Archive for the Projects Category

The Object of the Game

Posted in Core Principles, Design on June 2, 2010 by jburneko

So, my group recently played Diaspora. You can hear us talk about it on our podcast Actual People, Actual Play. During one of the episodes I raised some points that Will thought was worth me elaborating on in an article. I’m hesitant because my points are largely issues of design and I want to keep Play Passionately focused on principles of play. However, once in a while I have a point about play that touches on points of design. So I’m going to create a new section of the blog called “The Design Sidebar” for when I want to talk about things that sit right at that border.

Let me start by saying that our Diaspora game came to a screeching halt because of a serious miscommunication over what exactly we were doing with the game. That wording is pretty important. We had some hiccups over imaginative stuff like what was and wasn’t appropriate for the “genre.” But the much bigger issue was that even though we all understood the tools in our hands we simply weren’t putting it to the same use. I realized that what happened to us is illustrative of what I consider the Number 1 design problem across the majority of RPGs.

Other types of games have a rather crucial design component that the majority of RPGs lack. Most games call this feature the Object of the game. Object is, of course, derived from Objective because most other forms of game are competitive. Many RPGs are not competitive which is probably where the confusion that they some how don’t need an Object arose in the first place.

However, the Object of the game tells you something much more important than just “how to win.” It tells you to what use the rest of the rules of the game are intended to be put. Imagine for a moment if I explained all the rules of chess in terms of how pieces move and how pieces get captured and promoted and so forth but I never told you that the object of the game was “to capture the king.” Instead I simply told you that you had “to win” or worse, “just have fun.” What do you think would happen?

I think what would happen to that chess match is pretty much what happened in our Diaspora game and what I suspect happens to a lot of games that fall apart and never reach a conclusion. Telling the group “to have fun” is not productive. Telling the group “to tell an awesome story” is about on the same level as telling the group to “to win.” Neither of those statements tells you what those phrases mean in the context of the rule set at hand. How I win with Chess is not the same with how I win with Poker. Similarly how I tell a great story with Sorcerer is not the same as how I tell a great story with Grey Ranks.

In my opinion the greatest innovation in “indie” game design in the last 10 years hasn’t been “narration trading” or “conflict resolution” or “relationship mechanics” but rather the return and inclusion of a very basic game design principle: The Object of the Game. Some of these games include very tangible and more traditional sounding objects. For example The Shab-al-Hiri Roach tangibly tracks reputation and tells you the object of the game is fight for it. InSpectres tells you that you have to complete investigative missions while keeping the company afloat and tracks that with Franchise dice.

However, the object of the game doesn’t have to be that concretely mechanized and gamey as that. For example, the object of Burning Wheel is to challenge the character’s Beliefs. The object of Sorcerer is to heighten and resolve the crisis expressed in the character’s Kicker. I’m simplifying the above examples a bit because a lot of RPGs that feature GMs actually have asymmetrical objects. For example the object of the GM in Dogs in the Vineyard is to reveal the town and escalate conflicts while the object of the players to pass judgment and resolve the town’s problems.

Once you understand the object of the game all the other rules fall into alignment. The object is the North Star of play and properly orients the standards of participation. Once the object of the game is known then “good play” and “bad play” becomes a quantifiable and observable standard. An applied rule or technique either moves the group towards the object or away from it.

In our Diaspora game Will, as the GM, was operating under the assumption that the game was fairly episodic in structure. He assumed the object of the game was to deal with a string of sci-fi space encounters as you moved relatively quickly from place to place. I, on the other hand, assumed the object of the game was to pursue my character’s personal goals (my default assumption and preference when the game fails to tell me otherwise). Since we were playing towards two different objectives the game ground to a halt. Will kept considering things done and resolved while I was considering those same situations just the tip of the iceberg.

Which one of us was “correct”? The text of Diaspora is utterly silent on the matter. Indeed we agreed that the game probably could have supported either approach equally well and we simply failed to come to a coherent agreement on which one we were doing this time around. That suggests leaving the object out of a game is perhaps a valid design decision. However, what I’d like to see from such games is more textual acknowledgment that, that crucial design step is required to be taken by the group. I’d like to see more instruction on how to take that design step. Even my tinker toy set as a child came with a set of prefab blueprints to get you started.

