Archive for September, 2010

How to Make a Game

2010 Sep 26

Chris Chinn shows once again why he writes one of the best RPG blogs on the internet. Check it out.

Keeping Records

2010 Sep 23

This came to me in the shower this morning.

When you GM Ghost Opera, your role is primarily that of a record keeper. You consult the fiction and tell the players what is happening, beyond what their characters do. As in AW, you do this by doing what your prep and the fiction demands, but also by being true to the records kept — both descriptive and karmic — from previous play.

However, you keep and recite records in Ghost Opera at several different levels. The GM’s role is not singular but plural, acting as several different record keepers with different priorities.

The primary and starting GM role is that of the immediate Ancestors of the family, who track all the internal squabbles and issues between kinfolk. If you do not listen to your mother or try to bully your older sibling, the Ancestors are the ones who track such things and recite the troubles that inevitably result.

All problem are local and, consequently, the second level at which record keeping occurs is that of the Shaman, the locus of political and spiritual power at the village or town level. If you are digging a copper mine and angering local spirits or if you attempt to marry someone from the same village, the Shaman tracks the karmic processes that result in eventually restoring balance.

The next level up is that of the Official (need better term), who in Shang times is really a military governor and also a shaman in their own right. Fu Hao is really my model of a shaman-warrior-official, though she’s clear a standout badass. Officials oversee a number of villages and towns and if your group of bandits is terrorizing the countryside or if a local problem gets bumped up to a higher level, they are the ones who record the events and make the appropriate response.

Higher than all the officials is, of course, the Royal Court, including the Shaman-King of the Shang as well as his family and the entire entourage of royal diviners. They record anything that happens that rises to the attention of those in the capital and note the resulting actions that occur.

And above the Royal Court are the Royal Ancestors, including the Ten Suns and, ultimately, the Lord On High, who tracks everything in the mortal world that rises to his attention, which — considering he has the earthly bureaucracy to deal with most things, isn’t actually all that much. But if things are rotten in the court or the king is incapable of making the lower levels of the bureaucracy function properly, the Royal Ancestors made due note of that and record, as well, the karmic retribution that results.

Generally, when GMing, you start at the lowest level possible when recording events. However, if a problem bumps up from one level to the next, at the end of the scene, you switch hats and record events at the next level up. So if you have a scene with a local bandit raid while recording at the village (Shaman) level, after that you should have a scene at the regional (Official) level, showing the ramifications of banditry throughout the region. The players can have multiple characters that operate on different levels or, more likely, a character that crosses levels, since every person is a member of a family, from a village, dwells in a region, the subject of the king, and lives and dies under the Ten Suns.

Deterministic Resolution Example

2010 Sep 22

Had to get this down before I forget.

Jonathan and John are playing Ghost Opera. Jonathan is the GM. John’s character has just discovered that the local village shaman — his uncle and the man who has taught him the ways of the spirits — has been fucking with the spirit world in horrible ways.

Jonathan: So you come across the shaman amidst the half-flooded temple. He’s dressed head-to-toe in these ritual robes made from bamboo and river rushes, acting as the Huai River Dragon. He’s holding a ritual knife and stabbing a rabbit on an alter while chanting into the burning incense.

John: I come up behind him, wrest the knife from him, and stab him to death.

Jonathan: Awesome! There are a few obstacles in your way, which you have to overcome to accomplish that. First, the shaman is crafty and paranoid. He might be able to hear you coming up on him.

John: No, he totally doesn’t. I’m a master hunter and silent as death. [John’s invoking the “I’m just better at this” clause, one of several ways to overcome an obstacle].

Jonathan: Cool. Can you write down “Silent as Death” on your sheet, as one of your new descriptors? I’m going to mark down that you were quiet enough to sneak up on paranoid old men.

John: Done. What are the other obstacles?

Jonathan: Well, since he’s your shaman, your uncle, and your teacher, I think he’s going to triple-invoke hierarchy on you.

John: That’s cool, but he has to actually do that, right? It’s not just some passive defense.

Jonathan: Sure, well, let’s let it play out and we’ll see if he’s able to do that. So how do you wrest the dagger from him, now that you’ve snuck up on him, silent as death?

