Saturday, June 04, 2005

Away time

I'll be away for the next few days visiting Emily, Vincent, Meg, Sebastian, Eliot, Joshua, and Carrie, all people who are better game designers than I am. It'll be fun, and probably I'll learn a lot. Expect some serious posts here thursday or friday, but nothing until then.

(Sven -- I'm going to try to get to that GNS post today. If I don't, I'll reply on Wednesday evening PST).

Friday, June 03, 2005

[Polaris] More Public Playtesting

Eric Finley and his group just playtested Polaris. There's some highly excellent bits in there.

yrs--
--Ben

LARP Systems

I don't feel great about doing LARP theory, simply because I haven't been actively LARPing for almost 2 years now. But I'm sort of beginning to feel that someone has to.

This may be preliminary to other things. Or it may not be.

A good LARP system must be:

1) Clear-cut and binding enough that it can resolve with a minimum of GM judgement.
2) Simple enough that it can be resolved without a GM to coach people in it.
3) Quick enough that players will not fear to use it. (see above, as well.)
4) Not involve a painful amount of props.

LARPers -- does this seem reasonable to you?

Understand that I consider "freeform" to be a set of systems that, frankly, usually fulfill these criteria. They most often fail at #1.

[Polaris] Odds and Ends

If you are running playtests of Polaris, and want a character sheet, e-mail me. I've got'em.

Likewise, if you want to run a Polaris advert in your book, e-mail me for a print quality TIFF. Matt Snyder did a bang-up job with it, and I'd like it to see some use. (I have a smaller pdf file for those that just want to look.)

Lastly, if you told me that you wanted to read / playtest Polaris, and I never got back to you, now is the time that I need your help. If you're still interested, contact me.

Great White Games #2

I was really surprised by the reaction to my Great White Games post. First and foremost, I was amazed at the outpouring of positive reaction to it, especially amongst the amateur game designer crowd. Perhaps most heartwarming example of this was Eric Finley's reference to it on the Iron Game Chef forum.

(Hey, Eric, I just remembered that I got in a fight with you about Nobilis LARP rules on RPGnet, like, three years ago. Isn't that funny?)

But also there was a contingent, who I'm not going to link to directly, 'cause I'm kind of going to put them down, who said "yeah, and what's your problem if I never finish my game, bub?" My initial reaction was, frankly, pretty negative, but I've been thinking more about it and I think that there's a lot there, and that it is wrong to just disregard it.

When you've been working on a game forever, and it just isn't working right for you, it is tiring and frustrating and it makes you angry at yourself and angry at your game. But, on the other hand, you have poured years of your own creative effort into this game, and it is your creation. Quite literally, it is a part of you, tied up in your self-identity. So when some asshole comes along and says "you know, you're never going to finish it" a "yeah, well, fuck you" or a "what does it matter to you that I never finish my games" reaction is pretty damned understandable.

I want to look at, I think, three things, though maybe that number is going to change as I write this.

The first is the self-identity issue. I do not believe that anyone is "just not the sort of designer that finishes games." I think that's bollocks, and I think it is the excuse of someone who, if I am being kind, has simply has bitten off more that they can chew and refuses to accept that. Any writer is capable of finishing a story, else they aren't really a writer. Any director produces finished movies. Painters finish paintings. Fundamentally, artist get art done.

This can be distinguished from taking a long time to let something develop. As an outsider, I can't tell the difference between a project that is slow going and a project that you will never finish, but you know the difference in your heart. This can also be distinguished from not being able to put all the pieces together. Finishing is a skill, not an intrinsic, and it is a skill that can be learned, usually through practice, which is why I offer finish a game as my foremost advice to designers, and why I proposed the foundation of a "journeyman game" tradition.

But there is no such thing as an artist that never finishes his art. That isn't a type. It isn't a classification. It's an oxymoron.

