Archive for December, 2010

Project ADD

2010 Dec 28

Suddenly moving from being busy to having free time always gives me project ADD, where I can’t decide what thing to work on first and end up doing partial work on a dozen different things. This can leave me with nothing to show for my trouble besides more unfinished projects, most of which will never get finished, but it’s still fun.

Here’s some things I’ve been thinking about, but no promises on any of them:

Assuming he brings his bassoon back from New Mexico, Sage and I are going to work up a few songs. That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to start a band, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t either. I’m also not-so-secretly hoping we can convince Leigh (my brother) to play my Zendrum or maybe tradeoff Zendrum, vocals, and string instruments. The Walton boys have too much ambition to be confined to a single instrument! Unfortunately, since Jefferson Death Star is a prominent indie band in Seattle, we probably can’t call ourselves Jefferson Bible Society, a great name I recently came up with. Oh well. Maybe I’ll write a song with that title instead. In any event, writing for a bassoon rather than a bass guitar is going to be fun. Haven’t done that since the Paradise Lost operetta I wrote in college, which had TWO BASSOONS! There’s no such thing as too many bassoons. Or sackbuts. I actually missed getting to hang out with an acquanitance from Oberlin who plays the sackbut due to exams. Very unfortunate timing.

I really thought I was gearing up to finish a draft of my How to Host a Dungeon + Mountain Witch hack, now tentatively called Last Crawl, or That Ancient Serpent, my one-page Apocalypse World hack for doing dragons + body horror. But then Emily posted about a design contest in January focusing on single-player RPGs. That got me thinking about how many of my games are actually attempting to recreate fiction that works best with a single protagonist — a trap that I think a lot of indie designers fall into, since a lot of thr media around us revolves around a lone hero, set apart.

So now I’m thinking about both my long-time interest I’m writing a Zelda-inspired game (Super Snow Queen, Ghost Opera) and whether Firmament works better as a solo game, since one of the core emotions I’m trying to invoke is loneliness. John even poked fun at me the other week — I forget specifically about which project — that I was doing something else where all the characters would never meet up and do things together.  It’s true; I do really like playing in sessions that provide opportunities for solo spotlighting. That’s not just a camera hog thing, though, since I really like watching other players interact mostly with the GM.  It gives me time to reflect and appreciate what going on, as an audience.  In any event, I’ll probably submit something Zelda-inspired to Emily’s contest, though I might take my own advice and base it on Western literature (more like Super Snow Queen than the Shang Dynasty-inspired Ghost Opera).

I think my analytic article for Magic Missile is going to be about what I’ve learned about design from participating in and running design contests. There’s a lot I could potentially say there, and I honestly want to begin building some sort of “legacy” document to leave behind on Game Chef and what its first decade has meant: a document that future generations should trod all over, but they should at least trod with a sense of purpose, rather than just massacring the whole thing do to avoidable mistakes (and believe me I’ve made more than a few).

There’s also the introduction to the book, which Macklin and I will presumably share portions of or collaborate on. I suggested the general theme of the battle over “system matters” being over, with a victory for the pro-design forces or at least us driving away most of the hippy freeformers, which may not be a real victory so much as something that has happened. In any event, there should be an effort to move beyond the “we’re doing something unique and special, unlike those other games” discourse. Those other games and the culture that surrounds them isn’t clearly different from what we’re doing. And I’m not sure it ever was. But there’s no need for us to be defensive and protective of what we’re doing. Looking for some other behemoth (after “mainstream roleplaying”) to oppose is like fighting that battle all over again, which would be really dumb. We’ve fought for enough space in which to exist and thrive, but our future significance involves continuing to make and play games that are fun and well-written.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

Wuxia with Western Literature

2010 Dec 28

I was looking for Christmas presents for my father, the Shakespeare professor, when I stumbled upon “Chinese Shakespeares” by Alexander C. Y. Huang, which looks at the history of Shakespeare being performed in China. That got my subconcious working.

