Archive for the ‘Playing’ Category

About a decade or so ago, I’ve played in a convention game, which was not very good. It had been very instructive, and had stayed in my mind[1], and I think it’d make for an instructive example of something that most of us hear often, and accept: Medium matters. It matters if you tell a story as a book or as a movie, as a movie or as a mini-series. It also matters to a game if it’s played online or offline, with other people or solitary, and special care should be taken when taking a game that was designed in one medium and “porting” (importing) it to another.

The game had the GM, and about a four of us players, perhaps three, I’m not entirely sure. The player characters were held captive, and a man was “interrogating” them, making use of a virtualization tool, so that he can see the images we project with our minds, or perhaps it was just our characters talking – that part was a bit unclear. So he presents us with a situation, we are at X, and Y happens: We reach a junction, and fire opens at us, what do we do? Or rather, what did we do? You see, our characters infiltrated this facility, and got pretty far before being captured, so he wants us to go over what we’ve done and how we’ve done it.

Thing is, if what we narrated ended with us being caught, or we didn’t have enough time to think on our feet, or whatever, he, the GM and the person he was narrating, because in this case they are one and the same, would go, “No, that’s not how it happened” or “Why do you lie to me” before asking us to show him, again. Needless to say, it was mostly GM-fiat deciding things, and he didn’t give us all the roads we wanted [2]. Oh, we’ve had pieces of paper given to us, showing us the resources we’ve had at our disposal, that were found with us, that we said we had, etc.

After a while, after the GM had decided we had all the information we needed, I triggered an explosive charge and broke us out of captivity (see point [2]). We were now in the middle of a hostile facility with everyone coming after us. The GM kept with his “time-sensitive” pressure, giving us time to react, or penalizing us for time we spent thinking, as the players. And then we didn’t really know what we were meant to do, how we were meant to escape – where were our guns? We needed them. And then, all our characters died, and the session ended. And the GM talked to us a bit about the background of the game, the all-important background.

The game was modeled after an internet text-game, with MUD-like commands (Zork), /interact with…, etc. It’s also a puzzle of sorts, where through trial and error we find out who we are, the layout of the facility, what we did, etc. The missing bit is that one of the items in our inventory wasn’t really an item we had, or that did anything, but a lie/image created in order to hide the place where we hid our guns. And we also had to figure out how to take out the facility’s power-source later (as in, after breaking out).

This leads me to where the “port” had issues. I think you can tell how our “interrogation” was very much like a video game, complete with “Saves”. Every time we failed to clear a section, we returned to the last section cleared. But after all this time played, and unlike the internet game that always had this option, we were thrust into “real-time”. Now, our decisions were final, and failure was harsh. This may have been true to the in-game, but it was a drastic departure from the way the original game was designed. This was made worse by two things.

When you sit in front of a computer game that has saves, you’re more willing to take risks, it doesn’t cost you much. But even if it were a pain, you can pause the game and think. Most games let players talk for a bit, but we were really not given much time, at the table, with in-game events happening as we the players tried to discuss things.
Finally, the internet game was a puzzle, aimed at the players, and it was a puzzle that did not have time hanging over the players’ heads. The puzzle of figuring out that one of the items was not real, and was used to masquerade where our guns were – this is information our characters had, but we the players did not. The original game was there to challenge the players, but here the “challenge” was very problematic, as we had one shot, and we had no time.

Of course, the whole game was also horribly “Rail-roaded”, with us only going one direction at a time,  and while in a text quest there’s some challenge in finding the right /interact command to continue, the real point of the game is figuring the fake item and its usage, and that you set the explosives in the interrogation room, it’d seem. Which made the whole experience a lot less fun. And the challenge was very “Gotcha!” [3]. I mean, the whole game-play the only thing we could basically do was figure out the “How” in a description, and then we all died.

[1] Then again, I have a known issue forgetting things, so don’t take that as too much credit for the game.

[2] The most extreme case of this was when we had a piece of explosive (see next sentence in main post) triggered by a key-word. I used it early, figuring it was on me/in the room, and it did nothing. But it was in the room! And later I did trigger it; when it fit the GM’s needs.

[3] It reminds me how in school trips you’d get told the following story, “A man went to the train station, and saw a woman wave goodbye to someone. He killed her, but didn’t go to jail. Why?” and you’re only allowed to ask yes/no questions. The answer is: “They were married, she faked her death and cut her finger to do it, and the husband went to jail for it. Waving her hand at the train station he saw her missing finger, and since he was already convicted of murdering her, he could not be convicted of it again.”
See, “Gotcha!”, it’s information that really comes out of nowhere.

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, first 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 opposed  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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