ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Guilt Con 2015

“Let’s work on our games! Use the devastating weight of procrastination shame to jam it up!”
–the Mighty CHOBBS

Peer pressure makes good company. So this weekend, Marc, Caroline and I set the grindstone speed to “dangerously high” and leaned way, way in. We ignored the pretty-pretty sunshine, the chirpy-chirpy birds, and did the dreadful labor that precedes victory — the horrible, soul-crushing groundwork that must be laid to build a castle in the clouds.

We each have our projects we’re slaving away on: Caroline has Downfall, Marc has Eden, and I’m plugging away at Microscope Explorer.

The genius of working together is that not only does the mere presence of witnesses keep you going, but when you have those roadblocks or doubts, you could turn straight to two other awesome game designers and say “hey, question about character creation…” and bounce some ideas around. Pat runs a weekly Make Stuff gathering, which is fantastic, but I’m usually the only one there working on tabletop games. Most folks are knee-deep in video game dev. Having some other story game designers to brainstorm with was a lovely change of pace.

I don’t want to spill any secrets but much progress was made. This was our first Guilt Con of 2015 but not the last.

Rewriting Your Game From Memory

@lamemage gives hard advice. Rewriting Downfall from memory suuuuucks.

There’s a thing I do when I design games — this is real secret squirrel, behind-the-curtain stuff — which is that after I’ve written a draft or two and playtested a bit, I take everything I’ve written and just put it away. Make a new folder, slap a version number on it, and hide everything in there.

Then I start with a brand new blank page and write the entire game from memory. Blank page. No peeking.

Caroline and Marc are slaving away on Downfall and Eden, respectively, so I suggested they give it a try. Because that’s what friends do: torture you when you’re down.

@lamemage And right after I tweeted that I had a breakthrough. Fuck you.

Sure it’s a great way to test your memory and see if you can remember your own text but that’s not the point. It’s the direct opposite, in fact.

The more you play a game, the more you understand it. That goes double for when you explain the game to someone else. You may not realize it, but your insight into the game has improved so much that the old text is holding you back. If you started from scratch (ehh? see where we’re going?) you would write it in a much more clear and elegant fashion.

Freed from your old structure, you may even find that the game in your mind is very different now. Elements that seemed necessary and critical just fade away. Better ideas take their place. But if you sit down in front of that old text, you have to chisel and hammer to break free. With a blank page, you write what you would say at the table.

I’m not saying it will be easy. It’s a bit of work. But it’s worth it.

Give it a try. And then curse me. And then thank me.

They Have Perspective

I just sent out the sneak peek of my next game as a reward for the fine folks who backed Kingdom at the Perspective level. If you’re a Perspective backer and you didn’t get the link, let me know.

I usually play my cards pretty close to the vest when it comes to projects I’m working on, so this was a bit of a departure for me. It was actually one of the harder things I’ve written in a while.

And no, I’m not going to reveal any of the details — it wouldn’t be a very special special preview if I blabbed. If you missed the Kickstarter, you’ll have to wait to hear about codename “That Game I Talked About In the Perspective Reward”. Yep, need to work on that codename…

Pride Goeth

If I made a war game I would definitely give armies a stat for Pride.

Pride isn’t the same as morale. Pride is a blessing and a curse. Winning increases your Pride and Pride lets you do bold things but it also limits your options. Pride won’t let you back down. Pride won’t let you retreat when you probably should. Pride can’t resist the urge to attack and show your enemy that you are superior.

Pride makes you order Pickett to charge an entrenched enemy who holds the high ground. Pride makes the flower of French chivalry charge into a hail of arrows. Pride makes you throw more and more troops at Stalingrad. Pride makes you push deeper into India when you should probably just sit back and rest at one of your many Alexandrias.

As a game balance mechanic Pride could be lovely. Every victory you won would come with its own built-in cost. Your own successes could turn the tide against you. You could even design scenarios to start with a substantial advantage in troops or disposition but be hamstrung by your overreaching Pride.

