I don’t know if you’ve been following Vincent Baker’s posts on the object of a game (and a roleplaying game in particular). I’d recommend them. There’s a bunch, but this post and the next one are probably a good place to start.

I won’t link them all, but later there’s one about Recipes vs Games, which says this:

In a game, to get the object, you must contend with the rules.

A super easy example: in the Doomed Pilgrim game, your goal is to see me to my doom, but you can only answer my direct questions, so you may not be able to do it.

In a recipe, to get the object, you must follow the rules.

A super easy example: to make a PB&J, spread two slices of bread, one with PB, one with J, then press them together PB to J.

[Nom nom nom PB&J… But I digress.] I struggled to understand this. Mainly the phrase “contend with”; to me that suggests the rules make it less likely you’ll achieve the object – true for some games, of course, including Chess and Doomed Pilgrim, but not for games like Apocalypse World where the object is (as Vincent himself said) “to find out what the characters will make of their world”. In those games, the object’s given; the rules just make you do particular things to get it.

I asked him about this and he kindly posted his response, including the point:

It would be much, much easier for you to find out what my character Barbecue will make of his world if you could just ask me.

“Hey Vincent, what does Barbecue make of his world?”

“Oh! No sweat. He creates this oasis of normality amongst all the weirdness. He enforces it with good humor and violence only when it’s called for. Gradually his people become wealthy, and some of them set off to establish their own little oases after Barbecue’s model. It turns out that in the face of cheerful normality all the weirdness in the world breaks down, and doesn’t invade, and that creepy-ass metal-gnawing eyeless child was just a figment of his imagination after all. Ta da!”

But no. In Apocalypse World I don’t get to just tell you like that. You don’t get to just ask.

And I see his point. So in a sense the rules do make it “more difficult” for you to achieve the object – in that they make it a little more laborious. But they don’t make it less likely; you’re constantly achieving it, just not in the straightforward obvious way – which, of course, makes the outcome more interesting. You’re still gonna get from A to B, but the rules force you to take the scenic route. Even in win/lose games like Chess and Doomed Pilgrim, where the rules do make it less likely you’ll achieve the object, they do so to make the process more interesting.

So how about this restatement:

A recipe’s rules tell you the most efficient way to get the object.

A game’s rules tell you the most interesting way to get the object.

Thoughts?

In another example of someone saying something I’ve been trying to say for ages, and doing so more simply and succinctly than I ever could, Bankuei has written an excellent post about making it clear what’s appropriate for the fiction of your game.

The bit that really struck me was the simplicity of these three questions:

What kind of conflicts make sense for this game?

What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?

What kind of outcomes make sense for this game?

These are exactly the things that a well-designed story game not only enforces and guides during play, but also gets across quickly and clearly to anyone considering playing it.

I’d better make sure my games do that, then :-)

Just a quick post to jot down an idea I had… I really like the idea of play-by-email / play-by-post games, because it really suits a player like me with a busy calendar. You take turns at a leisurely pace, and also at your own convenience rather than needing to get a group of people all together at the same time (and, often, in the same place).

But! I’ve never seen it work for an emergent-story game. I’ve seen it done for tactical games where you e.g. send commands to your army / heroes and you try to win the scenario; I’ve seen it done for games where the GM has pre-written the significant points of the story; I haven’t seen a framework like this matched with a game designed to generate a story.

I’m not sure how well this will work. Will the impersonal nature of remote / disconnected play draw the game into tactics rather than narrative? Will the framework be able to pace the story well despite the flexible and low-commitment schedule? Will the creativity be lost without other players’ ideas right there to bounce off?

I’ve no idea. I’m gonna make it and find out.

I just came across Syrinscape, a program that claims to provide an auto-generated soundtrack for your roleplaying game.

It claims:

  • to be non-repetitive;
  • to be easily configurable to suit the setting and mood of your game / scene;
  • not to need attention during the game itself – just let it run;

… all of which sound great, if it can actually deliver on them.

The program is not available yet, although there is an old version available apparently – but they recommend you wait for the new version.

One to keep an eye on!

Ha! I just went over some of my old draft posts, and found one that I was going to write about my first experience of GMing, which included this gem:

Story doesn’t “just happen”

I am pleased to say that I’ve now had plenty of first-hand evidence to overturn that statement :-)

In Apocalypse World, one of my favourite game systems at the moment, mechanics are engaged through a series of “moves”, which basically kick in whenever a PC does certain specific things in the fiction, and explicitly state the possible consequences of that action (usually depending on a die roll). One of the moves kicks in when you go aggro on someone in order to get them to do stuff. Sounds like intimidation, right? But Go Aggro is not the same as a standard Intimidate check in a more traditional game system… and here’s why.

I have seen exchanges in Apocalypse World that looked a bit like this:

Player: “I want to make them hand over their hostage. I pull out my gun and point it at them, screaming at them to do it.”
MC: “Roll go aggro.”
Player: “I hit.”
MC: “They refuse and force your hand.” (One of the potential consequences of the Go Aggro move, as stated in the mechanic’s description.)
Player: “Oh then I just back off, I don’t really want to hurt them.”
MC: “No, that’s not permissible. You pull the trigger and it hits them smack in the gut.”
Player: “Wait, what? Grrr, argh, confusion, anger.”

