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Lockdown Level-Up: Mind Over Matter

I was chatting with Pat, part of the old school Story Games Seattle braintrust, about how the online games I’ve been in have gotten so much better since the lockdown.

And the logical thought is, yeah, practice makes perfect. We’re playing all our tabletop games online instead of at, y’know, a table, so we’re getting better at all the methods and techniques that are unique to being online (and also getting better headsets, natch).

Buuuuuut, I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think something more subtle is going on.

Whenever we played games online before the lockdown, they were… fine? But we always knew somewhere in the back of our minds that it would have been better to be playing in person, at a table. We knew we were settling for second-best.

But role-playing games — particularly ones that require lots of creative contribution from the players — hinge on attitude. If you come into a game with reservations or doubts, you’re going to have a worse game because you’re distracted and holding back. You’re judging the experience instead of freely participating, and a creative game needs everyone to contribute.

So while there are disadvantages to trying to talk and play online, thinking about those downsides makes you play even worse. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: expecting an online game to be worse causes the online game to be worse.

In any situation, you can overcome a bad starting attitude or distraction, but it’s an uphill battle — which is also why we used the welcome spiel of Story Games Seattle to set the mood and get people in the right mindset. A similar thing happens when people playtest games: they go into the session sitting back and analyzing everything, looking for flaws, instead of leaning in and playing, which naturally makes the game worse (which is why the one piece of advice I always give is to never think of a game as a playtest: just play normally).

But once the lockdown hit, playing in person was off the table, so to speak. There was no point even thinking about whether gaming in person would have been better because it wasn’t an option, so you stop coming to the game with an unspoken feeling that it’s a compromise. The same problems are there, you just don’t think about them. You just play, so you have more fun.

And you get to play in pajamas…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s all in your head: only half of it is.

Gaming online is more difficult than playing face-to-face. It’s harder to communicate, there are reduced social cues to understand how the other players are feeling, there’s a layer of detachment because you’re staring at a tiny window on a screen instead of a real person, etc. etc. etc. You can get better at those skills but to some degree they’ll always remain.

There are advantages too, mostly regarding logistics: you can play with anyone anywhere, there’s no travel time, no need to arrange a venue. And you can play in your pajamas. But the advantages are things that are outside the session (aside from the pajamas), whereas the disadvantages are things that happen during the game and actually impact the quality of play. And the quality of play is the point of the whole damn thing.

It’s kind of a magic trick: yes there are disadvantages, but they hurt the game more if you think about them, so forgetting they’re there makes the game better. It’s no different than if you were playing in person but the seats were hard and the room was loud: you’ll have a quantifiably better game if you just forget about the inconveniences and focus on playing.

Does it work? I look back on the awesome games we’ve played during the lockdown and say yes.

What about you?

Ben Robbins | April 27th, 2022 | , | 3 comments

Their Power to Oppress

Rules must always be evaluated for their power to oppress

Line Goes Up – The Problem With NFTs, by Dan Olson, 2022

The discussion is about community rules, economic rules, and even legal rules, but game rules are exactly the same kettle of fish. The community is that group of people, sitting at that table, playing the game. Does a rule inspire a healthy collaborative community, or does it give you a cudgel to lord over someone else?

Even if a system intends to be fair, if it’s badly designed it can be gamed to someone’s advantage. It’s no different with bad laws or skewed tax exemptions, which of course is why we need more ethical game designers in all levels of government…

And yeah I’ve watched Line Goes Up about fives times. And I will again. My only criticism is that there is *so* much material, covering so much ground, that I wish it was multiple videos so people could absorb it in smaller chunks. You can hear people’s eyes roll when you tell them to watch a two hour video. It’s a lot to take in, but utterly worth it.

Go watch it.

Ben Robbins | April 24th, 2022 | , , | 1 comment

Field Game: Tips & Strategies

As any true student of Field Game knows, there are many schools of thought about winning strategies. Debates among scholars have at times been heated, rivaling the action on the field. But even as the once-bucolic school sport outgrew the classroom and morphed into the modern Field Game we now see on national TV, fundamental questions of strategy remained.

An essential question confronting any team is how to assign positions. There are three rings each with two spots, and each player has two Kingdo monsters. Do you give each player both positions in the same ring or do you mix them up? Some argue that having a player with positions in two adjacent rings means they can execute passes between their own monsters without coordinating with any other players, but critics say this kind of tactical isolationism reflects a bankrupt philosophy of play.

When you have players with a mix of experience (a practical inevitability) do you assign your stronger players farther rings, where they can probably still control their critters, and leave the inner rings for weaker players so they can stand right next to their Kingdo and bark orders?

On the other hand, is it more essential to have a strong middle ring or anchor the inside or outside? After all, the nug has to pass through the middle ring twice on every run, but depending on the direction of the run the inner or outer ring will only see the nug once.

