Archive for June, 2011

Mapping as Fictional Positioning

2011 Jun 21

Archived from Barf Forth.

So this may not be revelation to anyone but me…

Last week, the PCs in my near-earth-orbit game responded to a distress signal from this orbital monastic community called Sanctum. The folks who run Sanctum try to help people clear their minds from domination by the Psychic Maelstrom and, thus, escape from a life of reaver-esque cannibal savagery. Our touchstone is a “graduate” of Sanctum’s psychic rehab, but apparently not all their recruits took to their training so well (surprise!), so the PCs are basically walking into a bloodbath of insane debauchery and cruelty.

I began making maps like crazy, drawing the main airlock, the cargo room, the corridors leading to the medical facility, the kitchen, the training rooms, the initiates’ monastic cells, the flight deck where they launched shuttles, the central meditation chamber, etc.

All this mapping was inspired, for the most part, by our touchstone asking where certain things were, based on her memories, alongside some Reading of a Charged Situation and Opening of Brains. And then, once the PCs starting moving through Sanctum, with the vibe and setting of our game, plus the horrific atmosphere, it felt very much like Geiger Counter, surprisingly enough. Room-by-room, situation by situation, with the sense of danger building.

But what really struck me was that, unlike in some Geiger Counter games I’ve played, the map really served to ground the fiction in ways I wasn’t expecting. Without the movie-inspired jump cuts that sometimes happen in Geiger, the map really provided some tight constraints on player choices through the fictional positioning that went along with it. Unlike in Geiger or PTA, we weren’t thinking about what the next cool scene should be about; instead we looked at the map and were like, okay, clearly we have to go through X place next.

For example: The PCs proceeded first to track down Hugo, the initiate that sent the distress signal, who was in one side of the space station. But then, having come across some horrific scenes, the touchstone decided that Hugo must be dead and that they should proceed to the training rooms to confront Rufus, the failed initiate who seemed to be orchestrating this descent into base passions. Consequently, as demanded by the maps and the fiction, they had to make their way across the entire rest of the station to get to where Rufus was. No jump cuts, no excuses. That was clearly what the fiction — through the map — demanded.

Sure, the players could have decided to do something else: go out an airlock and walk around the outside of the ship, leave and not fight Rufus, blow up Sanctum, whatever else. But their choices were limited — in significant ways — by the little bit of sketching I did of the station.

I guess maybe I’m used to maps as a form of railroading, showing where you clearly must go, or as a series of light cues to help you remember things you’ve done and preserve consistency in the fiction, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the geography of a map really matter in a game that didn’t have wargame-inspired rules for cover or range calculated in squares.

So anyway, I’m thinking about that now and my future play of both AW and Geiger Counter will be better for it.

Random Thoughts: Geiger Counter, Ghost Opera

2011 Jun 7

Geiger Counter

The new version of Geiger Counter that I’ve been tinkering with, which may or may not be called Jet Black Aurora, might have short tables for generating the premise and characters, tables halfway between Fiasco playsets and what I’m doing for Super Suit. Unlike Fiasco, though, I think there’s only one set of tables for the entire game, though obviously I’m not sure yet, because I haven’t done it.

The tables would cover things like whether your facility is in space, underwater, underground, in the arctic, on a barren planet, and/or on an island. Perhaps it’s both underground AND in the arctic, as in Alien vs. Predator. Perhaps it’s on a barren planet AND in the dark, as in Pitch Black. I think this may be called the “Isolation Table.” Then there’s another table that’s about determining what particular brand of human hubris is about to send all the characters to their deaths.

Plus, to steal another recent idea from Super Suit, I think you create the trailer, but it’s like the daydreaming in Apocalypse World, it’s vital to get a feel for things (as a group rather than as the MC), but it’s not real until someone enacts it in play. If it’s not memorable to stick in players’ minds, or the events of the game don’t lead that direction, it’s cool. That’s kinda how folks have been playing it anyway, but it’s good to have a solid idea of why it’s that way.

Ghost Opera

Martin Luther King Jr. famously paraphrased Theodore Parker when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Ghost Opera is exactly such a universe, but one built upon my understanding of early Chinese cosmological thinking about fate, justice, and the way of heaven (tiandao). You know the grotesque threat moves in Apocalypse World where you “display the contents of its heart” or “display the nature of the world it inhabits”? Those might essentially be the only moves that the GM of Ghost Opera makes, though of course I’ll phrase them and break them up differently.

Essentially, the GM is playing heaven. And heaven wants the bullshit in the world to be fixed. But the way it gets these things fixed is to put them on display, right out in front of people, and show human beings — again and again if necessary — the consequences of letting that kind of bullshit go on. Then it counts on people eventually doing the right thing and stopping the bullshit. And they eventually will, no doubt. But, in the meanwhile, heaven keeps escalating, shoving their faces in it and causing lots and lots of suffering. Like Laozi says, “Heaven and earth are heartless, treating creatures like straw dogs.” Heaven bends towards justice, yes, definitely. But it is also infinitely patient and the arc can indeed be very long. Plus, people have to stand up and actually change things.