The second is something which I really didn't touch on in the essay, and I think that the lack of touching on this might have provoked some of those reactions, as well: What is your GWG good for? To have wasted ten, five, or even a single year of your creative life on a project that will never see fruition is, frankly, downright depressing. Fortunately, it is also wrong. The experience of having bitten off more than you can chew, of having worked on a huge, sprawling game that you can never finish, is something that I see as actually being very positive (having done it three or more times myself, of course, I am forced to see it that way.) Here are some of the benefits:

1) Practice. Vincent talks about practice games right here, in his blog. His practice games are tiny and miniscule, pretty much just constituting a single mechanic, but that doesn't mean that all practice games aren't the same way. A larger, bulkier, sprawlinger practice game is just as good for practice. I'm going to take as an example here Ben Morgan, who showed up at the Forge with a massive, sprawling, complicated, intricate, bizarre fantasy game and ended up producing Scarlet Wake, the butt-kickingest butt-kicking game that ever butt-kicked. One doesn't just produce a gem like Scarlet Wake out of thin air. You have to practice a lot to get that good. Fortunately, he did.

2) Reaching high. Almost all Great White Games have amazingly beautiful ambitions behind them. And that's not a bad thing at all, even if they can't all be fulfilled, because it gets you thinking. It gets you thinking about what you want out of gaming. It gets you thinking about what can be done with gaming. It gets you thinking about interesting ways to address problems.

3) Spare parts. Ron has talked about this, in the past, with relation to his pre-Sorcerer designs BSL and The Human Machine. Essentially, all that thought and effort produces, most likely, some really good game design ideas. Maybe not enough really good ideas to make your damn game hold together (or maybe you just don't have enough practice stitching them together -- finishing), but damn good ideas nonetheless. Guess what? Your old game is a source perfectly good material for your new game. No reason to let those good ideas go to waste.

Uhm, there was a third topic, but I can't remember it now at all. Ah yeah, it's short, and it has to do with finishing games.

If you finish a game, it isn't just that you will get new skills out of it, but also a very important internal change takes place. All those doubting voices (internal and external) that told you that you were a wannabe and you weren't a real game designer? Gone. Totally gone. And, in their absence, you can actually get along with the real work of design.

In short, in summary, failing to produce a particular game isn't a sin and it doesn't make you a bad person or a bad designer. I, as a peer designer and a game player, would rather that you produced a good game that you can finish, both for your own development as a designer (finishing is a separate skill) and for my own enjoyment, as your half-finished hip deep pile of notes is not something that I, you, or anyone can play and enjoy.

Intended Audience

Just a note on the intended audience of this blog.

I am an amateur game designer. This blog is for me to speak to other amateur game designers about the craft that we love, and what I think about it, as a peer.

(By "amateur" I don't just mean "unpaid." I have made a (very small) amount of money from game design, and Polaris is hopefully going to ratchet that up a power of ten or so. By "amateur," I mean "primarily done for the love of the thing." The concerns of an amateur are precisely to improve upon his own craft and maybe to share his work with the world.)

There are professional game designers in this world, and with their professionalism comes a whole host of other issues. I'm not going to talk about those issues at all, or at least I'm going to try to avoid them.

This statement doesn't mean that you cannot or should not read this if you are a professional game designer, or if you are not a game designer at all. Just know that you aren't in my target audience.

I am also an amateur role-playing game player (are there such things as professional role-playing game players?) so some of the posts in this blog may be about those concerns, as well.

But primarily, it is a place for me to speak to fellow amateur designers.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Sven and GNS

Hi.

This post is solely devoted to me, trying to explain GNS to Sven.

Everyone else is not allowed to post here. They are not allowed to ask questions. They are not allowed to jump in and reply to Sven on their own. They are not allowed to correct me.

If you wish to ask me your own questions, or correct me, e-mail is just fine.

Sven:

Here's some initial advice -- take anything you've ever read about GDS and put it out of your mind. Despite the fact that GDS is a precursor of GNS, they are really describing totally different things and it is important to keep that in mind.

Further, just to give me a sense of what we are working with, have you read any of the GNS essays on the Forge? Which ones? Have you read Ron's "The Big Model -- This is it" post, and do you have a sense of the different levels of the model (social contract, exploration, creative agenda, techniques, ephemera)?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

百花 and the other Iron Game Chef games are now available for download. Check them out!

