Archive for the 'Walton-Style Game Fu' Category

Randomness and “What Happens”

2011 Sep 8

So I was thinking about the chorus of “play to find out what happens” that Vincent describes at one of his PAX panels.

Traditionally, the “what happens” emerges from a number of places, but a couple of the major ones are:

  • what the players choose to do (the biggest one, no question); and
  • what the dice say about their attempts to do things (which often leads to yet more interesting choices).

And I realized one of the things I really like about fortune-less games is that the interesting part of determining “what happens” has nothing to do with the dice, which in less awesome situations can become a crutch that provides tension to otherwise uninteresting “choices” or narrative moments.

Even in games like Apocalypse World, I’ve occasionally seen GMs (including myself, though less and less, I hope) reaching for the dice — especially “Act Under Fire,” which can be a catch-all move — when they think there should be mechanical tension but are unsure or too tired to set up the necessary narrative leverage to create a potent situation with an interesting choice.

Sure, in fortuneless games, you can still do cheap shock revelations and set up other lame choices that aren’t really choices (“Are you willing to kill… YOUR OWN FAMILY MEMBER!” “Choose between your own safety and that of the one you love!”). But there’s no dice to fall back on or help you spice up otherwise lame situations, which I find forces me to be better and think smarter about how I run games. It forces me to be a better GM and player, basically, where other kinds of games make it easier for me to fall on bad habits or otherwise mess things up.

In a game with dice, a relatively straightforward situation — “You’re fighting a dude for no reason!” — can be vaguely compelling just due to the uncertainty of how things will go down, but in a game without dice — just the interaction of player choices — you’re forced to try harder than that. Yes, good games that have fortune mechanics push you in that direction too, but sometimes I just want to be thrown into the ocean (without a life jacket) so I can really learn to swim.

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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.

Connecting the Present to the Premise

2011 Apr 18

Vincent says some really smart things in this comment over on Anyway, about the importance of connecting what a player is doing now to what the overall premise of the game is. This is something that I felt was really missing from a lot of the games I grew up playing, even ones I really enjoyed.

How does what you do in Rifts connect to the idea of resisting an oppressive neo-Nazi regime or eking out a living in a post-apocalyptic world (if that’s even what that game is about)? How does what you do in In Nomine relate to guiding humanity towards their glorious destiny or dark fate (if that’s even what the game is about)? In some of those games, part of the problem is that the aboutness of the game is never really entirely clear, or even a set of different premises that you could choose from, despite some solid efforts at clarification by the writers (talking about tone and such). In other cases, even if the premise is clear, the connection between premise and player actions isn’t clear (as is notoriously the case in Nobilis, the “what do we do now?” problem).

Definitely something to keep in mind, especially for some of my weirder ideas like Firmament, where the connection between premise and “what we do now” seems a bit vague.

The Process of Narration

2011 Apr 17

Jamie Fristrom, who I finally met last week, is asking good questions about narration rights in GM-less games over on SG. Actually, I think Jamie’s one of the most interesting new voices to pop up there and lord knows SG needs some new interesting voices.

In any event, I wanted to log my response here, because laying it out explicitly helped me think more clearly about Geiger Counter and, also, how narration works in games with deterministic resolution, where the formal process of narration is especially crucial to structuring fictional outcomes.

Some of these games break narration rights down into various different steps or stages, yeah?

Like, in Geiger Counter, there’s:

  1. Deciding what/where/who the next scene is about (“Jack and Maura are meeting in the airlock”)
  2. Framing the scene (“So Jack’s just come back from printing out some readings and Maura is running a routine check on the space suits”)
  3. Playing characters (“Jack says, ‘Maura, can you double check these figures for me, they look really strange’…”)
  4. Adding new information to the story (“Maura says, ‘That’s impossible. It looks like something is alive inside that asteroid’…”)
  5. Invoking a threat (“The airlock starts activating by itself! The inner door shuts and the outer door is preparing to open!”)
  6. Invoking traits, gear, or other fictional circumstances (“Maura tosses Jack a space suit and struggles to put one on herself!”)
  7. Resolving the conflict after dice have been rolled (“Jack manages to get his suit on, but he loses consciousness just as he gets the seals closed”)
  8. Ending the scene (“And…. cut.”)

It’s not really the case that you can narrate whatever you want, whenever you want. There’s a process you have to go through, and the kinds of things you can narrate are restricted by what “stage” of a scene or the overall game that you’re in. As another example, in Geiger Counter, the menace doesn’t attack PCs until it has at least 2 dice to roll, it’s just hinted at. Or, in Mist-Robed Gate (another game you should look at), you can only hint at what you want before the blade has been uncovered.