Weeks later, once I found out how little money I had after holiday spending, I was frantically thinking about small publishing projects, though, as my brother helpfully pointed out one time: getting involved in publishing is no way to make a quick buck. Nevertheless, I thought about the tentative plans I made with Shreyas and Elizabeth to help revise or develop playsets for Mist-Robed Gate.

I messaged Elizabeth, saying: “I have a fantastic idea for a wuxia playset: Hamlet!” To which her response was: “That IS fantastic! Have you seen The Banquet / Curse of the Black Scorpion?” Duh, *faceslap* Feng Xiaogang beat me to it.

Well, really, Kurosawa beat us both, with Ran, Throne of Blood, and Bad Sleep Well.

Which brought me to a third thought: something often feels missing from sessions of Mist-Robed Gate and other wuxia games that I’ve played and I’m beginning to think part of it is the sense of adapting and reworking literary and/or historical tradition. Honestly, I often feel the loss when I watch period Chinese dramas — including wuxia films — as well.

To explain: when somebody raised and educated in China watches Red Cliff, the character of Zhuge Liang is not just some cool Chinese dude but ZHUGE LIANG!!! They’ve grown up hearing bedtime stories and reading children’s books and watching tv shows and playing video games and seeing music videos and taking history classes and repeating jokes and using idioms about the Three Kingdoms period.

Ben Lehman got it right, when talking about Dynasty Warriors, that most of the context is lost on Western audiences, even among us China dorks. It’s harder for folks not raised in Asia to get that “in real life, I was a failed general; here, I kill people with a giant yo-yo” aspect. Josh Roby was really smart to head in that direction with Sons of Liberty, where US history though I kinda wish that game took itself more seriously, like Brotherhood of the Wolf, which is set in France during the same period and may be the best Western wuxia movie aside from The Matrix.

I would argue that perhaps the best way for those raised in the West to experience something analogous to wuxia is for them to adapt great works of Western literature as Feng Xiaogang and Kurosawa have done. It’s not as if we don’t already do this: check out King of Texas or The Lion King.  But that would add resonance and history to the roles, even if you were adapting a work that the players only knew in passing and even if you were responsible for playing bit parts like Rosencranz and Guildenstern.

Take, for example:

A revenge-mad ronin leads a group of fellow misfits in a doomed hunt for the mythical mountain-dwelling, albino mercenary who chopped off his leg and, even worse, left him alive to live in shame and dishonor. One member of the party is a tattoo-covered spear-fisherman Ainu warrior from farthest Hokkaido.

Boom! Now you’re playing with power. Though that actually sounds more like The Mountain Witch than Mist-Robed Gate to me.  I’m not sure why I never saw the Moby Dick parallel before.  Or the parallel between Melville and Conrad, since John was telling me about an Apocalypse Now-themed Mountain Witch game that he played in. Guess I know one of the things I’m running at GoPlay.

In any event, hopefully you get my point.  In addition to what Milan Kundera calls “litost” and what I’ve called “trainwreck heartbreak,” wuxia typically build resonance with its audience partially by drawing on familiar stories and characters. That’s part of what often makes pure fantasy movies like The Promise so mediocre.

We have 5,000 years of human literature to draw from, so surely we can find a few thing to base “Western wuxia” on. Personally, I can’t wait to see Claudius battle it out with his brother’s ghost.

That Ancient Serpent

2010 Dec 20

This post is going to be a work in progress, since I want to get back to doing incremental design on this blog, rather than in InDesign or on a forum. It is going to be a super-short, super-light hack of Apocalypse World, no longer than 2 pages in length, to handle the “outbreak of dragons” concept I posted earlier. Here goes:


Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a basilisk, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent. — Isaiah 14:29

It is currently after the Second Crusade but before the Fall of Jerusalem to Saladin. The draconic plague has come, spreading through the Levant from some mysterious source. No black wings yet fill the skies, but it is only a matter of time. Baldwin the Leper is King of Jerusalem, but he is growing more and more enfeebled from the plague that has kept him wrapped in bandages and largely concealed from public view. Rumors have it that he is molting off swaths of scaly skin and that his insides are writhing and transforming. It will not be long now. But the king is hardly the only one infected and, if a quarantine is not enacted soon, we may all very well perish in the fire that is coming. The red dragon has been loosed from the bottomless put, and this is surely the Apocalypse.

