Archive for the 'Walton-Style Game Fu' Category

Design However Makes You Happiest

2011 Feb 28

I was really trying to stay out of the kerfuffle that Ben started on Anyway, partially because it seemed like the indie game design community’s annual excuse to talk about all the things that annoy us about the way other designers go about their business (or don’t).

But then Ron weighed in, bringing up the supposed “failure” of the community to properly support (or, maybe, according to Ron, stay out of the way of) the Ashcan Front. And that Game Chef has supposedly turned into something alien from its original, true purpose — when, frankly, Ron doesn’t get to decide what the purpose was since he’s never been part of it and, also frankly, has broken the rules he instituted for Game Chef (“only once a year at the Forge, to not be a distraction”) in order to run a design contest he named after himself. I mean, I love Ron, but really.

When it comes down to it, nobody else really knows how you should design games, because nobody else really knows why you are designing games in the first place. Maybe you don’t know either. Sometimes I’m not sure why I design games and lately I’ve tried to get better at, when I have those doubts, putting the game aside and doing something else. Other times, for specific projects, I know exactly why I’m doing it, and it isn’t to finish or publish a game; generally, it’s to realize an idea in words and diagrams and eventually play it with friends. Sometimes it takes me several fits-and-starts or years of slow progress to do that. I have other, more important things happening in my life! Sometimes it involves producing a lot of ideas that never go anywhere, just to see which ones stick and blossom. I sometimes feel guilty that a lot of promising ideas don’t turn into anything, but less and less, really. There are so many fun new things to think about! Why limit yourself to old ideas?

Some of Ben’s comments — and some of the other stuff coming out of this brew — seem to stem from this idea that finishing or publishing games is still the ultimate ideal. And that getting social status from “being a game designer” and infinitely being in the process of “working on a game” is usurping that goal. Maybe. But the Forge “publish or perish” model of social status had a ton of problems too. Maybe taking the emphasis off of publishing and allowing folks to just design without any sort of fixed outcome in mind is okay. Maybe we need that. I know I certainly needed that and I have been much happier and more productive in both my design and play since I gave up the idea that I had to publish a game in order to get respect and attention. But now, choosing to do a bunch of casual design work without a serious intent to publish is pandering for social status? Give me a break. Apparently one designer’s attempt to escape social status games is another’s descent into status posturing.

If I have any wisdom to share with other designers — anything that’s universal and not particular to my own situation — it’s design however makes you happiest.

For me, it’s often putting together one-shot experiments or hacking existing games to play with folks at indie meetups like JiffyCon and GoPlay NW. That kind of design work is never going to accomplish anything big, but it’s what’s giving me the most pleasure right now, even though I only get to see the fruits of that design once or twice a year. But hacking and scenario/campaign design is still design work, just a different kind that gets less attention and status. I’m also enjoying just playing games that I like a lot — allow me to recommend Apocalypse World and Castle Ravenloft — and doing some minor hacking of them. Why should I care about finishing a game when there are so many fun ones out there? Mine is fun too, but I’ll get to it eventually, even if it takes me another 5 years. Is this lazy design? Sure. But it’s fun, makes me happy, and lets me ignore a lot of bullshit in the indie community because it has nothing to do with what I’m doing or what I want.

When I see people complaining about the nature of relations or social status games in the community, I can only assume that they’re in a place where they’re really unhappy with something. Honestly, in my mind, yeah there are annoyances (I get annoyed about grad school too!), but there are also plenty of great, smart, open, giving people that you can talk, design, and play with both on the internet and in person. And I’d rather focus on interacting with them and on all the design and play that excites me and makes me happy rather than the negative stuff that I can’t control. What are other people even doing, design-wise? I’m not sure I could tell you except for the folks who submit to Game Chef (which is a fair number), the folks I follow locally (Sage, Harper, Jackson, etc.), and the games that I’ve played recently. So I don’t feel like I’m in a position to tell other folks what to do.

Even if I was! I mean, I read Sage’s twitter posts about being worried that his games aren’t good enough and I see myself a few years back when I felt guilty about Geiger Counter not being done and how I was secretly a failure and everybody was disappointed in me for not living up to my true potential as ground-breaking indie game designer. But that’s just me projecting! I don’t know, really, why Sage is designing games or what kind of approach or relationship to design (as a hobby) is going to make him happy. Maybe he would be horribly frustrated by the approach that is currently making me happiest. If he’s ultimately going to feel good about himself as a designer — or whatever type, with whatever publications — he’s going to have to get there himself, just like I’ll have to eventually get there myself (really, where I’m at now is better, but not quite there). I will be as supportive as possible, of course, and I hope other folks will support me when I’m feeling terrible about things, but I can’t really figure out what’s making other designers unhappy and help them get to a better place.

