Archive for May, 2006

The Written World

2006 May 31

I just stumbled across this amazing quote by Imre Galambos in Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present (2006):

    People talk about this idea of literary worlds. There are certain cultures, like the Byzantine and the Chinese, in which the written documents create a world that is more significant than the real world. The officials who ran the country in ancient China — they were selected through exams, through this process of memorizing the classics. They lived in this quazi world of letters. Whoever came in from the outside became a part of it. Even the Mongolian tribes that eventually became the Yuan dynasty — for God’s sake, they were complete nomads, with very little written language. But they became like the Chinese for a time; they assimilated themselves. I think this literary world is the link in time that permits this thing we call “Chinese history.” It’s not the number of people or anything like that; it’s the enormous written world that they produced. They produced this world that’s so big that it eats them up and it eats up everybody around them.

Awesome. Not sure what this means for The Game I Can’t Write Yet, but it’s definitely closely related.

Traits Become Keys: Dharma Paths

2006 May 31

Jason Morningstar wanted to see a filled in sheet for the Avatar game, which I’ll try to get up soon. However, the sheet itself is not nearly as cool as the process you go through to fill it out. Sure, you add a few traits and fill in basic information in the beginning, but over half of the sheet should start out blank, to be filled in through play. Additionally, The process of play is the process of changing the information on your sheet, the process of becoming a different person. You do this by completing Dharma Paths.

You can have up to four active Dharma Paths at one time, linked to each of the four elements of the Avatar universe (water, earth, fire, air). Whenever you have an element open, either because you just completed a Dharma Path or because it’s early in the game and you haven’t filled your elements up yet, you can declare a new Dharma Path. Dharma Paths are filled out on little slips of paper that looks something like this:

To declare a Dharma Path, you pick a trait you already have or, if you still have any, a blank space on your character sheet. This is the trait you are hoping to change. Traits come in various type, including Bending/Martial Arts, Relationships, Possessions, and Personality Traits (I’m still kinda sorting those out), so you also write the trait type down. You also note the element you’re associating it with and, most important of all, declare what you’re intending it to become. So if you start with a trait like “Sokka is Dismissive of Girls” maybe you want to change it to “Sokka Has a Girlfriend.” Declaring your intentions helps structure play and gives the other players (including the GM) a sense of where you hope to go with the character.

To fill out the Dharma Path, you “collect” scenes which are relevant to pursuing your goal, writing down a short summary of what happened in each scene, so you have a record of Sokka progressing. But play may not lead you to your expected result. Sokka might get his ass handed to him by a group of warrior women and, instead of finding a girlfriend, develops a major unrequited crush on one of them. This would be recorded on your Dharma Path card as “Sokka gets beat up by girls” + “Sokka plans revenge on girls” + “Girls get the best of Sokka” + “Sokka asks to train with the girls” + “Sokka develops major crush on head girl” + “Girl goes off to fight” + “Sokka leaves,” based on how the scenes end up playing out.

So, at the end of this process, your declared trait changes, but not to the trait you were hoping for. Instead, you have to rename your trait (or add a new trait) based on what actually happened in play. So instead of changing “Sokka is dismissive of girls” to “Sokka has a girlfriend,” you end up with “Sokka is crushing on a warrior woman.” Yay, Sokka is no longer dismissive of girls, but not in the way you necessarily intended. Renaming the Dharma Path, changing your original intentions to match what actually happened, is what closes the path, allows you to change your trait, and lets you start a new Path if you want.

Dharma Paths are generally arbitrary in length, closing when players feel like they’ve reached a sort of cathartic point where they’re ready to assess how things have changed and how a character is different.

Details I’m still working out: Dharma Paths can change type too. There’s an episode where Aang tries to learn Firebending and instead learns the consequences of being an impatient brat. Or where Katara tries to fight sexism and instead learns Waterbending from a master.

Also, completing Bending/Martial Arts/Possession paths changes what your character is capable of doing in the game world. So I need to find some semi-equivilent importance for Personality Traits and Relationships. Shreyas and I were talking about having those be the traits the GM created conflicts and obstacles out of, pushing players to either 1) change the problem into something that’s not a problem, or 2) change themselves so that the problem is no longer a problem, or 3) a combination of both. We’ll see.