Musashi: Suppressing Useful Actions

The important thing in strategy is to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions.

A Book of Five Rings (The Fire Book), Miyamoto Musashi

The diametric opposite of role-playing game design. Informatively so.

Game design acid test: if your rules block ideas the players want and you don’t have an excellent reason for it, you’ve got a design problem. Players will work around it, because players are smart and adaptive, but now they’re fighting your game. Design fail.

And then you say “But you wrote Microscope?!? It restricts player contributions all the time! And I had a great idea I couldn’t use!” And I say yes, it gives huge creative power to different people at different times for very specific and fruitful reasons. Your restriction is another player’s field day.

Crisscrossing Players and Plots and Not Losing Your Mind

After West Marches I ran a long-term superhero game, New Century City. Unlike West Marches it followed the more traditional “the GM creates a situation and the players have fun with it” model, which was fitting because superhero games are one of the most reactive genres you can play: villains hatch schemes, heroes react to stop them and re-establish the status quo.

Also unlike West Marches, the game was plot-heavy. Absolutely thick with plot. There was a big, over-arching thread that ran through the whole thing (Worlds In Collision), a bunch of individual threads that were part of that main arc (Queen of the Jungle, Emerald of Aktios, I am Maximus) as well as assorted unrelated adventure arcs (the lives and deaths of Dr. Null, the Echelon conspiracy). Then there were individual “rise & fall” character arcs for NPCs (Can we cure the Man-Beast? Is Nighthawk a villain or an undercover hero?). And then on top of all that, there were multiple personal threads for every player character (Captain Danger’s relationship with her sister, Moon Man finding out what really happened to him in those missing decades in space, the secret origin of the Eclipse, the dating life of the Eclipse, and so on, and so on).

In keeping with the comic book style, I wanted every session to be a self-contained episode with it’s own arc, complete with an episode title announced at the start of the game. So if you played any one game, it would be a complete adventure (or part of a few session mini-series at most). No bridging sessions, no filler sessions.

But coming right off of West Marches we had a big pool of great players. We wanted to keep playing with everyone, but ten people at the table is way too crowded for anything close to meaningful roleplaying. So again I opted for the mixed roster method: we’d float a date and see who could play, keeping each game at about 3-5 players.

We rarely had the same combination of players at two sessions in a row, which was great for the stand-alone episode part but a potential nightmare for plot threads. Each player is only seeing a fraction of the sessions, so how do you make sure what they’re seeing makes any sense? You say, “surprise! Nighthawk is really a good guy after all” and the players at this session look at you and say, “uh, who’s Nighthawk?” because they’ve never been in a game with him before, or they missed the last bit that set up this bit. Oops.

The cheap answer is to just let the players sort it out. Confused why that guy did that thing? Maybe you better chat with the other players if you want to keep up. While that was glorious in West Marches, where the whole theme was sandbox exploration, it seemed completely inappropriate in a character-centric game like this. The superheroes are the center of the story, the axis around which the plot wheel turns. Just hitting a player with plot X because I wanted to advance that plot and they happened to be there seemed aesthetically tragic.

So I took the harder approach: customizing every single session so it was lovingly hand-crafted to the characters that would be there. And advanced the plots. And made sense.

To keep track of all that, to understand the perspective of each character and figure out what plots they were involved in, I need a tool. I needed a plot grid.

Everything goes in the Plot Grid

The grid was a list of every important thing I wanted to put in the game: plots, events, episodes, characters, scenes, revelations, the works.

Every single item had its own line on the grid. Every revelation, every confrontation, every snippet that I thought needed to come out had its own line (Captain Danger’s sister has powers too! Felicity is really Cathy Grant!). Every thing that needed to come back in response to something that happened in the game had its own line (Maelstrom attacked those army choppers so the Feds are going to come after him, Captain Danger doesn’t know she has that thing in her jacket pocket). Every idea for a random situation, flashy encounter, or set piece had a line (Speed Demon tries to set a record for banks robbed in a day, a sorcerer transforms part of downtown to ancient Aegypt). It all went into the big hopper.

