Archive for February 8th, 2008

High Fidelity

2008 Feb 8

Jason Morningstar asked me why textual fidelity was one of my main goals for the Water Margin hack. I see it as a variation on the historical fidelity in Jason’s games, actually, and was planning on talking about that in the game’s introduction. Just like how Grey Ranks and Night Witches educate people about under-appreciated historical events, I hope the Water Margin hack can help educate people about one of the classics of non-Western literature, something most people will never actually read (partially because it’s hard to find good translations in most bookstores).

For example, in the Water Margin hack, you play a group of fixed characters who don’t change mechanically over the course of up to 70 sessions of play. Instead of the characters changing, you just change which characters you’re playing between sessions. That’s very different from most of the stories modeled in roleplaying games, where creating your character and watching them develop mechanically over the course of play is the fundamental goal in most cases. But these characteristics of the game are directly derived from my subjective literary analysis of the original text and the way it is used in different parts of Chinese society (in opera or Yangzhou storytelling, for example).

My goals for this game are different than say, Meg Bakers’s goals for 1001 Nights. Meg wants you to create stories that are similar to those in Alf Layla wa-Layla, but relies on your knowledge of that text, gained vicariously in most cases, from various pastiches of it in Western culture. I can’t do that because hardly anyone knows the Water Margin in the West, not even enough to pastiche it. So part of what I have to do through the game’s text — and, even more, through the rules and structure of the game — is educate people about the Water Margin tradition and create guidelines that enable them to create what is basically Water Margin fanfic without actually having any familiarity with the Water Margin.

That is a difficult task! In playtesting my Avatar: The Last Airbender game, I found that it tended to fall apart or at least stop feeling much like Avatar if I had more than one player in the group who was not a somewhat dedicated fan of the TV show. I am much more confident that I will be able to avoid that problem with this game, but I’m still a bit worried, honestly. There are all these unstated implications of playing one of the 108 bravos and I’m not sure how to communicate them.

For example, the bravos do kill people, but only very rarely (it happens three times in the first 25 chapters), after demonstrating their anger and giving their opponent a chance to back down or submit. Only people stubborn enough to stand up to a bandit chieftain get killed, and generally these are stupid or arrogant local thugs that seem to “deserve it” (though, adulterous wives of the bravos are also numbered among the dead). How do I ensure that some players won’t simply walk around maiming people because “You said they were bandits and robbers, Jonathan”? I’m still working on that.

But I don’t want to make a game that’s “kinda like the Water Margin, if you squint.” That might be fun for laughs and a good time, but I also have a few more serious goals in mind, including the kinds of goals that you might find in game like Grey Ranks or Night Witches. I do want to communicate the awesomeness of this text to people and I want them to revel in it, not revel in something that is somewhat like it in some respects. I want people to go, “Wow, that Lin Chong is something else!”

EDIT: That last paragraph is not meant as a criticism of 1001 Nights, though I realize it could be read that way. Textual fidelity was not one of Meg’s goals for the game, which was a bit disappointing for me when I found that out, but it’s not a fair measurement to judge her game by, because it is quite excellent at fulfilling her own goals. Once I got over myself, I was able to enjoy 1001 Nights for what it is, instead of what I had hoped it would be. Above, I was simply talking about Water Margin in comparison to other games that aim to emulate a specific text (Star Wars, and, um… The Kevin & Kell Roleplaying Game), but end up creating something somewhat like it instead.