of Vincent's lego mech game Mechaton (borrowed from the miniatures games tradition) is that visual representations of character traits are awesome. In Mechaton, the lego "attachments" that you have clipped onto your mech tell you what the mech's abilities are. When the mech loses those attachments, by having them blown off, the mech loses those abilities.

Shreyas and I were recently discussing a game concept where you would draw a picture of your character and that would serve as a character sheet. This embroidered belt represents the character's relationship with his mother, who wove it for him. If the relationship starts being in trouble, maybe you'd alter the picture to show it fraying. Or maybe the character would stop wearing the belt or start wearing a special buckle on it, given to him by a rival for his mother's affections. Meg Baker's 1001 Nights hinted at going in this direction, with its focus on dress, but then used it mainly as color.

Going from there, imagine a game of Dogs in the Vineyard for which each player has prepared their own coat, which serves as their character sheet. This patch on my elbow is "Never Back Down 2d6." This frayed edge across the bottom is "Remember What Happened at Three Rivers 3d4." That's a larp trick.

Likewise, imagine a character represented as a poem, described line by line in a series of images, or maybe with each important trait separated by a comma or colon. For example, say the characters find themselves in Hell, which is represented by these lines from Milton:

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.

If they are to triumph over the horrors of hell, they must surpass it's various qualities: the furnace, engulfing visible darkness, the sights of woe and regions of sorrow, torture without end, the fiery deluge, etc. This kind of thing would work equally well with prose passages, of course. The literary approach to trait representation is implied by Hero Quest and Weapons of the Gods, but taken in other directions.

Shreyas, in his various Torchbearer drafts, experiments with using props to depict traits that are passed around between the players, representing (in part) shifting things like relationships or leadership or the like. If a lit candle represents my character's trust or love, I hand that candle to another player, and they blow it out, the symbolic meaning of what just happened should be pretty clear, even without saying anything.

Mridangam uses gestures as a way of negotiating resolution, but there's no reason that body language couldn't representing static or, better yet, changing traits. Holding up different numbers of fingers on each hand, sitting or standing in a particular fashion, orienting yourself relative to objects or other players in the room, using mudras or other hand gestures, making certain facial expressions (though those might be a bit trickier to implement).

Likewise, the kinds of diagrams that I've played with in the Avatar game and the Exalted Hack (inspired by Shreyas' work on Ninegun Choir) work similarly, though, in that case, you're positioning board-game-like pieces on a diagram in order to represent the current state of your character or another aspect of the game. All sorts of board game symbology works here: you can move pieces around in a line, you can jump pieces, you can knock pieces over, you can flick pieces with your finger, you can have pieces move in particular patterns, you can have different shapes and colors of pieces, you can do any number of things with the board itself, etc.

Any other major ones I missed?

It's interesting, coming to the end here, to see how many games by Shreyas or myself are related to these kinds of ideas (mostly unfinished games, but whatever). I guess that if you were to try to speak of "play/design schools" among indie game designers, looking for alternative representation methods (alternative symbology, really) is one area of game design that we've tried to develop in recent years. I imagine we're not going to stop any time soon.

(Once I get a chance, I want to write another post about "traitless" games, kind of a pet project of mine, as in Heavenly Kingdoms, Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan, Waiting/Tea, and the Game for Josh's Girlfriend.)

14 February 2007

Peacock Feathers

Ashi and I were discussing Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan and the new Game for Josh's Girlfriend (which really needs a better title). We talked about how these games were basically, as Ashi put them, "peacock feathers." That is, like poetry written for fair maidens in times past or the witty banter between Shakespearean lovers, one major point of the games (like many two player games, including Emily Care Boss' Breaking the Ice) is to give both players an opportunity to demonstrate that they are articulate, creative, fun, and sexy. It's sort of flirting ritual encapsulated in a game. Even when you're not playing the game with someone you wouldn't mind seducing, some of that intimacy and sexual tension is there, which is part of what makes it exciting.

