Archive for March 2nd, 2007

Push 2 Cover: Evil Owl

2007 Mar 2

Bethany Culp has tentatively signed on to do the cover for Push 2. The cover will depict a caput bubonis, an formerly good owl who has turned to evil and taken over a human body specifically for the purpose of meddling with the symbolic contents of a memory palace. Yes, like the last cover, this cover’s content comes from an experimental short-form game, in this case Eero Tuovinen’s Ludus Repotiorum, a roleplaying game based on the ars memoriae.

I’m mostly posting this here so the Push 2 contributors can discuss it, but I thought I’d share with you folks as well. Enjoy!

Retro: Red Star, White Sun

2007 Mar 2

This game existed for all of two posts before it turned into something else. That’s pretty typical, I suppose, since I’m so ADD when it comes to design. But the idea is hot!

This was my third attempt at something for Frank T’s setting contest, the first one being a version of Folkways based on Clinton’s The Shadow of Yesterday and the second, Gridiron Gods. Red Star, White Sun eventually turned into Dead and Dreaming, a mini-game that was trying to prove the validity of some design ideas I had for Four Nations. Lord, these introductions are self-referential.

The basic premise is:

    There are four people from the same village, two men and two women. They have pre-established relationships. Maybe they’re married or siblings or lovers or relatives of some kind. And the Nationalists come through and draft the two men to fight on their side. And then, months later, the Communists roll through and draft the women into their Female Soldiers Detachment.

    And, eventually, both sides learn of this and are sorta trying to rescue each other, despite being on opposite sides. And the game ends with some sort of dramatic showdown where several of the characters probably die in trainwreck heartbreak fashion. And the ending moment is the announcement of the Second United Front, which means the Nationalists and Communists are going to work together to fight the Japanese.

The most interesting thing about the game, in my mind, is the system, which I described like this:

    Each player has a list of what are basically scene concepts. And these concepts are arranged in trees. And the trees interconnect with each other and are conditional with related scenes and the like. But there are clearly branches of the trees that share similar themes or plot certain paths. Like, maybe there’s a branch where one of the women is pregnant and there’s all sorts of complications related to that. Or maybe one character becomes a spy for the opposite side or the Japanese and that leads to all sorts of things. But then what if she’s a PREGNANT SPY! Then there are all sorts of possibilities in the middle that interconnect them.

    And you don’t have to head down any particular path. you can sort of work partway down one branch and fork off to the side. Or you could do a little bit of several branches. So there are a limited number of options, but near infinite combinations, especially when you’re playing with all four characters. And so the scenes are sorta like Keys. You do one and that opens up future possibilities. but it also puts limitations on things or maybe gives you abilities or takes abilities away. So there could be like a Sniper branch that you progress down to increase your skills as a sniper. But it requires bad things to happen along the way. Or just things that are not necessarily good.

I tried to implement this kind of rules structure in Dead and Dreaming, but stumbled across quite a few problems. But I’ll talk about those once I get around to writing a post about that project.

– 2006 Dec 24: Initial Discussion of the Concept
– 2006 Dec 26: Logo and Some Thoughts

Retro: Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan

2007 Mar 2

This is yet another game that is Shreyas’ fault. For some inexplicable reason, he challenged a bunch of people to design games based on the concept “lesbianstripperninja.” This is my attempt. Annie Rush’s game, House of Horiku, is another.

Kazekami Kyoko is probably the most well known of my games, aside from maybe Seadog Tuxedo, probably because I talk about it all the time. It’s not the be-all and end-all of my design skills, but it’s where I felt I finally came into my own as a designer and designed a game that doesn’t play like anything else. Still, as I’ve mentioned before, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s influences:

    The dirty secret of KKKKK is that it’s just James Wallis’ The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in which player/characters brag about their impressive feats. The only difference is that the game is structured as a dialogue instead of a monologue. The basic structure is:

    A: I did X! Aren’t I awesome?
    B: Verily! But what about Y?
    A: I accomplished Y in this fashion! What do you think of that?
    B: Impressive! And Z?

Now, it’s made slightly more complicated than that by the alternative response formats, but that’s a pretty decent summery nonetheless.

