Frustrated

It’s Game Chef week. It’s also one of those weeks rife with overtime. I started a sketch of a game called Give Me Liberty… but the amount of research to do it right is prohibitive in a week when I have no time. And the more time that passes since Saturday morning (when I came up with the idea) the less thrilled I am with it. It’s frustrating.

On Monday night, Kat & Michele & I talked about what we want out of our gaming. I didn’t quite identify it then, but I realized this morning that my absolute favorite part of gaming is the act of making things up. Two of my favorite games of all-time are The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Once Upon a Time… I consider prep a bug rather than a feature because I come to the table to make stuff up. Even playing with something I made up last week is less fun than making stuff up RIGHT NOW.

It’s the same way with game design. Clinton and Vincent are talking about their high and low points of the design process. My high point is that span of time when ideas for the game are just jumping into my head. Sure, half of them will get thrown out, but just coming up with the ideas is the fun part.

But coming up with ideas doesn’t make a published game. Refining those ideas into something fun, playable, and understandable by others does. Maybe my Game Chef game should be about the act of making stuff up. Maybe I’ve only got four more days (minus lots of work and overtime) to start fresh.

It’s frustrating.

My Assumptions of Game Design

Maybe I’m floundering from idea to idea and need to re-affirm my focus. Maybe I’m trying to get myself psyched up for next week’s Game Chef Competition, which I just might enter. Maybe the winds of March are just blowing me some clarity.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about the assumptions I bring to the table when I design a game. This is not as sweeping as Jared’s I-System Manifesto, but more like a collection of Keith’s This I Believes, except less-Polish and less-Angry.

A well-designed game should promote more fun and cooler stories than unstructured play. Otherwise, why do we design? Call it my rephrasing of “System Does Matter.”

The more engaged the players are, the more fun the game will be. Gaming runs on enthusiasm, and a game must help (dare I say “force”) the players to become enthusiastic about their own play.

If you make it up, you will care. RPGs thrive on creativity. When the game invites, encourages, and celebrates the creativity of the players, they will become engaged–that’s why they sat down at the table.

Activity spawns engagement. The more ways for each player to contribute to the game, the more they will be engaged. Taking turns is a great organizational tool, but there should be opportunity for fun/play/creativity even when it isn’t your turn. If you’re sitting at the table, you should be doing something.

Decision spawns engagement. When a player is forced to make a decision, with clear understanding of his options and the consequences of them, he must engage with the game. Randomness has its place, but decisions are the important moments of the game that will be remembered.

Preparation for play is a bug, not a feature. My life is busy. So is everyone else’s. When I set aside time to game, I want to play, not be forced to set aside additional time to prepare to play. It adds to the time-cost of the game and makes it less likely that it will be played. Preparatory tasks should be brought into gameplay whenever possible.

This, I believe…

Some thoughts on why Chivalry is dead

I just finished reading Finding Serenity, a collection of essays about the TV show Firefly. The essays were a mixed bag–some were a waste of paper, and others were extremely thought-provoking. A guy named John C. Wright wrote an essay about what chivalry is, why chivalry is intrinsic to the Western genre, and how Firefly fails as a Western due to its lack of chivalry. I think he’s missing a big point.

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Tasks, Conflicts, & Discords

Last year, Vincent took up the topic of Task Resolution vs. Conflict Resolution. Recently he answered a frequent question about it, that’s helped me with something I’ve been thinking about. He talked about it here.

I’ve been struggling with this in my own game designs, and giving a name to an elusive concept helps immensely. A Task Resolution System determines moment-to-moment activities in the SIS (e.g., “I roll my Charisma, do I say suave things, or do I spill wine all over her dress?”). A character attempts something and may or may not accomplish the specific actions he set out to do. A Conflict Resolutoin System determines which characters get their actual goals (e.g., “I roll my Charisma, do I seduce her into bed?”). A character attempts to attain some goal and may or may not secure it. I think there’s also a third type of Resolution at work: When one player wants the story to go in one direction and another player wants it to go in another direction. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this Discord Resolution. A Discord Resolution system determines which player(s) get to see their preferred turn of events in the SIS, their “heart’s desire,” if you will (e.g., “My guy’s an everyman making a play for a queen. He should get denied.”)

I think that all three of these resolution systems are functioning any time people are role-playing. Keep in mind that I’m not saying that these resolution systems are explicitly defined in text for all games, or are coupled to rules mechanics in all games. Certainly not. In a lot of traditional games, there are explicit, dice-based rules for Task Resolution, but the entire Conflict Resolution System is “The GM decides when any and all conflicts/character goals are resolved.” In these, the Discord Resolution System is often “the biggest personality wins.”

Other games do things differently. The Pool’s dice provide both Conflict and Discord Resolution (since you don’t roll if there’s no conflict). Task Resolution is: “The GM or the winner of the Monologue of Victory describes all Tasks.”

Universalis is built around Discord Resolution. That’s what all the Coin and Challenge mechanics are about. The dice are about Conflict Resolution, even suggesting that you shuffle characters around in order to set up a Conflict if you need more Coins. And the rules for narration after a Conflict roll, plus the basic Coin/Fact mechanics handle Task Resolution.

Burning Wheel Revised says explicitly in its text on Beliefs that your character should want what you want, which welds Discord Resolution to Conflict Resolution (at least on the player side). Then, the Intent and Let It Ride rules weld Conflict Resolution to Task Resolution, allowing everything to be settled with one series of rolls.

