Archive for January, 2007

Dead and Dreaming: The Beginning

2007 Jan 29

The storyteller representing the People of Dreams begins:

“Once there was a royal maiden, a princess of the great city Njaaluwe-in-Dreams. When she was a child, her dreams were playful phantasms, calliopes of sound, color, taste, and feeling. As a beautiful young woman, she was:

(choose one)

A. the Drifting Carnival of New Joys, which swept through the streets of the capitol like a flood in the rainy season, carrying off unsuspecting bystanders in a whirl of awkward adolescent pleasures.

B. the stilt-legged dream-beast Monolith, on whose multi-shouldered back were carried the raven-winged Ever-Restless Marauders, sky pirates of the city’s tallest towers.

C. [a sizable, impressive, fanciful thing of the storyteller’s choosing].

The princess was pledged to marry one of the most noble Keepers Of The Pattern, thus ensuring a continued relationship between Njaaluwe and the southern reaches. However…

There was also a humble craftsman, a dreamer of:

(choose one)

A. shoes such that your feet would rejoice to wear them.
B. cats, the most luxurious and graceful in the city.
C. candies, each more wonderous than the last.
D. [an artisinal object of the storyteller’s choice].

[Describe his wares.]

And so it came to pass that the craftsman and the princess cultivated a secret love and thought never to be seperated, one from another. They conducted the tryst of the age amidst Njaaluwe’s wildest revelers, the masquers being much too preoccupied with each other to object, and avoided the displeasure of the city’s most powerful dreamers.

But then the princess and the craftsman began to dream of a child, full of laughter and song, one that represented the best and worst of each of them. They did not speak of this hidden dream but each one treasured the concept in their hearts and so the child was concieved, the child that would bring woe them both.”

And here play begins in earnest.

Long Live the King

2007 Jan 25

We played White Wolf’s new strategy-larp-in-a-box, Long Live the King, at StoryGames Boston last night. I give it a fairly thorough review here.


2007 Jan 23

Hey, guess what?

Blogger now has comment feeds! Woohoo!

Telling Stories, Not Roleplaying

2007 Jan 22

When you tell the story of Red Ridinghood to, say, a classroom of young children, you have a fair amount of freedom to improvize the details but are constrained by storytelling traditions. There are a few crucial details:

– The girl protagonist wears a red riding hood
– Red is visiting grandma
– She meets a wolf
– She tells the wolf where grandma lives
– The wolf arrives before Red and eats grandma
– Red arrives
– “Oh what big eyes you have, etc.”
– Some resolution

Aside from that, there are many potentially important things that can be determined. Why does Red wear that hood? How did she come by it? Where does grandma live? Didn’t anyone tell her not to talk to strange wolves? How does the wolf get the info from Red? How does he get there before she does? Why doesn’t Red see through the wolf’s disguise? What about that thing with the woodsman and the part about filling the wolf’s belly full of rocks? Is that appropriate for young kids? Maybe even some of the important points above can be glossed over or ignored. If the story is already well known, sometimes you can make it more interesting by changing major aspects of it to make it new and exciting.

In any case, one of the opportunities and challenges of my recent approach to design is making games that are more like telling stories than roleplaying. When you tell stories, you already know the major incidents and characters that make up your narrative, even if your audience doesn’t. If I’m telling you about some guy that I saw trip over his own shoelaces and fall down a flight of stairs, you probably don’t “know the story,” but I certainly do. Still, that same story would be told differently by different storytellers and at different moments in time. What if I was the one who fell down the stairs? How would that affect the story? What if it was something that happened 5, 10, 25, 100, or 1000 years ago? How does that affect how the story is told?

I’ve been trying to bridge the differences between roleplaying and storytelling. I want to enable people to collaboratively tell stories together as if they were already familiar with what’s going to happen, at least in a general sense. I think surprise at the unknown, what Vincent talks about as the core of roleplaying, is neat. But I don’t think it’s central to the kinds of games I’m interested in designing.