And then there’s the eternal debate over whether an outward nug run (inner ring to outer and back to inner) is easier than an inward run. With an outward run the action is closer to the players at the center twice, at the beginning and end, making it easier to command your monsters… but that’s true for the defenders too.

No matter how dominant one approach has seemed, over time new strategies have emerged to usurp it.

Much like the Kingdo monsters themselves, the sport continues to evolve, sometimes in unexpected ways. And also much like the Kingdo monsters, it can be surprisingly difficult to master.

Ben Robbins | April 4th, 2022 | , , ,

Ring the Nug: the Kingdomon Field Game

We’re playing a scene during the Elspa Academy era of our Kingdom Legacy campaign, where students are learning a game to teach them about teamwork, handling wild Kingdo monsters… and maybe a little something about friendship.

We’re practicing for the championship match against our rival, Dorfin Academy, but it’s not going well. Spotsprints, Laardvarks, and Croaknkeys are sitting around, eating grass, entirely ignoring the orders the kids scream at them and each other.

It is, in fact, a total shit show. An absolute total fustercluck*. And that’s intentional, because the game is designed to teach students that it takes more than just yelling to get a wild animal to do what you want. Nature does not do what you want, and sometimes other people don’t either.

“Field Game” was an important part of our story in Elspa Academy, but we didn’t really need to know how it was played beyond “kids yell orders at Kingdomon”. Didn’t need to know the rules, didn’t need to conceive and create an entire game… but then after one particularly good cup of coffee, yeah I did conceive and create the entire game.

So now you can play it too! All you need is a nice grassy field, white paint, and a half-dozen trained pocket monsters that (sometimes) obey your commands. Oh and one regulation-sized Nug, but you can probably scrounge one from other field games you have around the house.

The Rules of Field Game

There are two teams. Each has three (human) players, and each player commands two Kingdo monsters, so six Kingdomon total for each team. The field is a circle with three concentric rings, each divided into four quarters alternating green and white, and a “safe” zone in the middle. See the helpful illustation.

The game starts with one monster in each quarter. One team places on white and the other on green. Once play starts, a monster can’t leave its ring but is free to move anywhere within that ring.

The human players stay in the center. They shout orders to their monsters, but they don’t interact with the nug or ever take action directly. Nor can monsters enter the center or interact with the players — monsters can unleash a smackdown on other monsters, but never attack humans!

Field Game Rules

The object of the game is for the Kingdo monsters to move the “nugget” (aka the nug) across the rings, from the outer ring to the inner ring and back again, or vice versa (inner to outer and back to inner). A full round trip scores you a point. Since a monster can’t leave its ring, it has to pass the nug to a teammate in the next ring. But you can only pass the nug to a monster in a quarter of the same color. Which means those diagonal spots where the quarters of each ring meet are the hot spots of action.

The nug has to be in the possession of a monster in each ring, in order, to score. If you skip the middle ring you have to go back and start over for it to count towards scoring. And by design, no player can win by themselves. You only have two Kingdo, so even if they’re in two different rings you always have to pass to another player’s monsters to ring the nug.

At Elspa Academy there are three grades, so of course a team representing the school is required to include one student from each year: one senior, one sophomore, and one freshman. Because that just makes everything harder.

(There were also “advanced rules” where placards were flipped each round to establish special rules that applied to any Kingdo in possession of the Nug, like “no moving while holding the Nug”, or “no throwing the Nug” etc. but that seemed liked gilding the lily and never got used.)

In the fiction there would be lots of careful strategic decisions about where to place different species of Kingdo monsters, based on their abilities and where your opponent is placing theirs, but mostly it’s about team work and figuring out how to get your monsters to do what you want and not have the whole thing devolve into an absolute mess. It’s an intentionally frustrating game that teaches students character.

So how did we do in the championship? Elspa Academy won regionals for the first time in years, defeating the snotty kids from Dorfin! But our main characters, who had nearly resorted to cheating to win, lost their own match but learned a lot about themselves and grew as people.

A loss on the field, a win in life.

Next up, Field Game: Tips & Strategies

* a rare evolution of the Chickycluck, generally considered too small to carry a Nug

Ben Robbins | March 31st, 2022 | , , ,

Microscope In the Classroom: Collaboration Is Not Easy

Along the way, the students learn and reinforce some valuable skills. Collaboration is not easy. Strong personalities have to tone it down to ensure everyone has a voice. Quieter personalities find themselves thrust into the spotlight, having to at least briefly take on a leadership role within the group. Attention must be paid to cause-effect in order to construct narratives that make sense.

The Knights of the Mightier Pen: Fractal Histories

The social dynamics of playing creative games together is a boon for human development. I love hearing about teachers using my games in class, because I think we’ve only begun to scrape the surface of using story games in education, to help everyone develop those critical human skills.

Ben Robbins | March 14th, 2022 | ,

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