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Mapping the Blogspace

What RPG blogs out there should I be reading? I already read anyway and Shining Dodecahedron pretty often. I get the 20x20 livejournal feed, too. A lot of other blogs get occaisional hits.

Who else has a frequently updating blog that talks, thoughtfully, about role-playing games and their design? Feel free to pimp your own site, or recommend someone else's.

Thanks!

Monday, May 30, 2005

Gamism and the New Sort of Games

AKA GNS post #3

This is a longish one, and it is bound to both piss a lot of people off and get a lot of people saying "no, Ben, you just don't understand Narrativism." I am sort of looking forward to this, in a perverse way.

But enough with the bullshitting. Two links and then let's get on with the writing.

(Though do check the date on that second thread. A year is a long time.)

There is a ton of talk, in the circles I run in (read: the Forge) about writing "games for people." The idea is to write a game that isn't targeted at gamers, that anyone can pick up and and play and enjoy. This has, of course, been the goal of tons of game companies throughout all time, and with a few exceptions (basic D&D) has failed, often in a drastic and dramatic manner. It doesn't mean that something won't succeed somewhere down the line, but it does mean that this is clearly a difficult thing. Those that go go to a war already fighting, a battlefield strewn with the corpses of those that have gone before them.

The really insightful thing that has come out of Forge discussion of this issue is that we cannot simply look at how to repackage role-playing games so that they appeal to a wider audience. Packaging will only go so far. It doesn't matter too much if you sell your game as a "role-playing game" or an "interactive shared story-telling experience" if the content is the same. If we are really serious about the mass-market role-playing game, we need to find new ways of playing games (and, by corollary, designing games and writing games) which are easier, more intuitive, more compelling, and more fun.

And, you know, we're working on it. My own Polaris and Tim's The Mountain Witch come to mind as steps in that direction (note: steps in that direction, not the final destination. Polaris, for what it is worth, is still mostly for gamers.) In my opinion, this sort of system design is going to be a slow, hard, long crawl towards something brilliant. I can feel where we are going -- I can look at a text and say "that's going the right direction --" but I can't see yet what the final shape of the thing will be. I don't know if anyone can. We are fumbling in the dark, but we've discovered a thread, a road.

(see Ron's post in this thread for a great summary-from-a-year-ago. What's happened in the last year? It should really be another post but, in short: The Mountain Witch is published, 3 short games about the Human Heart moves into a publication phase, Under the Bed design kicks up a notch. Those are the highlights, I think. Let me know if I missed anything.)

It's an exciting time to be a game designer, that's for certain.

Anyway, that's all background for the main point of this essay.

When talking about new ways to play, and ways to appeal to ordinary people, something that comes up a lot is, of course, GNS. Particularly, there is a lot of talk about the culture that surrounds largely simulationist supporting systems, and how it is essentially a fundamentally geekish culture -- by which I am not necessarily talking about computer programmers but about people who really want all the science in Star Wars to make sense, and will get into long arguments about it for recreational purposes.

Let me be clear: I love this shit. I find the entire series of comics I just linked to hilarious. My favorite article written for Daedalus was Neel Krishnaswami's superlative Causality and Choice: Getting rid of the {TECH}. I have a degree in physics, and I bitched to no end about the stupid thermodynamics of the Matrix to anyone who cared to listen. But this is a decidedly fringe, undergroundish, and definitely geeky activity. There is no way in hell that an ordinary person is going to care about this shit. This is fine, this is cool, and I like it this way.

And, to be frank, any role-playing game which tries to claim that the system is the physics of the world, and really live up to that, or any game which models everything on a meticulous point buy system, or some such thing, is really pretty much in this category of activity. No matter how much they get repackaged, rebranded, or redesigned, they are simply not going to appeal to the mainstream.