[P.S. I do think surprise is an important aspect of storytelling, but it’s surprise at the details and how things come together, not at the major plot points. An act of storytelling, like a roleplaying session, is an instantiation of a larger tradition. Like Xu Wei says, “it’s new for every moment,” even if it’s a story you’ve heard a hundred times.]

My current struggle is in building a scene flowchart to outline one of the Four Nations stories. It’s pretty difficult but also really exciting. I can’t wait to show it to you.

Four Nations: Dead and Dreaming

2007 Jan 19

Shreyas let me “think at him” about the mini-game project that erupted out of Red Star White Sun and, unlike the other games described here recently, will actually be finished. Soon. I promise.

me: i’m still uncertain about this mini game i’m hoping to draft out this weekend
Shreyas: yeah
me: even whether i should try to make it about the 4N or just have it be about the Chinese civil war or the Lake Associations I just posted about
Shreyas: tell me about it
me: let me get some thoughts together
Shreyas: sure
me: so i have several problems
Shreyas: mhm
me: the first one is that i don’t know how ambitious to be with this mini-game; i think the answer is “not very” but i’m not sure what that means; for example, if you’ve looked at my Lake Association post, the premise includes the fact that one landscape (map) can look very differently to two different factions
Shreyas: yeah
me: which is something that 4N should be ALL OVER;,but I don’t know if I want to approach that yet; since my main task is showing this Key-map structure of narrative; so that’s problem #1
Shreyas: i want to say, like, waiting/tea has a good scale, in that it recaps two episodes and you play out a third
me: right, sure
Shreyas: i think if you can get the minigame to play out as about two episodes; then that would work
me: right; i was thinking about the other challanges of 4N too; one of the big ones is having a big cast with a limited number of players; and have a limited number of cast members in any given “story”; if we are going with the “batch of related tales” thing that Thomas proposed; so i was thinking that this mini-game would tell 3 related tales; telling the entire story of one character and bits and pieces of other characters stories
Shreyas: that would be interesting to see
me: which, if we wanted to, could be expanded to tell all of the other characters’ stories too, but that would be a later development; and i was thinking that the tales could be told in any order; both in the sense that some parts could be flashbacks, like in the Odyssey; or any epic fiction, really; but also that the events within them did not happen in any fixed moment in time
Shreyas: i’m not like a hundred percent behind the no fixed time thing, but i think it has some cool possibilities; it really opens up a lot of opportunities for cool structure things
me: okay, so actual 4N premise… I think it’s called “The Dead and Dreaming” after a line from the Counting Crows; and because those are the two peoples I know the most about
Shreyas: okay
me: the characters include a pair of unrequited lovers and a ghost-hunting dead monk; i think one of the lovers dies in a tragic accident, so they can never be together; but sticks around as a ghost, because he’s in denial
Shreyas: and this lover is like clinging on to love
me: and the monk must try to convince him to leave this world and return to the land of the dead
Shreyas: even though the dead are not allowed
me: right
Shreyas: cool
me: so there are neat possibilities here; 1) will the girl committ suicide to be with her love? 2) will the ghost kill her? 3) maybe someone arranged his death, which might not have been an accident?
Shreyas: and what will the monk do with all this
me: right
Shreyas: right
me: i also think those alive are dreamers
Shreyas: sounds cool
me: so their death removes things from the world; maybe important things; and they can’t see dreams anymore when they’re dead; i also think one of the stories takes place in the past of the dead monk, when he was alive or right after he died, talking about someone he had to leave behind; so that story comments on the other two
Shreyas: that’s a sweet detail
me: so we have like 1) Lovers Alive and Happy Together with Hints of Tragedy All Around, 2) One Lover is Dead and WHAT HAPPENS with the Monk, 3) Monk’s Past; and you can tell those three in any order you like
Shreyas: nod; and they’ll make sense in basically any order and each can comment on the others
me: sure, which is what i think we should strive for
Shreyas: agreed; that effect is the best part of 1001 nights
me: i think i need to fill in the landscape a bit; with the dreams of the lovers; but i think those need to be at least partially player-determined; so we’ll see; it would be easy to be like “the male lover’s dream is a location”…

Lake Associations

2007 Jan 19

History is cooler than fiction because there’s no way people could make this shit up. This is a mini-game waiting to happen:

“Massive flooding of the Yellow River in 1851 caused two lakes on the Jiangsu-Shandong border to overflow, submerging all the surrounding land on the western shores of the two lakes. The inhabitants of the area (Pei and Tongshan counties in northwest Jiangsu) fled en masse to escape the calamity.

