Archive for February, 2009

I Will Not Abandon Y’all

2009 Feb 3

Yes, that’s the plural form of “I Will Not Abandon You,” unless you’re from NY/NJ and it’s “I Will Not Abandon Youse.” Eric and I were chatting about how IWNAY is implemented pretty differently outside of the normal Nar / Jeep / immersion / high drama contexts that you normally see it discussed in. For example:

  • In an IWNAY Nar context, I might turn to Eric and say, “Okay, so we should probably play out the scene in which we smother the baby,” and Eric has to be there for me and support me through doing that scene;
  • In an IWNAY Gam context, if Eric is staying near the back of the battle map where I can’t get him and throwing javelins at me over and over again, it’s my job to figure out a way to stop him, not to whine that it’s “not fair” or quit in protest; and
  • In a IWNAY Sim context, if the group arrives in the same farmstead that we visited 23 sessions ago, I should pull out the same map that we used them, with a few small changes illustrating that, say, the wheat has been harvested and the chaff has been bound into bundles, and the pig isn’t here because he’s been slaughtered and smoked for the winter.

To do otherwise is to betray your companions and the IWNAY social contract. It also points, I think to the dramatic differences that can exist within a single one of Ron’s creative agendas. John Harper may have written Agon, but is he ready to play it IWNAY Gam style with Eric? Probably not.

Oracles: Piecing Out Content

2009 Feb 3

Shreyas is talking about the weaknesses he perceives in setting material derived from oracles (along with a bunch of other cool folks, check the comments). The discussion is going in multiple different directions there, so here’s my response:

Oracles are, I agree, an imperfect method of generating a deep, vivid setting. You get these little snippets semi-randomly and are supposed to assemble them into a whole. If the setting ends up being any good, it’s probably because 1) the little snippets were good to begin with or 2) the stuff you can up with on your own, to connect the snippets together, was really good. But if there’s depth or real life in the setting, it’s something the group inserted into it, because the little snippets themselves don’t really give that to you. Even if you’re talking about Simon’s culture-generation thing that we used for HBC (which is basically an oracle), the power of it comes in the players implementation of the snippets, not the snippets themselves. So oracles are basically like, “Here are these interesting tidbits; make a setting,” and if you don’t really know how to make an interesting setting, they don’t help you that much.

However, and here’s my main issue with the discussion so far, I don’t think oracles are intended primarily to be a setting generation method (though it’s possible that folks are using it as such). I think oracles should be primarily thought of as a way to bring setting content to the table, which I see as the far more difficult aspect of setting. Sure, generating setting material that is good is no simple task. Most of the setting stuff you see is cliched or overblown. But, even assuming you have setting material that is good, the much more difficult part is figuring out when and how to bring it into play. Oracles are helpful in this regard because they break down setting material into snippets and apportion them out to players in manageable amounts, instead of giving you 20+ pages of setting material and no instructions on which bits to start with. An oracle might tell you that this session, this scene, or this character is dealing with issues XYZ and, boom, you’re ready to go.

The weakness, as folks have pointed out, is that oracles — at least as they have been implemented so far — are rather indiscriminate about which bits to give you next. There’s not a natural progression from one snippet to another or a way for the oracle to sense what you’ve already done and generate a snippet that is appropriate for your needs. So there is this sense of getting a whirlwind, surface-level tour of a setting, jumping from bit to bit without exploring any of them especially deeply. In order for an oracle to really have real depth, it would have to be multi-layered and massive in scope, probably too massive for it to be elegant to use.

I think complaining about the weaknesses of oracles is mostly useful as a way of pushing for more tools that help people implement setting at the table. Oracles were definitely a major step forward in this regard, as the acclaim shown to In A Wicked Age and Simon’s cultural differences oracle indicate. Personally, as a designer and player I was like, “Wow, this just made my job a lot easier and less stressful.” Oracles are much more empowering, in this way, than any 20 pages of setting description. However, yes, there should definitely be many other tools for helping folks implement setting or other bits of pre-determined content at the table.