A “classic” D&D dungeon crawl with no cheating or fudging has explicit, dice-based Task Resolution. The implicit Conflict Resolution is: “If your characters can succeed at the assortment of Tasks necessary to bring my characters’ hit points down to zero before I do, you achieve your goal.” Discord Resolution is assumed to be welded to Conflict Resolution because everyone wants their character to survive and thrive.

In With Great Power…, I specifically instruct players to name their Stakes as “how their character wants the scene to end.” I then provide an opportunity for the player to decide how he wants the scene to end, by giving them the option of playing a high or low card. So, the card rules are not a Task Resolution system because they do not establish specific actions/tasks/events in the SIS (it’s the Scripting-Penciling-Inking rules that take care of that). The card rules are a Conflict Resolution system because they settle the Stakes of the Conflict. They also provide for a Discord Resolution system because players can voluntarily choose a card that reflects their own desires for the scene.

I think this distinction of Discord Resolution vs. COnflict Resolution is why I’ve never been real enthusiastic about “Narration Trading” or “Conch Passing” that was all the rage in ’02. The unspoken assumption was that you always wanted your character to do well, and, for me at least, that isn’t always the case.

The Anatomy of Situation

I’ve been thinking a lot about Situation-with-a-capital-S. What are the component parts of Situation? How can I, as a designer, break a Situation down into useful, clear categories that will help a participant in one of my games create a better (i.e., more fun) Situation than they could have created on their own?

I’ve never claimed to be a theorist, nor do I play one on TV. But breaking things down into categories like this often helps me to wrap my mind around them in a useful fashion.

The way I see it, the important components of Situation are:

Backstory: Situations don’t just appear out of thin air. “What has gone on before” constantly informs what’s happening now. By establishing how things relate to one another at the outset of play, it’s analogous to the opening setup of chess or checkers. Backstory can be so much fun that adding more later is a nice technique for deepening play that’s begun to grow stale. Paul: I think this is where Setting should be very useful, but historically has not been.

Instability: Situation cannot be settled. It must be untenable. Situation is all about change. Stasis is boring.

Conflict: How will the instability play out? Different people/forces want different outcomes and they cannot all be met. Goals need to have some degree of exclusivity.

Passion: The needs and desires of the characters are what gives Situation its drive. Humans are feeling beings and our emotions drive us to do dramatic things.

Relationships: Strangers on a train are not in a Situation. If the train derails in the middle of the desert, that conflict forces them to develop relationships with one another, which makes the Situation interesting. I’m wondering if Relationships help audiences identify with the story by parallelling relationships in the audience’s Real Life. (NOTE: Although I think “total stranger” can be a meaningful relationship [the film Seven is a good example] I think it’s very tricky to use–very easy to slide into “no relationship.”)

Consequences: Situations that resolve without something meaningful changing are cheap (the end of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a good example). Keeping the potential consequences of a Situation in mind throughout play gives dramatic weight to each decision.

There’s more, I’m sure. Availability of Information is a big factor in Situation (Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy because of it), but I’m not quite sure how that fits.

These things are all interrelated, of course. Relationships and Passions are often filled in as part of the Backstory, which may also supply the impetus for the current Instability. Instability implies Consequence, since a situation in flux must change into something. Passions & Relationships drive the Conflict over what the Consequences will be.

None of this is directly useful as-is, but somehow I feel as if I’m closer to being able to write my Shakespearean RPG than ever.

“Turtle” is a Verb

Over in The Kat Box, my wife makes a good point: Identifying and labeling patterns of behavior is useful in understanding how they work, why they happen, and how to change them. Labelling people is the first step on the road to dehumanizing them, turning them into “The Other,” a thing, a non-person. We’ve got to be careful about this.

Maybe I’m just a little touchy about this area, being guilty of treating a player at my table like an outsider lately, in a Dreamation WGP… game. Players may turtle for many reasons. It doesn’t make them “a turtle,” just a player with a problem.

Thor’s Call to Action!

Over in The Well of Urd, Thor had this to say:

what’s next for us as a movement of people that are trying to create and innovate and as people running our own businesses? What do we need to do to improve? How do we market better? How do we distribute our product better?

Since Blogger won’t let me post a comment over there. Here’s my take on things:

Greg C. has been talking about the need for indie computer games at least since he reviewed the NPA. Glad we had some small part.

One thing we can do is to design games that actually fit into people’s busy, busy lives. Low to no prep time. Provides meaningful play in a few (or a single) sessions. Needs only common stuff (no funky polyhedrals). Addresses imagined content that non-gamers can identify with (i.e., no Lasersharking). Be as clear as possible what each player’s options are, and the likely consequence of each option, at each decision point in the game.

Okay, now I’ve stated my design goals for R.I.P. What was the question again? 8^)

Censored for your Amusement

Last night I had to bring some work home with me. Sucks, I know.

The work was going to take more than an hour, but less than 50% brainpower. Kat asked if I’d read Keith’s recent One Angry Polack about Stephen Colbert. I’ve been working a lot.

She said, “I’ll read it to you.”

I nodded my head toward the kitchen where Dalys was doing the dishes. Kat knows I’m a little uncomfortable with too much cussin’ around Dalys.

Kat says, “I’ll beep out the bad words.”

And she does. She reads the whole thing saying “BEEP” everytime Keith’s language gets … colorful. Had both of us in stitches. I’m not sure I can read One Angry Polack without the beeps anymore.