As Ashi said:
    ...that doesn't make it a bad structure for a game. It actually could make it an especially good structure for a game, because there's a lot of very familiar flagging and subtextual communication. This could be used especially well as a springboard to less familiar and obvious forms, which involve a greater degree of trust and understanding between participants.
Righto. Also, it reminds me very much of email conversations I've had near the beginning of relationships, where both members of a new couple put on exaggerated personae and waxed as eloquently and ridiculously as possible at each other. Along the lines of:
    Greetings from the Lord Hitherston Millancipus, I regret to inform you that the timing of tomorrow night's meeting will be inconvenient for His Lordship. Mayhaps the Fair Lady would acquiesce to delay their gathering until the morrow, for tea?
Now, Kazekami Kyoko doesn't really succeed fully at embracing this goal, partially due to the way I approached the subject matter. Ashi pointed out that Kublai's wives are not characters so much as scenery. They are the faceless target of Kyoko and Kublai's mutual lust, though Kyoko necessarily triumphs in the end. So what may first seem like a rather feminist premise (Kyoko seduces all of Kublai's wives and kills him while tormenting him with the lurid details) is really a very masculine fantasy of being cuckolded and utterly dominated by a woman. Kyoko is also a very masculine figure, both in her persona and the way in which she treats Kublai's wives (as scenery and tools for her revenge). There's certainly room for this to be adjusted or just improved upon by individual players in the course of play. But there are definitely some issues there. Still the game is explicitly about seduction, which may help to bring down some of the barriers people put up to prevent intimacy from developing.

The issues surrounding the Game for Josh's Girlfriend are rather different. I told Ashi that it was weird to write rules that are just structure for things people should already know how to do, but that I supposed I was targetting the game at people who come from a strict roleplaying background and need to relearn how to just play in a freeform way. Ashi thought that having that structure was okay, saying:
    I don't think it reflects some gamer disease or whatever. Games automatically cancel a lot of communicative implicatures. Arguably, canceling even implicatures that aren't normally cancelable. Though that might actually be the purview of role-playing games, exclusively. ...And now, thinking of the pattern [how the game is structured in paragraphs], I wonder about how much it emerges from concerns over how and whether the other person will respond... As in, to make it clear you're responding to everything, you explicitly reference each paragraph.
Her latter concern there might be accurate. When I write letters to people I care about, especially if I'm persuing a potential relationship with them, I tend to be overly dilligent in responding to every point of every letter they send me. I guess I assumed this was fairly common, but I may be way off the mark here. Perhaps it would be better to allow more freedom in choosing how to respond, to better reflect the multiplicity of letter writing styles out there. If the letter structure is supposed to feel natural, basing it on my own letter writing tendencies may not be the best idea.

In any case, my thoughts on this continue to develop, so comments and suggestions are welcome.

13 February 2007

Shreyas Runs the Avatar Game

Shreyas is running a version of my Avatar: The Last Airbender game on IRC right now.

UPDATE: Oh, just go read the full log he posted here.

12 February 2007

Draft: Game for Josh's Girlfriend

This is what I jotted down for Josh in the 20 minutes before I fell asleep last night. I don't really have a title for it yet, but I'm thinking about While You're Far Away or maybe Islands in the Stream.

This is a game for two players.

The players assume the roles of two characters who have a close relationship with each other. They could be lovers or siblings or a parent/child or old friends or childhood sweethearts or whatever. The nature of the relationship is left up to the players.

The characters are separated for a period of time and are regularly writing letters to each other to maintain contact. This is also open to interpretation by the players. Perhaps they are new lovers separated for 24 hours and are obsessively writing email after email to each other. Perhaps one character's parent is off fighting in the war and may not be home for years (if at all).

In any case, play is structured paragraphically, which is to say: each paragraph in a letter is an attempt to do three things...

1) Respond to a paragraph written by the other player.
2) Introduce new information about your current situation.
3) Elicit a response from the other player by attempting to relate your current situation to their experiences and feelings.

It is my hope that, in taking on this structure, the letters will seem to flow pretty naturally, since these three things are common elements in letter writing and communication generally, and especially when it comes to writing to loved ones who are far away.