To the right I made columns for every single player character in the game (24+ characters). For each line I would mark the box to show how relevant each item was to that character, how important it was to have that character there when that thing happened.

Characters were marked essential if they had to be there (I can’t reveal the thing about Felicity being Cathy Grant without both Captain Danger and Guardian being there), or marked optional if they had some previous contact with this thread or had shown curiosity but weren’t required (Eclipse and the Shadow would be interested to find out the truth about Mr. Midnight’s background, but it’s only essential to Moon Man since their origins are secretly intertwined). For other characters that line was blank, meaning there was no special connection that character. Some lines had no marks at all, meaning they weren’t attached to anyone in particular, and I could use them whenever I wanted — a lot of generic “action” encounters were this way.

Now Build An Episode

So let’s say we’ve scheduled a game, and I’ve found out who can play and which of their characters they want to play. I take my big grid, and sort the lines so that all the items important to those particular characters will pop to the top. That’s my starting point for brainstorming what to put in the episode. I mix and match, see what goes together and what emerges. Ideally something jumps out as the main plot for the session: some items are big and clearly need to be the centerpiece of an episode, others are just supporting encounters or scenes (it was a personal rule that each episode had a strong core concept, not just a mix of “this week on…” but that’s just me).

Sometimes the unexpected combinations of characters led to surprising but cool plot cross-overs. I didn’t foresee Dr. Daedalus returning with Moon Man to ancient Atlantis because he was only peripherally attached to that thread, but because his player was available and others weren’t that’s what happened and it turned out to be a perfect match. If you asked the players they would probably guess I planned it.

It was also nice because I could be flexible and follow my whims. I could let threads simmer for ten, twenty games without being afraid that I would lose track of them. I didn’t have to keep the game on tight rails.

Side Effects: It’s All About Me

There’s a counter-intuitive side effect: the less you play, the more the game is about you when you do play.

Yes, crazy, I know. But if there’s a plot that requires you (and just about everyone in the superhero game had a background or origin plot — the genre demands it), then the less you play, the fewer opportunities there are to move that plot. So if you’re going to be in a game, I’m more likely to push that thread up the stack. Guardian is showing up for a game? Gotta move that “Trials of Torvok” plot while I have the chance! Dr. Daedalus is in? Time for the “Armor Wars.”

Suffice to say, players did not mind this one bit. The less frequent players got the spotlight, and the more frequent players didn’t mind because they already had the spotlight in a lot of games.

Information is addictive and columns are cheap

As the game went on I added more and more columns to track things like the scale of the adventure (saving the world, saving the city, back alley brawling) or the style of the game (investigation, slugfest, personal issues), so I could sort and scan and see what kinds of games we’d had, and even break down what kind of games each individual player had been in (yeah, Mike hadn’t played in the last six games, but I don’t necessary want the next game he plays in be just like the game he played two months ago).

I had columns for all the major plot arcs, so I could mark which plot each item belonged to. I could track how long it had been (either in-game or real days) since a particular thread had moved. I could flag items as “important, do it soon!” or “maybe.”

As items got used, I put the episode number in the far left column: that thing had happened, so it was cemented in place. I’d change the boxes to checks to show which characters were in that episode, editing the description to reflect what actually happened, morphing my adventure seeds neatly into game records.

Run the Numbers

If you’re wondering how extensively this method was tested, or if you’re wondering if it was overkill, I used it for 119 New Century City games, with nine players running 24 different characters (after factoring out anyone who played fewer than ten games). There were an average of 3.4 players per game, plus GM. Yep, once again the average player only sees about a third of the games.

And no, I don’t think you have to run such a big game to make it worthwhile. It’s potentially a useful technique for any sized game.