The most recent playtest verified my suspicion that the rules I needed were not “crunchy” but “soft”.
I spent some time working out contexts in which the GM might want to say “that might not be so easy” and present some opposition, coupled with principles for the GM to use to push forward and provoke the PCs into trying things that might turn out to not be so easy. All very “soft” in that it’s all rules about what you say and what sort of cues might trigger saying such things. Almost no reference to economies and points and cards and such. Rules like this are obviously very important, but are something I have much less practice thinking about or creating.
The other thing this did was it allowed for the breathing room that I mentioned a few posts ago. It became much easier to see which scenes should include opposition (and thus expenditure of tokens and cards) and which shouldn’t, instead setting up the next moment of high drama or allowing characters to show off how they recover.
So, to continue the anatomical metaphor, I think I’ve found the lungs of this system: empty spaces, made of flesh not bones, with some conscious control. They give the heart something to pump around.
What follows is rambly. You’ve been warned.
I’ve been thinking about another result of the most recent playtest. It was implicit, between the lines of what John said, but I think the lesson was that the game needs a bit more space to breathe.
The game has two economies, cards and tokens, that interact. It’s generally the case that you spend a bit from each in every scene, or at least every scene where you get or take some spotlight time. You get them from, you guessed it, certain moments in the spotlight. This means that the diastolic and systolic elements of the system are very tightly coupled; every moment of gaining currency depends on spending currency, and every moment of spending currency can lead to gaining it.
This can suffocate the story in between. It makes it easy to keep your eye on the mechanical pieces, the currencies, and not think about the story effects you’re making and getting as you do the mechanical game. It makes it easy to evaluate actions in terms of net mechanical effect over embodying a character.
(Yeah, there’s the other extreme, where you’re left drifting between mechanical reference points.)
One way to counter this is to divide scenes or beats (or whatever your relevant unit is) into upbeats and downbeats, action and recovery, spend resources and gain them. This moves the systolic and diastolic rhythm into being a first-class element of your game. They don’t have to alternate by any means, but they should have some dividing lines. Consider Fiasco‘s white dice and black dice: they divide scenes into some concept of up and down (about outcomes, not actions, but still), and let you pace them as you feel necessary.
Another option is to minimize the presence of “resources” and “economies” in your design, as you see in Apocalypse World.
I’ve been continuing to playtest Arcadia. It’s been going well, but the most recent playtest was that particular kind of frustrating and unsatisfying that a game designer sometimes seeks.
Clearly, some of the gears were slipping. This mechanic here wasn’t quite interacting right with that mechanic there, as the GM I had a hard time pushing for certain kinds of complications, et cetera. And so, I began to reach for the tools to which I am most accustomed: I began to tweak the crunchy bits.
I had to grab myself and pull myself back. That’s not where the problems were. I’ve gotten the design to the point where the problems are in the “soft” pieces, the “content”, the flesh on the bones. And so, if I’m to move this design forward, what I need to do is not change what you do with cards or tokens, but rather change what the cards and tokens and such mean.
I think that this is hard for those who, like me, are systems-minded, programmery people. The flesh always feels like something you can kick down the road, and do later. It’s not, really. You can’t see how your bones work without flesh on them—hell, you can’t always even see how they should be arranged!
And yet, for me, the flesh is also why I play. Without a compelling list of questions on the Read a Person move in Apocalypse World (to take one very arbitrary example), that game wouldn’t click the way it does. The two sides need to support each other, to be sure—flesh without bones only works if you’re an octopus! But the flesh is the part I tend to undervalue in my design work, so it’s the part I focus on.
Well, no, that’s not right. I don’t undervalue it. I fear it. I feel like that’s the place I don’t know well, where I don’t have analytical tools to bring to bear.
So, I stumble through it. What do you do? How do you approach the “soft” side, the flesh?
I ran a little playstorm of Et in Arcadia Ego this weekend. It was very informative! One of the best things to come out of it was that, while there are many changes to make, I did not have to rip everything down and start from the ground up again, which is a sign of forward progress.