For example, a paragraph might read:
    I regret to hear that Old Sadie has finally passed on. I swear I thought that dog would outlive all of us. They keep us so busy out here, but I did take a minute to walk off by myself and think of that little puppy I brought home to you seven years ago and I'm not ashamed to admit that it brought a tear to my eye. I'm sorry I won't be there to help you bury her, but you should see if one of the neighbors won't come over to lend a hand and maybe a shoulder to cry on, since I know how much you loved Sadie.
So, following our structure guidelines, this breaks down into:

1) Responding to the news that the dog, Sadie, has died.
2) Describing what the character did upon receiving the news.
3) Offering sympathy and suggestions on how to handle things.

Now, generally speaking, each letter is going to be composed of multiple paragraphs. There's no set guidelines for how many paragraphs each letter should have, and you can respond using a larger or smaller number of paragraphs than the letter you received, either by not responding to certain topics, by combining multiple responses into a single paragraph, or by introducing multiple new subjects inspired by a single paragraph or scrap of information sent your way.

For some players, it may be important to remember that anything written in the letters is considered to be true, or at least an honest reporting of events from the letter writer's point of view. Now, there is the possibility that the letter writers may be fabricating events or trying to hide their true feelings about something or making up more pleasant events to cover up embarrassing or disturbing things. For example, a parent off in the war may only report pleasant experiences to their child.

So I'm thinking about coming up with guidelines for those ulterior motives and also a set of alternate types of responses, similar to the alternate responses in Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan. Perhaps writers can disagree with or suggest alternate interpretations of the information that is put forward. But anyway, there's the basic core of the game.

11 February 2007

Game for Josh's Girlfriend

Morristown madman Josh Kashinsky wants to play Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan with his new girlfriend, but she is understandably a bit shy about all the seduction and implied lesbian sex (though, upon hearing of this, Mo and Brand asked me to put more sex into it...). So I'm going to write a variation on KKKKK in less than a week, using the same core concept but a different situation and setting.

The dirty secret of KKKKK is that it's just James Wallis' The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in which player/characters brag about their impressive feats. The only difference is that the game is structured as a dialogue instead of a monologue. The basic structure is:

A: I did X! Aren't I awesome?
B: Verily! But what about Y?
A: I accomplished Y in this fashion! What do you think of that?
B: Impressive! And Z?

The line-by-line breakdown of the game is somewhat impractical for the kind of play that Josh is imagining taking place over email. KKKKK is really intended for chat. So I'm thinking about stealing from that other New Style game, De Profundis, and making it a game about structured letter writing. Perhaps each paragraph could effectively be a separate declaration or response, indicated by the topic sentence, and then the responder would reply in kind. And then you could use the number of paragraphs per email as a kind of dial, turning the level of complexity and time commitment of the game up and down depending on the experience you were going for.

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. I've got Letters from Iwo Jima on my brain after seeing it recently, but I think war letters are not quite the tone I want. We'll see what pops into my brain this week.

09 February 2007

The Power of Player-Generated Content

Shreyas: all these different anthropological approaches are all dancing around a point that i can't put my finger on, but it might simply be 'there isn't an easy way to talk about the complexity of human culture'

Jonathan: yeah, maybe that's it; i think my point is that player-generated content is better because it can be more complex; content that fits in a book is, by necessity, simpler

Shreyas: mhm

Jonathan: therefore, i'm suspicious of it

Shreyas: that is really excellent and important to say i think; i was just saying a similar thing at jiffycon: i'm wary of packaged creativity because it makes your brain stop

Jonathan: right, and also you accept it without questioning it

Shreyas: all of us react this way even when we know it happens

Jonathan: like racial bonuses

Shreyas: and it's just not fun

Jonathan: because it's part of the game

Shreyas: yes

Doing Religion Better

There's a terrific thread on Story Games about doing religion better in RPGs. I'm still not sure what Troy is really looking for, but we're covering a lot of really interesting territory nonetheless.

08 February 2007

Good Times in Boston

This week at StoryGames Boston, we had a surprise visit from Luke Crane, Jared Sorensen, and one of their friends, Ben Lehman and his friend Alexis finally dropped by, we had this guy David randomly show up, and all in all things went awesomely well.

Nathan is running perhaps the biggest Mountain Witch game ever, for seven people: me, Eben, Richard, Eric, Ben, Alexis, and David. It went amazingly well, especially considering the number of samurai running around. All of us are really excited for the next session.

