The Limits of Designing for Role-Playing.

I think this may surprise people, but the thing that had actually set me on the “warpath” of the Blinders, so to speak, of people saying their games are about and using advice to get there instead of rules, was RPGs. That is to say, it was games where the goal was to role-play, it was games where not only people role-played, but that was the declared goal.

I remember looking at some discussions, and I realized, Dungeons and Dragons is not an RPG, or at least, it’s not in the design, but “merely” in the play. I say “merely”, because perhaps that’s all there is. I looked at D&D, and I looked at the rules, and I saw nothing there that would make me roleplay. I saw very little there that even rewarded me for roleplaying, and quite surprisingly there wasn’t even much advice geared towards getting the players to roleplay and flesh out their characters’ personalities and history.

Perhaps it’s not very surprising, as aside from the Hero Builder’s Guide (which cost money for very little), most people seem to “know” what D&D is about, and are initiated into it by friends or know what to pick up. So they didn’t need to add it, because they knew that people will be told what they need to know.
Of course, they may have also realized there was very little else they could do, because you can’t do much to design RPGs.

 If I were to discuss the ontology of a “Game”, I’d say a game does not exist when it is not played. A box of Dominion or Settlers of Cattan contains the system and the physical components needed, but it doesn’t contain a “game of ___”, that game only springs into existence when people sit around and engage in the activity.
This I think is also true for roleplaying, but I mean it in a slightly different form: There are no role-playing in the rules, there’s no role-playing procedure (yes, when you are training for your job and such, let’s stay focused), but the role-playing game? It only exists, there is only role-playing when the players engage in that activity, when they play a role.

This seems like a rehash of what was said about games, but there’s a difference. The difference is that there is no game if you don’t play the game, but you can play an “RPG” by playing the game and not role-playing. For there to exist an “RPG” rather than “rpG” (where only one aspect really exists), the players need to make an actual choice, the choice to role-play. This is not something the designer can do, this is not something the designer can even assure. This is up to the players.

Though a “Story” is very much the same, I do not think humans can avoid creating (“telling?” one), so I think most designers should content themselves not with trying to ensure that people would role-play while playing their games, but to allow for games where role-playing is an easy option that is not over-eclipsed by other concerns.

 You can help by having stories that the players can relate to, that they can place themselves in, you can give them entities that have personas, who are theirs to control, and with whom they can identify, or even identify the characters as their medium of affecting the world/story. Basically, provide sockets for the players to plug into. People mention “Immersion”, and immersion is a tool, or rather, a state, where some of this is achieved. But even if people think from the an “actor” point of view (not Forge theory usage), of “I“, that it’s them who react, it’d be enough.

The other side is that you need to avoid making something that has nothing to do with portraying a role as much more interesting and rewarding to the players. If you take an exciting game and add role-playing to it, people might shove the role-playing aside just in order to get to the “good bits”. And if story and role-playing is not entirely dispensable, but is the vehicle to get from one mechanical exchange to another, then it’d be stripped down and zipped right along, because the goal of the mechanical exchange is where the focus lays*.

The reason I think it may work better within LARPs is because it gives you a visceral grounding. Even if you keep feeling uncomfortable because you feel the vast distance between yourself and your character (and perhaps suffer from fear of performance), you can’t help but be the one who is acting, be the one who is acted towards by others. You almost can’t help thinking from a first person (actor?) stance, “What am I going to do?” And of course, people tend to give LARPs looser systems, probably for lack of comfortable mechanical tools to make use of (dice, cards, charts).

I think all of this should be liberating to game designers. Once you make sure that players have ample opportunities to plug into certain sockets in the game, and once you make sure it can be an engaging and interesting activity even within this game, you’re good. You don’t need to make sure that everyone will role-play, you needn’t make sure that role-playing is the natural outcome of playing your game. You can’t, and only the players can. Heck, even when it’s the “Natural Outcome”, how much of it comes because the players pick it up expecting that they’ll role-play there, if because it was marketed as such (and/)or because previous editions of the game were like that? Just like Dungeons and Dragons.