The bullshit that heaven is concerned about mostly revolves around people not treating each other properly. People are often bad parents, or bad friends, or bad children, or bad kings, or bad neighbors, or bad shamans, or bad hosts. Heaven doesn’t care about some cultural bullshit that you choose not to follow. Run off and marry whoever you want, that’s not heaven’s problem. But if you do so and, in the process, violate the relationship you have with your father, then you’re fucking things up, or maybe your father’s fucking things up by being a jerk about it. Heaven doesn’t really take sides, but it definitely knows that the situation is bullshit and needs to be fixed. So maybe it will send your ancestors to haunt you or have someone in your family contract a horrible disease or die in war. Or, more often, heaven just lets humans do its dirty work, like having your father straight-up murder the dude you ran off to marry.

Dogs in the Vineyard calls the bullshit that causes problems “pride,” but ancient China made allowances for people being ignorant as well as arrogant and, occasionally, just straight-up wicked. The only people who naturally understand how people are supposed to behave are children, the elderly (remember, most people didn’t live to be elderly), and sages. Everyone else, we’re bound to fuck it up fairly often, even if we’re striving to be good. But luckily we’ve got heaven there to clearly lay down the rules for us by showing us the negative consequences of our behaviors. Unfortunately, often people have a hard time understanding how the bad things that are happening are connected to violations of proper relationships. But that’s okay, heaven’s very patient and, eventually, someone will figure it out. Maybe. In the next dynasty. After this one’s been completely destroyed.

The “Business Model” of an Academic Press

2011 Jun 6

Reposted from an SG thread about crowdfunding.

I’ve been wanting to share a talk I went to hosted by the University of Washington Press, which explained their “business model.” It was among the most depressing talks I’ve ever gone to. Luke Crane has a more sustainable economic enterprise than the entire academic publishing world, no joke!

They said it took $30,000 and 3 years for them to produce a volume and, generally, they might end up selling 300-500 copies of a book. Selling 1,000 copies was a significant success. Also, they often didn’t have the funds to afford a print run, so the press and authors would apply for grant funding to cover a significant amount of that. Or, at some presses, the author might be asked to front some portion of printing costs themselves.

That entire industry is dead and it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much about it. They still have a kind of vampire hold on the universities because many people still view publishing a volume through an academic press as they only way to gain scholarly status and tenure, but that’s less and less true these days as both tenure and academic publishing continue to die. The whole system is going to crash and have to be rebuilt along totally different lines. It’s totally unsustainable and not really a “business” at all.

I had been considering approaching some academic presses to see if they’d be interested in publishing Magic Missile and/or another edited volume I might put together later on, but there’s basically zero chance of that now, given how completely out-of-date their publishing model is. I mean, I can sell 500-1000 copies of something through the normal indie games channels, given a year or two. Waiting 3 years and having to raise $30,000 just isn’t worth it for the kind of non-support that an academic press would apparently provide. I even know the kinds of people that I could contact to get peer review, which is the major service that academic presses provide. Essentially, I feel like I could run an entire academic press for RPG-related books much better than most actual academic presses.

[Simon’s Quest] Super Suit: The Landing Site

2011 Jun 6

Hey Simon! Here’s the landing site map that I whipped up. I may end up drawing most of the maps digitally, but I wanted to at least sketch out the first one by hand.

Off to the bottom left, off of the map, is the dusty landing strip where your ship touched and you rolled forward to rest at the base of this mesa that shelters the Camp II dig site. We didn’t talk about your ship yet, so I didn’t draw it on the map. You wanna tell me about that first and then we’ll get to exploring the landing site?

[Simon’s Quest] Super Suit: Post-Daydreaming

2011 Jun 5

Hi Simon! So this isn’t in the rules yet, but this is what I’m going to suggest we do now.

All that stuff you rolled up? It doesn’t matter now. That stuff served to get us on the same page and inspire our daydreams about the game. From here on out, we don’t look at it anymore, okay? That was just the initial brainstorming, not anything that’s set in stone in the fiction. If some of it caught our imagination, we remember it (without looking back!), and we want to preserve it, that’s great. But the stuff that we don’t remember anymore obviously wasn’t that critical in the first place. And we’re free to invent whatever new details we like to paper over any holes that exist.

BUT! From now on, everything (well, most everything) we say happens in the game, just like that.

Now, having generated some material and daydreamed about it, let’s nail down the premise (in the normal English sense) of the game by doing this:

1. First, you tell me about Joney: who she is and what’s her deal. We don’t need a lot of detail, just the kind of stuff that would show up as scrolling text in the beginning of one of these games.

