Tell me if this is familiar: you’re playing an RPG, it’s the first session, and you’ve just wrapped up all the background stuff—who your characters are, how they’re related, where they fit in the world. You are ready to really start playing. The GM (maybe that’s you!) opens their mouth and… wait a minute. How do we actually start?
Not every game feels like this, but it happens often enough that I wanted to talk about it. This is something I’ve experienced mostly with very ensemble-oriented, dramatic games. Things like Cortex Plus Dramatic, or Powered by the Apocalypse games. In things like D&D, you have the trope of “You’re all in a tavern, and a mysterious stranger…” to kick things off, plus strong norms around picking-up-what-the-DM‘s-putting-down. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you’ve got “You roll into town” and then meeting someone who starts to show you the town’s problems. In Lady Blackbird or Poison’d you have a single opening scene baked into the game. So, yeah, not all games are shaped quite like this, but even in a game with a stronger or more established start, it can be hard to figure out just where the camera opens.
I’ve been there, in that moment, as both a GM and a player, so I wanted to meditate a bit on what I find works in that situation. None of this is Answers, or Pronouncements, of course—just what I’ve found works.
I find that owning it is best. “Give me a moment, I’m thinking about where we start.” Don’t try to cover, or fake or anything. People will be tolerant, and understanding. Even better: collaborate. Open the conversation up: “I think that I can see Alex getting hooked in if your mentor is threatened, but Lily, why might you get involved in that?” If someone has an idea, see what you can do with it. Maybe take a short break: “Hey, why doesn’t everyone take a break, get a snack, while I think about this?”
Another thing to do is think about what notes you have to hit. It’s often important to put characters in situations where they can interact with the mechanics of the game (in Masks, for instance, it’s no good putting them in a board-room discussion for a long first scene, when the mechanics focus around vulnerability, identity, and punching supervillains). For extra points, put them in a situation to show off their strengths and sell their failures; seeing both parts can be really instructive, and really drive the story. For example in Apocalypse World, think of a situation where the Brainer gets a chance to Open their Brain (which they’ll probably be good at), and maybe a chance to do some violence (which they’ll probably be bad at). In the first case, they get to show off how they’re awesome, and in the second, they get to show how they go head-first into failure, or work around it. So, this means that the mechanics can give you a great step up—in Masks, again, instead of simply asking “what are they doing?” you can narrow that to “who are they fighting, and why?”
If you don’t have a sense of what these characters want before starting, get one. What they want, and why they can’t have it yet, provides a great way to start. If you don’t know this at this point, ask. Often having trouble starting is a symptom of not enough information, so get to know these characters and their situation in more depth. To really do this well, don’t just scattershot ask questions, but see if you can ask questions around the particular area you’re uncertain of: “why you?” or “what’s broken and insufficient about your current situation?” or “what do you need?” or whatever.
Finally, of course, steal. Find a show, a book, a movie, hell, a burlesque act with an opening you like, and just use it. I promise you your game will not somehow be the same, or derivative. In any case, your specifics will have to be different, as you’ve got a different set of characters!
So, to recap: be honest, think about your mechanical goals, figure out what you need to know and ask about it, and steal. Hopefully this will help you. Are there other techniques you like? Anything you particularly like or dislike about these? Let me know!
So, in Arcadia, characters have a social role. Each role has three conditions that, when triggered, give the character tokens that they can use in social conflicts to maybe get what they want. The lowest status characters start with three such tokens, the highest five. That’s not a lot of range for what was a very socially unequal world! So what’s going on?
Well, the higher status characters have a sneaky advantage. They can get more tokens more easily. They can act in their own interests, and still be rewarded for it. A lady, or especially a servant, must approach their interest somewhat sideways to not completely lose the chance to get tokens as they go. The fundamental privilege here is the privilege to advocate for yourself without being socially punished for it.
I tried a more direct approach at a certain point, with the token economy just being radically unfair. Not only was transparent unfairness disheartening to people who are opting to play a game, but it made the point less effectively. Instead of causing people to experience (a scaled-down and metaphorical version of) the social stratification of the age, it caused them to be told about the social stratification of the age.
