So we’ve been discussing damage in Piece of Work. In a cybernoir story, eventually someone is going to get shot, stabbed, or clubbed. Mechanically, there are a lot of options available for tracking hurt—hit points, statuses, health levels—but each has drawbacks that doesn’t deliver the effect we’re after. We want something gripping but still lightweight and story-focused.

Unfortunately, many damage systems are disconnected from the visceral thing they represent. Hit points are engaging while we mark off a few more points, but they don’t reflect the gaping wounds later in the story. We can check the box labeled Angry but that doesn’t feel like the irrational anger of a jealous lover. Health levels are flat and wide—they simultaneously say too much about a character’s capabilities and not enough about the reason they’re in the shape they’re in. They are, in short, abstract.

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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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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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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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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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Have you ever noticed when you play a video game, you never use your big weapons? Austin has been playing Bioshock lately, in a fit of nostalgia for 2007, and he’s been holding on to his grenades or rockets or whatever in a pattern that is very familiar to me. I’ve done the same sort of hoarding. The thought process is something like “well, I don’t quite need to use this powerful resource now, and I might need to use it some time in the future, and I don’t know when I’ll get more of it, so I had better save it.”

This is a common human behavior, even outside games. I have some half-remembered anecdote in my head about people on the Pitcairn Islands hoarding eggs well past the time when they had turned into little sulphur-bombs because they were rare and valuable, and just having them was a symbol of status as much as anything. There are pathological cases, of course, like the Collyer brothers. But I’m here to talk about game design, so let’s move our focus there.

Wickham Market Iron Age Coin Hoard

I want this many! Via portableantiquities on Flickr.

A lot of modern games have what Macklin calls a coin trick. This is an economy of points of some sort that are valuable to the participants in some way usually to do with control over the randomness in the narrative. And often times, players treat these points like Pitcairn Islanders treat eggs. Any time you feel like you can survive without spending them, you don’t.

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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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So first, read John’s brilliant post. I want to talk about some of the “fenceposts” we use to corner off that narrative space he mentions.

My first attempt at designing a game was laden with the same kind of hubris the creators of GURPS had—trying to make a game that could do anything. And a game that can do anything can do no one thing really well. Eventually we got bored of it. Why play a wild west game in a generic system when you can play Dogs in the Vineyard? Why play a game of space marines in a generic system when you have 3:16, or if that is insufficiently crazy, WH40k? Mechanics are a huge part of this. A generic mechanic (like percentile dice, any pure attribute + skill, d20, etc) will never hook you like one designed for what it’s doing, in its home narrative space. This is because those fenceposts are fun in and of themselves, in their own way. So we all know about some neat ways to say, hit a guy with a sword, but I want to talk about mechanics that change the game over time. Because in the end, even a really neat mechanic for hitting a guy with a sword pales in comparison (after a few sessions) to the macro-sized mechanics that define how the game is played after the first few sessions.

So games like Burning Wheel have an interesting way of engineering the shape of play. Over time, the conflict that Beliefs create for the character add up in the form of Artha and cause them to Be Awesome later. Similarly, in FATE, you get narrative ammunition through losing conflicts, in the form of Fate Points. The end effect is that over time, a bunch of strife and loss cause you to accumulate narrative power which you then leverage in a later conflict. This seems to me like a neat hack to getting that awesome story-like arc that many are looking for in a game—a period of being laid low followed by glorious victory. The best part is that the GM doesn’t even need to plan too much for it happening, they just need the barest of peripheral awareness of your banked-up story control points.

Of course, this kind of story-like shape is nearly impossible to engineer in more traditional games. D&D, Shadowrun, Pathfinder and their comrades don’t try to get this kind of story, and so they don’t get it. So if you find your epic fantasy game devoid of the proper amount of epic heroism, there is a reason for that. The advancement mechanic, really all the macro-level stuff, in games like D&D do not change or do anything to your narrative space. It’s simple math, an incredibly careless mechanic that gives you no sense of progress or destination. Think for a second about how in movies, heroes become more badass, but in D&D, you do not really change relative to your opposition. CR is matched to party level. You just get more options for texturing your opposition as you grow in “power” over time.

This of course leads right back to that tricky issue of needing boundaries to be boundaries, while needing them to get broken. Advancement really highlights issues with relative power level and boundaries, and I’ve not yet encountered an advancement system that was to my liking. Does anyone out there have some particularly good examples in mind?

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First, let me just say that the word narrative is terribly overloaded in the game industry. Turn it this way, it means story. Turn it that way, it means the events in a game. Turn it yet another, and it’s a play style. Here, I’m using it to talk about genre. About the kinds of stories we tell with role-playing games. There are an almost innumerable number, each with a different narrative space.

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Hello all. Long time no write. We are hard at work on Et in Arcadia Ego these days, and that’s been the subject of many trips to the Baker Street Pub. While all of us had a feel for the genre and had our source material in mind, we kept having problems modeling that material with game mechanics. The problem wasn’t that the mechanics were bad—in a certain way, they actually accomplished the goals we set out to achieve. But we kept iterating on them, trying to make them match our inspiration, only to have them twist in our hands like so many fae promises. Last night we had a lot of progress stemming from applying some old-fashioned questioning our assumptions.

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