In any event, that’s the hedonistic approach to design that I’m advocating right now, mostly because design was making me really unhappy during certain periods before, even after I left the Forge. It’s not always a moment-to-moment hedonism, looking for a quick fix, since sometimes you have to put your chin down and work hard in order to get a better result later. But it involves paying attention to the interactions and practices that are actively making me unhappy and trying to avoid or change them, relieving stress and making sure that I have a healthy relationship with something that’s supposed to be an enjoyable hobby, not just a separate set of social responsibilities to drag me down.

P.S. How old were Ron and Vincent when they published their first games? Yeah, I’m not there yet and still feel like I’m learning how to do this. There’s plenty of time left.

Apocalypse World: Structured Freeform, Take 1

2011 Feb 1

A Twitter discussion with John Harper and Rob Donoghue made me think of drafting up something like this. This version isn’t quite what I originally had in mind when I started typing, but it’s okay. It’s called “Take 1” because I’m going to keep thinking about it and try to come up with another version that doesn’t use resource management (tokens), which is a bit of a cop-out as far as freeform designs go.

At the beginning of a session, the MC starts with a number of tokens representing the harshness of the world. He takes a token for every step the countdown clocks on his Threats have advanced, representing the progress of fundamental scarcities, and assigns these tokens to specific threats. Additionally, whenever he advances a countdown clock, the MC places another token on this threat.

Play Apocalypse World as normal, but, when a player makes a move:

  • they succeed with a 7-9 as the default
  • if another player decides to help, bump this up a tier (frex: to a 10+)
  • if another player decides to interfere, bump this down a tier (frex: to a 6-)
  • if the player declares that they are cooler, harder, hotter, sharper, weirder, better prepared (stuff), or more expert (playbook move) than their opposition, bump their result up one tier and mark off one point of their stat for this session (for example, a +3 becomes a +2)
  • if the player declares they are superior, but no longer have a positive attribute in that stat, the MC takes a token for pride
  • if the player uses a move from a stat in which they have a -1 or below, they begin with a 6- result
  • at any point, the MC can spend a token from the appropriate threat to narrate additional bad shit that lowers the player’s current result by a tier

The main problem with this current setup is that it might become a battle of attrition between the MC and the players, to see whose resources hold out the longest, and that’s less than ideal. I really want a setup were the players choose the level of result that they get, telling the MC what kind of moves he gets to make in response. Still working that out in my head.

Side Projects

2011 Jan 19

Archiving this from a discussion on SG.

Sometimes you begin projects in the wrong order. Like, you start working on game A before game B, but — really — you need to finish B before you can finish A, because there are a few problems you need to solve and B is a better place to solve them than A.

A good example is how working on Super Suit is solving many of the problems that I had with both Geiger Counter and An Ill-Fated Descent. But I’m already too invested in Geiger Counter to be willing to be experimental and gut that project entirely before rewriting it, plus the people who already liked Geiger Counter would freak out if I released versions that got substantially worse before they got better. Consequently, I need to work on my problems with Geiger Counter in another game — a game that I have much less history and investment in — and then come back later.

John Harper said that he was feeling similarly about Danger Patrol and — while those are both unfinished games that have seen a lot of play in their alpha and beta drafts — I think that can hold true for other games as well. Forking certain concepts off into a “side game” is not really about managing audience expectations so much as it is clearing away everything else and giving yourself space and permission to really go to work on a design problem, digging into the guts and trying a few new ideas without any expectations.

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.

On Thought #30: Efficiency

2010 Nov 21

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write some posts in response to Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball’s excellent little volume, Things We Think About Games. The best thing about a book like this is not that it’s even 99% correct but because it makes you think about your own experiences and things you may be taking for granted.

Thought #30 is: Dollar for dollar, a roleplaying game is very nearly the most efficient entertainment you can buy. This is an oft-tauted advantage that roleplaying games supposedly have over video games and the like. After all, you can theoretically play a roleplaying game forever, hours and hours of entertainment, for less than the cost of X-Box game with limited retread.