Thing That Hit Me on the Subway

2009 Feb 2

So you have one stack of cards that’s labeled “complications” on the back. On the fronts of the cards (there are at least 30 of these, maybe more) are listed things like:

  • Unprepared: You lack something that you need.
  • It’s Locked: Your access is forcibly barred.
  • I Don’t Think So: Someone important is unconvinced.
  • It’s a Trap: Someone set you up.
  • Your Mistake: You did something wrong.

Whenever you face a mundane obstacle in the game, you or one of the other players should draw one or more cards from the complications deck (more cards for a tougher obstacle) and narrate them into the current situation. Complications that you draw and narrate can be overcome, but not in this scene. Place the complication in front of you to remind yourself, discarding it in a later scene when and if you overcome the obstacle. Complications that other players draw and narrate can be overcome in the same scene, but only once you’ve satisfied the narrator of the obstacle.

There’s also another set of cards, which for simplicity’s sake I’ll call “monster cards.” Monster cards come in sets of multiple cards, with each set representing the various complications that a single monster creates. Once the group decides that a monster has appeared, it places the set of cards for that monster on the table and also draws a number of mundane complication cards. Perhaps the number of mundane complications is listed on the back of the monster cards or, even, when you draw a monster card it tells you to additionally draw 0-2 mundane complications. The monster card descriptions are much more vivid and less general than the mundane complication cards. For example:

Kayongo (Card #3 of 6)
Kayongo is a the spirit of an ancestor who was gifted with the power of divination. Twisted by dark science, Kayong blast a horrid vision of the future into the mind of the target character.

Monster cards are implemented in play just like mundane complications, but with their associated mundane complications occurring when the target character attempts to overcome the monster card. For example, if my character screamed and shook his head frantically in an effort to clear the vision from his mind, he might draw the complication “It’s Locked,” which could be interpreted to mean that he’s stuck seeing the vision until someone figures out how to stop it. Or, if my character had tried to fire his gun at the monster, maybe it jams.

There’s also probably room for “monster” style complications that aren’t monsters, but since I was pondering this in relation to Mwaantaangaand, that’s what came to mind first. On the whole though, this seems like the makings of a pretty cool diceless, GMless, pacing-based, low impact system.

Thinking Smaller About Design

2009 Feb 2

Over on the College of Mythic Cartography (which you should be reading, if you aren’t), Willem’s wondering — as I have in the past — why really short, dead simple, elegant games aren’t popular as a viable publication form. Recently there have been a host of these created as non-commercial and generally unplaytested drafts (as “roleplaying poems” or contest games) but none of them have been yet released as final or commercial products. The closest ones I can think of are Kevin’s Primitive, Meg’s 1001 Nights, Ben’s XXXtreme Street Luge.

It’s honestly a bit perplexing. I mean, the entry bar for publishing an indie RPG has been set artificially high in many ways. Why not whip one of these 10-page contest games out, playtest and edit the hell out of it until its a streamlined beast of a game, and publish it as a little booklet? Why start with something much more mechanically dense and textually complicated to make? But people seem to inevitably drift towards games that are about as big and difficult as the games that inspired them to design a game in the first place, whether D&D or Dogs in the Vineyard.

This totally applies to myself as well, as I seem to have this kind of mental barrier in place that has prevented me from finishing any games. A significant chunk of that barrier has to do with my preconceived notion of what a ‘real game’ looks like and the hoops I have to jump through before I can publish one. For example, the rules for Transantiago could fit on a single sheet of paper. So why haven’t I published it by now? I have at least a half-dozen games that are 50-75% finished, but I’ve been sitting on them partially because I have the (insane) desire to turn them into fifty-page booklets instead of 10 page booklets.

When it comes down to it, I definitely think the Cheap Ass Games model could be applied very successfully to RPGs. The true genius of Cheap Ass products was not just that they were inexpensive and assumed you had dice, counters, etc. at home to use, but because the rules were short, dead simple, elegant and — at least in the games that I played — thoroughly playtested and fun.

Hopefully Willem has just inspired me to finish a few things.

Priority Reordering

2009 Feb 2

Since I missed the deadline for Jared’s contest, I’m gonna put off finishing up Last Days of Old Macau until the final edits of Mortal Coil Revised are off to Brennan and Murderland reviews are all posted. Still trying to keep my New Year’s Resolution to finish things I’ve started. As always, my priority list is being kept on the left side of my blog, as a reminder.