Monday, September 30, 2013

Design Journal #1: Envisioning Play


Back in March I casually mentioned that I was writing a new game. This will be my first new game since I wrote “The Holmes and Watson Committee” back in 2009. And I’m excited, so I’m going to share my experiences with you. Hopefully, I can make it from design to published product. We’ll see.

The reason it’s taken so long are many. First, the publishing process has been extraordinarily painful for me. My first game was published in 2002. The printer problems and business mistakes we made back then were excruciating. I’ve talked about how taxing the publishing process can be in the past, the problems of 2002 and 2003 were the main reasons why. Not the only reasons, though. In 2008-2009 I tried my hand at publishing again. I figured by now the POD process had evolved and small press printing could be done efficiently and easy. WRONG! The same problems plagued me a second time and forced me to cancel a whole second line of books I wanted to produce.

It wasn’t just publishing though. In the last half-dozen years I’ve gotten married, had a child, got my master’s degree, switched positions at my job four times, and helped my wife get her master’s degree as well. Many in my family have gotten terribly ill (some terminally), and I’ve dealt with distractions of every kind and sort. I’ve not overcome all of these obstacles yet, but I’m hopeful that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And once I’m through, I think I’ll have the chance to publish the game I want.

So now it’s been 11 years since my first publishing and four years since my last. What have I learned? Well, that’s easy to answer. Everything on this blog is about what I’ve learned! But the problem with what’s on this blog is that it’s not real enough. I haven’t put it into practice, or at least, haven’t in a very long time. So that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to practice what I preach.

So where do we start?

I’m going to start with my initial concept. I began with something I called the G.A.M.E. engine. You can follow that link to it on 1km1t. It was great, it was fun, I got some playtesting in. The problem was the advancement system is totally broken and I wasn’t willing to make the compromises it would take to fix it. So I had to move on.

I was inspired by Luke Crane’s We D&D threads which you can read about HERE, HERE, and HERE. I remembered back to the simplicity and awe I had in my first RPG experience (which was Middle-earth Roleplaying). Like SO many designers I wanted to recapture those moments. So I focused on the memories instead of the mechanics.

What did I remember?

1.We didn’t know the rules well enough to constantly be referencing them, so handling time was kept to a minimum.

2.We quickly grew tired of the constrained canonical setting of Middle-earth put on us, so we started making our own content to adventure in.

3.We focused on the combat and the loot, but our characters had motivations. They were simple ones (the Free Peoples vs. the Dark Lord), but the motivations supported gameplay.

4.Magic items were awesome, rare, and special. There were five characters in the party and after 27 collective levels, we maybe had seven magic items (it might have been less, honestly).

5.Making maps was a huge part of the fun- for both the GM and the players.

So that’s where I started with my new design: remembering something I enjoyed and setting that as my design goals. Those were the things that were going to matter most. Next time, I’ll explain how I went from abstract ideas to core design principles.



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Relay the Message: Kickstarter Roundup


It's been a while since Kickstarter had anything interesting for me, but all of a sudden that has changed.  I've got three projects I'm following closely, and I thought I'd share them with you:

1. GrimWorld: this is a supplement for Dungeon World.  It looks great, and if you have enjoyed DW (which many of you have) this could be right up your alley.  Time is short, however.  You've got around 40 hours from this posting to back it.  Sorry, but I didn't catch it sooner.

2. S/lay w/Me App: Ron Edwards is trying to take his RPG to the 'net in a new way.  The app works with Google Hangouts, and is meant to help bring together gamers who don't live close to each other.  Ron is running "choose your own reward" system with his Kickstarter that has a lot of neat stuff.  It's different from other Kickstarters, so I recomend checking it out.

3. The RPG Table: if you haven't seen this yet, you need to check it out.  Jim Barnes is selling plans (and parts if you pledge enough) to build a really awesome table meanth for tabletop RPGs.  I first saw things thing a few years ago and have always wanted one.  It's pretty rad.

Technically, none of these are games exactly: one supplement, an app, and a piece of furniture.  But our hobby is evolving.  It's no surprise that our Kickstarters are evolving with them.



Thursday, September 05, 2013

What is Creative Agenda?


I’m tackling a tough subject today.  Hopefully, I can do it justice.  If Ron or Vincent or Ben come along later and correct me, I’ll change this post as necessary.

