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!