However, I wanted to talk a bit about the particular observations that struck me in analyzing what worked and what didn’t.
There were two big things: the cognitive load of “does this rule kick in?” and the attention load of “how long does this rule take to sort out before we can continue the moment of fiction we were in?”
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I’ve been thinking lately about the different kinds of play encoded in classic card games. It’s kinda cool, really: most card games are highly social games, in terms if where the locus of interaction lies. This means that they can do a really good job of informing the more game-y elements of our RPG design.
So, as work on our cyber-noir game Piece of Work, I see it more and more as having Texas Hold ‘Em at it’s core, where there’s common information and there’s hole information, and you need to second-guess the forces arrayed against you and use what you have to win by strength or bluff.
As we work on Austin’s top-secret game about what it’s like to fight for your home against its enemies, both internal and external, I see it as being shaped like Hearts. You take on some pain and risk as you fight, but you could go another route: take on all the pain and shoot the moon. If you fail, you fail bad. But at a certain point, do you have another option?
And as I work on Et in Arcadia Ego, I see it like Blackjack. You push for what you want, but constantly risk going too far. Then the façade of civility falls, and everyone sees the raw human malice and desire and need under it all that they’ve been furiously denying, and they turn their faces from you, making you carry the burden of their shame.
Of course, Arcadia is the only one of these games that actually uses cards. But the structure is there regardless of the implementation.
So, the other weekend, I was in Oakland and met up with the wonderful Ryan F. Macklin from the Internet. Over dinner, he brought up Kenneth Hite‘s analyses of the Western as a genre. Granted, me telling you this is third hand, but the big points I took away were that:
- the Western is, at its core, about the gun as a civilizing tool, that makes its user inevitably and irrevocably someone outside that civilization,
- the Western is the national story of this country.
Once you’ve characterized a Western in those terms, you sure do see them everywhere. It’s a particular angle on “power corrupts”, and a particularly American angle. The hero has to ride off into the sunset, because by the very nature of how he has and exercises power, he cannot live in the world that power creates for other people.
But not every story we tell is that kind of story, of course.
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Metatopia was great. That’s the short of it. It was a relatively small con, but full of good smart people. I played two games, besides my own playtests, but went to a lot of panels and talks and spent a lot of time hanging out at the bar discussing game design. It was just what I was looking for.
Sometimes, I think about game development in a computer-game-y way. Particularly, I divide system—procedures, rules, crunch, etc.—from assets—the pre-provided things you use to engage with those systems.
As I’ve been working on Et in Arcadia Ego, and particularly thinking about how to make room for continuing content, I’ve realized that the continuing content has to be an asset, though not all assets have to be that pluggable. I’ve also realized that making assets is a very different skill from making systems, and engages people differently.
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John and I were talking recently about Exalted, a game that Austin has a deep and complex relationship with, that I have never cared for or about. I was trying to hash out what my problems with it were, and we stumbled on something I think is interesting. What follows may be rambling.
Other people have talked about implied setting before, notably Ryan Macklin. The short version is that there are two ways to communicate the setting of your game to the potential players: one, stated setting, is by outright telling it to them (“The Order of the Basilisk was formed in 1132 by the archmage Rowan Farlight, to counter the forces of the warlord Grum…”) and the other, implied setting, is by hinting at it through bits of the game’s content (“Spell: the Basilisk’s Eye. When you cast this spell, anyone loyal to the warlord Grum glows with a faint aura visible only to you…”).
What I want to talk about, though, is a distinction that is related, but different: the distinction between living setting and calcified setting. ETA: by living setting, I mean setting that is amenable to addition, typically through play. By calcified setting, I mean setting that has a definite canonical form that does not admit of change.
I’ve been continuing to work on Et in Arcadia Ego, my Regency-magicians game. The current issue is how the magic in the game should work. For magic to be weird and a bit wild, it has to strain the boundaries of something very important to a story-game: cause and effect.
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