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?

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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While we’re generally all about Becoming Heroes, we’ve recently hit upon one part that is harder than it needs to be—character generation. Right up front, we ask you to decide eight traits, three circumstances, and three ties. We don’t give you a lot of guidance around selecting these traits and people get stuck around six traits in.

Now, I don’t think getting stuck is a fatal flaw—it usually clears up when you talk about it as a group—but we’re going to add trait suggestions to each arc in our next revision. For instance, the Lost King should probably have some trait relating to their nobility. The Dutybound should have a trait related to where their duty comes from. Lots of places can inspire traits; the system just doesn’t yet help you find them.

In designing Piece of Work, we’re addressing character generation directly. We’re using a Dread-esque questionnaire that walks you though building your character. It works phenomenally well. First, it breaks up tasks like “allocate your skill points” or “pick your gear” into a series of discrete steps. Because those are smaller decisions and those decisions have context, they’re much easier to make.

Second, it lets us gently reinforce the tropes and setting of the game. Instead of just picking a random piece of gear, you have an item you picked up when things started to go wrong. Instead of just knowing the person to your left, you’re childhood friends. This added context pushes characters to create conspiracies, attach nostalgic meaning to things, to have conversations with other characters fraught with historical subtext—all staples of the noir genre.

I’m now on the hunt for other systems that use smaller choices to reduce the strain of creating a character. Dread is obviously one. Spirit of the Century‘s phases works this way. And Leverage not only has bite-sized char-gen steps, but moves some of those choices out of char-gen and into actual play. What are some of your favorite char-gen systems, and how do they help create a character?

It’s been a remarkable couple of months of silence from me; considering how my default mode is wild speculation and baseless assumption, this is pretty atypical. Such is the way of a day job. Especially so, the day job that features “crunch-mode” prominently. Fortunately, Kit has been writing frequently. I’m continually reminded how awesome it is to collaborate with friends.

After an extended period of quiet my mind has been rebelling, driving spikes of ideas through every waking moment. Which is why I find JB Mannon’s Games Galore challenge compelling. It feels a lot like NaNoWriMo or Thing-A-Day; both of those are creative endeavors I participate in. After floating the idea with Kit and Austin and talking about what we wanted to do, we hauled off and created a game for January.

It’s called Alibi. Players are criminals just back from a heist that went terribly wrong and who are trying to place the blame on anyone else. We’ve only played it a few times, but I laughed more in one evening than the rest of the last two months combined. Play rotates around the group, with the active player asking questions like “Why weren’t the guards taken care of” or “Who called the cops?” while everyone else tries to explain why it wasn’t their fault. As everyone’s credibility runs thin, people’s true motivations are revealed.

Full rules are available here. Give it a try and let us know what you think.

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A game needs to ask questions. For example, Dogs in the Vineyard asks some powerful questions about faith and judgment and mercy. But a game also needs to provide answers to some questions, a very mundane and specific bunch.

The questions are these:

  1. What do I do first?
  2. What do I do now?
  3. When do I stop?

Let me take each one in turn.

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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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A Piece of Work has a long, sordid history. It originally started out as a zombie “survival” RPG called Do Not Go Gentle—a game which might get made at some point, but which we had trouble nailing down. Then it became a kind of straight up cyberpunk game with heavy existential themes. Finally it settled nicely into a genre that seems to call itself cybernoir. I’ve made reference to it in my last post. The term is by no means RPG-specific, and is used to describe a lot of different works.

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Et in Arcadia Ego is our game of Regency-era magicians. It owes a lot to Susanna Clarke, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley. It has also been a fickle beast. We’ve been hacking at it, tweaking it, revising it, overhauling it, again and again for the past few months. It’s very much been a case of the tenth point of the Ten Wings.

But we’ve settled on something that seems to be at least in the right direction. Last night, we tried it out, and a few interesting points arose.

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So, without a game from last night to write about, I’ll take the opportunity to take some other thoughts that have been brewing and talk about what I see as the intrinsic elements of a story game, and how to communicate them.

To start with, there are four major elements to a story-game, as I see it, three of which are story, one of which is game:

  1. Setting
  2. Situation
  3. Motivation
  4. Mechanics

The first and fourth are very familiar and pretty much always explicitly discussed in any RPG text. The third became explicit some time ago.[1] And the second? Lately, it’s been getting a lot more attention. I think, traditionally, it has been the bulk of what people think of as the art of good GMing, but games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Fiasco and Apocalypse World have paid some pretty explicit attention to Situation.

Of course, all four of these are heavily, heavily interrelated. Setting provides context and hooks for Situation and Motivation, Mechanics (ideally) provide a system for reminding you of Situation and Motivation, Situation leads to Motivation and Motivation enacted changes Situation. Sure. I’m going to try to set aside the issues of interaction for now, and talk rather about how to communicate these things.

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  1. When John finishes his grand Timeline of RPG Ideas, I’ll have a date that I can actually back up. []
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