Also, each time you narrate something, you’re restricted by what you or someone else has narrated previously. Like, above, when Maura’s player introduces the idea that there are things living inside the asteroid, she’s limited by the concept of Jack’s printout of some readings. The new information she introduces has to be something her character could figure out by looking at some printed data. And, if the contents of Jack’s printout had been established in a previous scene (he was taking a geological survey of the asteroid, say), then the kinds of information she can introduce is limited further. Likewise, if someone’s character isn’t in a scene, unless things change, they don’t get to play their character in that scene. That’s a pretty big restriction!

So it definitely matters how games structure the process of narration as well as the issue of “who has authority to say what.”

Taking a Break from Editing Talk

2011 Mar 20

So, I’ve decided to take a personal break from the editing-related controversy and discussions for the next week. While I think there’s some good stuff being said and some important stuff that still could be said, the tone and just the stress of the back-and-forth was making me frustrated, so this weekend I haven’t really been following those discussions that closely and I probably won’t get back to them at least before the end of this week.

Please, if you feel like you’re having productive exchanges, don’t stop and wait for me! I plan on continuing to approve comments to my earlier blog posts as long as people want to keep having those discussions. But I thought I should let people know that I won’t be personally reading or responding to them for a bit. I’m also not reading any editing related threads on SG, Anyway, etc.

This isn’t related to anyone’s behavior or any specific post. I’m just taking a break for my own personal sanity and stress level. I’ve actually, ironically enough, got a bunch of editing work to do for Magic Missile, and I’m going to go do that and come back maybe after I’ve got a chance to get some perspective and distance.

Limitations as Virtues

2011 Mar 18

Over here, Ryan asks what “punk” means, as far as indie publishing goes. I agree with Lukas that “punk” is not quite the right word, with all of its other associations.

Let me just quote Our Band Could Be Your Life, since it’s what I’ve been thinking about recently. In it, Michael Azerrad suggests that the American indie music scene of the 1980s was organized around “viewing as a virtue what most saw as a limitation.”

I think that works pretty well for us too.

On Publishing: What I Should Have Said

2011 Mar 17

Based on my brother’s recommendation, I recently read part of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the rise of indie rock music in the 1980s. What it reminded me of — especially in the sections about “selling out” or bands “blowing up” or whatever — is that there will always be tensions in any independent publishing scene between two major goals on opposite sides of a spectrum, which for simplicity’s sake let’s call:

A. being just a kid with a dream;
B. beating The Man at his own game.

Being just a kid with a dream, in publishing terms, is showing up someplace — out of nowhere, knowing nobody — with just some hand-made photocopies in your backpack, ready to show people how badass your creation is.

The Man in the case of indie games is probably Hasbro: a big, faceless corporation who we can all pretend to loathe even as we buy and enjoy at least some of their games (shout out to Castle Ravenloft!), and aspire, at least in some respects, to emulate or triumph over their products, producing big beautiful, hardcover tomes that millions of people will buy and enjoy.

The points I wanted to make about this are as follows.

1. Being anywhere along the continuum between A and B is great. No place is better than any other, necessarily. Really, truly, honestly. This is something we still forget too often.

2. The continuum between these two goals is actually false or, at least, it applies across the entire range of choices involved in publishing. You can aspire to have a game that does dungeon crawling better than D&D but is still a stapled, photocopied booklet. You can decide to have production values somewhere in the middle (getting some fancy layout and printing hardcover books) but get your brother Ned to edit it and draw some pictures for you. There’s an infinite number of choices available and none of them is necessarily “right” or “wrong.” It all depends on your desires and goals for a specific project.

3. Even if you’re sure you want to try to beat Hasbro at their own game, it’s very difficult to jump right in and expect to do that right off the bat. If you look at the indie folks who are closest — like Luke Crane and Fred Hicks — they were themselves once kids with a dream. Luke literally showed up at GenCon with photocopies of the first version of Burning Wheel in his backpack. Fred and his comrades originally released Fate as a free PDF, just hoping a few other folks would find it interesting. How many years has it been since then? To get where they are, they’ve made consistent progress over time, project after project, rather than jumping in headfirst and losing their shirt.

4. By all means, take advice and learn from folks who’ve been involved in publishing before, but be honest with yourself about where you are in the process and what the next step is for you. It’s not coincidental, I don’t think, that a lot of the indie creators who are currently enthusiastic about editing are not planning their first game but their second or third. It is only natural, I would argue, to rethink how you did things the first time and do them differently the second or third time around. Does that mean everyone needs an editor on their second game? Not necessarily. Again, it’s all based on what your needs are and what you want for your game. Vincent recent had a great post that talked about approaching things gradually. Be true to yourself also means acknowledging the scale and complexity you’re capable of handling right now. Start with something manageable.

