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beyond the Kuiper Belt, over the sea

Archive for the ‘roleplaying’ Category

Find the Fun

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Lately, I’ve been posting over at G+. It’s been longer-than-Twitter-shorter-than-blog type half-baked posts. But I think this warrants a blog post.

In Nora England and B’alam Mateo-Toledo’s endangered languages class, we were discussing the issue of getting community members—most particularly kids, the lynchpin of language revitalization—to care about their endangered language. And most particularly, to care about learning that language.

I thought, immediately, of the (misguided) idea of gamification, that is, adding game-like elements to non-game activities. This is the right impulse but the wrong approach. Better than gamification is what I call “finding the fun”. If there is any hope for getting people to do a non-essential activity, you’ve got to find the ways in which it is fun. Taking things that are fun in other contexts and bolting them on is wrong.

So how do you find the fun in language learning? The fun of language is communication. The fun of language learning is mastery of the language to the end of communication. I think that the first thing is to tell people it’s a game. Huizinga, I think, talked about how games supplant the usual social contract of a group, for the duration of play. So by saying “here’s a game,” and actually making a game, you can get people to do things that they might otherwise be reluctant to do. Now, make the game’s victory condition require communication. Make the game’s rules require communication in the target language. Kids will probably want to learn the skills to play the game, which happen to be the language in question.

Preliminary thoughts.

The Matter of Britain

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

I’ve been working on a game set in Regency Britain of magicians and fairies, drawing much inspiration from Susanna Clarke’s fantastic book, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The themes of madness and manners are so perfectly embodied in the period, with the very king himself being mad. But I’ve had a realization as I work on it that I really need to incorporate another great love of mine: the Matter of Britain.

Some have said that Arthur, the rex quondam rexque futurus did in fact return in Britain’s hour of greatest need, as Arthur Lord Wellington. I think that drawing from this rich body of myth will do nothing but good. So if I start becoming obsessed, and talk all the time about cryptic connections between prominent figures of the late Georgian and Regency periods and figures of Arthurian myth, please encourage me.

There are two prominent and interrelated aspects of game design, system and setting. I’ve got a firm grasp on the system for this game, but now I’m making the meat for those bones.

Games Blog

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

So, I’ll be moving a lot of my games-related talking to, where John and Austin and occasionally Allie will be joining me in blogging about our game development thoughts and process. Follow if you’re interested, avoid if you’re not!

Character and Situation

Friday, January 21st, 2011

This is not a fully-formed thought yet, but here goes.

I’ve been reading and playing and thinking about a lot of story games lately, of course. And in particular, one game: Burning Wheel. I played this game years ago (“classic”) and found it not quite to my liking; there were some good things about it, but it really needed and editor and some constructive criticism and someone who knew math. Many of my friends have been enthusing about this game since it got those things (and is now revised). So, I sat down and carefully read it.

The juxtaposition of reading one game (or book) around the same time as another game (or book) can often lead to particular insights one might not have, were the two readings not so close. In this case, what I’d read just before Burning Wheel (revised) was Fiasco, from Bully Pulpit games. While Burning Wheel is a game of medieval fantasy in the vein of Tolkien or Le Guin, Fiasco is described as a game at the intersection of powerful ambition and poor impulse control. It reads like a recipe for a Coen brothers movie, or a Guy Ritchie movie.

So, what I realized in reading Burning Wheel was that what it does really well, what drives the game, is character development. (Particularly, it seems, character advancement, but that’s another matter.) What Fiasco does is situation development. And I think I find the latter much more interesting. Both are hopelessly intertwined, of course: any situation is meaningful only as it evokes responses from characters, and any character is interesting only because of their situation*. But you can shift the focus between them.

I feel a lot better now that I have a handle not just on what Burning Wheel seems to do, but on the nature of this distinction. There’s a lot of talk in the community about things like author/director/actor stance, etc., but I think that this distinction is not one I’ve heard often talked about, and it’s quite helpful to my thinking. It’s opened up my eyes to similar design in other games: part of what I love about Lumpley’s Dogs in the Vineyard is that there is a procedure in it for creating a situation, and then throwing the characters into it. What I’ve learned from this thinking is that the procedure in Dogs in the Vineyard doesn’t at any point explicitly call for tying the main characters in, but if I’m to get the most out of it, I need to.

So that’s the takeaway for me: I prefer situation-focus to character-focus. Maybe this is why I generally prefer GMing games, when that’s an applicable role? Regardless, I think it’s something to incorporate into future designs.

* From a conversation almost a year ago: “Alex Psh.: Rather, it is a universal truth: protagonists are cool because of their situation.”

Getting ready for another one

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Well, we have a playtest version of Loom, the heroic fantasy RPG we’ve been working on, ready. If you’re interested, drop me a line. It’s rather in the vein of Star Wars or Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series, to my mind. Temptation, heroism, all that.

Beyond that, back in Boulder, getting over a sore throat, and watching the snow come down outside. Semester starts tomorrow; this’ll be a good one.

EDIT: Given various problems with the name Loom, it’s called In a Dragon-Guarded Land at this point.

