By The Stars — Paused — Week Forty

It’s been a less than stellar week for By The Stars. Due to real life stesses on many people’s parts, there was no playtest this past weekend. Carl and Bill came over and we discussed a possible turn structure, why it might work, and how it might be set up. We’ll try again on June 10.

Since then, I haven’t had much time or brainspace to devote to BTS. The skeletal turn structure looks like this:

1) Opening turn, everyone starts with all their own Resource cards. They must hand out 5 of each Resource (10 total) to at least 4 different people. This will be broken into 4 turns. No player may receive more than 10 cards (We’ll mark that with poker chips or something). But you don’t just hand people cards–you explain why that character has influence over you. Thus, we build backstory right at the beginning.

2) On a regular turn, all the players will pair up for their conflicts. Normally, it’ll be whoever made the biggest bid last turn that picks their fight first, but on the first turn it’s random. They’ll negotiate spoils and set up their conflict simultaneously. Once everyone has figured out their bid, each pair takes a turn making their bid, describing their conflict, and resolving their cards in front of the entire group. This will allow everyone to know what’s going on in the game fiction.

This also opens up possibilities for helping. Players might be able to bid their own cards to help someone else’s conflict (and describe how, of course). But I’ve not yet settled on what they get in return mechanically. Plus, that opens a whole new level of complexity–Where do helping cards go?

So, progress is slow, but the moon wasn’t built in a day!

By The Stars — “Your faith in your friends is your [undoing].” — Week Thirty-Nine

Okay, time for a consolidation and restatement of my design goals for By The Stars:

1) A game that takes players from “I’ve never heard of this game, but I’ll play” to “That was great! It was my best game of the con” in 4 hours or less.
2) A game that drives and rewards players for creating conflict and excitement.
3) A game that can run for up to a dozen players simultaneously without a game master.

At the moment, I’d give it an D- on goal #1, a C+ on goal #2, and a B- on goal #3. The Camp Nerdly playtest showed me that #1 is faring very poorly. The game is too complex. It’s like trying to teach and then play Cancellation Hearts with folks who’ve never played a trick-taking card game. It needs to be like teaching and playing UNO.

One of the playtesters said, rather enthusiastically, “It’s a really interesting game engine and I think if I would play it a second time, I’d really get the hang of it and enjoy it.” For a game intended to run 3 or more sessions, that’d be a pretty good place to be. For a BTS, it’s a stake through the heart! (But a useful stake through the heart. All this stuff is useful–I’m not discouraged any more, just challenged. “Discouraged” was so last year!)

Why is it more complex than it started out to be?
Well, I’ve been adding little bits to try to fix the game’s other biggest problem: Lack of story development. It’s not that nothing happens. It’s not even that nothing exciting happens. It’s that the story does not build and hang together. I know it’s persistent problem because it’s structural, but I don’t yet have a better solution.

One of my playtest comments did get me closer to an understanding of the problem. One of the playtesters said: “With so many players, you’ve got a lot of processing power–a lot of creativity. But because the fiction never comes back together, you can’t really build on others’ creativity.”

This is a very, very good point. My players are not building a single story, they’re each building their own individual story. And, in every conflict, they find themselves needing to re-orient themselves about the content of the fiction, as well as the motives of the other player, and the needs of their own hands. In some ways, every conflict is like starting from scratch. This is a big, thorny problem.

Diagnosis in Forge-speak
I’m being trumped by the Lumpley principle because the group is never agreeing to anything, just a subset of the group. Thus, the Shared Imagined Space is never synchonized among the group and isn’t really “Shared.” Thus, to be super-nitpicky, we’re not really role-playing, just making stuff up in proximity to one another.

Diagnosis in English
What makes an RPG work is that the group of players all agree (to a greater or lesser degree) on what happens in the fictional game world. In the current structure of By The Stars, the group never has the opportunity to agree on the fictional events, because most of the group doesn’t even know about most of the fictional events.

BTS is LARP-like, but LARPs don’t suffer from this. Why does BTS?
This is not a problem in traditional LARP because players cannot really affect anything outside of their own characters without the acknowledgment of a game master. What I’ve added to By The Stars is the ability to describe things outside your character. People blow up starships, hack computers, and break out of jail. But almost like a tree falling in an empty forest, (nearly) no one hears them, so they barely make a sound.

What to do?
A solution that was suggested was to break up the free-for-all nature of conflicts and install a turn-taking structure. I’m concerned that it is going to make the game take too long–but it’s currently running quite short, so that’s not so bad. I’m concerned that it’s going to increase the dead-air time for each individual player. But we’ll see how much of a problem that is in playtest.

Playtest is next week. I’m thinking of re-doing the Illyrian crisis with some new and changed charcters, and the new rules. We’ll see what happens!

By The Stars — “Bring me the hyrdrospanners!” — Week Thirty-Eight

What did I do for By The Stars in the last week?