2. Then, I tell you about this alien world and illustrate a map of Joney’s landing site.

3. Next, you tell me why you’re on this planet (your mission) and what your super suit looks like when you step out of your ship.

4. Finally, you walk me through Joney’s initial recon of her landing site and I tell you what signs (clues) she finds there, before she heads deeper in.

How’s that?

[Simon’s Quest] Super Suit: Press Start

2011 Jun 3

Simon Carryer and I are going to try out playing a 2-player version of Super Suit right here on this blog. He’s going to play the protagonist and I’m going to be the alien world plagued by the deep horrors.

Hi Simon! Here’s the first few pages of rules as they currently stand. They ask you to randomly roll or pick options off various lists, filling in the details about your character, her background, her mission, the planet she’s on, and the deep horrors. Here’s my thoughts on rolling vs. choosing, which haven’t yet been included in the rules yet (but probably will). When one of the options calls out to you or especially excites you, pick it. When you like a number of different options, have questions about them, or aren’t sure, roll the dice. These basic suggestions will apply throughout the game, I think.

So follow these instructions, maybe one 2-page spread at a time, and let me know what you’re thinking in the comments, plus whether you’ve rolled your options or picked them. Even though I’m playing the planet full of horrors, I’m going to be opinionated and offer suggestions, especially on the stuff that I’m going to be responsible for (like the planet and horrors, but also your mission), because I feel like there should be some give-and-take in this stuff when playing 2-player (even though, yeah, that isn’t suggested by the current rules either). So also let me know where you’re unsure or flexible with your choices and where you’re more certain.

There’s a working example of the intro stuff at the end of this batch of pages, in case that helps.

Some Principles for a “Story Now” Video Game

2011 Jun 2

Over on SG, I objected to Jamie’s claim that “what [indie roleplayers] know [about storytelling in games] can’t be done on a computer yet,” saying that “Complex, emergent, player-driven stories are totally possible on a computer RIGHT NOW. Heck, they were possible 10 years ago.”

Johnzo called me on this, saying he was “a little skeptical. Can you do a thought experiment on what something like this might look like?” And I’m not one to pass up an opening like that, so here’s a few basic principles — drawn from 10 years of involvement in indie roleplaying — that I’m going to attempt to apply to video game design, at least in this imaginary exercise.

1. “Don’t repeatedly hand the players a fish; teach them to fish.”

A “story now” video game doesn’t tell a story to the players; it gives the players the tools and support that they need for telling their own story. This is a fundamental shift in design orientation and was the grounding principle of LowFantasy, the imaginary iPhone app I sketched out for Christian Griffen a couple years back.

2. “The game is not the GM or the other players; its just the rules.”

Likewise, the game text (in this case, interpreted as code by the computer) cannot substitute for the other human beings that you need to play the game, even with the best AI programming people can turn out these days. And you can’t just play the game with yourself due to issues like the Czege Principle (which says that creating and resolving the same conflicts often isn’t very fun). Similarly, bouncing a ball and catching it isn’t nearly as fun as playing catch or some other game with other people. Video games, at least as they are now, aren’t really that different.

3. “The most important interactions are not player-game, but player-player, mediated by the game.”

Derived from the above, the core of the game is not the players interacting with the “rules” or the “text” or whatever you want to call the computer-rendered content. Rather, the core is players making choices that affect — through the medium of the game — other real, live people and their choices. Really, in a way much more than most existing video games, this asks the game designer to leave the room, metaphorically speaking, to take themselves out of the equation and let the players talk to each other rather than commanding all the attention on the beautiful thing they’ve created. Sure, it may be super beautiful, but if it doesn’t facilitate interesting interactions between the players, it’s not doing what we’re asking it to, in this particular case.

4. “To naturally constrain a story, limit its scope.”

Games like Breaking the Ice and The Mountain Witch demonstrated pretty clearly that limiting players’ options doesn’t feel confining if there’s a relatively specific experience that they’re coming to the game for. You don’t need to allow players to go anywhere and do anything. Why would that make sense in the story? Why would they even want to do that? Instead, make them choose between the options that are actually available to them. Furthermore, if “story now” is about addressing the premise, then it’s critical to have one and have most things in the game point directly at it or at least in its general direction. Speaking of premise…

5. “Ask a question with your story, but leave it to the players to answer.”

In Apocalypse World, this is called either “leave yourself some things to wonder about” or “play to find out what happens.” Don’t answer the question in the rules or the players won’t get to answer it themselves. This requires both a lot of trust on the part of the game designer and often for them to sit on their hands. Don’t answer the question! Don’t even rig the game to reach specific results! Don’t do it!

Anyway, there’s my starting point.