A funny thing happend this morning…

My normal morning routine is: Alarm rings @ 5:20 AM. I pull on sweats and sneaks and walk the dog. Get back a bit before 6, shower & start the day.

This morning I rolled out of bed, Pull on sweats and sneaks. I let the dog out of Daly’s room and take her out. I feel completely exhausted, like I barely got any sleep. What a way to start the weekend I think.

Ginger’s walking slower than normal. I don’t pay it much attention. I don’t see the paperboy like normal, but I don’t pay that much heed either. God, I’m tired.

Upon returning from our walk, I glance at the wall clock in the dining room. 1:56 AM My first thought: Damn! I’m going to have to change the battery in that clock!

My cell phone confirms that, yes, it isn’t quite 2 in the morning yet, and now I’ve got to find someway to get back to sleep now that my heart’s all pumped up for the day.

* * *

Funny thing is, even though I’m tired today, my brain is a-jumpin’ with game ideas. Does anyone else find a correlation between mild sleep deprivation and creativity?

Asserting Plausibility

Cross-posted to my RPGtalk blog

Been doing a bit of reading. There’s a trope in fantastic fiction that has deep roots. Many, many authors take great pains to assert that the fantastic events actually occured, and the papers have been entrusted to them through a definite series of exchanges as recounted in the Foreword, Introduction, or Preface. Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe begins with such a foreword, as does Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Conan Doyle’s Holmes never writes a word, but is recorded, instead, by the compulsive diarist Watson. John Carter of Mars begins with a detailed Foreward about how Burroughs, the “editor,” received Carter’s journals. Tolkein, of course, concocted an elaborate lineage for the Red Book of Westmarch, wherein Frodo & Sam recorded their adventures. In more recent years, the Blair Witch Project became a sensation by asserting the same thing.

Why? What does this gain the author? I figure this a tool to assert the plausibility of the impossible. If these amazing, unbelievable events are real, then they’re relevant, they matter to the reader, and the reader more easily becomes engaged. I could be wrong about that. Alternative interpretations are welcome.

How does this apply to RPGs? Well, the most obvious example is Castle Falkenstein, wherein Mike Pondsmith makes great use of this technique by claiming that the entire game was written by a modern-day expatriate “spell-napped” into the world of New Europa. Which was kinda cool, I thought, but also limiting. But definitely an option for conveying setting material as if it actually existed (Pondsmith scores extra points by asserting that the rules of the game were also created within the game world itself.)

But in a game that’s more about the active creation of story than the recounting of setting details, is there a purpose to be served by connecting the fictional events of the story to the real world that the players live in?

My brain says “No.” In these novels, the authors know what is true and what is fiction. The forewords are not written for their benefit, but solely for the benefit of their readers. In RPGs, everyone is the author. Everyone knows these events did not actually happen in some faraway place because everyone is making them up right now. It would just add another hoop for the fiction to jump through, without adding much in return.

And yet, although I cannot explain why, my gut, in its frustratingly inarticulate way, says “Yes.”

My game design process

Cross-posted at my RPGtalk blog.

Somebody’s always got to be late to the party. Oh well. In trying to catch up on the last few weeks in blog-land, I came across Troy Costisick posting about his design process on his Socratic Design blog. I’m thinking about my own design process a lot at the moment, since I stand at the beginning of a new project and can sense the path ahead of me.

One of the most striking things is how different my design process is from Troy’s. His looks like a true procedure. Step 1 flows into Step 2 flows into Step 3 … Very rational. My design process looks very little like that.

To begin with, for me, the process of creating a role-playing game is made up of two distinctly different activities: Designing the game (deciding what the rules & procedures will be) and writing the game (explaining those rules & procedures to other people through a game text). I find it best to keep those activities as separate as possible.

The first thing I do is start thinking in a broad way about the game’s genre. What makes it unique? What do I find engaging about it? What are some common themes? What sort of tension drives these types of stories? What shapes do the stories take? I’ll do a little bit of research, but this is mostly a mental review of the work I already know in the genre. I always carry a notebook with me. At this point, I jot things down like “The great superheroes are all trapped between two worlds” and “Origins include trauma and loss as well as power.”

As the genre thinking continues, I find myself making notes about what sort of behaviors to encourage in play and what sort of choices the players must face. Although game mechanics themselves don’t quite show up yet, the requirements for what the coming game mechanics must do appear here. These kind of notes say things like “Eventual victory must be caused by early defeat” and “Players must continually choose between saving what they love and saving the world.”

Having a pretty good idea of what I need the rules to do, I start looking for mechanics that will do it. I look at games on my shelf and study how they do what they do. I play with dice and cards. I tinker with some probabilities. I play out little skirmishes with myself, finding out the knobs and levers of a mechanic and what they do. Notes at this stage look like “Whenever a hero CHOOSES to lose, they check off one requirement that brings endgame closer” and “Putting your stats in danger gives you extra cards.”

Once I’ve learned all I can at the solo stage, I take it Kat and Michele, my devoted front-line playtesters. The rules are little more than reminders to myself at this point, and my post-game notes and corrections are often longer than the playtest document itself. Their patience and insight help hammer the game into something playable. My notes get very specific at this point, like “Nine rules changes to endgame is too many” and “Players don’t get enough cards in early conflicts–start with a base PLUS modifier??”

After going a few rounds with Kat & Michele, the game is ready for the convention circuit. I run it and run it and run it again. The convention format forces me to explain the game to new people over and over again. I jot down insightful questions I get from players. I pay attention to my own sense of fun, as well as the players’ excitement to tell me what parts of the game are working and which ones aren’t. I make notes like “Increasing suffering and drawing cards before a panel needs its own name.”