John: Hmm, yeah. I think I leave his hand on the dagger and just twist his wrist around — probably breaking it in the process, since he’s an old man — and plunge it into his chest while holding tight onto his shoulder so he can’t turn around.

Jonathan: He screams in pain at his broken wrist and you hear this sucking sound as the dagger sinks between his ribs into a lung. Blood and spit burst from his lips as he gasps, “You piece of shit! I taught you everything you know! This is how you repay me!” He’s invoking his role as your master.

John: Yeah, nothing doing. I pull the dagger out and stab him again.

Jonathan: Okay, that’s one mark of breaking the Great Chain of Being. He moans and then starts speaking to you softly under his breath. Calling you by the childhood names that only close members of your family know.

John: Okay, that makes me pause for a moment, but then I viciously stab him a few more times, to try to make him be quiet.

Jonathan: And that’s another mark of violation. Finally, when he’s lying at your feet, all the blood draining out of him and billowing out in the six inches of water, he invokes the wrath of the spirits on you, for killing the shaman charged with protecting these lands.

John: He should have thought of that before he abandoned his responsibilities and screwed the spirits over. I kick his dying body down the steps of the temple and into the boggy marsh around it.

Jonathan: And that’s the third mark. The shaman’s body bobs and drifts away for a moment before sinking beneath the waters with a final gurgle.

John: Cool. Seems like end of scene, yeah?


2010 Sep 22

Man, reading all these games makes me want to work on design again (specifically, on Ghost Opera).

You cats are awesome.

On Game Descriptions

2010 Sep 19

One minor frustration from Game Chef this year. The vast majority of submitters are apparently incapable of following directions and submitting a short description of their game. Originally it was supposed to be 140 character or less (a Tweet), but everyone ignored it, so I went to 250. Still, most descriptions now are 260-290 and I’m emailing everyone with descriptions over 300 characters and telling them to cut them down.

Really, folks, this is YOUR LOSS. Being able to pitch your game in a couple of sentences is a CRUCIAL SKILL, even if you’re just pitching it to folks at your local game meetup or Games On Demand and don’t go on to develop your game commercially. If you can’t describe your game in 140 characters, you’ve already lost most of your audience.

Game Chef 2010: Midpoint Thoughts

2010 Sep 16

Chatted a bit with Jason about Game Chef today, since he turned in his submission due to upcoming prior commitments this weekend. That got me thinking about a bunch of stuff. Prime points of interest:

  • Game Chef is going great this year
  • 9.5 days might be a bit too long; enough time to stew in your own juices a bit too much and overthink things; maybe we should return to the original 7 days next year, Saturday to Saturday?
  • a thought I had later today, without Jason — maybe there could be a suggested structure for folks who feel lost and haven’t really drafted a game before, like:
    1. write your first draft on Sat and Sun,
    2. play it with your normal group or call up a few friends and play it during the work week,
    3. make revisions on Sat and turn it in;

    it’s true that there’s no right way to write a game, but that method seems to effectively produce pretty solid drafts and many of the more experienced chefs (Jason, Jackson, Joe, to name three J’s) seem to use it for a reason;

  • as a bonus, it means you should write a game that your local crew would be excited about playing, which kinda gives you a built-in audience; as a downside, maybe it discourages more experimental designs, unless you have a really pro-experimentation crew? Then again, experimental designs are sometimes the ones that don’t quite seem to get finished (*holds up my own hand*), so encouraging people to design near the edge of their ability but not right at the bleeding edge might be a good idea;
  • that said, all of this needs to wait until after the playoffs happen, to see how much play that actually generates and what it does for this year’s games, if anything.
  • Still a lot of Game Chef yet to go. Other interesting things to watch include what the fallout will be for Praxis, which has exploded with participation from its normal slow self. It would be cool to have a few more things happening there and a bit more energy, but I worry about keeping the quality of conversation up and focused on actually getting things done, rather than the pipe dreams that seem to dominate the First Thoughts forum at the Forge.

    In any event, I’m excited about what’s to come.