So what is a creative agenda?  The Forge wiki defines it as "The players' aesthetic priorities and their effect on anything that happens at the table that has any impact on the shared fiction"

There’s a lot of heavy words in that definition, so let’s break it down.  First, let’s deal with “aesthetic.”  Here, aesthetic means “a principled taste and/or style adopted by a rolepalyer for the enjoyment of roleplaying.”  Priorities means “what is most important to the roleplayer.”  At the table means, “what the players are literally, physically doing in the real world.”  And finally, shared fiction means, “the imagined events created by the players through mutual ascent.”  So, to reword creative agenda in Socratic Design speak:

“Creative Agenda is a principled style regarding what is most important to making roleplaying fun for an individual roleplayer when it comes to anything he or she physically, mentally, or emotionally contributes at the gaming table that modifies in any way the shared imagined events that the group-as a whole-has cooperatively created.”

I want to elaborate on “principled style”/”priorities” because this is key.  Creative Agenda (CA) is all about what is most important to the player when it comes to enjoying actual play.  And it’s all about actual play.  It is not about being with friends.  It is not about the snacks your GM’s mom makes every week.  It is not about personal relationships or identification with geek culture.  Those things can be important, but they are all social reasons for play, not creative reasons.  CA deals explicitly with a person’s pleasure that he or she derives from the imaginative fiction being created at the table.

What different creative agendas are there?

So far, there have been three creative agendas identified by Forge Theory.  They are Gamism (a.k.a. Step on Up), Narrativism (a.k.a. Story Now), and Simulationism (a.k.a. The Right to Dream).  I happen to divide the Creative Agendas slightly differently from what Ron et. al. did at the Forge, but this article isn’t the right place to discuss that.  For the purposes of this piece, these three are all there are.

What is Gamism?

Briefly, Gamism is a habitual prioritization of personal guts, sound strategy, inventive tactics, and problem-solving in risky situations.  This means, a person whose CA is Gamism will seek esteem from the other players by consistently guiding his character(s) to act bravely, innovatively, and fearlessly in dangerous situations.

What is Narrativism?

Narrativism manifests itself as a habitual prioritization of engaging on an emotional level to address real-life, human problems (such as war, poverty, love, loyalty, faith, abuse, etc.) while purposely not pre-planning any solution or outcome.  This is sometimes called addressing a theme or a premise in the Lit. 101 sense of those words.  A person whose CA is Narrativism, will allow the events of the fiction created during play to determine the outcomes of the conflicts, plot, and consequences made by the characters.  He or she will not go into the game with any pre-set what ideas of what his or her character will do in any given situation.

What is Simualtionism?

Simulationist play is the habitual prioritization of in-game causality and rigorous application of pre-established facts, themes, motifs, and attitudes in play.  The Simulationist CA values strict adherence to a source, whether that source is a licensed intellectual property (like Star Wars or Middle-earth), genre (like horror, science-fiction, or fantasy), or elements created during play (such as past fictional events the players established).  

So how does one measure Creative Agenda?

You can’t measure CA by determining if a certain, singular “thing” is there.  For instance, if you observe people using combat strategy, you cannot say they are “gamists” or whatever.  If the setting for the game is Earth-Sea, you cannot say it is “simulationist” or whatever.  Just because a certain thing is there, does not mean a certain Creative Agenda is also present.

You must look at what is most important to the players: what he or she consistently finds personally rewarding over an instance of play.  I’ll get into what an “instance of play” is at a later date.  Suffice to say, it is a lengthy period of time.  Do not confuse instance with instant.  An instance of play is not a brief moment of play.

Ask, what appear to be goals of this player as he or she speaks and acts at the table?  What are his or her decisions like?  What sort of actions does he or she consistently make during play?  Answering these will reveal what a player’s CA is.

Are players aware they are using a Creative Agenda?

Not always. In fact, very frequently a person might not be able to articulate what they find rewarding during play.  This is why people resort to saying they most enjoy things like, “I just like hanging out with my friends,” or “I thought this book looked cool from the cover, so I decided to play it.” 

What is the use of Creative Agenda?

Once you understand that players prioritize certain aspects of play, you can begin to design games that support that prioritization.  If you want to make a game that appeals to Gamists, you make a game that proses risky challenges that require skillful strategy to beat.  If you want to appeal to Simulationists, you create a set of mechanics or a gripping setting that engrosses their imaginations and encourages them to stay faithful to that source. 

Design techniques that support the three CAs is an article all to itself, and I’m sure that might be disappointing to my readers who were hoping to get some practical design advice out of this article.  Taking on design techniques from this perspective is a HUGE job, and one I’m not ready to tackle just yet.

For now, I’m going to leave it at that.  If you would like to read more about Creative Agendas, I encourage you to check out the Big Model Wiki or the Adept Press Forums.  Those are both great resources, IMHO.