Dev ran Mo's Crime and Punishment for the rest of the folks, but I suspect that, especially thanks to Jared and Luke, that they totally broke her game in all sorts of bad ways. I think Luke's cop got thrown out of a second story window.

Anyway, good times. I love my crew.

I hope Pandemonium Books manages to stay around despite their insane financial situation because, honestly, they're the best store in town and would make a great home for the indie scene were quickly growing here.

07 February 2007

Exalted Hack: Circles 3

In the comments, Shreyas said:
    "...set up scenes for which the choices other players have made for their character are important..."

    I'm not sure, Jon. This still sounds face-injurious to me. It might be face-punchy instead of face-stabby, but it's still violence to the face.

    What about recognising and deferring when other players have something they want to say?
Which then led to the following important conversation:

ME: i don't think i understand your comment
SHREYAS: i am not sure that i do too, anymore; i think it might have been like; 'uh what why are you forcing mattering on me'; 'i am the boss of the importance of my decisions'
ME: hmm; i saw it more as "taking somebody else's flags and making them happen"; or sort of dividing up antagonism
SHREYAS: that is another angle on it; a lot of my thinking on games lately has been coloured by SI [Sol Invictus, the Exalted game in which he plays Birds-of-Trinity]; and i think um in that game; it would be v. weird for some entity to enslave my character's mind in order for me to have a subplot about freedom from that; even though we all know that my character is about freedom from bondage and freedom from society and physics; does this make sense
ME: um, yeah; where did mind slavery enter into this conversation?
SHREYAS: okay, uh; freedom = flag; slavery = opposition to freedom
ME: yeah, but that's not creating a scene in which your character can shine; that's creating a scene that'll suck; surely people know the difference? like, if I was creating such a scene, i might have a sorceror attempt to mind-control Birds or something, but the conflict would be about stopping that from happening; not about "ooo, Birds is mind-controlled"
SHREYAS: yeah, sure
ME: anyway, how do you folks handle scene framing?
SHREYAS: sorceror tries to mind-control me... that like sounds like it would hit my flaggish thing; but it's weird; um; we have this thing; where basically; there is an elaborate ongoing plot; the guy that runs the game asks us, hey what are you doing next; and we have scenes about that; also; when we don't need to participate in this plot; sometimes we just frame scenes for each other; like when birds realised that basically all the people in the world she might care about excepf five of them; are dead forever and their souls were eaten; i was like; oh, i need to have a scene with lucent where i tell him i am already dead and we need to have a funeral for all of us
ME: that's cool; does the GM provide all the antagonism? unless you guys go look for trouble?
SHREYAS: i'm not sure in what sense of antagonism you are talking
ME: or do you do things like, "so Birds gets caught doing X?"
SHREYAS:he does handle all the characters that are not us
but we fight amongst ourselves
ME: i'm talking about fighting, mostly
SHREYAS: i think we have done like "hey let's do a scene where we get caught doing x"; except not anymore simply as a consequence of being so good at whatever we do
ME: yeah, so i guess i'm trying to make this work without a GM
SHREYAS: so when we get caught it is a choice and a statement made by the characters
ME: or maybe a PTA style GM in the player playing the center
SHREYAS: rather than like, something out of their hands; mhmmmm
ME: so you don't like the idea of players creating interesting situations for each other? you think people are likely to read each other wrong?
SHREYAS: i don't dislike it; i just think that it falls in face stab land; that's not a value judgement
ME: hmm; i'm not so sure; i do think forcing people to make choices is part of the face-stab thing; but like, "Birds is bad in polite company, let's have her invited to a ball and see what happens"; that doesn't seem face-stabby; it seems more, exploratory or something
SHREYAS: hmm; yeah; maybe i am just drawing the line differently; it's not super important, i'm just trying to feel this out
ME: i think the key might be not having a specific conflict in mind, but a situation ripe for conflict in which the player and character can choose where the conflict is or if there even is one; like: character in an arranged marriage; character goes to visit relatives they barely know; character slumming among the locals; character meets someone they knew in the First Age
SHREYAS: mhm; i'm thinking about, how do you differentiate inflicting conflict from offering conflict; which is what you're up to right
ME: i think so, yeah; i think i want to avoid the "so what do you do now" thing
SHREYAS: and it seems like, that's going to be something you need to talk about in detail
ME: i want to find a balance between players creating situations for themselves and creating situations for the other players
SHREYAS: because like, in the specific case of birds - the way the social contract of that game works, if someone offers a conflict, you are pretty much obliged to engage it
ME: like the difference between a player framing a scene in PTA and the Producer framing a scene; both of those are important, i think
SHREYAS: so it's inflicting no matter what the intent is behind the move
ME: well, you have to accept some aspects of the situation
but if there's no specific conflict aimed your way; you're not obligated to accept it; like, sure, you get invited to the ball; but then you concoct some elaborate scheme to get out of it; that would be okay
SHREYAS: sure; but you observed how in that case; you selected a conflict out of some set of hypothetical conflicts
ME: right, the conflict you chose is "getting out of this obligation"
when the conflict could have been "finding something to wear" or a million other things
SHREYAS: so what the obligation is is 'engage in a conflict'; with varying degrees of decision about what the conflict is depending on the descriptive context
ME: it's more "react to this situation in a way that is expressive (of your character) and entertaining (to everyone else)"; there's not necessarily a conflict there; i mean, those are two of the main points of play, right? expression and entertainment?