Recently, I’ve been discussing the content of the game with folks. The original premise went like this:

    Kyoko is a wind spirit, a kazekami. She is also a ninja. She is not a princess, as Kublai Khan thought before Kyoko stabbed him in the gut. He was trying to be amorous with his newest concubine. She was trying to prevent the Mongol invasion of Japan. As Kublai dies, the kazekami torments her husband by recounting how she has managed to seduce scores of his rare and beautiful wives…

Now, this sounds really awesome and sexy. But Kyoko tends to treat Kublai’s wives just like scenery or tools, which is not as feminist as the premise might initially suggest. It’s basically a very masculine fantasy about being totally dominated by a powerful women who, to make things worse, is busy telling you how she did the deed with a bunch of other hot women. So, yeah. Can’t really make excuses for that. It’s just one big giant sex-capade.

In any case, I tend to think the game has more redeeming qualities than flaws. It was an early effort to find my own design style and, in that sense, it succeeded specularly. I’d like to play more of it so I get a better sense of how I could polish it up.

– 2006 Jan 11: Shreyas Announces the Lesbianstripperninja Contest
– 2006 Jan 18: My Original Draft of the Game
– 2006 Feb 13: Transcript of Initial Playtest with Thomas
– 2006 Feb 23: I Discuss KKKKK in Relation to My Other Two-Player Games
– 2007 Feb 14: Ashi and I Discuss Flirting as a Model for Game Design
– 2007 Mar 07: Mo and Brand Comment on the Game

Retro: Heavenly Kingdoms

2007 Mar 2

Hey, check it out, a game that’s actually finished!

The Chinese title is Jiuzui de Tianguo (Drunken Heavenly Kingdoms), a play on the Teresa Teng song — which everybody and his brother has covered — Jiuzui de Tangou (Drunken Tango). It’s the first two player game I wrote, for Game Chef 2004, but I broke one of the rules and also didn’t turn the game in on time, so it was never a contender. As a two player game, though, it’s definitely inspired by the work of Emily Care Boss (Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon) and Ben Lehman (Polaris), and went on to inspire Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan, Waiting/Tea, and my current project, The Untimely Death of Christopher Marlowe (which may or may not be the same game as While You’re Far Away).

The premise of the game is that two brothers have smuggled forbidden wine into the capital of the pseudo-Christian Taiping rebels, who don’t drink and don’t want anyone else to either. Security is getting harsh and their only way out is to drink their entire stores to dispose of the evidence against them. While they are totally plastered, one brother drops dozens of strips of parchment on which are written stanzas of this very long poem explaining Taiping religious doctrine. The brothers then take turns placing the stanzas back in “the obviously correct order” and explain away any new discrepancies in the poem.

Basically, it’s a game of drunken story construction, similar to Once Upon a Time, but based on full stanzas of text instead of just individual locations, characters, or themes.

There was some tacked-on ideas at the end about giving each brother a slightly different personality and having them push for a different tone to the story (maybe unconsciously inspired by the Ever After cards in Once Upon a Time), but that never really matured into something really interesting. I came back to the idea of “different players, different rules” in Kazekami Kyoko though, and nailed it much better.

The full rules text is available online, linked below.

– 2005 Aug 10: The Game of Drunken Taiping Exegesis

Epic Structure: Wandering Spotlight

2007 Mar 2

As part of a book club for work (don’t ask), I’m reading Pearl Buck’s out-of-print translation of Shuihu Zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh, The Water Margin), which she arbitrarily decided to call All Men Are Brothers. It’s a 700-page, illustrated tome of awesomeness. But what I’m concerned with here is the structure of the narrative, which is something that I don’t think roleplaying knows how to handle very well.

Unlike the One Thousand Nights and a Night, the Shuihu Zhuan has no frame story on both ends. It does, however, begin with a tale very much like “Pandora’s Box,” in which the arrogant Commander Hong frees an entire horde of evil spirits out into the world. Each of these spirits, as we’ll discover later on, represents one of the main outlaws of the epic. The characters are loosed from their cage in order that the might perform their story for us. This is interesting, but not the part I want to dwell on.

Let’s talk about the first 2 chapters and the prologue. Like all Chinese epics of this period, each chapter has a title in two parts, each part describing one of the main plot points of that chapter. In Buck’s translations these are given as:

1. Chang, the Heavenly King, Chief of the Taoists, beseeches the Gods to drive away the evil flux.
2. The Commander Hung, in heedlessness, frees the spirits.

1. Wang the Chief Instructor goes secretly to Yien An Fu.
2. The Nine Dragoned makes a mighty turmoil at the Village of the Shih Family.

1. Shih Chin escapes by night from Hua Ying.
2. Captain Lu kills the bully of Kuangsi with his fists.

Simple enough, right? Okay, now watch who the central character of the narrative is as the story progresses.