I think the best game mechanics are often like this, a little sideways and almost a little incomplete. You, the game designer, require the player’s complicity in whatever points you’re making and questions you’re asking. You need to leave space for them to contribute, discover, explore, and, dare I say it, play.
It’s a hard thing for me to consistently spot, yet. I have a programmer’s drive to completeness and directness, which I must overcome when doing game design.
I’ve been thinking about this post from Chuck Wendig. In it, he talks about making the reader care about the characters you’ve written. It pertains to RPGs, too. Rather than the reader, though, both the other people you’re playing with and you yourself need to care about the character, though perhaps in different ways.
I feel very strongly that human struggles make a character matter to me—not style, not setting, not powers. I’m a sucker for a dramatic game, over a procedural one, in general. What does your character want, from whom, and why—and why can’t they get it? If those questions can be answered with emotional concessions rather than, say, physical items, I’m even more on board.
There are a couple games that help me do this: two that come to mind are Promethean: the Created, and Primetime Adventures 3rd edition.
In P:tC, you play an artificial construct who wants to become a human. To do so, you have to better understand what being human means, and pass through a number of milestones in that understanding. This means that you need to think about how your character conceives of human-ness, and how that relates to their particular shortcomings. You need to articulate this to the GM (whose job it is to define the actual milestones you need to achieve), so you can’t really elide it. (Well, maybe you can, but I am willing to discount that as non-cooperative play!)
In Primetime Adventures, characters have an Issue, a dramatic question at the core of the character. In Matt’s words:
Choosing an issue is about maximizing your opportunity to explore something meaningful to you, and that applies to all the choices you make in creating the protagonists.
Yes, that. Very much that.
And so, this is leading me to think about the zero-prep style of indie games. I actually, dare I say it, like taking the time to write a little backstory. Not to have an epic history, but to get to know the character I’ll be playing, and change them around if they’re not the one I really want to play. It doesn’t have to be extensive, but a little more quiet and contemplation and a little less rush makes the experience so much richer for me.
And of course, answering those questions all together, to have a web of interconnected characters, who feel things about each other and want things from each other and whose relationships may grow and change, that is just the sweetest thing.
Finally, let’s say it once again:
Plot is Soylent Green. It is made of people.
A couple days ago, I did a design chat with Ryan. One of the things we discussed was how to organize playtests. The particular kinds of playtest opportunities available to you will inevitably shape the game you can make. A consistent group with a regular schedule will allow you to produce a different game than you could make with one-shots at conventions with strangers as your only playtest opportunities.
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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?
So, we played Night Witches recently, and the experience has really bolstered my confidence in AW hacks.
Night Witches is a game made by this big-name indie designer about something they find cool, and while not everything in it jives with me personally, it works.
AW is like the new D20 in that respect, it lets people legitimize a thing they want to play by drawing on a tool everyone else is familiar with. AW happens to be a really good tool, and its spectacular modularity is a huge boon to people who’ve wanted a particular game but don’t want to spend (possibly) years making it from scratch.
It’s fun to be elitist about it (hur hur, another AW hack, hur) but honestly I think it has democratized the game design process to a certain point and I think that’s ultimately a good thing.
Or really, ask?
How about this: the players are engaged in improv, with the general topic as the premise of your game. You’re kind of observing, sitting back and throwing a wrench in the works every time they get too comfortable, and nudging them back into the theme every time they drift too far. What do you ask, what do you suggest, what do you say to make that happen?
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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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3:16 Carnage amongst the Stars action announcements Apocalypse World authority balance Becoming Heroes being awesome blank pages boundaries character creation choice D&D death design designers Dread epic Et in Arcadia Ego Exalted Fiasco fun game tasting gaming Gen Con GM history How We Came to Live Here Leverage mechanics models motivation Mouse Guard My Life with Master narrative space playtesting Primetime Adventures setting situation Spirit of the Century story theater theme theory world-building
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