Add to Character Creation

  • English, French, German, Spanish, Byzantine, Born in the Holy Land, Persian, Egyptian, Arabian, etc.
  • Jewish, Christian, Muslim, other (Zoroastrian, etc.), or choose a more specific patron (i.e. the Archangel Michael).
  • Infected Human (choose 1 move from the Plaguebook), Uninfected Human (choose 1 additional move from any playbook), Djinn (choose 1 move from the Book of Flame; cannot become infected), Half-Djinn (choose 1 move from the Book of Flame; can become infected, but do not start play that way), or Redeemed (former plaguebearer who had the plague burned out of them by djinn-fire; cannot become infected; starts with a special move I haven’t written yet; based on Apoc from Wormwood)
  • Dragonslaying heritage (replace 1 move with a move from the Book of Slaughter) or no Dragonslaying heritage (take Hx+2 or Hx-2 with an old slayer family).
  • Make a list of slayer family names as options to pick from the name list

Special Playbooks

  • The Plaguebook: moves for the infected; once you start taking moves from this book, you can’t stop (though you can still take other moves too), and once you’ve taken 3 moves, you must switch to the book entirely; and the final XP option is turning into a dragon, becoming one of the GM’s threats, and making a new character
  • The Book of Slaughter: ancient techniques passed down by the slayer families for killing and quarantining dragons; must be learned from the families but can be taught to those outside the lineage
  • The Book of Flame: techniques for djinn and half-djinn, made as they are from smokeless fire; one can discover their djinn heritage during play, but these techniques cannot normally be taught to outsiders; however, those with highly advanced cases of the plague begin to spontaneously manifest fiery magicks.
  • The Book of Life: advanced techniques for those of extreme faith, drawing on their connection to God, the Prophets, and the angels; clergy may or may not have these gifts; see, for an example,

Normal Playbooks (all of these will simply use renamed existing moves from AW)

  • Knight: Templar/Hospitaller(first aid kit, like Gunlugger)/of Saladin
  • Warrior/Crusading Grunt
  • Assassin
  • Clergy
  • Noble

The great beasts simply count as gangs of various sizes depending on the potency of a given dragon. They also generally work like threats and have special threat moves of their own.

The Plague
Each major NPC in the game that becomes infected has their own countdown clock. You can guess what it counts down to. Non-named characters are simply treated as part of larger threats, which have countdown clocks that represent the spread of the plague in certain regions. There are, of course, plenty of threats that are not directly related to the plague, such as infighting and bureaucratic nonsense and people with the best intentions.

An Outbreak of Dragons

2010 Dec 18

I was just thinking about how to combine fantasy with body horror.

What if monsters are an infection?

So it’s late medieval times, the Black Death (that horrid outbreak of monsters) is long gone, and nobody’s seen a dragon in a century. However, there are a few families that keep practicing the dragon-slaying arts, teaching them to their children in case the wyrms ever return. But the siege weapons that were once used to bring down the great flying beast are all ancient and rusty. And with only 20+ people who know how to man them, half of them ancient themselves, and no officials manning their posts who know shit about how to conduct a quarantine after a dragon has been slain, nobody is ready for what’s about to happen.

Gravediggers and treasure seekers uncover part of a mummified dragon corpse deep in the desert, with the insides still fleshy and warm. Soon they are infected, turning into scale-covered beast-men with mouths full of fangs and a hunger for raw flesh. Many of them are slain in grisly street battles and entire cities are put to the torch and the sword, attempting to stop their spread, but it is too late. A few escape deep inside desert caves, where their scales molt off and their true form emerges.

