Flow Like Water

Publishing is curiously intimidating. I feel that the step of making a product to sell means I must hold its quality to a very high standard. More rationally that isn’t true. If I want to make a product to sell on (say) DriveThruRPG, I don’t need it to be near perfect. It should be useful and interesting, and merely not brought down by flaws from my necessarily novice publishing abilities. I can only get so much better at publishing without actually publishing something.

For the past few years I’ve been working on publishing Coming of Age. Mostly I haven’t been making real progress because of this perfectionist streak combined with the fact that I have tested and played Coming of Age long enough to be solidly sure of its reliability but too long to keep my full enthusiasm for it. Coming of Age has become a hard point, blocking progress to publishing rather than facilitating it.

Rather than hitting that wall, I need to flow around it. I’ve started finding alternatives, pieces where I can take work I’ve done and build it into a useful, marketable product. It also doesn’t hurt that Coming of Age seems best served as a Pay What You Want core system, augmented by more focused products, and that DriveThruRPG wants you to have a non-free product before you can post free or Pay What You Want products.

Simple Random Maps

A little while ago I tested Brimstone Emissaries in the City of Thorns (BECT) and was faced with the most common outcome of playtesting, that things need to be simpler. But the upshot is that the simplifications indicated keeping the most novel and exciting part of BECT, simple maps turning action into interwoven cycles by constraining possible action instead of potential success. This is the root of a design idea which I’ve been wrestling with for years from an attempt to make a diceless Exalted to a GMless exploration game which was vastly too complex for the Game Chef that inspired it.

Ultimately, BECT was a reduction of my “grand vision” of that exploration game which I could complete in a reasonable time. Even that time ended up being almost a year, over the course of my designing a game a month. But the whole purpose of this was to construct the framework for testing these simple random maps. So I’m pleased to see that the idea has value, even if I’m sad the framework is too much.


First Attempts at Squaring the Circle

After designing dozens of games, many of which are experimental or otherwise exploring underutilized design space, I have disabused my self of the confidence that when first tested that my games will be functional or even just fail to crash and burn. That said, it is heartening when a game shows surprising strength beneath its clumsy assembly. Which is exactly what happened with my attempts at a solitaire variant on Squaring the Circle.

Squaring the Circle took a long while to turn from an idea to a game which I can test. At its earliest roots, the idea of high octane mathematician adventure comes from some running gags back in college (I was, among other things, a mathematics major). Later on I was struck by the parallels between the structure of a heist and the genre of a mathematical proof. In many ways a mathematical proof is a story which demonstrates how some claim is true. More complex proofs are often like complex stories with twists, surprise returns, and a certain drama.

My first few stabs at the game didn’t gain traction. Then, after Apocalypse World came out and folks started hacking it, I thought about how to join a mathematician playbook with a thief playbooks and I had a place to start. Squaring the Circle aggressively innovates on the Apocalypse World chassis by being MCless, by using a House of Complications, Antagonists, Risks, and Debts (CARDs) mechanic, and by structuring the goals of play into theorems and proofs. Those are enough untested systems to worry me. Still I prepared to run a group playtest when I could talk one of my regular groups into it.

After some discussion at story games, I realized that Squaring the Circle is one of the games I’ve design which are not just decentralized, but plausibly capable of solitaire play. Given, I decided to test it on my own before taking it up with a group.  After that test, I found the Squaring the Circle’s theorems and CARDs make a tense heist story and an exciting play experience. I was worried that it would fall flat, but now I know there is something worth building and refining. And that is a splendid feeling.

The Sea of Black Stars – A Setting Design Compulsion

Setting design isn’t always something I enjoy. The abstraction of a setting-less game (not the same as a generic game) doesn’t bother me and can be exciting when I think of the possibilities. But I have always been fond of procedural tables ever since I got my hands on the Spelljammer box set and started rolling up my own worlds.

Continue reading The Sea of Black Stars – A Setting Design Compulsion

Revising Coming of Age

Coming of Age has had a long journey from the original idea I had while planning out my RPGnet column. The game has become simpler and tighter and delivers on my design goals. I’m hoping to have a basic version available for pdf sale and perhaps print on demand. From that I’ll gauge whether the grander ideas and variations I’ve developed for Coming of Age would be worth delivering too.

My current step toward that goal is bringing in an editor, while I plan how to handle layout and publication. I was impressed by the style and simplicity of Whitehack and I want to make Coming of Age as practical a book. Only time and effort will tell whether it is feasible for me to rework my text and player sheets into a pamphlet form, but it is certainly worth the attempt.

Complexity in RPGs

In doing my Game Chef reviews I was struck by the fact that the most complex game in my review cluster was the one with almost no mechanics. Complexity is an important barrier to new players and while not something to be avoided you want to stage to increase gradually. For more on that take a look at Magic the Gathering’s New World Order.

Of course a board / card game like Magic has a big advantage in understanding its complexity – it doesn’t maintain a shared fiction among the players in any essential way. In RPGs a whole level of complexity comes from crafting, tracking, and communicating the fictions of play. Communication can be especially awkward to consider in terms of complexity. We often use very broad chunks to describe hard learned communication skills, even in discussions of techniques meant to unwrap some of these elements.

