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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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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I had a talk yesterday with Austin about beats. They’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I think a large part of what I like so much about Vincent’s games is that they help me structure play, beat by beat. They help keep scenes from being sketchy, they make surprising outcomes and shape moments.
So, we ended up talking about Apocalypse World. Moves are beats (though, importantly, not all beats are moves). Each moment, you need to know what the next moment is, because it might trigger mechanical things, so you play it through, moment to moment. Each move has uncertain and potentially surprising outcomes, so you play the next moment after it differently than you would have had the move not happened.
But then, a creeping realization stole upon us. What you do in terms of “crunch” in that moment is dead simple, and the game still works. The interest in RPGs doesn’t come from what you do with the dice. A fancy dice game isn’t necessarily a problem, but it is such a profound misapplication of your time and energy as a designer, to think first and foremost “what can I do to make people interested in the dice”. In “what you roll, when” it is the “when” that is most important. What beats get randomized, and sure, there’s a lot of play in how you interpret the dice roll, when and whether you can change it, etc, but there’s a meaningful level at which any dice system is just “let’s get random numbers”.
So, if I want to make mechanics that help shape the moment-to-moment beats of the game I’m making, I don’t need to make a fancy dice game. I need to make good beats.
I’ve been mulling over the idea of playtests-as-studies. I’ve been thinking particularly about a recent conversation I had with the inimitable Avery Mcdaldno, wherein they suggested that, for a game you intend to Get Out Into the World, you have a limited budget (maybe, say, 4 to 40) of playtests. And so each one has to drive the game forward, but also, you will never get it just right or, dare I say it, perfect.
So, what do we do with that? How do you spend your playtests, allot your studies? What do you need to get filled in first, and what can wait to be done in the detail work, the finishing touches?
I dunno. But I’m curious to find out. I suspect strongly that a lot of the getting-better-at-making-games lies in this space.
I’ve spent the day at the National Gallery, looking at Andrew Wyeth, Degas, Cassatt. When I was little, this was my least favorite museum (Air & Space and Natural History always claiming my affections), but as I grow older, I grow to appreciate it more.
What struck me today was looking at a wall of studies Degas did for his series of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre. Eight or so paintings, each more or less “complete”, each with their own moments of brilliance and their own failings. Eight of them, arrayed side by side, showing much (but by no means all) of the process involved in creating the final work.
The final work was definitely more polished, probably better than any individual study, but it got there because of the work put in to the studies. And there were some bits that didn’t come off as well in the final piece, for sure, but you know, that’s just how it goes. Maybe they wouldn’t have been as good in that final (overall better) context, maybe they were just impossible to capture again.
So it is with a game. Maybe, even, if it helps you, don’t call them “playtests”, call them “studies”. Each one is a whole game (gamelet?) in its own right, with some strengths and probably more weaknesses, but not made with an aim to completeness and publication, rather with an aim towards preparation and honing your understanding of the space and your art.
Make more games. Maybe most of them never make it out of your studio, but that’s not at all “failure”.
A few thoughts intersected the other day. Let’s see if I can get them down.
Here’s the short of it: balance is a canard. You don’t want balance, at least not in an RPG. You want interesting choices. Balance is a response to one kind of failure of interesting choices, that of a dominant strategy. But you can have a lack of interesting choices in the other direction: if every choice is equivalent, that is, if your choices are false choices, then your game (qua game) suffers just as much as if it had a dominant strategy.
So, you need to make things asymmetrical, maybe even unbalanced (gasp, gape). It’s a balance to strike, between the fire of a dominant strategy and the ice of false choices. You need to make the experience of play involve moments of “if I had only done X”, so that the rest of the choices you make are meaningful.
Now, there’s a strong version and a weak version of this claim. The weak is that, for all choices, you should have at least two meaningfully different options, where it is not transparently clear which will be the better one. The strong version is that you should also have some options that are clearly worse. I only mean to maintain the weak version, but with the caveat that what is clearly worse to you may well be compelling to someone else.
There’s another wrinkle to this, which Austin articulated very nicely the other day: when he comes to the table, he wants to see the choices other people make, and he wants those choices to be different from his own. So you need choices that ramify into other meaningful choices.
OK, theory, fine. How do you do this? Obviously, that’s context-dependent. But here are my principles on the matter:
- Make your game have multiple axes of interaction, which are not directly comparable. You can think of this as “choose the problems you want to expect”. In Apocalypse World, for example, you can focus on personal effectiveness or group effectiveness: are you a badass, or are you a badass because of and through your gang? Obviously, the latter comes with some problems—things that aren’t in your control like challenges for leadership, supply issues, communication issues, etc. But at the same time, there are things you can do with and as a gang that you simply can’t as an individual.
- Play enough to see the ruts you make when you play. If, after choosing M, you consistently go from there to Q, F, R, then consider collapsing those options. Especially if there’s no other way onto that path, and everyone else you see follows it the same way.
- Make a variety of things in your game. Like, mechanically meaningful widgets. This can be variety within a category of thing, or a variety of categories of things. This is a contentious point; a lot of games have been made, many very good, without many types of things. I acknowledge that this is a taste thing for me. I like games where you get to choose from lists of Distinctions/Moves/Gifts/whatever, and make up your own, and engage with the game outside the act of play-as-play. So, if that’s not your aim or style, at least help the players to make interesting situations where the choices they have to make in the story are valid.
So, I’ve been posting to G+ these snippets: they’re a little too small and underdeveloped for the blog but I thought I’d do a round-up and save them here. If you want to know more about how Piece of Work is going, take a look over here:
There’ll probably be more as we finish our final playtesting and toss around more rules edits. Hope you enjoy!
So, a while back, we talked about doing a thing called Demand Mechanics. The idea is that we will do improvisational mechanic design: pull something out of a hat, bat ideas around for how to make mechanics about it. The video didn’t go up right away, due to none of us really knowing anything about video editing. At this point, we think it’s better to get it up than not, so here it is, in its raw unedited glory. It was fun to do, and we hope you’ll enjoy it!
In this half-hour segment, we design mechanics for the following things:
- Feeling bad about killing orcs.
- College exams
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