Jarred Sorensen once remarked that rule sets like GURPS are not games but are in fact toys. He argued that GURPS was a toy from which each individual group was required to design and develop their own game. I am further arguing that the line between game and toy is whether or not a clear Object for the game is stated. When I mentioned this to Will he pointed out that games like GURPS develop a strong culture around them regarding how they are intended to be played.

He is one hundred percent correct. And I find that statement down right frightening. I ask you this: Are RPGs something you can go to the store, buy, read and play right then and there or is it an oral tradition that you have to be introduced and mentored into by someone already in the hobby. I phrased that sentence very charitably as my first instinct was to use the phrase, “indoctrinated in to” but I’d like to assume that most people are just enthusiastically sharing their hobbies with others and not selectively bringing people into the secret inner circle of the elite.

Along those lines I leave you with this chilling proposition: The five people who played in our Diaspora game are all fairly self-reflective individuals. We’re keenly aware of our preferences and have a pod-cast dedicated to critically thinking about our play. If the five of us totally failed to form a coherent consensus on what we were trying to accomplish with a game, what HOPE does the new comer who wants to check out these “RPG things” have of doing so if the games refuse to instruct them?

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Gamer Baggage

Posted in Core Principles, Design on January 5, 2009 by jburneko

I generally like to keep the articles here focused on play but this article is going to step a bit on the design side only because it ties in with my fiction-first principles. There are rules and procedures in games that I’ve been taking note of lately that I think of as coming from “gamer baggage.” Let’s be honest, a lot of us come from extremely unsatisfying and frustrating experiences within the hobby. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to get rather specific experiences out of gaming and utterly failing. “Gamer baggage” is what happens when a designer takes that frustration and then tries to build in rules and procedures into a game that force or restrain other player’s behaviors to conform to the experience the designer is trying to get out of his own game rather than assuming that basic buy-in as given.

I point to the procedures of creating Issues and Shocks in the game Shock as an example. As written everyone proposes a social Issue that supposedly interests the player and then you create the science fiction Shock to see how it interacts with those issues. That process strikes me as backwards if you assume basic player commitment to the social issue aspects of science fiction. Where science fiction is concerned social issues alone do not excite me. Instead, the social issues *raised* by the proposed Shock does excite me.

I can’t speak for Joshua (the author of Shock) but the written rules seem to stem from repeated frustrating experience where “science fiction” in a game simply meant “we use lasers instead of swords” on an otherwise bog standard action-flick scenario. It seems like an attempt to force people to focus on the issues by taking the fun sci-fi toy away from them rather than assuming that the game’s target audience is made up of the kind of people who will get excited by the social ramifications of the proposed sci-fi toy.

I will admit to strong personal bias in this regard since I’m very much a color-first player. I see the social issues raised by the setup of a lot of board games. When playing Sorcerer I like to think about the look & feel of Demons and Sorcery and other Setting elements and then see what Humanity definition falls out from that. Other people seem to like putting the Humanity definition out front and center and building everything else around it.

However, another example seems to be Instincts in Burning Wheel. Allow me to first say that I have never played Burning Wheel nor have I read the game in its entirety. I have, read the section on Instincts which struck me as being overly defensive against GMs who like to play “gotcha” games. GM: “You spring the trap!” Rogue Player: “What? I’m a professional! I wouldn’t have gone in there without checking for traps!” GM: “Gotcha! You didn’t *say* you were checking for traps!” Again, assuming a basic functional dialogue about the game I’m not entirely sure Instincts are necessary (based on my reading of them).

Yet a third example might be the Appeal rules in Dirty Secrets which allow a formal process of calling into question someone’s narration. I think the Jurisdiction (who has authority over fictional components at a given time) concepts presented are sufficient assuming a functional and committed creative dialogue. I’m not entirely convinced that the Appeal rules are necessary and indeed I’ve never actually seen them used in my own play. Indeed Dirty Secret’s spiritual predecessor Spione uses Jurisdiction alone.

My point is that those of us who aspire to be designers (and indeed those of us who seek functional play at all) need to set aside the rage born of frustration and take for granted that those playing the game are socially functional and creatively synergistic about the game at hand. Putting things in such harmonious terms may make it seem like I’m suddenly advocating that the system doesn’t matter. Allow me to present a counter example to dispel that notion.