The Way This Wheel Burns

2010 Sep 14

Over here, Clyde is talking about breaking down GMing 4E into Apocalypse World-style MC agendas. I don’t really agree with the way he’s done it, because my instinct is to go back to the text and see what the game actually says you are supposed to do, since I figure a lot of that stuff is encoded in there and just needs to be explicitly called out instead of buried in paragraphs of GM advice.

I meant to attempt this first with Fiasco and Geiger Counter, but since Clyde asked for responses and since I’m reading the Burning Wheel Adventure Burner, right now, here goes…

BW Player Agendas / Always Say / Principles

  • Dig deep into the rules (p. 7)
  • Give BW a fair shot (p. 7)
  • Fight for what you believe with steel, words, and magic (p. 9)
  • Cultivate strong opinions, vision, and zeal, but be courteous and gentlemanly (p. 12)
  • Dare the GM to hurt you, hurl your character into danger (p. 12)
  • Play dumb about risks, encourage risky behavior, make bad decisions and enjoy the fallout (p. 12)
  • Commit to your gamesmanship in the numbers and your sense of drama in Beliefs and Instincts (p. 13)
  • Let your experiences at the table, not your personal beliefs, shape your transformation (p. 13)
  • Set out on the wrong path, to set up a tense and exciting opportunity to do the right thing (p. 14)
  • Explore conflicts of interest, show the rest of us that internal struggle (p. 14)

BW GM Agendas / Always Say / Principles

  • Come to BW as it is (p. 8)
  • Embrace life’s mundane difficulties (poverty, tools, and shoes) as a chance to get into trouble over something innocuous (p. 10)
  • Set obstacles and call for tests to challenge the characters’ beliefs (p. 11)
  • Have an overall vision of the world, a handful of problems in that world, and a host of characters who embody those problems (p. 14)
  • Balance your vision and will to persevere with an accommodating, cooperative attitude (p. 14)
  • Never be rude or react out of anger (p. 14)
  • Present unexpected challenges that make perfect sense in the context of the setting and the action (p. 14)
  • Do your best to place your ideas in harm’s way: in the path of the players (p. 14)
  • When you feel that tightening in your gut, “No I can’t let them,” set an obstacle and call for a test (p. 14)
  • Allow the game to emerge through exploration (p. 15)

Now, those could probably be revised and reordered to make more sense as lists of principles, but I thought it best to keep it more or less in Luke’s exact words for now, to show how I think you can just pull these things directly out of the text and try to apply them, instead of absorbing them as general advice and attempting to internalize them, which is the traditional way of approaching GM guidelines.

Luke actually does a really great job in the first chapter of the Adventure Burner of boiling things down into short, punchy phrases that describe exactly what you are supposed to do. It’s basically a halfway point between more traditionally written GM advice and the principles approach that Vincent takes in Apocalypse World. I’d be interested to see what Will Hindmarch and others thought of it, whether they found it less off-putting than their first read-through of Apocalypse World. Luke may have hit upon a good style for appealing to roleplayers used to or more comfortable with traditional GM advice, which I suspect is Burning Wheel’s core audience.

Beyond the Master of Ceremonies

2010 Sep 12

This is my response to Ewen Cluney’s response to my response to Will Hindmarch’s response to Apocalypse World. This conversation just keeps giving and giving.

In Ewen’s words, one of the things that AW does is attempt to address that problem that…

…we don’t really have the vocabulary or techniques that we probably should for discussing (much less modifying) what exactly the GM does.

And that’s totally true. However, when I ponder that a bit further, I think about Vincent’s interview with Clyde and their assertion that now we can finally talk about how to design games, since we’ve won the battle about there being different valid ways to play, etc.

But where does that come from? What vocabulary do we have to talk about how to design games? And when I think about the MC again, and the new vocabulary we have to talk about GMing, I say to myself: Look, the GM is just a player, or maybe a specific kind of player role. So what we have is a new vocabulary for talking about how to play games.

Is that the same as a new vocabulary for talking about how to design games? Not yet, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we’ve had previously. And in attempting to build on and explicate how to play, maybe we can figure out how to talk about design along the way.

Chasing Jason: Fiasco, Danger Mtn, & Geiger

2010 Sep 12

Since the internet was dead this morning, I finally got around to reading most of Fiasco. I’ve had a mostly finished pre-publication PDF sitting on my hard drive for a while, but had been waiting to find it for sale in print, which I finally did at the Dreaming on Friday. I’m not sure how they still had copies left from PAX. Maybe a new shipment.