Also, that’s why I focus on “Story-Games”. Basically all role-playing games are Story-Games, but Story-Games can be good, can be emotional, without being RPGs.

* This happens when you take a meaty 500 page book and try to fit it into a 90 minute movie, sometimes. You cover all the plot-points, but that’s all they are, merely points you hop along, rather than a story with impact. But maybe that’s just me.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

The Coin’s Other Side: On Losing (and Elimination)

This post is going to be quite basic. Basic does not mean that it will be simple, but that it stands at the base. I may not give you answers here, but I’ll present something that any person who designs a game that is competitive, especially one where people win, should think of – the issue of losing, and the related issue of player-elimination.

You see, if your game has victory, there can be several ways in which you reach it, and many of the examples I’d use are from board/card-games. The question is what happens to the losers, and how they lose. This is more of an issue with story-games because of the length of time they may have to sit aside and the expectation of shared creative activity.

One option for winning is you reaching a personal goal, such as reaching level 10 first in Munchkin. Everyone plays till the bitter end, and everyone is more or less as effective in the end as they are in the beginning. This often leads to “King-makers”, players who know they will not win, but can be the ones who decide whether one player wins or another. In some cases, you need to play the other players more than you’re actually playing the cards.

Another option can be seen in Infernal Contraption, and in most competitive CCGs or war-games aimed for two players (Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer being  prime examples), where you don’t win by what you do per se, but you win by being the last player standing. This is not an issue when only two players play, because the game ends for the two players at the same time – one’s win is another’s victory. It is also less of an issue with games slated to run 15-20 minutes, because the loser does not get to sit idle for long.

However, story games and role-playing games have historically been more akin to the game of Diplomacy, where often players are eliminated in the first couple of turns of the game, which can keep going on for a couple more hours. I suspect this is also partially the reason some groups shy away from character-deaths, because it forces the player to stop being involved in the action, or at least they no longer have an active hand in shaping the story. In some groups the player with the dead character uses this time to come up with a new character, especially in mechanically involved games.

These days, it is sometimes less of an issue. Some games are designed to be of a shorter duration, so if one loses their character they are not out of the action for the whole campaign (at least as that character), or even for the duration of a session of a campaign – the game is meant to be played out in whole in one sitting. But still, I think like in board-games that take longer to complete, even an hour a player has to sit idle is less than ideal.

A “game” where this was somewhat solved which came up in my mind when a friend challenged me to design a truly competitive and cut-throat design was Survivor. Yes, the TV show. There the players eliminated after a certain stage get to be the king-makers in the end-game and little less, but it does require attention after they had been ‘eliminated’ from the running. Likewise, I feel that story-games with a competitive bent who decide on elimination should find a way to keep the players so eliminated not only interested, but let them contribute to the story further, and perhaps shape the competition as well ( if the story and the competition are intertwined, it may be so regardless).

Something done by story-games for a number of years now is that players get to affect the direction of the story even when their characters are not present. They get to reward players whose characters do things they enjoy (Primetime Adventures), or perhaps they don’t even have characters that are ‘theirs’, and all they do is guide the story (Universalis), or the designs  where they have characters and affect the creation of the world and shape the story (the “child” design of Mortal Coil, or Shock:).

But then a new question emerges, if you have competition and elimination: What is the measure of “Victory”, and why would you say those who have been ‘eliminated’ have lost? Perhaps they have just lose their chance to claim victory and their “superiority” over the others, but would you also have their effect on the story lessen? This is a Competitive Story Game, remember. I suspect this is one of the things alluded to by people I’ve approached regarding writing of competition and story’s interaction within their games, when they told me the game only has the veneer of competition, because if someone will try to win the game, it’d crack.

You have choices, whether victory is reached when the victor reaches a goal, or through elimination of all other players. Should you pick the former, you should consider how to solve the issue of king-makers, or keeping it in, unrestrained. Should you pick the latter, you should consider how to mitigate the effect of a player not having a hand in the story and game, and perhaps the issue of kingmaking will creep up again. Whatever you do, be mindful of this. Be aware that this is a design choice you are making, and a critical one at that.