5. Really, in the end, question this advice as well. It’s not as if those of us who have done publishing before took the gradual, careful path in all cases. We tried things. We experimented. We screwed up. We did things we now regret and feel guilty about. Really, that’s all part of the process too. Don’t let the “be careful” advice of experienced folks prevent you from ultimately taking the plunge and publishing however works best for you. In the end, it’s your game and maybe you’ll blaze a new trail for others to follow. Maybe you do know better than we do. And, even if not, you’ll learn from your mistakes just like we did.

That’s more what I meant to say earlier. Yes, it’s contradictory. Welcome to publishing! :)

Quick Note and Apology

2011 Mar 17

Fred Hicks has mentioned that some folks were really annoyed at my rant about editing. If so, I apologize, since I didn’t meant to make people upset, just to question some of the new consensus that seemed to be building about editing in the aftermath of Ben’s anti-playtesting post on Anyway and some other discussions.

In truth, “editor-serving drivel” was completely unfair to the motivations of folks with different opinions. Really, we all want to help folks make games that they’re proud of. If anyone’s still upset and wants to talk about it or tell me I’m a jerk, feel free to whisper me or email me (jaywalt, gmail).

That was not the best example of the kind of voice I aspire to be and hope I can gradually re-earn any respect that I’ve lost.

The First Dozen Things I Learned from Push

2011 Mar 17

There’s an SG thread about things you wish you did differently when publishing something. Here’s what I came up with:

0. I would have gotten to know people who were indie publishers BEFORE I published rather than after, so I had people I could call up and ask questions. If you don’t have the personal cell number of a successful indie publisher, maybe you don’t know one well enough yet.

1. I would have gotten a business account at my bank (which I now have) first thing, before doing anything else, so I could keep income and expenses for my publishing activities complete separate from my personal accounts. This is especially critical later on when you’re doing your business taxes.

2. I would have taken care of other business-related activities way earlier too, like getting state and city business licenses.

3. Before I had any products ready to go, I would have set up spreadsheets to track purchases through all the different methods I used (“backpack” sales, booth sales at various cons, IPR direct sales, IPR retailer sales, IPR convention sales, PDF sales through my website, Lulu print sales, Lulu PDF sales, PDF sales through DriveThur/RPGnow, etc.), since all of those have different expenses and I made different amounts of profit off each one. That’s a lot of work, but it’s critical and is one of those things nobody really talks about.

4. Having set up the spread sheet and run some estimated numbers through it, I would have been careful to price my book so that I made at least some profit off each one of those outlets. As it was, I lost money on IPR retailer sales for a while, maybe even for the duration that Push was available in print.

5. I wouldn’t have printed books through Lulu, despite it being relatively convenient. I know some publishers that still use them, but it’s not really competitive, cost wise, with getting a short run of 200 or so copies through an actual printer.

6. I would have had a schedule where I printed the books months before I actually needed them for GenCon. First, it’s good if folks have at least a month or so to read and/or play your game before you launch it at a big convention, so there’s folks there who can run it besides you. Second, it prevents last minute deadline rushing that can leave you with a product that you’re not satisfied with later. Better to put out a solid game the first time then back-track and apologize later. If you’re putting out your game in, say, January or Feburary (a great month to release a game), it’s clear you’re not rushing it just to have it for GenCon. If you’re launching at GenCon or some other big convention… maybe your book isn’t actually ready to go yet.

7. I would have had a flat, up-front payment to contributors and not split profits later. Promising people money you don’t yet have is kinda bullshit and it means that you have to keep sending them checks for a potentially infinite amount of time into the future, until you decide to let the book go out of print (which is ultimately what happened to Push, not un-coincidentally). While it may seem the “fair” thing to do for the folks that are helping you out, it’s WAY more trouble than it’s worth in the long run. Ryan recently had a post where he mentioned the option of trading shares of later profit for editorial work. DON’T DO IT. Pay some money just so you never have to work with someone again if they turn out to be a jerk. Everyone I worked with on Push was awesome, but it was still too much of a hassle to count profits and them split them 6 ways.