To understand what’s going on here, we have to look at the listed consequences of the Go Aggro move. If you roll well, either they “force your hand and suck it up” (taking harm from whatever weapon you’re using), or they “cave and do what you want”. On a weak hit (a success but not as decisively so), they have other options, such as “give you something they think you want” and “get the hell out of your way”. On a miss, the MC will make a move, and that’s probably bad news for you.

No consequence of a Go Aggro is that the aggressor changes their mind and backs off. In a traditional Intimidate check – i.e. you’re threatening them with potential violence – that would be an option, but here it isn’t.

The fact that there’s no “aggressor backs off” option tells you something about the state of the fiction at the time the move is triggered – and therefore by implication tells you something about what that move really meant in the first place. Specifically, it shows that the aggressor has already launched themselves at the defender, full force, when the move is triggered. By that point, it is too late for the aggressor to back out – indeed, the only way they’ll stop themselves is if they see the defender jumping to do as they’re told.

So Go Aggro is a move for when you are all-out attacking someone but are prepared to slam on the brakes if they do what you want. It’s not for when you threaten someone with possible violence in the future – even the very near future. That, as Vincent says elsewhere in the book, is the Manipulate move, using the violence as your leverage.

My real point here is not actually “Go Aggro is not for intimidation” (despite the title of the post! fooled you…) – that’s just an example. My real point is this: it can be hard to decide what move a character is making based on the description of their actions – but looking at the available consequences of the moves, not their titles and descriptions, should help to clarify which one is correct. If the consequences don’t suit what you want to happen, then the move probably isn’t one you want to invoke.

Oh dear. Has it really been a year since my last project update? But I haven’t got anywhere with those projects!! (And I notice I’m even later posting the “new year” update this year, too.)

Sigh.

Well, anyway, here are the projects I’m currently working on – for very loose definitions of “currently” and “working”. In fact, better: Here are the projects I expect to be disappointed about when I come to next year’s project update post.

Highborn

This is the current top-of-my-list project. Intrigue and backstabbing among fantasy noble classes. (Three points for guessing which TV show sparked this idea.) In particular I’ve noticed a bit of a trend in indie RPG resolution systems to declare intentions up-front (to greater or lesser degrees of explicitness) and I think this doesn’t work for characters full of secret agendas. I’m wondering if I can design a resolution system that doesn’t require that. My current draft is based on a bribery model, where players offer each other tokens (of some value TBD) to persuade each other to accept the statements they’re making.

CIC

This one (character drama under a military sci-fi veneer – think BSG) hasn’t got much further since last year’s post. I’ve laid out an initial draft of the stats and basic moves, and I’ve got some good notes on character generation, particularly about playing multiple characters – which will be a crucial part of the game, I think. However, since it’s based on Apocalypse World, it requires an awful lot of writing up the moves associated with different character options – and I don’t feel I’m learning as much from that as I am from writing a game from scratch, so it’s taken something of a back seat.

Scary Monsters And Super Creeps

After reading Ron Edwards’ “Setting And Emergent Stories” essay (link is a PDF), I thought this game might be a good one to try it out on. I basically want to take the Unknown Armies setting (magic and horror, but very human, in contemporary urban setting), hack out the silly bits and hack in some more homegrown stuff, and then write mechanics for it to drive the story from the setting as described in that essay. (Edwards even quotes it as an example of a setting which would benefit from such treatment.) I’ve got some mechanics for specifying the setting, which I’m pleased with so far – but again this is kinda on a backburner for now.

MechWar

And similarly, I reckon the Battletech universe has some cool thematic stuff going on which could be used in a setting-driven emergent-story game – so I might give that a try as well. I haven’t looked at this much yet, but I do know that mech battles will be fought using Mobile Frame Zero :-D

Escape From Nightmare City

Unlike everything else above, this is specifically a one-shot game. I’m trying to provide a good automated Antagonist – i.e. one which runs itself using mechanics and doesn’t require a player to “GM”. I want all the players to be playing protagonists, trying to escape the pick-your-dystopia Nightmare City, and have the game itself present good dramatic challenges. (So far I’m using a deck of cards for the Antagonist rules.) Obviously the details of any challenge will need to be fleshed out by the real human minds at the table, but I’m wondering whether the structure can be handled automatically.

Until next year…

Well, that’s all the stuff that has real work done on it (however minimal) and concrete design goals / questions to answer. A few other pieces which are just scribbled notes:

  • Tales of Suburbia: some kind of supernatural mystery game set in a leafy suburb. Just flavour so far, really.
  • Retinue: the characters play the henchpeople of the super-powerful ruling class. What stories do these normally-overlooked characters make?
  • The Watch: distrusted protectors of a dark fantasy world. This trope has come up a lot recently, but I wonder how interesting character dramas work when you operate at the edge of civilisation.

Let’s hope I can make a bit more progress this year! In particular I’m going on a roleplay holiday in Spring, and it’d be great if I could take a game along to playtest… :-S