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The Designer Ouroboros

When you’re stumped on a project, what do you do? You can bang your head against a wall — and I usually do, for quite a while, because sometimes that does get results — or you can pivot to another project to clear your head.

And when you get stumped on that project, what do you do? Maybe more head-banging, or maybe you decide to pivot to yet another project to clear your head, again.

And when project number three stumps you, where do you turn? Right back to project one.

Rinse, repeat.

On paper that sounds like a dog chasing its tail, an endless vicious cycle, but when you come back to a project that’s laid fallow you might discover surprising insights lurking just beneath your waking mind. The trick (and there’s always a trick) is to make sure your projects don’t drift into something else when you leave and come back to them. So you write down your maxims, and you check your maxims. Can you change your maxims? Absolutely. But it has to be a conscious choice, not forgetfulness.

Irrational Methods & Sacred Holograms

I’m very organized. But sometimes organizing is not your friend.

Recently I noticed I was really grappling with my design notes, that the organization itself was making it harder to work on the game. So I made a strange leap to a totally different approach. On paper a completely irrational method. Disorganization, really. But I’m finding at a particular stage of the development process that it works much better for me, for reasons I’ll explain.

Here’s the logical method, which is what I usually do: if you’ve got a design in the works, you set up folders or some kind of hierarchy for each facet of the game. Maybe a section on character creation, with a subsection on relationships, and really overarching folders for setup versus play and so on. And when you have ideas you go to that section of the hierarchy and write your thoughts in their proper places. Maybe you have different folders or one big outline document with different sections — whatever, doesn’t matter. The point is, as you work or brainstorm, everything you make goes in the section where it belongs. Even if you’re debating three different ways to frame scenes, all three methods are in the “scene” section.

And that’s totally logical. But what I’ve found is that it also creates a small organizational hurdle every time you have an idea you want to jot down. Where does it go? How does that change the structure? Do I need to re-order all these folders? That kind of micro-introspection can stifle the flow of ideas. You can’t just add one idea, you have to stop and think of how that idea fits in the whole right then.

Enter my irrational solution. I usually keep journals for games I’m working on, to reflect about the process and think through timelines, etc. But now I’ve switched to putting the bulk of all design notes in those journals. If I have an idea of how to revise relationships during character creation, I just slap it right in the Tuesday entry rather than trying to put it in the proper section of the notes hierarchy.

The result is a big chronological thread of ideas as they came to me, completely disorganized. And right now, for me, it totally works. Because there’s zero barrier to jotting down new ideas or kicking around some snippet of analysis. I just open the journal and add something.

Later on, yes, there will be a massive culling, where I’ll go through the whole journal and scoff at all the ideas I came up with and abandoned, and then write the true final rules.

But I think this method reflects a very important truth, which is that the true structure of the game doesn’t exist on the page, it exists in my head. If I can’t see the whole thing floating in my brain, I’m not there yet. And then, yes, once that sacred hologram is complete, the next step is to translate it into words that players can read. But the mental construct comes first. Writing things down during the design phase is just a way to help me put it into focus.

A corollary is that this is exactly where some game designers go wrong. They have a clear mental construct, but the words they put on the page don’t express the game in their head, and they can’t see the discrepancy. Which is also why I’ve said in the past that if you’ve been kicking your text around for a long time, it can be revelatory to put it all aside, start with a blank page, and write your entire game out from memory. Because your brain knows how the game works.

And that’s also why a lot of game design work looks like me just walking around the house, starring into space, not writing a word. Because I’m building up and tearing down the construct in my mind.

Ben Robbins | February 14th, 2022 | , | 1 comment

What Made That Game Great?

“That game was amazing!!”

Ah yes, those games you played that you’re still talking about days, weeks or years later. But when someone says they played a really great game session, what does that mean? What actually makes a session great? It might seem like there should be a universal answer, a game theory definition of what makes a great play session, but I think the answer is entirely personal, not universal.

For some people, it might just be spending time with people they like. They had a good time socializing, drinking beer and kicking back, so it was an amazing game.

For others it’s the magic carpet ride, where everyone is on the same page and things just flow effortlessly. We didn’t even need any rules!

Other people love the spotlight. They got to create big things that amazed the other players, or had a dramatic moment that held everyone else spellbound.

Or they cherished a game because it had emotion. It tore them apart or nearly brought them to tears.

Or they got so caught up in the moment that they forgot about their day-to-day troubles, and maybe even stopped thinking about the game as a game. Classic escapism.

Or maybe they just rolled a 20 at the perfect moment

And that’s just to name a few. Ultimately, I think someone’s definition of a “great game” tells us why they come to the table in the first place. That’s what they want out of these games, even if they don’t recognize it in themselves. Because we don’t all play these games for the same reasons, or want the same things or get the same things out of them. Different people at the table might agree a session was a classic, but never realize they loved totally different aspects of the same game.

Transforming “Me” to “Us”

The inevitable question (which I’m asking myself right now, but pretending you’re asking as some kind of rhetorical flourish) is, what makes *me* say a game is great? What ingredients have to be present for Ben to bask in the afterglow and say “Awww yes! That was a great game!”?

In other words: what am I looking for when I play games? What am I doing this for?

Looking back at the games that have stayed lodged in my cranium for years on end, I can detect a common thread. The magic ingredient, at least for me.