This issue is also tied strongly to Social Contract, and to whether a certain group would play your game (at least as written). The issue of a player being left out of the game is something each party should discuss, and your game may not fit what a certain group is willing to accept. You may also consider adding a module in your game, where one can have elimination if one chooses, and play a somewhat different game if they do not wish for there to be such. Choices to be mindful of.

Competitive Games and Handicaps.

The previous post was mentioned on RPG Theory Review. Always warms my heart when it happens. I’ve noticed the blog wasn’t updated recently, and I hope it will soon be updated once more.
Not that I’m in any position to complain, seeing as my last post was back in July 07. I’ll try to write some posts these coming months, even if I’ll take a break afterwards, I have several post ideas written down (and have had for a while, the problem is actually writing them down).

I am looking for people to write articles for this post, especially those who design competitive or seemingly competitive games, which also have story. I am especially interested in writing about the interactions between Story and Competition in the game, and how that interaction had shaped the direction of the rules and game-play.


And now we will get to today’s topic. Today’s post was inspired by this thread on Story-Games, “Hardcore Gamism and Dysfunction Within the Big “G””[1], where Jonathan Walton recounts discussions with Eric Pinnick, and also references an article by David Sirlin.
I did not read that thread fully, and as such, this post is merely inspired by it. Some points I make have already been made on the thread, but the overall conclusion seems to have not been made there.

(Edit: People suggested I add my conclusion up top, to clarify things: I posit that it is better for a group to find a game they can agree to play, as it is, without the need to add handicaps to it. Adding handicaps as opposed to finding a game where the gameplay will be the same, but without the need to add those handicaps, will only trouble those players who are extremely focused on competition, at all costs)

So you have a competitive game, one where you compete with others. There are often more powerful techniques, ones that if you’re not aware of or not familiar enough with, you will have trouble countering and will probably lose to, there are some games where there is nothing you can do to counter, we will discuss those harsher games later.

Two weeks ago I was visiting my cousin, and we were playing Tekken 5. I play the game two or three times a year, always when I visit him, whereas he has the game in his room and has been playing it extensively. There are several characters with a move that takes a long time to charge (meaning you can smack them before they can set it off), but if that strike connects it takes out roughly 3/4ths of your health bar. My cousin used these constantly, and the game stopped being fun for me, so I told him to stop using these moves.

There is a very important question, laying behind the issue of handicaps (I think I may have assumed you’ve read at least Jonathan’s series of original posts on the inspiring thread, forgive me). What do you find fun, and when we move into the realm of Story/Roleplaying games, what does the group find fun; and then, what sort of balance you seek, or at least find acceptable.

If for you, playing the game is fun, things that cut the game short, or stop you from playing, will make the game less fun. Magic: the Gathering combos where the player wins on his first turn, do not let the opponent do anything, and stop them from having fun. When I began playing Magic (back in 1996 or so), I had a deck with 160 cards, I then went down to 120 cards, 80 cards, and eventually to the 60( and rarely 64 card) decks. I’ve played with people who were much better players than me, they had much better decks than me, and I’ve lost. I’ve always said that you learn more from losing in Magic than you do from winning. I’ve played, I’ve lost, I’ve learned, and I’ve had fun.
However, had I constantly played against players who would’ve won before I had the chance to do anything, or anything more than draw a card and play a land, I would not have studied what worked and what didn’t (except the opponent’s combo, that it works), and I would not have had fun.
There’s a reason Wizards of the Coast handicaps certain decks; some are considered “too tough”, and we’ll address the issue later, but some, simply don’t let the other player do anything, it stops being a game of competition between two players; one plays a solo game that the other is all but unable to affect.

 If what I care for is the playing, the adversity, I will be having more fun if I play with someone on my level, or someone that is acting on my level. How much adversity do you get from stepping on a slug? How much adversity do you feel like you’re providing when someone is stepping on you as a slug?
I cannot prove it, but I’ve always felt that while sprinting, both people get the best results if they’re nearly evenly matched. When you’re far ahead of someone you don’t step on the gas fully, and when someone is already 20 meters ahead of you (on up to 100 meter runs), you give up.