Having worked on Geiger Counter for 3+ years now, I found it super fascinating to watch Jason try to do many things in the text of Fiasco that Geiger attempts to do, but in very different ways. The games obviously have a lot in common: movie-inspired, single-session, short run time, gm-less (or -ful), non-traditional player investment in characters (you love them but you make bad things happen to them), two act rise-and-fall structure (in Geiger, the “Tilt” happens when the Menace hits 8 dice), dice-based pacing, characters with ambition and poor impulse control (that’s what Goals are about), etc.

Honestly, if I had to describe Geiger Counter to folks who’d played Fiasco, I’d say: “double the number of characters, add a Menace that’s trying to kill them, make the action more tightly location-based, and end the game when most characters are dead.” Boom: Alien, Jurassic Park, Vertical Limit, etc. Especially now that Jason’s working on a disaster movie game for Game Chef, I’m thinking I can probably just wait around twiddling my thumbs for him to write my game for me.

Things Jason Gets Oh-So Right
– playsets
– the replay, though it’s sometimes hard to follow
– the filmography
– the visual style of the book
– the tone of the writing

Things That I Think Could Be Better
– really weak guidelines for playing dead characters, something early drafts of GC are guilty of too
– it’s not clear what giving the outcome die away signifies, if anything; feels a bit arbitrary
– the fact that Steve (the player) isn’t playing Stephen Carney (the PC); really a bad choice, easily fixed
– Page 9; I’m not sure this adds more than you lose by opening up the identity politics thing
– for my tastes, the rules text (not including playsets) is still about 50% too long, since it’s definitely not made for being played right out of the booklet, without having read it before (though some folks tried at PAX)
– until you get to the replay, there’s very few words on how to actually “play a scene” (what you actually do, how to deal with NPCs, what a scene looks like, how do you know it’s over, etc.)
– the cover curls something fierce

All in all, though, a fantastic product and very inspirational, especially for Geiger Counter, since it operates in a very similar footprint, as far as play experience goes. And I’m watching Danger Mountain too, to see if Jason comes up with any super clever ways to handle disasters (a Menace if there ever was one). Apocalypse World has already given me great insights about how to make it clear what the Menace is supposed to do, so I feel like I’m making gradual progress here by stealing from everybody else.

Game Chef: Initial Thoughts

2010 Sep 11

Game Chef 2010 finally launched last night. I came up with the theme (journey) and a list of 15 possible ingredients and then Elizabeth picked four random numbers to decide on the spread for this year. I resisted the urge to manipulate the ingredients after she picked them, even though I was secretly hoping for “hyena.” Maybe next year.

I’m interested to keep an eye on how the social stuff shakes out, though I’m going to try to stay out of that for the most part. So far early conversations are happening on the Forge, Praxis, personal blogs, and — for the first time — Twitter. But it’s still early in the game (less than 24 hours) and it’s likely a few other locations will heat up.

While I’m excited by the swell of interest in Game Chef this year, I’m slightly worried we may move back into the 60+ submissions range or perhaps even beat the 2007 record of 82 games. If that’s the case, I may have to drag in some extra judges to do the initial read-through (since I’ve only got 10 days to do it, and those are right when classes start back), but that shouldn’t be too hard, I don’t think.

While my priority should be reading and responding to the 22 games submitted in 2009 (which wasn’t my original plan, but I said I’d do it, so…), I’m thinking a little bit about whether I want to actually design a game this year or not. I figure I’m probably automatically disqualified from being a Finalist, but that doesn’t matter.

The image I can’t quite get out of my mind is that of an ancient cursed city as a plague, like the poisoned forest in Nausicaa, creeping over the land and gradually destroying the natural world like a slowly-expanding desert. Eventually the entire world would be consumed by what is literally urban blight. Perhaps, too, if you sleep in or around the edges of the city, you can wake up to find yourself trapped in a dark, doorless, windowless room it has built around you, entombed within the cursed city.

I’m not sure if that will go anywhere, but it’s fun to think about.