System in its entirety (the sum all of techniques used, not just the mechanics) shapes the dialogue space among the group members. So even assuming total creative synergy the system used can either help or hinder the application and realization of that creative synergy. So let’s take a look at the Issue as presented in Primetime Adventures. Similar to my discussion about Shocks and Issues in the game Shock one might argue that anyone committed to good television would naturally create issue laden characters. This is true, however, my point about Shock was not that the Issues get spelled out but that they get spelled out *first*.

In Primetime Adventures having the Issue written down focuses the character especially if the character is rather complex in the player’s head. In some sense it frees the player to play the character as richly and complex as they would like while communicating a central reference point to the rest of the play group for evaluating that complexity. Combine the Issue with the concept of the Spotlight Episode and you have a clearly defined target for the group to hit *for this season*. A different aspect of the character might very well be the target for next season.

From my point of view the Issue and the other design components of PTA aren’t there to force or restrain behavior but to enrich a set of behaviors that were hopefully already there. And that kind of design is ultimately very selfish. It’s about reflecting on what you like to do and creating tools that make that an easy and fun thing to do with other people who also already want to do it and not get caught up in making the game resistant to the presence of non-socially functional or creatively un-invested players. This is by no means an easy thing to do as the frustration and hate of “Gamer Baggage” runs deep, silent and deadly.

The Extraordinarily Horrible Children of Raven’s Hollow

Posted in The Exraordinarily Horrible Children of Raven's Hollow on October 4, 2008 by jburneko

This isn’t really a design blog. However, I was intrigued by Jonathan Walton’s Murderland design contest and needed a place to post my entry. Here seemed as good a place as any. So without further ado I give you…

The Extraordinarily Horrible Children of Raven’s Hollow

The primary inspiration for this game is Edward Gory’s “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” with a dash of the comic “Lenore.” The game is intended to produce a quick grim fairy tale about horrible children who bully each other into dangerous acts that likely lead to their demise. Enjoy!

A Quick Word on the Setting

Raven’s Hollow is located in a kind of Gothic fairytale landscape. Imagine dense rickety trees, rapidly flowing streams, caves in the hills and maybe the odd swamp or two. The village itself is mostly hovels inhabited by simple people but maybe far up the path is a lonely manner house or even an abandoned abbey. Hopefully this gives you enough flavor to get started.

Setup

This game has no GM so everyone should envision the child they’d like to play. You need little more than a name and a gender but it helps to have a fairly strong image of what your child looks like. You also need a bunch of six-sided dice. Each player needs three dice of one color (I like green). Three dice of another color (I like white) sit in the middle of the table and these dice represent the adults. Finally a single die of a third color (I like black) sits on the table and this die represents the ravens.

Some Social Advice about Narration

The game is intended to be fairly visual. So when the game says, “describe” or “narrate” you should do so in as florid and creepy a manner as you can muster. Remember the drawings of Edward Gory. And if you’re not familiar with the drawings of Edward Gory… get thee to the Internet, you’ve been missing out.

Play

Someone needs to go first. It doesn’t matter who. This player is the Active Player. On an Active Player’s turn he does the following.

Describe where their character is.
Describe what their character is wearing.
Describe what their character is holding.
Describe what activity their character is doing.

All this describing must be solitary. The character can not be engaged with anyone else. They are alone.

Next, determine which player has the least dice. If there is a tie (like there is at the beginning of the game) everyone with equal dice rolls and the player who rolls lowest is chosen. If the rolls tie, roll again. This player is called the Bully Player. Note: If at this stage there is more than one player with NO dice, then the player who has least recently been the Bully Player (among the no dice players) gets to be the Bully Player.

The Bully Player then narrates how his character enters the scene just described by the Active Player. The two players can role-play out any interaction they like but eventually the Bully Player’s character must demand that the Active Player’s character engage in a risky activity that either endangers the Active Player’s character or endangers the adults.

The Active Player then has a choice. He can either have is character attempt the risky activity or give the Bully Player one of his dice. If he chooses to give over a die then the Bully Player describes how his character either takes what the Active Player’s character was holding or somehow spoils the activity the Active Player’s character was doing.

If the Active Player chooses to carry out the risky activity the procedure is different depending on whether the activity endangers his character or endangers the adults.