One Reason This Game Will Rock

2006 May 30

Jonathan: ALSO: dig the revelation I just had.
Jonathan: One of the main ways of surmounting obstacles in this game…
Jonathan: …is going to be CHANGING YOURSELF.
Jonathan: you don’t solve the problem. you change yourself so that the problem is no longer a problem.
Shreyas: oh yes
Shreyas: very nice!
Shreyas: you’re such a cocktease. i want to play this game yesterday.

Avatar Character Sheet

2006 May 28

Shreyas demanded that I work on this before finishing the sex pirates. So, like with the pirates, my take on an Avatar: The Last Airbender game is basically finished. I just have to write down the stuff in my head. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to do that soon, so we can playtest it next week.

It makes good use of all the neat “character development arc” stuff that I’ve been going on about. And the graphic design of it is gonna be very pretty, like the stuff above. It’s gonna be short, though. Like 10-15 pages, I expect.

Basic Character Arc Mechanics

2006 May 26

Last night, I was thinking about how you could do character arc mechanics in a kind of object-oriented computing format. Normally, I’m not this much of an uber-dork, but I do have some background in JavaScript and a little Java, so go with me here.

So, like all games, you have mechanically supported play and non-mechanically supported play. For now, let’s leave the actual enactment of links as completely freeform (mechanically unsupported). You declare that you’re performing the “get my ass handed to me” link, but it’s entirely up to you to decide how you wanna hand yourself your ass. This will probably get its own mechanics later.

The mechanically-supported stuff goes like this:

Characters have to be working through at least one link at all times. If they have no declared link, they cannot be in a scene. So players should probably declare a new link for any character that have just completed one, unless said character currently has a lot of links “open” and the players are trying to resolve some of them and simplify the current drama. Characters do not have to be actively working to complete their current links at all times, but open links provide guidelines for what a character purpose currently is. If a character has no purpose, why the hell are they in a scene?

This holds true for major characters (in the case of Avatar: Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, etc.) as well as minor characters (Apa!) and guest stars (Random Hot Boy #7, Element Master #3, Wacky Villain #26). A character like Apa can go through several episodes without resolving a single link. That’s okay. They still need to have one open so we know where they’re going, development-wise. That way, if the group decides they suddenly want to do an entire episode all about Apa (which would be awesome), they have some support.

There are things besides individual characters that can have links. Groups of characters can collectively possess links that they are working through. I’m not sure if episodes or locations can have their own links, because I tend to think that episodes and locations are driven by the problems of the characters in them. If you want to have the characters deal with a problem, either give them a related open link or create a character for them to encounter who has a related open link.

Links do not form “chains” (or development arcs) on their own, because they are not necessarily thematically related simply because they all belong to the same character or group. Sokka might have the open links “prove I am worthy of my father’s trust” and “win Yue’s heart and physical affection.” These could be part of the same chain (a chain about Sokka growing up and becoming a man, perhaps) or they could be a part of two different chains. Or both could be true. One link can be a part of several chains, if necessary.

Chains have to be declared and defined, just like links. Here’s where the Java stuff comes in. Imagine:

    new Chain [scope][name]
    add [link 1]
    add [link 4]
    add [link 5]
    add [link 7]
    Chain completed

The scope of a chain is who it belongs to, a group or an individual. The name of the chain is the theme that you’re expressing with it. And then you add relevant completed links to the chain until you complete/resolve the chain. Then you set it aside, it becomes a record of character development (and might be connected to mechanics where you gain new powers or abilities), and work on your other chains and links.

I’m imagining, if you’re playing something like this in IRC, you’d keep an extra chat window open for people to declare new links, new chains, completed links & chains, and the like. So part of it might look like this:

    Jon: new Link [Sokka][get Yue to admit she likes me]
    Jon: completed Link [Sokka][get Yue to admit she likes me]
    Jon: new Link [Sokka][figure out why Yue won’t go out with me]
    Jon: new Chain [Sokka][lovers seperated by fate]
    Jon: add Link [Sokka][get Yue to admit she likes me] to [lovers seperated by fate]
    Shreyas: completed Link [Katara][get rejected for being a girl]
    Shreyas: new Link [Katara][find a way to learn, despite them]
    Shreyas: add Link [Katara][get rejected for being a girl] to [win respect as a waterbender]
    Shreyas: add Link [Katara][get rejected for being a girl] to [fight sexism]
    Jon: completed Link [Sokka][figure out why Yue won’t go out with me]
    Jon: new Link [Sokka][convince Yue to follow her heart]
    Jon: add Link [Sokka][figure out why Yue won’t go out with me] to [lovers seperated by fate]

Sometimes you may have some completed links that are not part of a chain yet. That’s okay. If you don’t immediately have a good idea of a chain for them, make note of them, but let them sit around for a while. You may discover that, by piecing some of your unchained links together with some links that are already in chains, you can create a new chain that connects several development arcs together. Or you may be inspired to create a new chain or add the unchained links to existing chains somewhere down the road.