06 February 2007

Second Person

It's a magical world when you can buy a reprint of James Wallis' Baron Munchausen in the Harvard Bookstore. That is to say, thanks to Nathan's reminder, I picked up a copy of Second Person today.

I admit to being slightly disappointed that the book doesn't blow me away, though I haven't gotten a chance to delve thoroughly into it yet. It's neat to see references to the indie roleplaying movement in a print publication put out by MIT Press (and people outside of roleplaying ackowledging that we've been making narrative games longer than just about anyone in the electronic games world) but, overall, the contents do not seem super exciting.

Rebecca Borgstrom's article is sweet. Paul Czege has a short one-pager on developing My Life With Master. There are a few others that look interesting. In addition to Munchausen, it reprints John Tynes Puppetland and Greg Costikyan's Bestial Acts, which are bizarre choices if they're trying to be representative of roleplaying. It's like starting a course on opera with Einstein on the Beach. The layout of the book is also rather awkward in a few places.

All of which is to say, I was struck by how favorably Push compares to Second Person, which I wasn't expecting at all. I was expecting to lament over how my poor indie journal could never compare with the power of MIT Press and the hardcore list of contributors that they had recruited. But, in reality, when I look at the list of people working on Push 2, I think we're pretty strong indeed.

Not that I'm going to get MIT to publish Push 2 or anything. And I don't know if I should be happy that my journal represents some of the best work in this field. That doesn't say a lot for the field in general, maybe. But I don't think it's a stretch to say that, in my opinion, Push 2 is going to be better than Second Person, at least when it comes to talking about roleplaying and what's going on in our field, community, hobby, etc. Maybe Second Person has different goals in mind, which is cool, and maybe I'm talking out of my ass because I haven't had a chance to read through the book yet, but that's my initial impression.

So, uh, yay for us, I guess.

05 February 2007

Exalted Hack: Circles 2

Before I wrote the previous post on Circles, I had a pretty decent chat with Ben Lehman about Polaris' approach to the distribution of NPCs and player responsibilities. I think the hack should be somewhat similar, but I didn't quite nail it yet in the last post. Inter-player antagonism is what's going to make the game really work, so here's what I was thinking about today...

Each orientation is associated with a particular virtue:

Center: Compassion
East: Conviction
South: Valor
West: Temperance
North: Willpower

It is the duty of a player, in framing and taking the lead in the scenes for which they are responsible, to challenge the other characters when it comes to their associated virtue. For example, a Center gives others the opportunity to demonstrate their compassion or heartlessness. And, like in a Dogs in the Vineyard game, doesn't let them get away with an easy answer. "So in situation X you did Y? Well, what about situation Z?"

This is made more interesting because each Exalt will have a Virtue Flaw, a virtue with which they are obsessed and, occasionally, over-zealous to the point of losing it and hitting Limit Break. Each player should DEFINITELY be aware of which characters have Flaws in the virtue for which they are responsible. If I'm playing a Center, I take particular interest in the characters which have Compassion Flaws and make sure to push them especially hard.