But do we not also get a good feeling, simply from winning? I feel good when I win, even if it’s playing Magic against my ten year old cousin. Winning feels good.

And so, most of the above was talking about reasons to employ handicaps, but there is, as always, the other side. I will discuss this other side in more detail shortly, but first I’ll talk about the Social Contract, the reasons and methods that this will work out in a group, specifically one where the games also involve role-playing/story-telling. After discussing the other side, the anti-handicap side, I think I’ll return to the group-play once more.

I am going to make an assumption, but I will make it explicitly, and I believe it is an agreeable one; we play games to have fun. It is our explicit goal. Different people find different things fun, and find them to be fun to a different degree (look at Mo‘s Sockets idea). We can try and maximize the whole group’s fun, by creating a formula where we look for a maximum value on the output, and then decide what values to use based on it. Of course, we don’t actually do it in such a codified manner, and furthermore, each player may require there to be a minimum value to certain variables (combat, story, immersion; Mo’s sockets again provide useful terms), and each player requires themselves to have a minimal fun factor for them to keep playing.
As such, we try to reach the maximized value of collective fun, that we can, and can maintain.

This is especially important with competitive games, where one player’s fun may come at the expanse of another’s. This is even more important in competitive story games (our blog’s focus, we’re getting there!), where this is not considered the norm, and many people consider it to be antithetical to what they are trying to get out of the game. Handicaps as we will shortly see also infringe on the fun of some competitive players, while they may feel required for the non-competitive players; some may require that competition will not harm the ‘value’ of the story, and that things be carried out mainly for reasons driven and benefiting the story, rather than the competition, reasons that revolve around who will ‘win’ or advance the most.

To the highly competitive player though, handicaps are anathema, they diminish from the competitive game. Let us take Eric and myself, as an example (Eric, if I’ve misread you, I apologize): If I play a perfect competitive game (perfect means, “I think it’s perfect”), I’m happier than if I’m playing a perfect non-competitive game. If I play a non-perfect competitive game, I’ll have more fun playing a non-perfect non-competitive game[2]. I am much more invested when playing a competitive game. I am much more invested in the mechanics. I am much more troubled by something which does not let me play out, not to my strengths, but to the full extent of the game’s system.

Handicaps are extraneous, they come from outside and limit you, within the game. Look at Chess, no one considers the fact that you are not allowed to simply remove an opponent’s piece from the board a handicap, but not being able to use a certain move in Tekken, one that the game’s engine, technically, lets you play, because a certain group said so, is a handicap.
And this ties back to the social contract issue. After you’ve selected a game, setting up handicaps in order to maintain the fun of the rest of the group, in order to maintain an overall high level of fun, is too late. The highly competitive player is already suffering, and many of the reasons are explained elsewhere (the opponent is too weak, too unskilled, values “X” over competition which is what matters…).

The solution, if the competitive player is so troubled by handicaps, and the non-competitive player is so troubled by the lack of handicaps in games which he perceives to need them, seems quite simple to me: the choice of adding handicaps or how to resolve the social contract issues after the game is chosen is too late, as I’ve said before, the choice must be made before the game is chosen – the choice is the choice of which game is chosen. The game must fit the desires and needs of the different players as it is now, before any changes, any handicaps, are applied to it.

This is a challenge to the game designers. Though I, and many self-pronounced “Competitive designers” are seeking to create games that are handicap-less, and quite possibly such that non-competitive players will deem are in (dire) need of handicaps, perhaps we also need, for different crowds, and in order to effect the rise of competition in Story Games, games which are without handicaps, but where the extreme parameters are such that other, less competitive people, will not feel the need to limit them (Magic without combos, or without combos that kill before turn 4-5, where many creature decks can win as well).