However, this is also a myth, at least in the general terms stated here. Sure, a hypothetical roleplaying game could potentially be an efficient source of entertainment, but most roleplaying games are not especially efficient. Rather, most roleplaying games require an intense amount of invested time, energy, and money in order to deliver on their promised potential.

For example, my experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons 4E and the Dungeons & Dragons Board Game (i.e. Castle Ravenloft) couldn’t be more different in their respective efficiencies in delivering enjoyable experiences. With 4E, as the GM, I was required to invest substantial time and energy (making maps, building encounters) or in additional products (buying pre-made maps and encounters) in order to bring the game to the table. And there were very few guidelines or “best practices” instructions on how to do that in an efficient manner instead of stumbling through trial and error. Even when there were guidelines, over and over again, it was shown that they were not — in fact — correct. Fights dragged on forever because the creatures had too many hit points. Spending 1 Action Point per encounter was both lame and nonsensical. The group had to learn for ourselves, over extended play, how to play the game in a way that provided consistent enjoyment, and that process included a lot of wasted time and effort. Basically, it was not efficient at all.

In comparison, the more recent Dungeons & Dragons Board Game, despite being much more limited in content and replay value than 4E, was much more efficient in delivering enjoyment. There were several things that the group had to still learn through play — the biggest one was that any character exploring new territory was always attacked by whatever was in the next room — but overall the enjoyment happened with much less trial and error or laborious effort. You didn’t have to prep monsters or locations or plot. Character creation happened nearly instantly, thanks to the recommended power choices. Even players will no gaming background at all picked it up very quickly. It was not, perhaps, as fun as a good 4E session, but it delivered a solid, enjoyable experience with much less effort on our part. Consequently, I’m much more excited to play Castle Ravenloft again than I am to play 4E (or 3.5, or 3.0) again.

So here’s the axiom I would suggest for beginning discussions about the “efficiency” of particular entertainments: Games are efficient if they enable the players to more-or-less replicate the promised play experience with a minimum of unnecessary labor and struggle.

A simpler version would be like “efficiency = fun / effort,” but the subjectiveness of fun makes that less useful, perhaps. You can’t really ensure that other people will like the things you designed the game to do. But you can ensure that they can make those things happen without needless wasted energy. Improving the overall efficiency of player efforts has been especially emphasized in recent games, from Montsegur 1244, to Lady Blackbird, to Apocalypse World, to Castle Ravenloft.

In this day and age, when we have to compete with (or, really, coexist alongside) video games and the new wave of well-designed board games, even roleplaying designers should strive for their games to play faster and easier, without unnecessary hours of prep, extended study, and trial and error. Designers should know how to make their games really sing and be able to communicate that knowledge to their prospective players through guidelines and procedures. We cannot wait for other players to figure out how to play our games properly. We have to be able to show them.

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.

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.

Tearing Veils Asunder

2010 Sep 8

I’ve been carefully following Will Hindmarch’s attempt to wrestle with the rules text of Apocalypse World, which has been both fascinating and really enlightening. Will, who’s done a lot of work for White Wolf, writes the thoroughly terrific blog gameplaywright and co-wrote/edited Things We Think About Games, which is equally provocative and terrific. Also, the few times I’ve met him in person — last time while he was trying out Castle Ravenloft at PAX — he seems like a top-notch dude.

I’m going to try really hard not to project Will’s perspective here, because he does a way better job of that himself, but one of the most challenging parts of Apocalypse World is the way that it rips asunder two different aspects of what roleplaying has been for many folks.

First, it completely lays bare the procedures for play. You do this; and then you do that. I find Brand’s stunned reaction to people actually picking names off the name list to be another fascinating aspect of this. There has traditionally been this understanding that game texts can’t really tell you how to play, that players have to bring a lot of that themselves, not just game content but unwritten procedures. Likewise, even when a text does try to explicitly tell you how to play — as in Poison’d — frequently people don’t take those instructions at face value (I know I didn’t). It doesn’t ACTUALLY mean we do that, certainly. But in AW, nearly all the procedures you need are explicitly laid out for you. There is no mystery and no secret techniques are required. As Fang Langford neatly says in that thread, “Will has encountered what might be THE ’system does matter’ game,” a culmination of a long series of steps aimed at explicitly codifying play procedures frequently left implicit. No surprise, many folks will find this uncomfortable, at least at first. This is a different approach to what roleplaying is or can be. Brand’s mind says, “But surely picking characters’ names can’t/shouldn’t be made into an explicit procedure” (apologies to Brand if I’m reading him wrong), but AW says, “yes, actually it can; anything can.”