Still, I like this, but I'm slightly dubious about the language I'm using to describe it. "Push them especially hard" makes it sound like crazy Yang face-stabbing and that's not quite what I mean. I mean, "set up scenes for which the choices other players have made for their character are important," which is really much more cooperative and collaborative as the description above makes it sound. After all, if a player chose a particular Virtue for their Flaw, they are likely to want to demonstrate that Flaw.

Anyway, this is still developing, but I like where it's heading.

03 February 2007

Exalted Hack: Circles

When the gods created the Exalted, they pulled handfuls of simmering essence from their own bodies. The essence that dripped off each finger became a single Exalt and the five made from the same handful of essence became linked by fate and destiny, united by bonds of love and hate, to achieve greatness and misery as one. They become, in other words, a Circle.

However, during the First Age, the various types of Exalted intermixed, loved and hated outside their Circle, and, though their own agency and the lingering effects of the Wyld, manipulated Fate. Circles were broken and reformed, often with different members, often combining Solars with Lunars or Sidereals. In modern times, when the Dragon-Blooded are ever so numerous and the Abyssals have risen from the Underworld, sometimes one's fate is inextricably mixed with someone stranger still. There have even been rumors of Circles containing Dragon Kings, Fair Folk, Malfean agents, and other abominations, but we will not speak further of such things.

It does seem to hold true that Circles generally follow the patterns set forth by the gods in the dawn of time, based on the five cardinal directions, the five poles of the world, the five maidens, the five dragons, the five castes that govern every type of Exalted: East, South, West, North, and Center. There have indeed been Circles composed entirely of, say, Night Caste Solars. However, in those cases, the Exalts still clearly fall into the Pattern of Five Directions, that is to say, each Exalt takes a role in the group as if they were a Dawn, Eclipse, etc (despite remaining a member of their actual Caste).

When beginning a game, each player chooses to represent a unique orientation in the Circle. You can have two Night Caste Solars (or all Night Caste Solars). But you cannot have two Easts. Now, naturally, each Castes is specifically designed and better suited for a particular orientation. This is their natural orientation, the one intended by the gods before the Exalted took their fate into their own hands.

The characteristics of each orientation are described below, along with a list of Castes naturally oriented to that direction.


Eastern Exalted are subtle, fickle, hidden, and changing. More than anyone else, the embody the Yin forces of the world. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to be wary, to remain paranoid about the dangers that may be lurking around them.

NightWaterChanging (Waning)DayEndings


Southern Exalted are bold, resolute, loud, and boisterous. More than anyone else, they embody the Yang forces of the world. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to be headstrong, daring any feat that might bring them success or honor, to not let fear rule their lives.

DawnFireFull MoonDuskBattles


Western Exalted are thoughtful, watchful, inquiring, and patient. They embody righteousness, even if it is sometimes self-righteousness. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to possess a purity of purpose and a relentless desire to see things through to the end, wherever that may lead.

ZenithWoodChanging (Waxing)MidnightSerenity


Northern Exalted are sorcerers, shamans, healers, and witches. They are in touch with the mystic arts that others shun, fear, or covet in vain. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to know the ways of power, to not trifle with things they don't understand, but also to seize what is rightfully theirs.

TwilightAirNo MoonDaybreakSecrets


Centered Exalted are those who dwell in-between, those who are never at home in a place, those that are always traveling. They are the strands by which the world is bound together. Within a Circle, they are tasked with challenging the rest to be mindful of the connections between things, how they can be used for one's purposes, and how ignorance of them can lead to unforeseen disaster.

EclipseEarthChanging (Half)MoonshadowJourneys

02 February 2007

A Primer for Marr'd

I was in the mood to write a ridiculous power metal anthem. So I thought, "What should I write the song about?" The answer was, obviously enough, Dictionary of Mu, Judd Karlman's power metal anthem in book form. I've just started, but here's the first verse:

A Primer for Marr'd

A is for Atlantis,
       crystaline treasures, indolent pleasures, a kiss
B is for Battlehymn, O little town,
       the damsel messiah, the serpent unbound
C is for Cydonia, skygazing,
       when the stars darken they're all coming home
and D is for Mu's Dictionary, the sign of the times...