It should be pretty clear, though, that if we are talking about a broad-reach, mainstream appeal game, this is not going to be it. Ordinary people like science fiction, and ordinary people like fantasy, but ordinary people do not like knowing the cargo capacity of a star destroyer. This isn't about genre. This is about how we play the games.

The mode which gets thrown out there as an antidote to the Simulationist-by-habit tradition is Narrativism, which given the population of the Forge surprises about negative one people. And, in its own way, they are correct about that. People like stories -- they like telling them, and they like being told them. They do this naturally, in a way that most people don't naturally geek out about the physics of city/planets. It follows that they would prefer Narrativist play over most Simulationist play. And, frankly, I think that they are right about that.

(Note to those whose self-image is caught up with the invented word "simulationism:" I am not saying that your preferred sort of play is less valid or less fun or that you need to change your playstyle. I am simply saying that it is less likely to appeal to Joe-on-the-street. kthnksbye.)

But prescribing Dr. Ron's Brand Narrativist Pills* as the one true solution to cracking the mainstream problem is not a good idea, because it is ignoring the big elephant in the room of GNS theory -- Gamism. People like doing more activities than just telling compelling stories. And, yes, people are capable of being very caught up in the fraught struggles of fictional characters, but there is something else that they are almost universally more interested in -- other people, especially their family and friends. People love getting insight into other people's capabilities and guts. We love just getting in there and mucking around.

(* To be absolutely motherfucking clear, Ron does not hold the Narrativism is the one true way of anything, including the one true way of reaching a mainstream audience with gaming, and he is quite public about it. I'm talking about other people's reactions to his writings, rather than his writings themselves.)

And my claim is that Gamism can do that better than Narrativism. To show it, I'm going to have to talk a lot about Narrativism, which is much more well-explored theoretically.

(And, hey, guys who commented in my "which essay" thread, check this out: When I say "Gamism" you have to divorce it entirely from any idea of "tweaking your 13th level battledroid to the max." This isn't about system weight, levels, or anything like that. There are any number of highly Gamist, highly fun, very mechanically light systems.)

In some very old conversations with Vincent, which have been sadly partly eaten by his comment-eating bug, we talked extensively about what makes a protagonist, which has been an important and much-discussed topic on the Forge since the misty days of yore.

In short, a protagonist (and I'm talking here about Narrativist play) is a character who has to make a difficult decision, under pressure, and abide by the consequences. This is pretty much a summary from here so just go read that.

(This is all still about Narrativism) A really important point about this, and one that is apparently (apropos of my "Topics and GNS" thread) still a little contentious, is that this is a fictional character making a fictional decision about a fictional situation with fictional consequences. You are, in some ways, making the decision for the character, but there is a degree of separation -- you are free, for instance, to make what you see as a "bad decision" and see what happens. There is a safety net, because it isn't you who is the protagonist, it is the character.

Both Gamism and Narrativism have this strong emphasis on player-choice. Both of them have moments where everyone in the room gasps, looks at one player, and is thinking "Oh my god! What is he going to do?" Those moments are precisely the moments where protagonist activity is happening. That's the choice that Vincent is talking about.

To be personal for a second: I live for these moments.

But Gamism and Narrativism have a key different, here. Gamism, to be frank, has no safety net, no (or at least much less) fictional remove from the choices that you make and their consequences. If you, the player, make a bad choice or are unlucky then you, the player, will suffer the consequences (albeit in a limited game context.) Let me make this very clear: In a Narrativist context, your character is a protagonist. In a Gamist context, you are the protagonist.

I could connect the dots about what I think that that sort of experience is more likely to appeal to the mainstream, but I think I can safely leave that as an exercise to the reader.

Finished

Just finished 百花, my Iron Game Chef design, right under the wire for submission (literally 3 minutes from deadline). It was a fascinating design experience, in that I've never had to deal with the fiddly concerns of a board game or a card game before (the game has board, card, and role-playing elements.)

I'm pretty sure I'm not going to win (again! curses!), because Polaris didn't win and 百花 is no Polaris, but I had a good time writing it.

I'll post a link to the PDF when it is posted at 1km1kt. Right now I'm just exhausted.