Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

In the first post, I discussed the issue: How long it takes you from picking up a game to playing it, or from gathering some friends to playing it, is far too long. Here I’ll address a solution. And ramble some more!

Discussing a Solution:

So, those 2-3 hours, while they may be ok in general, many of us want to play a game in 2-3 hours. I think an organizer would be willing to spend 30 minutes, but if you can do without, it’d be even better. This is why a game where you create the setting (but this must be play, and not pre-play), or better-yet, use Earth, is often a good thing. Another world everyone knows (The Middle-Earth amidst fans) can also work.

There are many games I’d have played, or tried to play/run, if I had known how to transmit them to people who did not, and will not read the rules. I think designers should, or people who run their games at con should (for their benefit), come up with exactly how they teach a game, what they teach before play begins, and what they teach as they play the first few scenes. Andy Kitkowski said this might be best achieved via video-demos, or audio-recordings. I think he’s right.

Because yes, that’s what should happen, and why people can play so many board-games so rapidly. Someone talks for 5 minutes, often with pointing at specific tokens, at specific sections of the board, moving things to engage the other players. After 5-7 minutes, people begin to play, but the teaching of the game doesn’t stop. The person running the game explaines more complicated things that always come up, as they come up. The turn order, the combat/purchase or what have you is usually understood after 10 minutes or so. Some things are not explained, because they never come up, but that’s ok.

Another technique people who run board-games employ, based on the table’s preferances, is that after those ~15-20 minutes of having taught the rules and people playing a bit without guidance are concluded, they clean the board and begin a proper game. In Role-playing scenes, people often teach in specific scenes but also carry them onward, which is better than it being during potentially fatal action; examples include “Initiation” in Dogs in the Vineyard, and “preludes” in most World of Darkness games.

I am currently working on a game, code-named “The Beast Witch” (though it may also be code-named “The Sacred Hunt” or whatever, “The Tribal Game” category). And while talking to Paul Czege I’ve had a thought*, later shared on the afore-mentioned threads: Have a bunch of cardboards, like quick-reference sheets you get in board-games, at the center of a table. At the top of each such sheet write a “Situation” that comes up in the game, and then list on the card what to do, in order. I suggest the player who picks up the card reads the card. This is not easy, because it means you should be able to follow each stage as you reach it. If there are tactically “full” choices, you might want players to read the whole card before they begin following it.

Originally, I thought you’d list each “Sub-system” on the card, but that’s a bit backwards, as you don’t know whether to follow it or not, but something like “My character made another character laugh” or “I thought that other player made a good contribution to the story” tell you exactly when to pick them up.
I also think this will be a fertile ground for ritualistic phrases, or even actions, because you can tell people to make an oath, or perform an action, and the mere act of following such an instruction-card is sort of a ritual on its own.

Some more thoughts I’ve had: I am certain many games could be written, and then you could come up with such quick-sheets for them, and many games come with quickstart rules (but not enough). Also, quickstart rules, and the whole way we write our books might need to be reversed. We put the summaries at an appendix, where they might fit in the beginning, with the “main book” which just elaborates should go on later. I quite like how board-games do it: On the back-cover which avoids page-flipping we have the bare-bones overview, in the first 2-3 pages we have each stage, with a paragraph describing it, and then we have 6-20 pages which describe each stage in (often excruciating) detail.

Likewise, if we have quickstart rules in a hardcover book that’s heavy to lug around, and we might want to flip from the quickstart to the main section, or pass the quickstart rules around… it’s just not a good fit for them to be in the book. Unless you just want to train someone at how to teach the game, but not actually use this document as they go along. For that, I suggest the quick-start rules to be in a small booklet, separate from the main book.

So, to jump a bit back, while I believe most games can have such resources created for them, I wonder if it’ll affect the game’s design if it were designed from the beginning with the plan to make use of these things. We should find out.

For my upcoming game, I both plan to use the “The Big Bang shape” I discussed before, and to make each character sheet contain as much information as the player will need and I could fit on it. I’m taking a page from some of John Harper’s designs. You want the character sheet to contain as much information as possible, and that reading it and then being taught the rules for 5 minutes more should be sufficient.

Of course, giving players pre-generated characters, situation, and even enemies will cut drastically on preparation time, but it will also limit what most people will play in the beginning to just that. I might discuss that in a future post.

* The thought came in a slightly different context, of a game where each sub-system is completely different, with no unified mechanics.

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Ok, this discussion is going to cover several ideas, they may yet get further exploration later on, both exploring how they interact, or just each of them on their own.

The core issue, what it’s all about, is the ability to play games. A “game” does not exist when it is not played. There is no Settlers of Cattan “play” inside the box. There is no D&D Campaign inside that setting book. You only get play when you have people using the thing, when people are engaging in play.