Of course, I’m still thinking about the genre and revising the design throughout all this activity, but the good stuff really starts to crystalize. Which is when the writing itself begins. By this point, I’ve explained the game verbally dozens of times. I know common points of misunderstanding and good ways of clearing them up. I do outlines of chapters, write a rough draft, sketching out sidebars as inspiration hits. It’s also time to contact artists.

I send the rough draft to Thor. It comes back better. Much better. Write-edit-rewrite continues until the deadline for layout arrives. Then the real craziness begins.

Happy Bard-day!

April 23rd is the (assumed) birthday of William Shakespeare. As you can probably guess, I’m fond of the guy.

Indie Press Revolution is honoring the Bard by kicking off their May Day sale! 20% off everything from IPR! Gamers of the world unite!

In other news, I’m starting a new blog on RPGtalk. I really want to support what Clinton is trying to do over there. For a while, I think I’ll make my game-thinking posts in both places.

1st Quarter 2006 Sales

It’s that time again. Spring has sprung and Sales Data is thick in the air. Actually, not quite so thick as once it was. So far, I’ve only seen Keith’s sales for Conspiracy of Shadows. That’s alright, though. Here’s my picture with ugly (but highly-contrasting) colors:

sales graph

The green in January is Dreamation, where WGP… did very well for itself. You’ll notice a new ugly color this time: Magenta for PDF sales. They’re slow and steady, but I kinda like ’em. I might just have to sign up with RPGnow. The mixed-green in March is ICON, which I did not attend, but Luke & Tony moved 2 copies anyway. Thanks, Luke & Tony!

I don’t do nearly as much promotion as I probably should. I answer questions on my forum. Help show people how to play. Run the game at a handful of conventions. My online presence is tiny. But good word-of-mouth about a well-crafted, fun game seems to carry itself. Over in This is My Blog, Ben sums up a great many years of hard-won indie publishing wisdom. I think I’m a living example of that stuff in practice.

Who Owns the Problem?

I’ve been thinking about two different types of premises in Narr games. The distinction is subtle and not a matter of this way OR that way, but more like a spectrum of emphasis. One of the key points of Narr design is that there’s a difficult-to-solve problem. On the one end of the emphasis spectrum the problem belongs primarily the PCs/protagonists: “There’s something wrong with me.” On the other end, the problem belongs primarily to the world: “There’s something wrong here.”

In My Life with Master, the emphasis of the gameplay is on the minion’s relationship with the Master and the townsfolk. His stats represent the state of his fragile psyche. The problem belongs to the minions: “I”m in a horribly dysfunctional relationship with the Master.” This isn’t to say that there’s no problem with the world in My Life with Master, it is, after all, terrorized by a meglomaniac and his More Than Human lackeys. But the problem with the world is not the focus of the play.

Most Dogs in the Vineyard play that I’m aware of sits pretty far on the other end of the spectrum. “There’s a problem with this here town and we’re aiming to mend it.” Although the “I am a Dog” traits, and the fact that one or more Dogs generally have kinfolk in the town certainly complicate matters, the focus remains on the town’s problems. I imagine the personal angles would come up more in long-term, multi-town play.

Personally, I’m more fond of the personal end of the emphasis spectrum. WGP… falls there, with the world itself as an expression of the superheroes’ inner Struggle.

I actually realized that I’m not overly fond of the worldly end of the spectrum thanks to Thor. In his last blog post he praised the Conan story Red Nails as great for Narr purposes. I read it and found it dull, because the emphasis is heavily on the “problem-with-the-world” end of things. The only “problem-with-the-protagonists” is that Conan wants to sleep with Valeria and she doesn’t want to. So Howard has to have all this nasty stuff happen to her so the buff warrior woman can be worn down to the shrinking violet that will fling herself into Conan’s rescuing arms. All the crap with the inhabitants of the ruined city bored me because I didn’t care about any of them.

Ron Edwards’ designs are interesting because the pull very strongly from both ends of the spectrum. Trollbabe is set up to run like a Red Nails-style story, and if the PCs weren’t Trollbabes, it would be farther to the problem-with-the-world side than Dogs. But they are Trollbabes. They’re these things that don’t quite belong anywhere. And with the gathering of Relationships through play, I can see the emphasis shifting more toward this type of issue as time goes on.

Sorcerer does the same thing. Relationship maps (and the detective novels that they’re drawn from) are heavily on the problem-with-the-world side. But smack-dab in the middle is the “I’ve summoned and bound a Demon” problem. Very personal. I think Sorcerer and Sword, with it’s Pacting rules and option of not starting with a Demon shifts the game heavily toward the problem-with-the-world end.

Ben, before you ask, I’m not real confident in my classification of Polaris, ’cause I still haven’t played it. But, I’d say that like an Edwards game it has strong elements from both ends of the spectrum. The Mistaken and all the crap they pull is the problem-with-the-world. However, the whole Zeal-Weariness corruption thing is very much a problem with the nights themselves.

The Burning Wheel convention games that Luke runs “Inheritance,” “THe Heist,” “The Gift,” lean toward the problem-with-the-characters end. I haven’t really talked to Luke about what BW was like before publication of the Classic edition, but some stuff in the text leads me to think it was more slanted toward the problem-with-the-world end.

Is one type of emphasis better than another? No. They will just appeal to different sorts of people. Thus, it’s something to keep in mind. And possibly leaving room for the play group to customize their own emphasis (as Sorcerer does) is a desirable goal, as it increases the games’ potential audience.