What I love is seeing disagreement turn into agreement. Where people start off with very different ideas of how things should go or what they like, players who think they have no common ground, but then the game helps them create something wonderful together.

The process of play brings the table together, replacing their skepticism with camaraderie and trust. It makes everyone love and respect each other more.

That transformation from “me” to “us” is what makes me say “Now that was a great game.”

What about you?

Ben Robbins | January 25th, 2022 |

2021: A Year of Legacy

Despite the pandemic — or more likely because of it — I played more role-playing games in 2021 than any other year since I started logging my games back in high school. It’s a fact.

Playing online via video chat used to seem like a pale imitation of face-to-face gaming, but for logistics it can’t be beat: distance doesn’t matter so you can game with anyone in the world, there’s no picking a venue, no travel time, etc. Even without a pandemic, it’s kind of a great fit for busy adults.

A big chunk of those games were Kingdom. Lots and lots of Kingdom. 71 sessions total. And almost all of them were the new Legacy rules from the second edition. I came from an old school D&D background ages ago, and while I love one-shot (or short arc) story games, there have been times I missed the immersion and involvement that comes from a campaign you’ve been playing with the same people for months or years. But before now there have been, as far as I know, exactly *zero* GMless games that really work for long-term campaign play — I’m talking about campaigns that run thirty, forty, or (ahem) seventy sessions.

But now with Kingdom Legacy we’ve got long-term campaigns again and it’s fantastic.

In 2020 we started our Kingdomon “collect all the pocket monsters” saga with Al, Caroline, and Marc, and it’s still going strong two years in. It was the very first Legacy game I ever played, before the rules were finished and I knew how awesome it was going to be.

Then in 2021 I added a second campaign, the Department of Witches Kingdom with Ace, Ashley, and Joe. And just like Kingdomon, it was originally a one-shot Kingdom game that grew out of control and is now over 30 sessions in.

And what’s better than two Kingdom games? How about three? The Ozari Traveling Circus, with Haskell, Jem, Mike, and Seth, complete with clowns, lion tamers, and trapeze artists. It’s still a “normal” Kingdom game so only time will tell if it will make the jump to Legacy too.

And yeah, I did squeeze in a bunch of other games that weren’t Kingdom: Caroline’s awesome Fedora Noir game, two Fallout campaigns (great players and not-so great rules), some Microscope, Follow, and Downfall, a few games I hadn’t tried before like Incarnis, i’m sorry did you say street magic, and Paninaro, and even a West Marches D&D 3e game that someone else is running so I get to just kick back and avoid getting eaten by wolves for a change.

As always, the key ingredient is great players. I am very, very lucky to know a bunch of people are a lot of fun to game with over and over again.

Cherish your peeps. And cut them some slack when you have to. It’s rough out there.

Ben Robbins | January 16th, 2022 | , , , , , ,

Does It Add Beauty to The World?

I’ve been working on a long post picking apart the movie Inception for ages, analyzing what I think are truths the movie hides in plain sight.

But looking at the finished essay, I decided it didn’t add to the beauty of the world. So I’m scrapping it.

Ben Robbins | January 12th, 2022 | | 5 comments

An Item or Object to Be Processed

I urge you not to endorse this sinister measure. Humanity many times has had sad experience of superpowerful police forces… As soon as (the police) slip out from under the firm thumb of a suspicious local tribune, they become arbitrary, merciless, a law unto themselves. They think no more of justice, but only of establishing themselves as a privileged and envied elite. They mistake the attitude of natural caution and uncertainty of the civilian population as admiration and respect, and presently they start to swagger back and forth, jingling their weapons in megalomaniac euphoria. People thereupon become not masters, but servants. Such a police force becomes merely an aggregate of uniformed criminals, the more baneful in that their position is unchallenged and sanctioned by law.

The police mentality cannot regard a human being in terms other than as an item or object to be processed as expeditiously as possible. Public convenience or dignity means nothing; police prerogatives assume the status of divine law. Submissiveness is demanded. If a police officer kills a civilian, it is a regrettable circumstance; the officer was possible overzealous. If a civilian kills a police officer all hell breaks loose. The police foam at the mouth. All other business comes to a standstill until the perpetrator of this most dastardly act is found out. Inevitably, when apprehended, he is beaten or otherwise tortured for his intolerable presumption.

The police complain that they cannot function efficiently, that criminals escape them. Better a hundred unchecked criminals than the despotism of one unbridled police force. Again I warn you, do not endorse this measure. If you do, I shall surely veto it.

From over fifty years ago, Jack Vance’s The Star King, 1964.

Science fiction, of course.

Ben Robbins | January 3rd, 2022 |

Three Kinds of Insight

When I’m noodling away, doing that thing we ostensibly call work, I bump into three kinds of insight.

There’s the kind of insight that you hurry to write down, so you don’t forget it.

Then there’s the kind of insight that changes the way you think, so you *know* you’ll never forget it, even if you don’t write it down.

And then, insidiously, there’s the third kind: the kind of insight you think will change your thinking and you’ll never forget, but instead you just keep forgetting and rediscovering it, and forgetting and rediscovering it, again and again, even if you do write it down.

That moment when you have a great idea, then look back and realize you wrote down that same idea three years ago and forgot about it? Oh yeah.

Sometimes the brain resists change.

Ben Robbins | December 26th, 2021 | , | 2 comments