The dragon-slaying families go to work, their rusty skills now the only chance of halting the disease. But they are hampered at every turn by kings and bureaucrats who think they know better or want to be heroes. When a dragon attacks Jerusalem and is finally brought down, no quarantine is declared, even though half the city is splattered with dragon blood. The sultan himself has the heart of the beast roasted and brought to him on a platter, the fool. Soon the holy city is teeming with monsters.

Somebody’s going to have to put an end to this, and nobody but the old slayer families and a few enlisted allies will do it. But that will mean enforcing the quarantine on their own, including killing some of their brothers, sisters, and kinsmen who become infected over the course of their messy job.


How to (Not) Help Other Designers

2010 Dec 10

Several things have happened recently that have gotten me thinking about the best methods for helping other game designers with their projects:

In the latter case, I found myself thinking: “Oh man, I have all these clever ideas about how to make a platforming card game; I should totally tell Joe so he can incorporate them!” But then I thought: “Wait, is that going to actually be helpful to Joe, or would I just be dumping stuff on him that’s not helpful to realizing his vision?”

So, upon reflection, here are the design stages I’ve seen and my thoughts on how best to be of help to other designers:

Initial Brainstorming and Drafting

There’s actually a lot that you can do at this point to help people out; it’s just that would-be helpers typically do the wrong thing. In my experience, what people really need during this stage is:

  1. encouragement (“This sounds awesome! I can’t wait to see more!”); and
  2. support for talking out their own ideas (mostly by you saying: “Tell me more about that”).

When the designer is just beginning to flesh things out and create some structure for their game, what they generally DON’T need is other people providing feedback on specific aspects of what they are doing — which are already tentative — and attempting (intentionally or not) to influence the direction the game is taking. Feedback at early stages mostly serves to dilute the original clarity of purpose and vision, creating more uncertainty or (in some cases) splitting the designer’s excitement in a number of different conflicting directions that won’t easily be combined in a single, workable draft.

To put it more directly: getting specific feedback before the game itself has really taken definite shape can scuttle the entire project. Even without outside feedback, the designer can sometimes scuttle themselves by overthinking things or “overdesigning” in the beginning, questioning each part of the design before things have really come together. Without a firm grasp of what the game is going to be like, there’s no way of knowing if a specific mechanic is good or bad. Better to leave things as placeholders and continue on, coming back and fixing them — if necessary — later.

The problems with “feedback on brainstorming” is really, as far as I can tell, largely what’s led to the restructuring of how design support happens on The Forge. The Indie Game Design forum there was traditionally the place where a lot of people sought and received feedback way too early, scuttling many a worthy (and unworthy) project. Basically, it was a lot of jabber that didn’t necessarily lead to designers being supported and games being developed.

However, I think we DO still need places in which to provide quality support for people in the initial stages. But we need to build a culture around early feedback that is really about providing enthusiasm and asking “Tell me more about that”; one in which efforts to provide specific feedback at early stages is discouraged (though maybe not ruthlessly crushed). It’s not clear that Praxis is the place for that, but perhaps.

Once You Have a Working Draft

This is when you need feedback, ideally from other people who are actually interested in playing your game; or, really, playing the game that you claim your game will be, when it is polished up.

What you DON’T need is people giving you feedback on your initial design when they have no interest or intention of ever playing your game. They are not sympathetic and supportive readers who have the interests of you and your game in mind; though they may think that have only the best interests, what they really want to do (and they may not even be conscious of this) is convince you to turn your game into something else, some other game that they actually want it to be (and presumably, that they are actually interested in playing). And that kind of feedback is something we definitely have to resist all the way though to the end.

That said, distinguishing between supportive and unsupportive feedback is much more difficult in practice, since the designer may not be especially clear — either explicitly or even just in their own mind — about what they want their game to be. But we should get better at asking that FIRST before jumping in and telling people which directions they should explore in attempting to polish up working drafts.