Secondly and related, it makes no effort to offer flexibility to people with different tastes or desires, aside from encouraging folks to hack the game to be whatever they want and providing some suggestions on how that might be done. In this, it is a classic autuer game in the Forge tradition, offering audiences a very specific thing and asking if they’d like to participate in it, rather than handing them some general tools and telling them that they should make their own fun. It’s 100% okay if folks don’t like what AW is offering. We have definitely reached the point where there will be brilliant roleplaying games that folks, however open-minded and cultured, may not find a way to enjoy or will at least struggle for a long time before finding a way to fully appreciate something (I’m on record of having that experience with Poison’d and In a Wicked Age, for example). That’s what happens when we push the bubble a bit and make challenging games. They can be difficult, not just in the content material they deal with, but in other important ways, like what they ask from those participating in them. AW doesn’t cover itself in a veil that says, “this game is for everyone” or “everyone can enjoy playing the same game together.” It says, actually, “this game is this way; other games are whatever way they are; I hope you find a game that’s fulfilling for you; maybe this one is it, but maybe not.”

And, really, there’s a third thing that making a game this explicit does: it exposes the fact that, despite us all being in the same hobby, we’re all doing different things, sometimes fundamentally different things. Not always, sometimes we are doing very similar things, but definitely sometimes — sometimes you have a conversation or read or play a new game and realize just how big the gulf is. And, speaking personally now, not for anybody else, I find that both deeply exciting and unnerving.

What This is Actually About

2010 Sep 8

A note mostly to myself, paraphrasing a recent conversation with Ryan Macklin, but also in reference to conversations with Matt Snyder and others:

“Creator ownership is (or should be) about creators having as much control as they want.”

It doesn’t mean everybody should have to self-publish as a sole proprietorship.

I think that might be the step in thinking that could take the indie roleplaying community closer to where indie comics are right now.

At least, something worth thinking about.

Everyone Can Make Games

2010 Aug 29

Archived from this thread on SG:

So, with Game Chef coming up again, I have to say that I firmly believe that:

1. Everyone can design a game. It’s like how everyone can draw a picture of a flower. You just do it, period. And there it is: a game.

2. Whether a game is “good” or not is completely subjective, depending on what you want from it. Maybe it isn’t particularly successful as a game, but tells you a great deal about the author (insight) or, 20 years down the road, becomes a record of what they were thinking about at the time (nostalgia). Everything is potentially valuable and useful and “good” to someone. And the rest doesn’t matter. Why would anyone want to judge all games by the same set of criteria? Why should every game aspire to be D&D or Dogs in the Vineyard? That’s bullshit. You have to know your (subjective) criteria before you decide how to judge a game.

3. Everyone can learn to make games that work better as games (i.e. creating a consistently enjoyable experience for their players, based on whatever subjective criteria you have for play), given practice and a desire to learn from others. Actually, you can learn to make games that are better at whatever subjective criteria you have, if it’s selling more copies, or causing more controversy, or making you more famous amongst your peers or whatever. People are good at learning to do things. All it takes is time and dedication. Of course, people have different capacities for getting better and different learning speeds, especially as we get older, but I believe that everyone can make incremental progress if they put in the time and energy. That’s one of the simple joys and rewards of being alive.

4. Does that mean that everyone can make a game that will be hugely successful at their own subjective criteria? No. You can definitely get closer to your criteria or more successful, but nothing guarantees that you will be successful at anything you want to do. The challenge and uncertainty is also part of life simple pleasures and vexing frustrations.

5. Sometimes this means, in order to be hugely successful by your own (subjective) standards, you have to change the criteria by which you measure yourself and your games. Maybe you just want to write the best 2-player game about zombies ever written. That’s probably possible. Will it sell a billion copies and make you world famous? Probably not. Who cares though? You did it. You met your criteria. Maybe you want to hack an existing game and run a really memorable campaign that your home playgroup will never forget. Badass. Do that.

A lot of this comes out of my own frustrations and personal journey over the past 10 years or so, coming to terms with my own design and publishing goals and ability to execute on them (at least at this stage in my life). So, changing your personal criteria for success is something near and dear to my heart. I do it all the time and feel like it’s probably critical for human beings to stay sane and satisfied.