This is a small idea I’ve been batting around. Let’s see if it makes sense.

A game is, among other things, a system for manipulating the attention of the participants. Games I like, I’ve noticed, tend to move your attention back and forth through the fiction and the mechanics, sometimes by convincing you that they’re the same thing (such as with Apocalypse World‘s “to do it, do it”).

But this doesn’t say anything about where the locus of interaction is. The thing you have to interact with most becomes most salient, draws your attention more strongly.

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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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It’s been a while since we’ve made as much good progress as we did tonight on Piece of Work. We’ve had trouble developing the game. At its core, there have always been problems with its cohesion. On one side, we want a game with cyberware and grit. On another side, we want it to play to noir tropes and carry emotional weight. And we wanted a game that spoke about corporate greed and responsibilities that go beyond one’s personal issues.

So here we are trying to make a game that does all these things but not understanding how to put it all together. Somehow in all the muck, neat ideas, and rough attempts we’d forgotten one of the lessons from Metatopia, or perhaps I’m just characteristically slow. What is clear now, though, is that this idea that a game should have a system for each thing it does turns out to be a lot more than talk. We’d already created one system for the cyberware, and one for the noir. But despite really wanting to drill down on the activist angle, we didn’t have something to address it. Until tonight.

What stuns me, even hours after we’ve stumbled upon a solution is that it just clean works out. We’d already been using three dice in the core mechanic, one gear and one motivation, but the third’s been difficult. We’d already created a system for bringing existential crisis to the front, and, of course cyberware, but only recently came up with something for bringing the day-to-day life home. Realizing that there are these three things the game is supposed to do, we’ve been able to tie the third one in. I can’t speak yet to how well it works yet, but it feels like the third post of a tripod.

Once the details have been fleshed out, there’ll be more to say, but for now all I can think about is breaking down games into the stories they tell and the systems they use to tell it. I’m keen to hear other people’s experiences with systems per principle.

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This is some follow-on from my musing about too many protagonists.

When we sit down to play a role-playing game, there are three to seven of us (more or less) who want to make a narrative about a bunch of characters. Great. Depending on the game, one of us might play a more general role, wrangling all the walk-ons and antagonists and such, freeing everyone else to really get into the protagonists’ roles.

This doesn’t actually say anything about the nature of the protagonists’ relationships with each other.

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We’ve been playing an ongoing game of Apocalypse World. It’s pretty great, as many of you know. Last night’s session left me with a half formed thought. Apocalypse World does a thing with stakes that I love: it forces you to keep them small.

Now, sure, it’s not a conflict resolution system, in the usual sense. You can’t name your stakes, for a start! The moves dictate what they can be, and so they stay small.

That’s all. I’m not sure what to do with that yet. Your thoughts?

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