There need to be games across the spectrum, games with enough competition, but where people, or different people, will not see the need to add handicaps. Once we add handicaps, we’ve already got the competitive players disgruntled, and the non-competitive players? They may have been happier playing non-competitive games to begin with (though there are also spectrum players; I enjoyed Tekken’s competitive nature, once the “killer blows” were removed).
Spectrum. Variety. There must be enough games to choose from, and you need to choose the fitting game, that too, or perhaps that especially, is a critical part of competitive games’ game-play, on the social level.

[1] I will leave my problems with the title alone, as they will not contribute to the actual discussion at hand, and will yield meager returns for the energy this discussion will consume. I do want to note that I dislike the title though.

[2] This is why this blog is here.

Story? Really?!

We’ve talked about inclusive versus exclusive before, and in a way, this post will also be about that. We’re also going to stay about fairly basic stuff, which is also very controversial and very important.

We’ve talked about Story’s role, as the focus or the facilitator, but now we need to get down to the bloody mess of Story itself. What is story? What isn’t?

We might want to begin with a definition, due to it being quite lengthy, I’ll repost the first item and simply link to the rest.

sto·ry1   noun, plural -ries, verb, -ried, -ry·ing. –noun

1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.

And to that I’ll add a short exchange between Keith Senkowski and myself:

Keith Senkowski: fuck story.  it is a game.  no game creates story.  story is created in the retelling
Guy Shalev: In a way, I agree, and that’s one of my thoughts. People keep talking about stories, about narratives. But our lives, when we live them, are just a random group of shit, they only become a narrative and gain cohesion in hindsight.

Some people say that a series of events, each occuring on its own is not story; furthermore, building on that, they say that a story needs to have a purpose, a theme or a thread going through it. Games with stories (a certain brand of RPGs included) therefore require a topic to be about, a common plot for it to have a story, or at least, “A good story”.

But if we go based on the above, then we can have any series of events, random or otherwise, and have them in totality be a story. This is not to say that any series of events automatically becomes a story, but when we retell it, omit and add, especially as to the cause of events, it does become a story indeed and not only in name.

When we play, we do not create a story, we create a scaffolding, a series of events (fictitious as they may be), later, when we recount the story, even if we only do so in our minds, going back over it from beginning to end, we create the story. The story is not created by the activity,  the game which occurred, the story is created by the Story-Machines, our human brains.

Story; Road or Destination?

 The previous entry was mentioned on RPG Theory Review, twice, once during the weekly review, and once during the monthly review. A first.
Yehuda Berlinger also mentioned the same post on his blog.

(Iron) Game Chef 2007 is on. Give it a shot. I threw my hat in, but due to time constraints, I may not get to finish my entry. So I’m considering doing a micro-entry, 6 pages or so. We’ll see.


We’ll be talking about Story. So we’ve talked quite a bit about Competition, as it seems to be what differentiates CSI Games from RPGs the most, but what about what differentiates us from Board-Games the most, about the other big half of the equation, Story?
So we’ll be discussing that too. And discussion means your input is more than asked for, it is in fact required for us to reach interesting places!
Talking about reaching, and places. Here’s one of the most basic questions for us to answer. And by basic I do not mean simple, obvious, or easy, but rather, that the foundation is based on this question (at least in part).

So we decide to have story in our game, cool, but now what? If our games are to be well-oiled machines, then nothing should be extraneous, moreover, we should know what role each bit has.
So answer me this, for you, is story the goal or the way you get there?
If the story is the goal, then you are interested in telling a moving story, or a good story (what that is should be the topic of a whole new post). You may want the story to be worth telling and re-telling, or you may want a story with a moral. But in this example, it is not the moral that is important, but the story having it that is the core.

If the story is the way, then imagine what was discussed in the last post, but reversed. Suppose what I care about is the social aspect of the game, specifically competing with my friends, my fellow players. The story is the road I take (and the movement along that road too!), in order to move me from one instance of competition to the next.
Imagine many of the computer-games or hack-n-slash games, where there is minimal story, and the game is basically all about the next encounter, and getting there.

Story can be your goal, or it can be your method of getting to the goal. It’s often less prevalent as a designer, and more prominent when you actually play the game. It is thus very important to discuss when setting up a play-group, in order to avoid clashes over this topic. Such clashes can become very heated, because they deal directly with what you actually come to the game for.

