Three interesting things I’ve read recently, mid-September 2019

An astute observation from Kyle Maxwell’s review of Dirge of Urazya:

A twenty-four page zine by an independent author will never provide as much detail as an encylopedic tome from a large corporate producer. But I’m not sure the additional detail in those larger books actually gets used in games. … Setting material like [Dirge of Urazya] leans into that idea and gives the players – all of them – both the encouragement and the tools to customize it, rather than present lots of “canon lore” and then a vague statement about feeling free to “change it if you want”.

Patrick Stuart has started a discussion on his blog with the question “What do you think of art in games?”. As you might expect from his circle, the quality of the replies is excellent, with lots of clever, creative people scrabbling around trying to make sense of their heads.

Paul Beakley has advice on how to use clocks in Blades in the Dark and descendants. He starts by talking about the problems he had before he knew how do that:

Every time they rolled anything less than a 6, I’d load ‘em up with consequences. I had no place to put consequences other than the characters or the fiction, and the whole thing ended up looking more like a game of Fiasco than smooth Ocean’s 11 style criming. The reason of course is that you need clocks as a place to put consequences other than the characters and the fiction.

I particularly like how he talks about “places[s] to put consequences” — consequences are, of course, a type of currency, and they need to be accounted for. If you’re generating too many (or too few) for the sinks available, you’re going to have problems. Put another way — I understood after reading this that there are, give-or-take, “consequence points”, and the Blades mechanics only work well if the maths for those points is right.

Optimising your idea machine — getting the possible ideas from your mind into play

The problem — too many ideas, and they scatter to the wind

The basic problem is that I generate lots of ideas and thoughts, for games I’m running and games I’m not. I’m fairly good at writing them down, somehow and somewhere, but I’m not so good at getting them to the point where they are actually used in play. I think I miss a lot of opportunities to put the fruits of my mind into a position where players can experience them.

a_raw_idea.jpg
I had an idea. Now what?

Now, sure, there are some irreducible constraints on this. Play can’t always provide good context to bring in all the ideas you have — you may well generate ideas that require too many entirely different games. And even if everything lines up, you might produce more ideas than can ever be fitted in the playing time you have. Some ideas will fall on stony ground because the world is just like that.

But some losses are accidental. Sometimes, you’ll get an opportunity to use an idea, but miss it. This might be because you forgot it entirely. Or it might because you remember the general idea but you forgot important details (and can’t find them fast enough to not break game flow). Such losses can be minimised if we’re clever about it.

What I want to do is to be as efficient as possible at getting the best ideas from the seething ferment of my mind to the actual world where players can suffer them. I want maximise my ratio of (effort put in) to (amount and quality of ideas that make it to play).

A general model — engineering your idea machine

Continue reading “Optimising your idea machine — getting the possible ideas from your mind into play”

Three interesting things to read, early September 2019

System matters, but it’s easy to not know that

Justin Alexander gives a succinct account of why rules matter but many players don’t get the experiences they need to realise this. Key quotes:

“… most RPG systems don’t actually carry a lot of weight, and are indistinguishable from each other in terms of the type of weight they carry.

In theory, as we’ve discussed, there’s really nothing an RPG system can do for you that you can’t do without it. There’s no reason that we can’t all sit around a table, talk about what our characters do, and, without any mechanics at all, produce the sort of improvised radio drama which any RPG basically boils down to.

The function of any RPG, therefore, is to provide mechanical structures that will support and enhance specific types of play.

… What I’m saying is that system matters. But when it comes to mainstream RPGs, this truth is obfuscated because their systems all matter in exactly the same way.”

There’s a robust simple procedure for running Into the Odd

As an example of the structure Alexander is calling for, have a look at Chris McDowall’s simple procedure for running Into the Odd.

“Diegetic” and “Non-diegetic” are useful terms for game design

Emmy Allen explained two useful terms for talking about rpgs. They weren’t new to all of us, but her explanation is clear and to the point. Next time someone asks, we can point them there.

Sean McCoy on Twitter then showed how those terms make explicit what he was implicitly trying to do while designing Mothership.

This is good theory — it gives us words for what expert practitioners do.

There is an aesthetic that I want and a way I want to feel

I’ve been thinking, and talking online, and I’ve concluded that it’s not quite right that low production values are better for my enjoyment. Rather, what I want on my table, and in my prep environment, is artefacts that have a particular aesthetic and that (partly because of that) give me certain intuitions. There will always be an irreducible element here of “subjectively what I like, but cannot describe”, but I can put some of it into words.