I’m considering the possibility that each episode is constructed from a limited number of links, say 40 or so. And these links can mostly belong to a single character or group, or may be divided evenly or (more likely) unevenly between several characters/groups. And when you’ve completed 40 links, the episode ends. There would probably need to be other pacing guidelines in place to make sure that worked, or maybe it could just be a general guideline for episode lengths.

Other things to consider:

Be like Vincent and get rid of strict player control over character. Now every player can declare and resolve links and chains for any character or group. Shreyas may be responsible for playing Katara in this particular scene with Sokka, but I could pick up on something Katara says or does and declare or resolve a link. Maybe I need that link to complete a chain about Katara and Sokka’s relationship, so I was trying to push Shreyas into having Katara do something. If you want more Pull, I could declare a new link for Katara or Sokka, based on what I wanted to have happen in the scene (“Katara Slaps Sokka”), and then, depending on how Shreyas wanted to play it, that open link may or may not ever be completed. If we did something like that, we’d probably want some way for excess open links to be declared “no longer valid” after a certain amount of time.

Okay, I think that’s all for now.

Avatar Development Arcs

2006 May 25

These are my notes on some of the major, repeating character development arcs that take place in the first Season of Avatar. Vladamir Propp, eat your heart out.

Sokka Learns a Lesson
– Sokka Does Something Reckless
– Sokka Fails Miserably
– Sokka is Pouty
– Sokka Does Something More Intelligent
– Sokka Succeeds

Being the Avatar Isn’t That Bad
– Being the Avatar Sucks
– Aang is Sad
– Avatar Powers/Social Position Save the Day
– Aang is No Longer Sad

Katara Crushes on Random Hot Boy
– Katara Meets Random Hot Boy
– Random Hot Boy Does Random Hot Things
– Katara Swoons
– Katara and Random Hot Boy Flirt Shamelessly
– Plot-of-the-Day Resolves Itself
– Katara and Random Hot Boy Go Their Seperate Ways

Bending Can’t Solve Every Problem
– Problem Encountered
– Attempt to Solve the Problem with Lots of Bending
– Bending Fails to Help or Makes Things Worse
– Disbelief
– Lateral Thinking Used to Find Non-Bending Solution
– Solution Works

The Power of Fun
– Aang Encourages Some Weird Dangerous/Fun Thing
– Lots of Other Stuff Happens
– Dangerous/Fun Thing Used to Save the Day

Don’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover
– Characters Judge Some Person/Situation
– Characters Are Completely Wrong
– Characters’ Mistaken Views Lead to Badness
– Characters’ Mistake is Discovered
– Characters Express Regret
– Characters Use New Knowledge to Triumph

Katara Changes Peoples’ Minds
– People Are Acting Foolishly
– Katara Gives an Inspirational Speech
– People Are Skeptical
– Karata Is Disappointed/Frustrated
– People Decide She’s Right, Goshdarnit

Additional suggestions are welcome. There’s also one about the characters getting angry at each other or being jealous, but I need to watch a few more episodes to nail that one down. And there’s the arc used in Aang solo episodes, where he discovers something about himself and his Avatar-ness.

More Character Framing

2006 May 24

Christian (xenopulse) picked up some of the character framing stuff from my last post and started a thread on Story Games. For now, any additional thoughts on this topic will be posted there.