1. Ch’en Tu, a Taoist hermit
2. Emperor Jen Chung
3. Commander Hung
4. Kao Ch’iu, a peasant who becomes a lord
5. Wang Ching, the head instructor
6. The two guards
7. Wang Ching
8. Shih Chin, a local thug
9. The Robber Chiefs
10. Shih Chin
11. The Robber Chiefs
12. Wang Shih, a servant
13. Shih Chin
14. Shin Chin
15. Lu Ta, a captain
16. Old Man Chin
17. Lu Ta
18. The people reacting to the butcher’s death.
19. Chief Wang and others
20. Lu Ta

What you have is a “rolling cast.” The story does not tarry overly long on any particular character, rather, it moves constantly, inventing minor characters and, just as easily, abandoning them as soon as they stop being the focus of the most interesting action. BUT! While it is focused on the two guards, those guards are the most interesting characters in the story, despite the fact that we’ll never see them again in the entire epic.

Also, note how there’s an overall sense of progress, how the characters slowly roll over and let new characters step to the front. The narrative spotlight is not going back and forth between several major characters (which is what roleplaying usually does). It does hover for a time around Wang Ching, Shi Chin, and Lu Ta, but you know eventually it will move on to other characters. Perhaps earlier characters will make appearances later on, possibly even be the spotlight character for a while, but the narrative is always looking for “new hosts.”

Also, look at the wide range of social positions among the characters. We have emperors and sages and we have average thugs. And the narrative flows easily back and forth between them, making no real distinction when it comes to deciding “where the interesting action is.” The plight of the local people is just as important as affairs of state or the emperor’s personal life.

Anyway, this is something I’m hoping we can try to emulate, possibly in a modified form in the Exalted hack. And more extensively in Four Nations.

Retro: Avatar, the Last Airbender

2007 Mar 2

Shreyas got me hooked on the Nickelodeon kids’ show, Avatar: the Last Airbender, which has surprisingly nuanced character development, a rich setting, and features real Chinese martial arts.

Once I began thinking about non-commercial roleplaying and writing games that were more along the lines of fan-fiction, Avatar seemed like an obvious thing to start with. I could spend time writing a game that would never be published commercially, but would still potentially be supported by a sizable fan community.

Along the way, a bunch of neat things developed:

One was the “chakra/dial” concept, which allows scenes to be framed according to a cyclical pattern which individual characters or the game as a whole moves through.

One was the importance of naming and re-naming things. In this case, scenes are named before they are played out and renamed afterwards. Likewise, in the process of character development, you name what you are trying to achieve and then, after you progress a ways, you must rename your original declaration in order for it to become a trait. In this way, you never achieve exactly what you set out to find. You always find something different, whether slightly or completely different.

Shreyas, Thomas, and I played the game at GenCon (Selene watched and gave feedback) to great success. But it was hard to tell whether it felt so much like the show because we, as players, injected that feel into the game (in a very Primetime Adventures way) or if the game actually encouraged that.

Most of the neat mechanical aspects of the Avatar game are now being fleshed out in greater detail in the Exalted hack and in Four Nations.

Recently, Shreyas ran a simplified version of the game on IRC, using just the dial and renaming traits. It also did pretty well.

– 2006 May 23: Character Framing and the Last Airbender
– 2006 May 25: Avatar Development Arcs
– 2006 May 26: Basic Character Arc Mechanics
– 2006 May 28: Avatar Character Sheet
– 2006 May 31: Traits as Keys, Dharma Paths
– 2006 Aug 30: Initial GenCon Playtest Report
– 2007 Feb 13: Shreyas Runs Avatar on IRC

Retro: Cue the Music

2007 Mar 2

This game is a bizarre gem of a concept was inspired by Shreyas’ Mridangam. The question that led to Mridangam, which Rich Forest and I first discussed in Hong Kong, is “what if roleplaying emerged from something other than the wargaming tradition?” In Cue the Music, roleplaying evolved from improvisational music theater forms.

The players improvise lyrics, melodies, and vocal harmony on top of instrumental music that they all know (and, ideally, is performed live by musicians who may or may not also be players). I suppose, if you have musicians who are comfortable with the idea, they could improvise as well.

I think there’s a ton of potential in explicitly using music and singing as part of game design, as recently demonstrated by Graham’s rock karaoke game concept. It’s just a matter of someone putting the right package together.

– 2005 Feb 26: Original Livejournal Post