So, in terms of direct things-we-can-agree-we-are-looking-at, what I am looking for in third-party artefacts I put on my game table is this:

  • First, the presentation needs to be unobtrusive. It needs to be somewhat subdued. Put on my table, in my dining room, with the artefacts I’ve made myself, it shouldn’t stand out very much.
  • This pushes design towards plain white paper, with monochrome or muted inks and a matte finish
    • I think there is space here for some colour, for some striking art. It just has to be subordinate to the whitespace of the page. E.g. I’ve not seen Wet Grandpa in full, but the sample pages online suggests it fits in this category.
    • This applies to covers as much as to internal pages, not least because small books tend to end up lying closed. I particularly enjoy matte covers on books, and would like some rpg books with cloth binding.
  • The art can’t be cartoony, because that’s not something I can imagine an rpg world to be like. Cartoony art thus interferes with my internal image-making. Photorealistic art can work, as can more abstract forms. But the art of Dungeon World, D&D 5e, even Fate, doesn’t work for me.
  • Explicit recognition that groups will hack and modify, without pretending that this is novel or that a book can give (or take) authority to do this.
    • Shout-outs go to Knave for its “Rationale” sidebars, to the 5e DMG for its “three things to be really careful with when you’re hacking” (p263, para “Beware of…”), and of course Apocalypse World for its “how to hack this” appendix.

And as for the feelings and intuitions I get from them, I am looking for these:

Continue reading “There is an aesthetic that I want and a way I want to feel”

Low production values are better for my enjoyment

I’ve been thinking some more about my concern in my previous post – that “high production values” are a net negative for my pleasure in rpgs. There are three reasons for this. For clarity, I will express them purely in terms of art:

First, if the art doesn’t work for me, it damages my fragile images of the imagined world. For example, anything cartoony feels wrong to me — Dungeon World, Masks, Fate… even D&D 5e is too far down this path. I’m sad to say that Silent Titans gives me trouble, too — I find Leichty’s art powerful, but too abstract and far too garish. It thus prevents me visualising the Silent Titans world.

Second, even art I like can be a problem if creates an unwelcome contrast with things I’ve brought to the table. My own rules and texts have basic typography and little or no art. I might have art printouts or a Pinterest board, but they’ll have a mishmash of artists and styles. I might have made a map, but it will look a bit shit. If there’s a game text on the table produced to a high standard, my work will look poor by comparison.

Continue reading “Low production values are better for my enjoyment”

Idea — a prize for the “Best RPG product with modest production values”

I think David Grogan is right, in that improving production values in rpgs may be antithetical to improving actual gameplay. Now, sure, people can make what they like, charge what they like, and buy what they like… but I don’t think the move towards ever-fancier production is net-improving our gameplay experiences.

(for a narrower, more personal, angle on this, see my post Low production values are better for my enjoyment)

So, I have a proposal — we could start an annual prize for the best rpg product with modest production values. This would reward people who come up with good ideas, good words and good game design, but don’t want to (or can’t) take the cost, delay, and risk of fancy art and layout and printing.

A few possible rules:

  • Bottom end of “modest” is “competent use of a word processor”
  • Upper end of “modest” is “POD-quality book with some spot art and maps”
    • So e.g. Patrick Stuart’s Deep Carbon Observatory might scrape in at the top (although that feels a bit like cheating as Scrap’s art has a misleading effortless quality)
  • Middle ground might be something like Archipelago III
  • No weird distribution channels e.g. “You have to get it from the author at a con”. Has to be easily available in at least one Anglosphere country

Ideologically, I’d like to make it PDF and POD-only, because it supports idea that this competition is about avoiding barriers that some creators put between (their ideas and design expertise) and (people who might use and benefit from them). But I’m not wedded to that.

I envisage this as being something I run alone, and that has no reward other than glory — something in the vein of the Rammies. If I’m feeling extravagant, I might send out hand-signed certificates.

Structure-preserving transformations

… following Christopher Alexander, positive change is a matter of producing “structure-preserving transformations” – starting with a core, and figuring out how to elaborate on the core in a way that produces wholeness, not mess. These possible transformations are what you’re looking for in problem-solving space: states of affairs that are near the current state of affairs but better, and achievable without destroying the dignity and cohesiveness of the existing state of affairs. Each transformation allows you to begin imagining further transformations from a new starting point. (source)