“Four years later the Yellow River again burst its dikes, this time inflicting its greatest damage a few miles north of the previous flood. Inhabitants of the southern Shandong area were hardest hit, and disaster victims rushed down across the border by the hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in neighboring Jiangsu. There they found the abandoned lands that had been inundated in 1851, but which by now had partially dried into fertile silted terrain. The newcomers from Shandong erected shacks and industriously set about cultivated the unoccupied lands. Their hard work paid off and soon the immigrants were enjoying bountiful harvests. This prosperity was reflected in the organization of twelve defense leagues, called lake associations [hutuan], to protect their newfound wealth. With official approval, the settlers constructed forts and stockpiled weapons to safeguard their livelihood against outside intrusion. The immigrants successfully fought off waves of rebel incursions and remained happily settled in their new homes for nearly a decade.

“At this point, however, former inhabitants of the region who had fled the 1851 floods began to reappear on the scene. Seeing that their now fertile lands had been claimed by others, the returned natives filed indignant complaints with the local authorities. When no official help was forthcoming, fighting erupted between the original occupants and the immigrant lake associations. The conflict escalated in late 1865 with an incursion of Nian rebels from Anhui, who found supporters among unruly elements in the hutuan. The area was on the verge of revolt, and order was restored only when government troops marched in to arrest and execute more than one thousand lake association members. Two hutuan found guilty of having harbored rebels were disbanded and their lands confiscated by the government and redistributed to the original owners.”

— Elizabeth J. Perry, “Predators and Protectors: Strategies of Peasant Survival” in Challanging the Mandate of Heaven: Social Protest and State Power in China (2002)

The Future Arrives Without You

2007 Jan 18

In the last year or so, Ron Edwards (co-founder of The Forge and all-around indie game publishing icon) has begun, on occasion, getting up on a soapbox and reminding all us whipper-snappers that he did a lot of this stuff first. Indie roleplaying has become a multi-limbed octopus spreading uncontrolled far beyond the influence of Ron and his games. Many people continue to play and praise Sorcerer and Trollbabe, but I think it’s fair to say that Ron no longer represents the “cutting edge” of indie game design, whether you define that as the area of design where all the excitement currently rages or the area exploring new new ways of doing new new things. His most recent game, It Was A Mutual Decision, is pretty neat (as long as you like were-rats), but not especially groundbreaking in the way some of his previous games were. There’s a good chance that Ron, with his steel-trap mind, will one day rock the boat again, but I suspect that it’s more likely to be in terms of the social or commercial make-up of roleplaying, rather than when it comes to play or design. He could prove me wrong, though.

In any case, Ron is constantly on my mind these days when I see threads like this one or that one. The future I imagined for roleplaying is arriving. And, in many ways, it is arriving without me having done that much to help it along. I’ve written a few short games, true, and shared my thoughts with people (though I never really felt like that many people were interested), but my desire to drop a bomb on roleplaying, to produce a stunning game that changed the way people thought about the medium, never materialized in reality. Some of that is simply the naivety of youth that I need to give up, wanting to change the world and all that. And some of it is an adolescent desire for attention and to be valued and respected. And some of it is frustration that I have not written a minor opus. My Sorcerer, my My Life, my Witch, Dogs, Roach, or Carry has not been written yet.