I playtested it with eight folks who had never heard of it before at Camp Nerdly in Triangle, Virginia. We had a wide gamut of experience with LARPs, gaming, and Star Wars.

How did that go?

Not as well as I was hoping, actually. I got a sense in my gut as I was explaining everything that the game has reached to point of too much. And several of my awesome, generous playtesters made comments to that effect–occasionally when they were trying to say something else, which lends a lot of credence. The Quest Cards barely got used. Betrayal cards got abused early (as I anticipated they would be). Every revision brings new problems.

Problems are fodder for progress. What’s the next step?

I’m not sure. It’s Wednesday and I’ve logged nearly 35 hours at work this week. May is always a very busy month. I haven’t had much time to wrap my head around the game. I design slowly, so not having any head-space is very limiting. I might have to cancel the May 20 playtest. I’ll try to make some time this weekend to ponder on what happened, what didn’t, and why.

I wish I had more to report. Work is killin’ me. But I’ll still be here next week. Same blog channel.

Camp Nerdly

Pulled into the driveway less than an hour ago. It’s good be home. It was really, really good to be at Camp Nerdly. So many old friends to see, and new friends to make. So much fun, talent, and enthusiasm. So much fresh air! Such a good time!

Friday was extra strength stress in a bottle with a side of tension. We got to camp about 10:30, unloaded, found our cabin, said our “hello”s, eaves-dropped on the last minutes of a game of Ganakagok, and went to bed.

Saturday was breakfast, then getting a parking permit, supermarket run, prepping for lunch. Darn the power-drain on those crock pots! But nobody went hungry. Next time we’ll bring extra-long extension cords and it will be better.

Saturday after noon was a playtest of By The Stars with a full complement of nine players (including myself). I’d like to thank all the folks who put 3 hours worth of fun-expectation in the hands of my game-in-development. The game lacked some of the spark that previous playtests exhibited. I’ll be pondering on the why of that over the coming days. But it was a fun time with fun people. And a game that will be much more fun in the future.

AFter that was helping out with dinner prep and then the Camp Nerdly talent show. Clinton sang us a clever little song about a shrimp that reminded me of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Krista sang us a lovely song in Polish. Tony showed off his dexterity with contact-juggling an orange. Fred and Evelyn Wolke sang us some filks. Alexander sang us an R-rated version of an English rowing song. Dave Younce sang us an Irish drinking song. Andy K told us a grand story about 3 talents. And if that weren’t enough, Jason Morningstar recited Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare! I think I want to be Jason Morningstar in another life (or at least recite some Shakespeare at the next Nerdly).

AFter dinner, I played Nine Worlds with Alexander Newman, Kat, and Nathan Herrold. It was very instructive about the structure of 9W, and the potential of the game. But in 3 hours, we didn’t accomplish a whole lot–we hadn’t even really gotten started. I’ve got some thoughts on how Alexander can make that much better. But I’m still glad I played. I got to play one of the greatest hunters in the nine worlds, who was hunting the eagle that used to eat Prometheus’ liver. Both Zeus AND Prometheus thought I was hunting it for them!

Saturday night, I played Serial with Kat, Alexander, and Jeff (?). As always, the victims sprang to life and their inevitable deaths were highly tragic. Except, maybe, for my jerk of a business climber. But I loved how Jeff’s character’s death cemented him a place in his broken family. I greatly enjoyed it. After that, bed.

Sunday morning found the phenomenon that is Alexander Newman making omelets-to-order for anyone who wanted one. Wow!

Furthering the Wow, I got to play Grey Ranks this morning! I’ve wanted to play the game for a while, and I got to play with Alexander (notice a trend? I’m not stalking him, really!), Nathan, Jason, and Joshua. I played Basia, a bookish Polish girl who was secretly in love with a German boy. She ended up offering her virtue to a Gestapo soldier to lure him into an assassination trap. Whether she was caught in the same trap was undefined at the end of the game. The game was harsh, bleak, tragic, and lovely. This could be really heart-wrenching if played over a full set of 3 sessions. The game suffered slightly from the compressed timeframe. It was a really good session, but it wasn’t amazing. On the drive home I was thinking, “Y’know, if I had played this exact same session 5 years ago, it would have blown my mind that you could get such a tragic, exciting, emotional, artistic, historical story from a role-playing game.” I’m glad that my recent years of play have given me higher standards.

Much thanks to everyone at Nerdly for making it such a great weekend!

By The Stars — “Never his mind on where he was! What he was doin’!” — Week Thirty-Seven

Lot of prep to do for Camp Nerdly this weekend. And every minute I’m typing this us is a minute I ain’t prepping.

I will, at some point, be making a version of By The Stars available as a collaborative Google Document. If you’d like to be able to comment on the document, I think I need to specify your e-mail address in the doc (I’m not 100% sure). So, post a comment letting me know to add you. If you’re not my lovely and talented wife, don’t assume that I’ll put you on the “collaborate” list.

See ya on the other side of Nerdly!