Character Framing: Restrictions, Keys, & the Last Airbender

2006 May 23

One of the Nobilis design “laws” is the [Insert Random Flowery Name Here] Law, which goes something like, “strength is gained through adversity.” This is the model for the Restrictions system, where characters get a restriction like, “I Freak Out Whenever I’m Around Jell-o” (NOTE: not a real example) and then gain extra resource points when their Jell-o Allergy causes them real difficulties. These are more than just markers that indicate issues a character wants to deal with (which I think is what some people call “Flags,” right?), because, in Nobilis, individual players are encouraged to take responsibility for getting their characters into situations where they are trapped in a room with Bill Cosby and a lot of Jell-o Pudding Pops. So Nobilis uses Restrictions as an underhanded way of giving players greater narrative control than they traditionally have, but only to cause a world of hurt for themselves (and gain resource points in the process). Nobilis offers other methods of player empowerment, but that’s the one I’m concerned with right now.

Clinton does something equally cool with Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday, which are sorta like Restrictions in that they give you resources points (XP) in return for narrating certain things, but Keys are character development goals that must be met (“Destroy All the World’s Jell-o”) instead of challanges to give yourself. Still, in both cases, Restrictions and Keys seem to mainly function to 1) provide a unique character identity by giving players goals/problems to invoke regularly, and 2) excuses for players to narrate their characters into a world of trouble. Keys have the bonus feature of facilitating character development as well. If you meet certain conditions, you can complete or invalidate a Key and basically exchange it for a new Key (though the way the rules handle this is a bit more complicated than that).

So I was thinking about Avatar: The Last Airbender this morning, and trying to come up with a way to mix The Shadow of Yesterday, Exalted, Nobilis, and Primetime Adventures to model the show appropriately (which is my next project after the pirate game, I think; before dolphins). I definitely want strong character guidelines (TSOY‘s Keys), kewl kung fu powerz for the kiddies to accumulate (Exalted‘s Charm Trees), a rather-fuzzy-but-with-some-structure method for handling the magical element-bending powers (Nobilis‘s Miracle Charts), and a way of structuring individual sessions so they feel like TV episodes (PTA‘s great framing rules).

Here’s the real revelation, though, after all that build up: character development in TV shows needs to be paced too, just like scenes do. So I’m thinking of creating a kind of “personality chakra” for each major character, which is a string of Restrictions and Keys that are arranged in a certain order and build on each other. So you have to complete one before moving on to the next. There could be chakras of various sizes. The largest one is, of course, the chakra for the whole series, which focuses on one element per Season of the show. All the characters would work together to complete that chakra. On a smaller level, take the character Sokka. His core personal chakra for the first 6 episodes (the ones I’ve seen so far) might look like this:

    Do Stupid/Stubborn Shit –> Be Humbled –> Stupidly Seek Revenge –> Be Humbled Again –> Swallow Your Pride and Learn a Key Lesson –> Demonstrate Your New Knowledge

Now there would be no fixed pace for you to work through such a chakra but the key characters would each work through at least a few stages of their core chakra per episode. The character that the episode focuses on would probably work through their entire personal chakra. And maybe the more chakra stages you worked through, the more the group as a whole would work through the larger game chakra. And there could be secondary chakras as well, for building up your martial arts or magical bending abilities or completing other side quests (“Discover what really happened to all the Airbenders”).

One of the neat things here, as with Keys, would be allowing for the development of personal and power/ability chakras. By which I mean not “progressing along the chakra” but “changing the way you move along the chakra,” swapping out one stage for another or rearranging the stages, for example. I’m hoping that, by the Second Season, Sokka will have ditched his need to be humbled twice before he learns anything, but who knows. He may keep the required humblings and change something else. And when it becomes possible for characters to learn new martial art or bending powers, those obviously get added to their respective chakras, so they can get invoked in subsequent play.

Anyways, yeah, welcome to a emerging area of design that’s beginning to gain real attention (heck, it even sorta snuck into Exalted: Second Edition) and the tools to match: character framing.

Things That Make You Go Hmm

2006 May 22

From Terra Nova, an incredibly awesome blog about MMORGs:

    Most virtual worlds we know are centered upon clusters of friends in a sea of strangers with whom we have little connection.

Sounds like life to me. Which is maybe part of the reason for the insularity stuff my brother was pondering here. As for me, I’m currently pondering the whole micro-clique, insider/outsider thingee and how it relates to forming communities of practice.

Terminology Change

2006 May 22

Instead of referring to my current design/play kick as “girlie hippy commie pinko roleplaying” (which Vincent objected to), I think I’m gonna switch to “new-age GM-disempowering crap gaming.” Thanks, Pundit.