But I’m beginning to come to grips with the idea that the future always arrives without you. No one can make the future happen. It just happens. You are a participant in it, not its agent. And I do feel like a participant or even more than that, a flag-bearer. I’m not leading the change necessarily, but I try to embody the cause. Push is a way to chronicle the transformation of this hobby as it diversifies and combines with related media. My short games mark out areas of design and play as they are uncovered. And, eventually, more extensively developed games (though not necessarily longer ones) may stake out a claim within these exciting new lands that we’ve uncovered.

As a matter of fact, this is a better way to go about this that building a city on a hill, a light amid the darkness. The games that I have found to be truly visionary — Continuum, Nobilis, Mridangam, Lexicon — sometimes seem less accessible to folks without a more familiar context around them. Now, with all of us pushing out together, after having built a shared vocabulary by playing and working on a similar set of games, we will advance towards the future together, as a community. And you can’t beat that with a stick.

Four Nations: Teleconference Summary

2007 Jan 14

Selene was traveling this week, but we started up the bimonthly Four Nations teleconferences again, to get this project back on track after several months of nothing happening. It was probably the most productive conversation we’ve ever had too, even with just Thomas and Shreyas. I think the months off gave us a chance to think independently about the project and which aspects we really care about.

Four general themes emerged:

1) We want Four Nations to have tricked out player interface. Shreyas compared it to what the Wii has done in video game interfaces. The actual things players do in game and the manner in which they do them should be intentionally constructed to efficiently accomplish the things we want to have happen in play.

2) We want to use props or other elements to create a visual representation of what has occurred, is occurring, and will occur in play. I compared it to Shadows Over Camelot, where the board is constantly adjusted to represent the developing situation. Passersby should be able to watch or glance at the game in progress and get a good sense of what has happened, what is happening, and what might happen soon.

3) We are committed to structuring play as a series of stories that can be told in an order chosen by the players, based on four booklets that map out how each player approaches the game. There is the possibility that maps or other components may be added as we build the interface described previously.

4) We are interested in exploring ways that the narrative and setting components of play can be given a pre-determined structure without forcing players down specific paths or to embrace content that doesn’t excite them. One way is to give players a limited number of interesting choices at any given moment and have choices lead, in turn, to other interesting choices (instead of more open ended lists of options, like the loresheets in Weapons of the Gods).

We also spent some time worrying about components and whether this is going to be an real commercial project or limited series game (like untitled) or a hand-crafted game that we make a few copies of to play with our friends. But we decided that didn’t really need to be determined right now, though we need to keep those different options in mind.

We also talked about the need to develop “proof of concept” for each of the components that we’re interested in using in this project. We talked about the idea of writing a series of micro-games on the way to creating Four Nations, to develop pieces of the eventual puzzle and try ideas out before we settled on them.

As such, we each chose a project for the next couple weeks:

1) Thomas is going to work on a sketchy mock-up of one or more of the booklets that each player will use.

2) Shreyas is going to play with maps as one possible component of the interface and see what some different ways of using them might entail.

3) I’m going to try to develop a working example of the “narrative seed web” I was pondering for Red Star White Sun, either by finishing that micro-game or doing a similar one based on the Four Nations concept.


GenCon is On

2007 Jan 8

Ron dropped the hammer. I couldn’t be more excited. I was suggesting that we go all diaspora on GenCon and now it looks like we have to. Rock on!

No plans as of yet but lots of options. Possibilities:

1. Let the Forge/IPR booth sell Push and any other games. Don’t get a seperate booth. Run my games, both as events and at “Games on Demand.”

2. As an add-on to the first, allow Push contributors to sell copies of Push at their booths for a cut of the profits.

3. Organize a booth or some other crazy conglomerate with which to pimp our wares.

4. Some wacky, non-traditional plan that defies common sense but sounds like a lot of fun.

Push 2 Getting on Track

2007 Jan 3

The Push forums are starting to come alive with the planning of volume 2. If you’ve read some or all of the first volume, I’d love to get some feedback in this thread so we know how to keep getting better. And feel free to check out the rest of the forum too, to see what we’re planning for the next time around.