ars ludi

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

A Decade of Ludi

It is essential that players like their characters. The character is the lens through which the player experiences everything in the game.

It is also essential but no so obvious that they have to like the other players’ characters as well.

An ideal party is not so much about balance as it is mutual appreciation. The members of an ideal party appreciate each others strengths and even their flaws.

Making the Party, November 29, 2005

Walking down memory lane! Ten years ago today I put up my first ars ludi post. I was GMing all the time back then, so the vast majority of my posts were about running games, preparing games, and all the weird syndromes that screw up games.

I post a lot less (here and everywhere else) because nowadays I channel my energy into finishing games. Insightful posts are great, but putting games in people’s hands that they can play over and over again is even better. Microscope is a perfect example: the work that went into it is paying off in people getting to play awesome games around the world, every single day.

Who’s the real witch in Salem?

“Hey, I want to film a story game! Round up the hottest players in Seattle and bring them to my office! Stat!”

That’s Peter Adkison talking, a little over a year ago. He needed to make a documentary for his film class and story games seemed like the perfect topic and would I help out? Twist my arm!

Part of the vision for the documentary was to highlight how story games can make serious, dramatic stories. So even though we played Jason Morningstar’s excellent Fiasco, a game which invites over-the-top black comedy, we used a very serious playset: Salem 1692, written by Logan Bonner and Lillian Cohen-Moore. Witch trials, false accusations, burning at the stake: the whole dark nine yards.

Was it good? Yes, crazy good. It was one of those games where even though we were making things up as we went along we wound up with an astoundingly tight plot. Tight and tragic. I don’t think we could have done better if we sat down and scripted the whole thing ahead of time.

(Us, making the tragedy. Not shown: Pat and Jerome weeping. I blame Caroline.)

Now Peter is taking that game we played — our tragic story of adultery and lies and paying for the sins of others — and he’s working on adapting it into a movie. Actors, period sets: the works. In fact the Kickstarter is running right now.

Was what happened in the game good enough to be movie? Without a doubt.

It’s a fascinating thing really. Gaming is an internal activity. You make it happen by talking and listening to other people talk, but the interesting part is really happening in your mind. When you’re playing, your brain is twisting and turning, absorbing the ideas other people are introducing and reweaving them back into the story combined with new ideas of your own.

When you’re playing, you’re totally involved because you’re making it happen. But unlike watching a physical activity like baseball, someone else can never really see that internal mental process. You can’t see what’s going on in the players’ heads. You can see the results, but you’re not seeing what the players are experiencing. When you watch the snippets of us playing the Salem game in the Kickstarter video, you’re seeing that outward interaction, the talking and the listening, but not the inner bit where we’re actually playing a game. That part’s invisible to the naked eye.

And of course in a perfect game, or at least a very good game, what’s happening in each person’s head matches up enough that we all share a common vision of not only what’s happening but what should happen, what’s interesting and what’s important to this game. We not only all care about addressing the same things but we all appreciate the results.

And if you don’t think that’s kind of a magical thing for humans to accomplish, you are not paying attention.

So can a game be a movie? Or more accurately, can a movie capture the magic that made it a living game and not just a planned script? I honestly don’t know. But now I’m really curious to find out. This project is, in many ways, a grand experiment. Or it will be if you fund it.

postscript: I don’t want to give away the ending, but the graphic of the woman(?) hanging from the tree is worse than it looks. When we go dark we don’t mess around.

Every Single One

Ever wonder if you’ve read every single ars ludi post? Afraid you might have missed some gold? Well to make it easy for you I’ve added a chronological list of every single ars ludi post. But pack a lunch before you head out because there are over 300 of them all the way back to 2005.

Talk about a walk down memory lane. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all. Pretty sure.

Now I just need a way to flag the classics…

UPDATE: Lo and behold, the classics are marked. I’ll probably refine the list over time but right now those are the best of the best. I added separate icons for favorite articles and epic game summaries.

One Blog to Rule Them All

Many years ago I raised my magic sword high and sliced my blog in two. On one hand there was Ars Ludi and on the other the Lame Mage blog. But like the kinslaying at the havens and the haughty oath of Feanor to claim the Silmarils from Vala, demon, elf or man, this division has had its downsides. Some folks followed one blog but didn’t even know about the other. Criminally confusing.

Well no more! The long divided blogs are happily united. Everything from the Lame Mage blog has been migrated over here. All old links should still work unless I messed something up. Again (*cough* twitter storm).

A Good Year for Gaming, Examined

So as I already posted, I had an epic year of gaming. Sixty percent more games than any year for the last decade. We’re talking raw college-levels of gaming.

How did this magical thing happen?

For one, 2011 was the year of the West Coast game tour, with convention and gaming events large and small, epic and intimate: Johnzo-conzo, GameStorm, NemoCon, Fabricated Realities, Go Play NW, PAX, CozyCon, and GeekGirlCon. Fantastic and unique events all through the year.

Second, there was the mighty, unstoppable, dice-crushing juggernaut that is Story Games Seattle. Make no mistake: run a weekly public gaming meetup and you will game a lot. At least once a week, in fact. Civilians beware, it’s a highly virulent gaming vector. Just walk near the building and you’re likely to get sucked in and start role-playing. Before you know it you’re using words like antagonism and conflict resolution.

Here’s the weird part: I didn’t even have a regular gaming group in the usual sense. Y’know, that Tuesday night crew you try all your new games with. Instead I played with a huge variety of people. Story Games Seattle meets every week, but I’d be lucky to play with the same people twice in an entire month. It’s a constantly shifting roster of players and even when it’s fairly stable we mix up who plays with who. Case in point: in 2011 I played with 103 people I had never gamed with before, ever. This is a crazy and wonderful thing all by itself. Educational too. There is nothing that sharpens your gaming skills like gaming with strangers. I highly recommend it.

This was also the year I finished Microscope and sent it out into the world to make new friends. Anyone who tells you that isn’t a harrowing process is lying or they aren’t releasing a game they really care about. Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking and sometimes it’s fantastically rewarding. Those two things don’t cancel out: it’s both at once, or sometimes one right after the other. Has this scared me off game design? Clearly not enough, because I’m already knee-deep playtesting Kingdom.

All in all, this has been a really fine way to spend a year. Playing lots and lots of fascinating games with lots and lots of fascinating people.

To all the awesome gamers who made my year possible: thank you. Now let’s play more.

A Good Year for Gaming

A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

That’s how many times I gamed each year for the past decade. I know it’s quality not quantity that matters, but 2011 was a fiery ball of gaming win.

So next time you’re wondering why I haven’t posted on Ars Ludi in a while, there’s your answer: I’m busy gaming. Or designing games like Microscope. Usually both.