John and I were talking recently about Exalted, a game that Austin has a deep and complex relationship with, that I have never cared for or about. I was trying to hash out what my problems with it were, and we stumbled on something I think is interesting. What follows may be rambling.

Other people have talked about implied setting before, notably Ryan Macklin. The short version is that there are two ways to communicate the setting of your game to the potential players: one, stated setting, is by outright telling it to them (“The Order of the Basilisk was formed in 1132 by the archmage Rowan Farlight, to counter the forces of the warlord Grum…”) and the other, implied setting, is by hinting at it through bits of the game’s content (“Spell: the Basilisk’s Eye. When you cast this spell, anyone loyal to the warlord Grum glows with a faint aura visible only to you…”).

What I want to talk about, though, is a distinction that is related, but different: the distinction between living setting and calcified setting. ETA: by living setting, I mean setting that is amenable to addition, typically through play. By calcified setting, I mean setting that has a definite canonical form that does not admit of change.

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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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So, this weekend past I went to NerdNYC’s Recess. Normally, of course, we Transneptune folk are off in Colorado, but I happened to be in town this weekend, and made the best of it. I met some nice folks and played in some good games (particularly one run by the inestimable Jenskot), and picked up a copy of Robert Bohl’s Misspent Youth off the swap table, which is, I think, the most correct way of getting this game.

It was good to get to meet some folks I had only internet-known, but there’s a particular thought about game design that came out of it, for me.

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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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