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!

By The Stars — “No Dice-integrations.” — Week Thirty-Six

The “Myth of Planet Earth” playtest was extremely instructive. I took out the rules for being out-bid by your own Aspect tokens and the game ran way short and suffered for it. This is great! I now know that those particular rules are vitally important for both pacing and excitement. Perhaps the best part to come out of that was the post-game discussion where a number of ideas of how to put these rules back in (while still addressing the reason I had taken them out) were bandied about. Several of them look promising.

I also introduced Quest Cards. They provide a sort of overarching narrative/alternate victory condition to seek out. Players all start with one card which can be bid as a simple +3 if they choose they’re not interested in the Quest. If they are, then each card matches with a specific other card out there, to reveal other cards. So, if I have the Port Half of Ancient Starmap and you have the Starboard Half of Ancient Starmap, and we both play our cards together, we get the Oldest Known Starmap Card. If we apply that information to the Original Design Specs of Central Computer card, it gives us the Override Code we need to get the computer to reveal the ultimate goal: The Coordinates of Planet Earth. The Quest Cards need some development, but I think they seem extremely promising.

Also, the “big board” came up in the post-game discussion. And I realized that the reason I kept rejecting it was I kept conceiving of it as a timeline sort of thing. Like WGP’s Synopsis Sheet. But when the idea of making it a map was put forth, it seemed obvious how that would help to synchronize everyone’s ideas about the game world.

So, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Camp Nerdly is in a week and a half, and I’ve got a lot to get together before then. See you in 7!

By The Stars — “I want to become a Jedi like my father.” — Week Thirty-Five

Here’s a confession for ya: When I’ve got a really tough problem, I talk to myself. So late last week I turned off the radio on my drive home and thought I’d talk about what wasn’t working in By The Stars. As last week’s entry indicated, I figured I would be discussing “Big Board” solutions to the lack-of-a-central-story problem. What came out of my mouth surprised me (this happens quite a bit–it’s the reason I talk to myself about these things to begin with).

“Why isn’t By The Stars working the way you want it to?” I asked.

“Because the Oaths are just sitting there. They don’t drive play (at least not very hard) and rewriting them is lame in practice,” I answered.

through further discussion, I figured out that Oaths were about three simple things, and that these things together had the potential to both form an arc for each individual character AND touch on the monomyth stuff that I had set aside. The simple things are:

  • What your character is. The Prince begins the game as a naive youth

  • What your character wants to become The Prince wants to end the game as a respected leader.
  • What your character wants another character to become. The Prince wants the Overlord to end the game as a deposed tyrant.

That’s it. The Oaths need to be that clear. Your first Oath focuses on getting from your opening state to your desired final state. Your second Oath focuses on dictating someone else’s final state. I know more complexity will reveal itself in play.

Speaking of play, the next playtest is on Sunday and I’ve already got nine players committed to being here. It will be a grand adventure as they uncover “The Mystery of Planet Earth.” I leave you with a snippet of the event description:

Everyone knows the saying, but what if it were true? What if all civilized worlds in the universe started from one tiny blue planet called Earth? What if Earth really exists and is as real as the star map in an android’s data bank? What would you do to get a hold of it? What would they do to destroy it?

The road ahead is pre-generated

I’vebeen listening to a few episodes of The Sons of Kryos this week. One of their segments was on character creation sessions. Both on SoK and on innumerable threads & blog posts around the web, I hear about these great character creation sessions that get everyone excited to play. Everyone pitches in, gets interested in each other’s characters, and is anxious for the looming conflicts.

I’m listening and drool is leaking from my lips. That sounds good. I want that. I think. Then, I do a reality check. With the exception of a few MLwM one-shots, that’s never really worked for me. In general, character creation has always been a chore to get done before you’re allowed to play. You use skills in building a character that never get touched on again. I’m reminded of a post I made last year about “pregame prep is a bug, not a feature.” I still believe that.

The next SoK show had a segment on pre-gens! That’s what I’m going to do: throw character gen to the wind. On Mondays Kat and I will have some pre-gens ready to go for something we feel like running that week. If something goes long, we can pick it up the next week. If people are excited and want to play more, but with a different character, then they can do the whole character generation thing. Thanks, Sons of Kryos!

We’ll see how it flies in real life…

By The Stars — “Slowly Digested over a Thousand Years” — Week Thirtty-Four

Due to the holiday and some particularly horrid days at work, there was not much concrete progress on BTS this week. However, I have been jotting notes on the game’s biggest single weakness: Lack of a cohesive, structured story with a sense of dramatic pacing. Many of my ideas currently revolve around a large central whiteboard that will function similar to WGP’s synopsis sheet. No single concept is ready for playtest yet, but luckily, “The Myth of Planet Earth” day playtest isn’t for another week and a half.

Looking back on these last few entries, I realize I’ve been playing a bit closer to the chest than I’d originally intended. So, below the cut are the quick rules handouts I used for both the first and second playtests. Let me know what you think.

Read more

By The Stars — An Unexpected Party — Week Thirty-Three

This past Saturday, I went to Policon, a small, annual, private convention run by Don Corcoran. This year it was at Don’s home in Philly. Kat and I were only able to attend for one day, so I had planned to run With Great Power… and she had planned to run Serial. On Thursday, Don announced that it looked like he would have more attendees than he’d have games being run. So, prompted by my muse-in-wife’s-clothing, I volunteered to run By The Stars again. Don asked that I pare the scenario down to 6 players, due to space constraints. So Friday night was spent implementing the rules tweaks we had discovered after the first playtest.

On Saturday, there were but five of us, but a great five it was. A big “Thank You” to Kat, Don, Matt Talli, and Scott Lesher for helping to test my game. The game was, once again, fun. Most of the rules changes worked well and did what they were intended to do.

After two playtests with slightly different groups, I can begin to see the strengths and weaknesses of the design. On the positive, it does give people both a mechanical and story-based agenda. Players are kept engaged and active throughout the play time. The mechanics encourage players to create detail and engage in conflicts that they might not on their own.

On the negative side, the multiple-conflicts-at-once aspects means that each person is paying attention only to their own story, and usually missing out on everyone else’s. The disjointed nature of the narrative means that the story doesn’t build, it just sort of happens, happens, happens, and then ends. Plus, while characters are extremely active, they’re not really developed all that much.

This is all very good. The positives give me fuel to continue development. The negatives give me goals to work towards–thorny problems to fix.

In passing, for those of you keeping track of these things, the young Singularity Pilot won the day, convincing his father, the Singularity Overlord of Illyria, to leave the planet in his hands. The Prince proved his courage and, IIRC, stayed on as an advisor to the Pilot. The Pirate gave up his criminal ways to woo the Cyborg Princess, who was also sought by the Pilot. We joked that this would be the kick-off of a romantic comedy in space.

I’ve got three weeks until the next playtest and a huge list of things to think about. Maybe I’ll sign up to run it at Camp Nerdly at the beginning of May.

In any case, I’ve got a game. The game’s got legs. But the race is far from over…