The Problem:

That above theory is one thing, but one thing that is clear is, the focus should be on people playing the game. You want to make it easy for people to play the game. Easy is sometimes more important than good. If it’s easy, people will pick it up and play, and then it should be good. If it’s good, but no one ever plays with it, then how will they know it’s good? And even if they will “know”, will it be worth more than farthing, seeing as it’s not played?

This post follows a discussion on Story-Games, firstĀ in this thread, where a discussion on constraints led me to muse and opine on why people can play one board-game after another, though each is focused in scope, but people are loathe to do so with RPGs. My observation was that the main reason is how long it takes from when you pick up the game and how long before you can begin playing, which was spun into this thread, where Joel Shempert uses the term Fluency Play to describe this (or the result).

Well, many of the modern story-games are pretty small games. They run ~80-120 pages, and these pages are more along the lines of 6×9″ as opposedĀ  to most traditional games that are 8.5″x11″. Reading such a book usually takes me about 2-3 hours, which may not be as bad as say, 6-8 hours I need to dedicate to traditional games (usually considerably more..), but it’s far from good enough.

Ok, so it took me 2-3 hours from when I picked up the book to “knowing” the game, now I have my friends with me. I know the rules, we can play, right? Oh, how I wish this were so. If I were to impart them with all the rules it’d take them about 20-30 minutes to learn. Now this brings to mind two questions:
1. Reading is faster than speaking, so why did I need to read it for 2-3 hours when 20-30 minutes were enough to begin playing?
2. Do you think people can sit and listen to you explain the rules passively for 20-30 minutes?

In my experience, people can spend 5 minutes listening attentively, 10 minutes listening, and at 15 minutes they’re ready to rebel. If you are talking for 20 minutes, you are often not going to play the game at all.
Now, it’s true that it’s possible each one of us had spent 2-3 hours learning the rules, but that is both unlikely, and you want as someone who makes a game to assume it is not so. You want to make it easy on people to play your game, remember?

So, we have one person who knows the rules, hopefully it didn’t take him long to know them. But now, what of his friends, the people he wants to play with? This issue is also very acute for game-designers who are looking for playtesters in general, and myself in particular. I just don’t know how to teach a game as I go along, and feel the need to info-dump. This also makes it harder for someone who is looking for playtesters, to just find some people and begin playing. If you need them to read the rules, that’s another hurdle, and at a convention it’s just not feasible.

This is the first part of two, the next will be posted tomorrow, and discuss some methods to address this.

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Why Don’t Characters Have Minds?

Posted: June 15, 2010 by Guy Shalev in Musings, Story
Tags: , ,

Behaviourism as I was taught it in Sociology classes seems a bit different from how Wikipedia puts it. Notably, as I understand and will discuss the issue, people may as well not have thoughts and feelings. All you can judge them by, all you can understand them by, is their behaviour, their utterances, their frowns. The behaviour they exhibit.

Now, while this may sound par the course for those of us who walk around the world, we cannot assume, according to behaviourism that there is a construct such as the “Mind” at work here. We treat “frown” as is not happy, and perhaps even the desire to transmit that idea. We treat laughter as approval, but we do not look at people as if they are having a thought regarding something being funny. There’s nothing beyond the laughter, and perhaps connecting it to what had preceded it. There’s no black box that finds things funny, sad… and if there is, it’s locked to us (and this is how it differs from the definition given by Wikipedia).

Now I’m going to ask you people to forget the above discussion – not literally, but if you have objections to it, then they are most likely not relevant, as I was covering what lead me to the thoughts I’ve had, for the most part.

As I seem to have said so once before regarding emotional connection, to characters, characters in roleplaying games seem devoid of “minds”. All we get to see are their actions, hear what they say, and we get to make up whatever story regarding what goes on inside their minds, or we can even ignore the whole question; what you see is what you get.

I find this quite different from normal human interaction, where we seem to always be attempting to gauge what people are thinking through their reactions. It is the black box which we are attempting to piece.

I think games should have more moments to explore what characters feel and think, even if it were in the form of monologues like soap operas. The closest we’ve got is I think in inSpectres’ confessionals, though those are more akin to the 40-something confessionals or those in Survivor (reality show), and as such are just as suspect as anything else said by the character. I think it’d be interesting to explore, share, and have the game informed by what occurs inside the characters’ heads.

As for “Deep roleplaying”, or immersion, it solves very little, seeing as even if we were to treat those characters as people, we still are not privy to what they think. For something that seeks to emulate stories, this is quite a lacuna.