Do Science to It

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Note to self: game design is great for many reasons. One reason is that you get to make a game, and then do science to it. We’ve identified a number of possible problems with the current game, and now we’re going to try to isolate them. Control! For variables!

We played a playtest session of Loom tonight, and it went well. Some issues with pacing, which Austin claims are probably just his storytelling, and these might be tied to issues with Arcs. If I were as awesome as Matt McFarland, I’d write more about the system as it currently stands, but I’m not and it’s in Sooper Seekrit mode right now, I guess, anyway. So I’ll just make oblique references, and then explain if anyone asks me. What else? Group size may be an issue—there’s a real sweet spot. Finally, we need to work out whether stakes are independent per party.

John put it well: it’s all about this issue of scope. What is the conflict about? Zoom in to the appropriate level. That is pacing.

EDIT: Due to various problems with the name Loom, it’s now called In a Dragon-Guarded Land.

Dread: Dungeons and Dread AP

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

I mentioned a bit ago that I played a game of Dread run by the estimable John. Having gotten the permission of the participants, and having edited out some bits like our having dinner in the middle, I now put up the three-part audio of the game. There are five participants, a bit of overlap in the three sections, and a lot of cleaning up I could do if I had time. However, instead, I’ll just put this up and hope people find it useful or at least entertaining.

[audio:] [audio:] [audio:]

A Little Mad

Friday, October 1st, 2010

I fear I have gone a little mad. My mind and time have been so occupied by one thing—linguistics—that I retaliate by thinking about another—games and their design—as much as I can. I am filled with a manic energy, and sleep goes by the wayside. I read for my classes as fast as I can, internalize the ideas and render them almost automatic, and then go back to grappling with whatever the question of the week is—how to encourage this sort of story in a game, how to model that. I get to bed at 3am, I wake up at 9 on the days I can get up late. It all fits, somehow.

The theme of one of the games I am working on is this very madness—not the madness of someone trapped by their own mind, but the madness of someone driven, someone with ideas fighting their way out, demanding to be realized. Jonathan Strange in his time in Venice seems not an altogether inappropriate comparison; I fear that were someone to enter my chambers, I might very well be distracted by the sensation that a pineapple were issuing forth from their mouth, rather than words. Except, here, a pineapple is meant to stand for a narrative structure, or a game idea, or perhaps a strange discourse pattern.

This is what I came here for.

And yet, there is more. I do not simply overflow with game design and lack of sleep. I teach, and hopefully clarify. My students are a joy—they ask questions, they understand the material, they dig deeper until they reach the limit of what I can usefully explain and they can understand. I hope I help more than hinder, of course.

So, I ask your pardon if I have been monomaniacal. I am still here, just full-up. I’ve been singing, some. It helps.


Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Tonight, John ran a game of Dread. He nailed it. We nailed it. And we recorded it.

The audio quality isn’t the best—we were operating off my computer’s internal mic. But we got the whole game, and most of our post-mortem (an apt choice of words when the game is Dread). I’m gonna clean up the audio a bit and cut out the bit where we have dinner in the middle, and then, with the permission of the participants and the CU IRB*, post it.

The conceit of the game was that we were playing a bunch of roleplayers—and the border between our characters’ real lives and our characters’ characters began to break down when we went down the rabbit hole, as it were. The whole thing was a bit of an Alice story, but with more fear-for-your-life thrown in. The drums in the deep were constantly pounding in our ears. I’ll avoid spoilers until I’ve gotten the audio cleaned and transcribed.

* I originally intended to record this session to get discourse data for use in a class I’m taking. As such, the IRB gets to have a say.

What not to do in an RPG

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

RPGs are great.  They allow for all sorts of collaborative fiction with all sorts of people playing all sorts of characters. Never in a stage production could I be cast as a … well, as any of the characters I ever play.

But hold on, “all sorts” of fiction?  There’s one in particular that has never worked in my experience, and that is the Murder Mystery.  It’s incredibly hard to make a murder mystery work in an RPG.  If you go the Agatha Christie route, you need to come up with an outlandish murder scenario, an oddball cast of suspects, and then have the players roll well on their perception rolls to spot key details.  If you go the Colin Dexter route, you need to make a dense web of relations between a group of reasonably normal people, and have the players suss out a motive by exploring the whole social web.

Either way, you run into a problem of affordances: you know how, in a video game, some doors just are flat panels with no handles?  You know that you can’t open them, because they lack a handle and its affordances.  In an RPG, affordances are even more obvious, generally: the GM, in describing things, gives you the set of things you might need to know, or to twiddle, or to play with.  They can throw red herrings in there, but that just ameliorates the problem—fundamentally, they’ve still taken a number of things and raised them from the background.  A part of a mystery is often identifying what information to take out of the background.

Finally, mysteries are troublesome because of their intrinsically solitary method of solving—the information that solves the mystery can come from many sources, but the moment of eureka comes from one mind, and one mind alone.  One person synthesizes the information and then Knows How It Happened.  Who wants to play Dr. Watson to some other player’s Holmes?  To have everything explained, because either they as a player couldn’t put it together, or they as a player didn’t get enough information to put it together because they did not roll well enough on perception rolls?  Not I.

So, if you’ve run a successful murer mystery tabletop RPG, please, tell me how.