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.

 

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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

The first draft of this post was a lot of inside baseball, and so to counteract that, I’m gonna try to go heavy on the examples.

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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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So it’s been a few weeks since our last post because we’ve been working on a panoply of things. I want to get all of it down, because it seems impossible to be doing so much. Also, there are some exciting things in the works.

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Last night was a fruitful night for Et in Arcadia Ego. We’ve been talking a lot about feminism, sexism, privilege, and judging the past by modern standards. All of this is, of course, of immense importance to any game trying to put itself in a period of immensely inequitable gendering and even worse class divides. But the key thing that I want to talk about right now is what this brought us to, in terms of game mechanics.

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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.

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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.

Rob said it well. So I don’t have much to add about the con per se, but I do want to talk a bit about what the con did for Et in Arcadia Ego.

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