Sunday, January 24, 2010

On game design theory and its applications

As you can certainly tell from past posts of mine (check posts marked "creative agenda" if you don't believe me), I'm not one to shy away from Forge-style theorizing. Over time, and especially in the past year or two, I've had a wonderful opportunity - meeting up with a lot of folks from Story-Games has given me the chance to seek out all these cool indie RPGs I'd heard so much about.
When I finally got to play Polaris, for instance, it was a little bit like a rite of passage. Though, I have to admit, it was a lot more inspiring to put together La Familia and, somehow, have it work even better than I'd imagined.
So yeah - I've gotten to see the concrete results of what some would call theory-wank. I've definitely met my fair share of folks who don't much care for the deep end of RPG theory/design, and usually that's a-okay.
I say "usually" because I've definitely gone through a period wherein I've proselytized on behalf of story-games in general, and Narrativism-supportive games in particular. When this proselytizing has worked, so much the better, and my excellent! recent game of Polaris shows that pretty well.
But when big-time RPers haven't been interested in what I'm pushing, I've come to realize that there's a sort of fault-line between us. Nothing personal or ideological creates this divide; it's not as big or as complicated as that. Plain and simple: I had bad experience X, they had bad experience Y, and while X led me to seek out a fundamentally new way to RP, Y simply led other folks to seek out new people with whom they could play.

Let me unpack that a little: for me, the biggest bad experience I had in RPing was, bluntly, a big difference in priorities at the gaming table. I can even point to the precise moment when this started to really gel for me as something I needed to address; it was after a couple of years of lurching around at the Forge, where I had yet to really grok anything about the Big Model, but I was very eager to try out all these cool new games I saw - the subject matter, the creator-owned nature of the games, the collaborative process of design via the forums - - it was all pretty great.

But - my precise moment. I was playing a game of Exalted, and I was running an Abyssal, essentially a sworn soldier of darkness who drinks blood to gain power and wants to unleash oblivion upon the world of the living. Fun stuff! I didn't just want the cool powers available to him; I was also really interested in his story - why he was a death-knight, what he thought of oblivion, his dark masters the Neverborn (shudder), etc.
I'll spare you a lot of the details, but he eventually realized that he really, truly believed in total, worldwide destruction, you know, as a good thing, and quite sincerely at that. His dark masters, however, were content to jockey for power between one another, fighting each other as much as they fought their sworn enemies, the Solars (sun-themed heroes). So, over the course of the game, I explored the relationship between my character, other Abyssals, the Neverborn, etc., trying to drum up fellow "true believes" to the cause.
It didn't go well, but at least one of the other player-characters was also an Abyssal, and so we schemed and argued together about the point of unleashing destruction.
At the end of the game, we all confronted a Big Bad of some kind, possibly a servant of the Neverborn, a rogue Neverborn, something like that. There were some Solars fighting the creature, too, and I decided the best possible way to finish my character's story was to try and join the side of the Solars, begging their forgiveness and wanting fervently to have comrades who were just as true-blue as me.
They were very, very hesitant to accept me, what with our races' vendetta and all, not to mention the battle going on, but hey, they didn't kill me! That was the last session for the campaign, as well, and I felt, at long last, like I really got to tell a story! with a game, instead of being actively thwarted from doing so. Sure, the game mechanics got in the way (whiffing sucks! I advise all game designers against it), and only one of the six people playing with me actually showed any interest in what I was doing (they were content to be "run through" the scenario in a very traditional way).
Realizing I was out of step with the group wasn't new; realizing what it was that made me out of step was a bolt of light in my eyes!
Since then, I've gobbled up every Story Now game I can get my hands on, and I've even made forays into Gamist play, as well.
But, like I said, I've noticed that some people just aren't as excited about trying new ways of gaming as I am, and sometimes folks who *are* that excited don't have any desire to elaborate on it in the kind of language that I do.
Which is, you know, okay and all, and I'm definitely thankful to be around more people these days who like indie games.
It's a little weird to also note how quickly the *application* of theory, or at least the observation of Forge theory put to practical use (i.e. a game design, and then the playing of said game), makes all the verbosity of forum theorizing kind of melt away - I can much more intuitively guess at what Creative Agenda(s) a given game system supports best, as we play, which I've mentioned before (in the context of how simple CA really is, once you see it in action). Other concepts, like Fortune in the Middle, turn out to be equally simple in application - it's as simple as "can I affect the final result after we roll the dice, or do I need to put all my Boost Power in *before* I roll?"
And yet, naturally those little tweaks can make a huge difference. Fortune at the End does not do well with a Story Now agenda, as it really saps player agency away (in my opinion). If Fortune happens, and then we can tweak it, even if said tweaking is limited and finite, it at least gives us one more meaningful choice to make, as players. [lol i totally meant fitm WITH TEETH]
I was playing Last Night on Earth, uh, last night - it's a zombie apocalypse board game. There's a touch of Fortune in the Middle in there, as it happens - when you're inside a building, you can either move or search (as opposed to just moving, if you're outside), and searching gives you a one-card draw from the Hero Deck (Human Deck? I forget). The FitM part is there because you roll the d6 to see how far you can move, and then you get to decide whether to take that move OR search. It's nifty!
Heck, come to think of it, Step On Up play is all about meaningful choices, too - they're just more strategic or tactical instead of thematic. So yeah, FatE (ha, irony) has been a procedural default for some decades now, in most games I've encountered, but when you make that tiny tweak (courtesy of theorizing Forgies, thank you verra much! ^_^), things begin to flower, as Mao would put it.
Anyway - I've learned that RP theory has undoubted practical applications (duh! Actual Play!), but not everybody wants to see under the hood, or think about how to build a better car, when they like their driving experience just fine, so far.