Endangering The Character

Demands that endanger the character are things like, “go put your head in that crocodile’s mouth” or “cross that old log at the top of the waterfall.” The Active Player should narrate any details he wishes leading up to the actual moment of performing the risky activity.

Then the Active Player rolls his dice and sums up the values. If his dice exceed ten (i.e. rolls eleven or greater) then his character survives the risk. The Active Player should narrate his character accomplishing this feat and The Bully Player should narrate his character’s reaction.

If the Active Player’s dice fall short of ten then his character dies performing the risky activity. The Active Player should narrate this demise. The Bully Player does NOT get to narrate his reaction. At this point the Active Player swaps his dice out for black dice and adds them to the collection of raven dice.

Modifiers

Before rolling the Active Player has two choices that might help him out. First, he can take a SINGLE die from the adults (if there are any dice left) and roll it with his own dice and add in the result. Second, he can take a SINGLE die from the ravens and roll it with is own dice and add in the result. He can do both of these if he wishes.

When taking the adult die nothing new need be immediately narrated. However, if a raven die is taken the Active Player must narrate a raven somewhere into the scene passively observing. In either case a successful roll is exactly the same as a successful roll without having taken any dice.

If the player takes either or both of these extra dice and still fails then his character doesn’t die and the the risky activity is interrupted by the intervention of the adults (if an adult die was taken), the raven (if a raven die was taken) or both (if both were taken). The Active Player narrates this intervention.

If an adult intervenes the Active Player’s character gets punished for doing such a foolish thing. The Active Player narrates this punishment and then gives up one of his dice to the adult die collection.

If a raven was part of the intervention the raven steals part of what the Active Player’s character was wearing in the process. The Active Player gets to narrate the intervention but the Bully Player gets to decide what was stolen. The Active Player then gives up a die to the raven die collection.

These lost die are separate from the original adult or raven dice taken which go back to their original collections regardless of the outcome.

Note: This means the Active Player could lose two dice if he took both modifier dice. However, if he does not have two dice to lose from his original pool then he can not take both dice to begin with. He must choose one.

Endangering The Adults

Demands that endanger the adults are things like, “go kick out the ladder from under Mr. Thatcher while he’s fixing his roof” or “go pour rat poison in Mrs. Baker’s pie filling.” The Active Player should narrate any details he wishes leading up to the actual moment of performing the risky activity.

The Active Player then rolls his dice and sums up the values. The Bully Player then picks up and rolls the collection of adult dice and sums the values. If the Active Player’s dice exceed the Bully Player’s dice (i.e. ties go to the adults) then his character performs the risk and doesn’t get caught. The Active Player should narrate his character accomplishing this feat which should include the demise of an adult as a consequence. The Bully Player should NOT narrate his character’s reaction. The active player also gets to take one of the adult dice as his own.

If the Active Player’s dice fall short of the Bully Player’s dice then his character is caught by the adults who are so horrified that they send the character away from Raven’s Hollow. The Active Player should narrate where his character gets sent off to. The Bully Player does NOT get to narrate his reaction. At this point the Active Player swaps his dice out for black dice and adds them to the collection of raven dice.

Modifiers

Since this action is against the adults they can not help you and thus taking a die from them is not available. However the Active Player can still take a SINGLE die from the ravens. Again, upon doing so he should narrate a passive observing raven into the scene. Again, the consequences of successful outcome are unaltered.

If the Active Player takes a die from the ravens and still fails then the raven intervenes in some manner such that the character does not succeed in his risk but is not caught by the adults either. The Active Player gets to narrate this intervention, however no clothing snatching happens. The Active Player loses a die to the raven’s collection and returns the borrowed die.

After this sequence is resolved the player to the Active Player’s right becomes the new Active Player and the process is repeated.

Lost Forever

If at the top of his turn the Active Player has NO dice his character is lost forever to the surrounding environment. Instead of picking a Bully Player the Active Player should simply narrate where his character becomes permanently lost to the environment. “Little Johnny lives with the bears in a cave” is a good example. A single black die should be added to the raven die collection when this happens.

Orphans

If the last die is ever removed from the adult collection then the risky action taken by the Active Player’s character has caused a chain reaction that wipes out all the remaining adults. The Active Player gets to narrate this calamity. The children are now Orphans.