One good way to estimate this kind of complexity is to consider everything a person needs to track to appropriately handle fictions in play. This includes established details and social cues and how crucial these are at each step. When establishing non-mechanical procedures for fiction, such as question games and prompts, it is important to limit the responsibilities of a player socially and fictionally to avoid an overwhelming coordination problem.

This is one advantage mechanical procedures have over non-mechanical ones, they are self-limiting in scope. Conversely answering open ended questions in the midst of unconstrained social interaction will either become exhausting or force players to evolve a more constrained procedure for handling this gap in design. People are fairly good at evolving these things, but they don’t do so automatically or uniformly – which makes games that rely upon this sort of unconscious adjustment less accessible and transferable without careful seeding by giving clear tools to build customized social and fictional procedures — the building blocks of a language of play.

Looking back on Game Chef 2014

Game Chef has always been an interesting event for me. It rarely seems to happen at a convenient time and sometimes the topics leave me cold. That nearly happened this year. The theme “there is no book” was cute. Unfortunately it didn’t provide me much of an inventive seed, the same could be said of many of the games I’ve design over the past few years. The ingredient terms were likewise uninspiring (for me), until I hit upon an a link to an old design I had abandoned – wild becomes wild magic tables.

I’ve always been fond of wild magic tables, which lay out a variety of types of strange and wondrous magical effects which can be selected from on a simple roll of dice. In my own more traditional gaming I’ve found a few tables of random magical categories, alignments, and elements serve as an excellent way to produce exotic magic. But something about a 100+ table of effects is still enticing, especially in what it says about a world. And why not use a design competition to give me the kick in the pants needed to complete a game idea that has lingered undone.

To that effect I designed From Chaos for Game Chef 2014 as a world-building game where the final artifact is the wild magic table. From Chaos steals words and phrases from books, music, or gaming supplies to craft this eccentric table. And in the four rounds of world creation it returns to an idea I’ve used before in Inner Worlds, that of ‘conflicts as resource’.

A few years ago, the typical indie games adhered to the notion that conflict is important in a story, so the game should be built to focus on resolving those conflicts during play. But if conflicts are the core of a story, should be keep them around, let them grow and transform? With ‘conflicts as resource’, conflicts are created, changed, expanded, and perhaps resolved. There is an incentive to keep conflicts around, and to sustain them through multiple actions and situations.

Like most Game Chefs, I found reviews to be time consuming, because I didn’t want to simply provide cursory judgement and minimal feedback to my fellow designers. But focusing on this feedback, while also reading the Anatomy of Criticism (by Northrop Frye) put me into a thought spiral. One thing RPGs lack these days is serious critical analysis. I’m seriously considering doing something about that…


Smoothing the Learning Curve

Homeworld Project is a game of Astral Space Opera. It changes, subtly and overtly, many typical assumptions of RPGs: dice handling, character ownership, authority and responsibility distribution, narrative structure, social footprint, etc.

In making these changes, Homeworld Project becomes at once capable of things most other RPGs couldn’t dream of and a struggle to learn. While no more complicated than most indie games, Homeworld Project requires players to learn and attempt most of its unorthodox procedures early on in play. Once they get over this hump, play becomes much easier.

In short, Homeworld Project has a very steep immediate learning curve that after that first ascent achieves a plateau of expertise. Feedback at Metatopia got me thinking of how to build a ramp for that learning curve. One great example of such a ramp is Dogs In the Vineyard, which uses a tutorial step in character creation to make a fairly unconventional game more comprehensible.

So I’ve added a new notion to Homeworld Project, two short introductory chapters of play where we specifically remove parts of the game to focus on the most basic of core elements. In the first chapter we only ask players to get used to the dice, bouts, and consequences. Then in the second we introduce the means for influencing dice and consequences. And we wait until the third chapter before worrying players about how to manifest allies and otherwise handle more than one character.

We’ll see if this break down works, but it seems promising at the very least. All that I’m missing is taking this notion and turning it into a tutorial script for players. Perhaps I will follow-up on that in a month or two.

April’s Game-a-Day Showcase

Over at Story Games, I’ve been posting one of my existing games each day. While my immediate intention is to show these games to folks who may not have seen them and may want to play them, this exercise has also served to remind me of some of these games and their current states.

I’ve worked out a draft list of games over the course of this month, and looking at some of them, I realize there are playtest concerns which haven’t been met or even just documents which aren’t up to date. In the background I’ve been updating. This has given me the impetus to revise the Coming of Age 3.0.0 main text and come up with a more compact refactoring of Savagery, my game of emotional violence.

Moving forward I hope to be writing up the Savagery changes, as well as working on refactoring Requiem for a GM and assembling the Metatopia feedback for Homeworld Project.

Writings Past and Present

Over the years I’ve written in various places about Roleplaying Game design, play, and general theory.

Speculative Physics, my RPGnet Column.

RPG Theory Review, an ‘almost’ academic attempt to review RPG theory in the wake of the Forge Diaspora.

Wormwood Tea, the place where I’ve been speculating on new RPG theory, in particular how RPGs can be thought of as language.

Here at Silver Garden Games, I intend to talk more about my experiences and struggles in my current RPG design and publishing.