8. I edited Push, so I can’t really talk about editing so much. It’s been a popular topic lately, though, so I feel like I should say something. Here’s the thing, a good editor is more than just some dude you hire to read your game and tell you where it sucks, in the same way that a good layout guy doesn’t just walk away with your text and come back with a fully finished PDF. Editors get into the guts of what you create and are collaborators in what you ultimately produce, so make sure that they’re somebody that you want to have a partnership with and trust to stick with you until your project is done. I know more than a few indie game designers who thought they had a deal with an editor and then shit happened and they ended up having to do it themselves or find other people to help. Heck, that’s how I ended up editing part of Blowback for free. Also, this stuff about “getting what you pay for” with editing is editor-serving drivel.* Paying more won’t always get you a better product. When is that ever true? Paying less or expecting things for free won’t get you a better product either. The only way to make sure you get good editing is having a strong relationship with someone who is willing to give you the kind of help you want and need. Whether you’re paying them or not doesn’t matter. You can pay someone a bunch of money and still get shitty editing (or even no editing, if they take your money and walk). Hiring an editor does not absolve you of the responsibility of publishing a unclear or poorly written game. You don’t get to blame them later when there are still problems. You still ultimately have to decide when your game is ready for release. And that can be without any editing. Really, the idea that every game needs an editor is also editor-serving drivel.* What happened to our punk-rock, DIY spirit? Release whatever you want, just make sure you’re willing to stand up and take responsibility for your creations, whatever they look like. If they’re a photocopied, stapled thing that you wrote in 6 hours and sell for $10 a piece, power to you.

9. I would have made sure the games were consistently fun to play before publishing them. There’s are a bunch of ways to do this, but mostly it involves playing your game in the spirit it was intended — not to break it, not to see if extreme situations are covered by the rules, just to have fun and enjoy it. What Ben’s anti-playtesting rant got right was that playing your game a whole bunch won’t magically show you all the problems it has and offer you clear solutions to them. Sometimes you’ll play a game a bunch, it’ll still be mediocre, and you won’t be sure what the problems are and how to fix them. In that case, maybe you shouldn’t publish that game (yet or ever, depending on if you figure it out later). Also, if nobody wants to play your game with you, you should either find people who do or maybe not publish that game. If you had no audience, who are you going to sell it to or (if it’s for free) who’s going to play it?

10. I would think very carefully about conventions and make sure that they made sense for my budget and aspirations. I wouldn’t have done a convention just because it felt like I was supposed to or that’s how things worked. Better yet, I would have gone to conventions just as a regular con-goer before deciding to pay a bunch of money to attend as part of a booth.

11. I wouldn’t have bought any art before the text of the game was final and ready to go. I still probably have several thousand dollars worth of art for products that may never exist. I’ve also sent hundreds of dollars to artists who never ended up delivering the goods, so this is another place where working with people that you have stronger ties with — or, at least, who act professionally — is much better.

12. I wouldn’t release “press releases” or made any kind of announcements about the future availability of products before they were at the printer. Definitely don’t take pre-order money from people before the final PDF is ready to be sent to the printer and you have a clear sense of print costs and everything else. Otherwise, how do you know what to charge or how long it’ll be before the books are ready?

I’m sure I can think of more, but those are the first dozen things.

EDIT: * an unfair characterization that I regret, see the next post.

Follow-Up: Time + Hard Work != Great Game

2011 Feb 28

As a sidenote to my post from last night…

This is about also needing the spark.

I had about a 4-5 month break between when I stopped working at my last job and starting grad school. During that time, aside from a little freelance graphic design work, I had nothing on my plate except finishing Geiger Counter. And yet, it didn’t get finished, despite me trekking to Starbucks multiple times a week and spending 3-5 hours on it.

Sometimes, what’s wrong with the game isn’t something you can fix right now. Maybe you won’t be able to fix it ever. Or maybe you’re just not in a place where you can really work on it. Time and hard work isn’t a substitute for the insight and energy that you may need in order to move forward on a project and people come to their insight in different ways. For me, it almost always happens when I’m doing something else — walking the dog, doing dishes, in the shower, playing a game written by somebody else, or working on a game idea supposedly unrelated to the other one.

But, during those 4-5 months, I was so stressed out about finishing Geiger Counter that I wasn’t really open to those moments. Or I was depressed or anxious about the other crap in my life, and music was a much better creative outlet that game design was, at least for that period. In any event, the insight didn’t come. Geiger Counter still had a number of issues and I wasn’t in a position or state of mind to address them.

I was just chatting with Elizabeth and she was saying that the important part is combining the insight with time to work on it. Sometimes the insight, the spark that gives you the ideas and energy to move forward, comes when you’re too busy with day-to-day life stuff to take advantage of it. That sucks. But then other times you have the time set aside but the spark isn’t there, at least not for the project you’re “supposed” to be working on. That sucks too, maybe, but not nearly as bad. You still have the time set aside, right? Doing something else with it, something that excites you right now or something that connects you to the people you care about. Those are the very things that throw fuel on the fire, that nurture the spark.

And then hopefully you’ll be ready when it strikes again.