First of all, Bully Players may no longer demand actions that endanger the adults (there are none to endanger). Also, during actions which endanger the character no adult dice may be taken as modifiers (there none to intervene).

However, an even more significant thing happens when the children become Orphans. Without adult supervision the already cruel children of Raven’s Hollow become even crueler and may attack each other direction. The Bully Player may simply choose to have his character attack the Active Player’s character instead of making an endangering demand. Also the Active Player may choose to have his character attack the Bully Player in response to an endangering demand instead of surrendering a die.

It should be made clear that when two children attack each other one of them WILL meet his demise.

When two children attack each other, each player should narrate briefly what his character is doing. The player who instigated the attack narrates first. Then the two players simply roll their own dice and sum up the values. The character of the player with the lower roll meets his demise in the attack. The player of the defeated character gets to narrate what form his demise takes. The player of the defeated character replaces his dice with black dice and adds them to the raven collection.

In the event of a tie the struggle goes on for another round. The player who narrated second in the previous round gets to narrate what his character is doing followed by the other player narrating what his character is doing. The dice are then simply rerolled, round after round until no tie happens.

A Social Note About Direct Attacks

It is advised that the demise of a character during a direct attack be the result of an accident that occurs during the struggle. For some reason, children dying in absurd accidents is morbidly funny. Children murdering each other is not so funny. This is not a rule. Simply an observation for consideration.

The Ravens

You might have noticed that the ravens of Raven’s Hollow are keen observers and occasionally intervene in the affairs of children. The ravens are also fiercely judgmental. When a player has his character permanently removed from the game they become a Raven Player. Raven Players stop getting their turn as Active Player (as they have no character) but they still get to influence the game.

Just before ANY die roll and AFTER the Active Player has had his chance to take the single raven die modifier (on rolls where that is allowed), starting with the Raven Player closest to the Active Player’s right each Raven Player may take a die from the raven collection and contribute it to any die collection being rolled. The Raven Player should narrate how a raven is pro-actively intervening on that sides behalf. Continue going around the Raven Players until all the Raven Players have declined to contribute a die once or the raven collection runs out of dice. Once the situation is resolved all raven dice are returned to the collection.

Endgame

Endgame occurs when there is only one child left. One of two things happens depending on whether the child is an Orphan or not.

The Adults Endgame

If the remaining player’s character is not an Orphan the adults of Raven’s Hollow finally wake up to the fact that something is not right with the children and go to confront the last child. The player who lost his character first gets to narrate what form this confrontation takes and rolls the dice in the adult collection. The player of the surviving character rolls his own dice with no chance at modifiers.

Before the roll the Raven Players take turns contributing dice to either side and narrating how the ravens intervene for that side again until they have all passed once or the raven collection in empty. The player rolling dice for the adults still gets to contribute as usual including contributing a dice against the adults. He is simply rolling for them.

Finally the dice are rolled. Ties go to the adults.

If the player of the surviving child wins the roll he gets to narrate a warm and fuzzy positive outcome of some kind for his child. Maybe the adults think it was all some kind of misunderstanding.

If the adults’ roll wins the players of the Ravens (like a jury) decide the negative fate of the child. Be as grim as you like.

The Orphan Endgame

If the remaining player’s character is an Orphan he suddenly finds himself alone in a forest full of judgmental ravens. At least SOME of these ravens aren’t going to like this child very much and decide to take action against him. The player who lost his character first gets to narrate what form this confrontation takes. He also picks up HALF (rounding down) the raven dice and rolls them. The player of the surviving character rolls his own dice with no chance at modifiers.

Before the roll the Raven Players take turns contributing dice to either side and narrating how the ravens intervene for that side again until they have all passed once or the raven collection is empty. The player rolling dice for hostile ravens still gets to contribute as usual including contributing a dice against the hostile ravens. He is simply rolling for them.

Finally the dice are rolled. Ties go the ravens.

If the player of the surviving child wins the roll he gets to narrate a warm and fuzzy positive outcome of some kind for his child. Maybe he somehow dominates the ravens and becomes some kind of raven master hermit.

If the ravens’ roll wins the players of the Ravens (like a jury) decide the negative fate of the child. Be as grim as you like.