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In a way, I am not entirely happy about what I am discussing, but this might be because of my position on mechanics, and the ability to carry settings rather more easily than other things.

Settings sell, and the colour of games sell. The opposite also holds true, because we use the game’s setting and colour to decide if we are to buy the game, quite often. As I’ve told elsewhere, I was initially not sold on Tony Lower-Basch’s capes, because I shy away from superhero games, and it was billed as a superhero game. I purchased it once I’ve been convinced I could take from it what I wanted without dabbling in supers.

There is obviously the movement within story games to tie colour, or at least theme, to the mechanics, so you should be able to pick a setting and find mechanics that support it, or pick a set of mechanics and find a setting that encourages them and the kind of story you wish to tell. But you can see how much it is not so with how many hacks many games receive, and even if the games retain their theme, the colour (sci-fi as opposed to a WW2 story) can often be quite painlessly switched.

I wonder if a part of the issue comes from when many games were more or less identical, and the only thing to separate them, and even their themes, were settings. Even if the mechanics are the same, it’s not always the same kind of story. Heck, why go to “similar systems” when we can remain within the same one? Ravenloft and Forgotten Realms give rise, or enable different stories. Different World of Darkness games give rise to different themes, even if their mechanics are often similar enough (or let’s look at games of Technocracy and Traditions, Kindred of the East and Vampire: the Dark Ages if we’re going to be sticklers). Settings are what we had to differentiate games, so we chose by settings.

But I don’t think it’s that simple. While the metaplot in the oWoD was quite good at polarizing the player-base, if you liked it, then there was nothing like it to suck you in. It sucked me in. Even if the system was not always to my liking, I’d really enjoy thinking of the world that had been created.

And if the system was not to my liking, it’s not like I couldn’t just replace the system. For you see, there wasn’t a place as much as in the oWoD where people told me they played the game while without blinking an eye told me they didn’t roll dice, at all. For the setting is considered the game.

If you’re not a system-geek, and even if you are, settings and colour are really important at whether you’ll buy a game or not. This is the allure of licensed settings, this is why generic systems create several setting worlds.

It works. It sells.

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I had understood what the “problem” with Cranium Rats was a while ago, but I needed to let it sit and stew for a while more.

First, I’d like to thank Filip, who tried to break the system as hard as he could, and showed me the gravity of the problem.

So, the problem is this: There’s friction between Story and Competition, and it is such that one not only comes at the cost of another for you, it can come at the cost of the other for everyone. If you choose winning, mechanically, you may make choices that will make less sense to the story, or will make for a weaker story, and I wish the story to be significant at the same time as there being unrestrained competitionl. But I guess the lesson is that you can’t have both.

I will now explore similar cases in other RPGs that sadly do not apply to my case, but I want to show that I am looking at other cases, and if someone manages to solve this issue, I would be there, ready to jump and grab it.
Capes: Capes doesn’t have an end-point, which limits the competition; there’s always a next time. Nothing is finite. Another possibility is when competition is not really there, you want to “Win” for Resource A, and he wants to “Lose” for Resource B. In CR there’s an end point, there’s a definite winner, and so, definite losers.
The Shab-al-hiri Roach: In the Roach you have a roadmap, it’s very much like a boardgame in that respect. You know where you’re going, you have a limited number of stops on the way, and you get there. It requires the game to be built in a specific manner, which I didn’t choose for CR.

So, what can be made of Cranium Rats?
One option is to remove Story, and have it as a board game, or nearly one, but this option is the least appealing to me.
Another option is to remove competition, to make it a game about Choice and what makes a Human. Heady stuff. If I go down this route, I’ll also be able to take out much of the current system, which is complex and fiddly, because the system is there to regulate the resource flow and ensure no one is “Downspiraled” to a point of insignificance. This is an option I think I will pursue, and that will lead to an interesting result.

If you people have any ideas of how to mate competition and story successfully, please share.
Or if you have thoughts/ideas/feedback/suggestions or whatever regarding the above, especially option #2.

Thoughts about Constrained Roleplaying?

Posted: August 3, 2007 by Guy Shalev in Musings

This is true for Juiced Rider, and some other imagined/planned projects. I am toying with the idea that you don’t get to role-play all the time, however and whenever you like, and that system comes to the fore when you disagree with someone or want to get something which you might not get and it has an impact on the story.

I want it to be a game, and in a game, all activities you may do are part of the scripted options. In D&D, both 0ed and 3ed, there is no description of role-playing, and the know-how of the activity is actually transmitted by players.
In my “RPGs” (sometimes “Story-Games”), you can only Role-play when it is said that you are free to. There are specific scenes/bits of the action where it is said you may role-play.

How do you feel about that?