Monday, January 18, 2010

graph paper, ahoy!

Man, designing dungeons is hard!
Nevertheless, level one of The Lair of the Cyclops is complete!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Starting to like this idea of "Old School"

This is a pretty interesting (free!) resource: the quick primer to old-school gaming! It contains a few tips on how to compare and contrast (in the author's view) the different mentalities behind older (read: D&D circa 1979) and newer (read: anything you can buy at Borders) RPGs.

Incidentally, it's tied in to the Swords&Wizardry rules set. I'm tired and it's a little hard to explain (the word "Zen" gets used a few times), so I leave you to this sweet, free download.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

0e D&D

Here's something I'm obsessing over, of late: Swords and Wizardry, the open-gaming-license version of "original" Dungeons and Dragons!

It's a Gamist design, through and through; what's more, their design ethos is this - simple rules means something customizable and easy to pick up; it also makes referees more flexible and able to adjudicate on the spot, rather than being trapped by complex design.

I. Am. Fascinated.

Download the core rules (and a whole bunch of other cool stuff!) right here. It's all free!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Funny thing happened on my way to the Mistake...

Three sessions in, my new Polaris campaign is complete. We had a lot of fun, banged out 14 great scenes, one Star Knight almost crossed over from Novice to Veteran (a male midwife with delusions of glory and grandeur, and a cruel streak a mile wide), and we left it at this:

- two Knights heading into the South to destroy a cursed, bronze artifact (only Southern forges could possibly melt it down!)
- the almost-Veteran riding out to the Mistake to fulfill a vision quest and significantly delay the inevitable (by finding a McGuffin, Sir Knight would make all demons there sterile for one year, and unable to attack the Remnants for just as long!)

Sounds pretty good to me! Yeah, we shared a feeling of "did we mess that up?", but we surpassed it by agreeing that we just didn't want to carry on any further. There was some concern, initially, that traveling South might go beyond the game's intended material; whether or not that's true, it's fair to say that the task of imagining the South was more than we were up for, and that sapped some of our interest.
Also, we poured so much emotion and creativity into those 14 scenes that we were kind of running on empty, by the end, not to mention that lots of Real Life stuff came up for us as a group, and we decided to have fun talks about our lives instead of playing a game.

We're all interested in starting a new game of *something* soon, once things settle down a bit in general. Any suggestions are appreciated! :)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Game Jamming

Gabbie and I helped each other out today on our respective game designs. She gave me some wicked-good things to chew on for Giants in the Thicket, and she shared her ideas for a CCG-ish/boardgame-ish thing, Coat of Arms. It's neat.

More to come in this space when I ain't so tired.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hiding in a thicket

This post here, at story-games, gave me the urge to revisit an old idea I had about giants, and people hiding from giants in a thorny forest.
Granted, it's not the thread so much as it is my conjecture *in* the thread, haha, that leads me to think this thing. But still!
Here's a bit of what I have so far:

Giants are strong; Giants can beat anybody. The only thing they fear is the Forest.

The Forest is full of thorns; People can go there and hide there from the Giants, but while they're away the Giants can knock their houses down and wreck everything they've built.

The only time that People might capture a Giant is if they let one smash and crush all he likes, until he's too tired to go on, and then he Sleeps.

A Sleeping Giant can be tied up, or rolled away on logs, or even killed! If the People all work together, they can do it.

Sometimes, People will make deals with Giants: crush my neighbor's house, and I will give my sheep to you, to eat! Giants can take whatever they like that isn't alive, but they can never catch anybody who runs away and isn't cornered.

Giants are slow; the People can always get away from them. So can animals and other things. But the People cannot hurt a Waking Giant – they are just too strong!

Giants live in rivers, under lakes, inside mountains and hills, but they do not go in the Forest. Its angry thorns and awful nettles pierce their mottled hands and feet, and are so sharp and prickly that a Giant cannot kick down the trees of the Forest, for they are in too much pain to do anything but go away again to pick the thorns and sticks and nettles from their flesh.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Polaris rocks! [another AP thread, kinda]

I promise that soon I'll give a scene-by-scene rundown of the Polaris game I started today; suffice it to say that this game can be bloody amazing!
We have half-giants, infanticide, the transference of family curses, and artifacts from the mysterious South (the whole world is south of Polaris, after all...), and my male midwife character lost a hand to a magic arrow, gaining a third eye of Starliiiight Powerrrr in its place!
This. Game. Rocks.
Since we're playing with 3 people, instead of the recommended 4, we had to mash the two "Moon" (supporting character/judge and arbitrator) roles together into one, meaning that, at times, it got a little confusing as to who should be doing what, and for whom.

Also - we learned a bit more, on the fly, how some key phrases work - the diff. between But Only If and And, Furthermore is apparently this: the former gives you access to the sweet shutdown phrase It Was Not Meant to Be, which requires both you and your opponent to take back your very last statements, respectively. Did not get that for the first six scenes, but once we got it, the reason to actually choose between BOI and AF finally clicked. Good thing!

It's possible, by the way, for Exhausting Themes (as in, the exhausting OF themes; the themes themselves do not tire us) to either be an easy or difficult thing - if your themes have a lot in common, you can do lots of the same kind of thing, but you get in hot water easily, whereas if your themes are all different from each other, you can do more, but maybe only once each. Good to know!