This entry is not very… thought-provoking or innovative. But it is basic, and the material discussed here needed to be let out.

Competition as Training Wheels.

Quite recently we held a discussions called “Competition? What for?” on this very blog, and with this post I’m going to give a suggestion on a possible role of competition in games, specifically RPGs.

In most traditional RPGs, there is one person, the Game Master, who weaves the story and the world. Players can act and then the GM has the world and story react to their actions, but in case the group is more reactive, or even passive, the GM can push the story forward, forcing the characters to react and take a stand. The game progresses one way or another, and the GM, a good one, helps ensure that it is so.

A common problem when traditional players are faced with more recent games is that the task of narration is suddenly thrust upon them. It is not uncommon for players to freeze in such an instance. But we’re not going to dwell on that. Many a time these games are based on the assumption that all players will push the game, their characters, the story and/or the world forward. They will introduce complications, go out of their shell and make things happen. Sadly, this often does not happen.

When you have no limitations, you often get nowhere. You are paralyzed by too many options. Once you are limited by some constraint you have an easier time of figuring a direction in which to move and act. Before being thrust into a new game, many a player might do well to have some in-between stage. I posit that competitive games can be that stage (as well as a non-competitive game to which you add a competitive side for this explicit purpose).

You can treat story as a vector along which to enact competition or competition as a vector along which to tell a story. It matters little. Once there’s competition present, there’s a direction. It is clear what the goals are, who you’re competing with and why. Once you have a competition, you may very well not explore other facets of the game or enviroment, but remember, you limit freedom in order to foster creativity and lower paralysis, and once creativity is fostered, you can later remove the competition and have the players use the new knowledge and skills they had gained to explore the game.

Competition has many uses. There are too many games that once you finish reading them you say, “Cool, but now what do I do?” Competition answers that question. You compete, and if the rules make you create a story as you go along, then by the game’s end you should also have a story created and told.

Next month I’m going to focus a bit on the Story component of games. I hope this short entry was useful to you. It was intended as an answer to the previous post more than as a post of its own.

An Editorial: On Identification.

This is an Editorial, this means that I sometimes will get to air game/theory ideas without the need to tie it down to competition. Sadly, this is still my blog, as in all the entries in it are still mine. So I may as well make use of it.
I’ve had some setbacks in that my last two weekends weren’t spent home, so I lost my work-time. But, unlike previous times this is only a setback in the time-tables. Work continues behind the scene. And when I finally shoot, I’ll have multiple bullets in the air.
Over at the Sons of Kryos Episode 32 (MP3, forum discussion) is about Competition Vs. Cooperation, and thus may be of special interests to people who read this blog.

And not to worry, this post will be tied to competition. I can’t undo my mind.


I participated in a discussion on Story-Games that went as follows:

hamsterprophet: im really interested by LARP, but i have interest in actually doing it
which i support makes it difficult to really learn about it
shreyas
: mmm
i’m not interested with how larp basically forces you into an ‘authority over exactly one character’ role and puts you in the company of immersionists
hamsterprophet
: i think its really interesting, actually, how the nature of larp makes it pretty much impossible to break out of one person = one character
shreyas
: mmm
hamsterprophet
: its almost tautological
shreyas
: that’s just a kind of play i’m not really interested in at all
Thunder_God
(me): Nate>It’s just as false as saying that in real life one person = one mask/personality.
shreyas
: if i don’t have some broader authority i don’t feel like i’m participating
Thunder_God
: In fact, I think this is a very interesting point.
hamsterprophet
: cuz even if you take on multiple characters, people associate you with the first one they encounter you in. unless you do extreme makeup, i guess

In LARP the boundary between you and your character, and indeed you and others, is much thinner, in fact, it’s only skin deep. In real life there are multiple personalities we adopt when faced with different situations and people, so why is it that in games we tend to adopt one face?
Because a game is not reality, it’s a simplified model of reality, and usually one which we get something out of modeling. Our faces in games are akin to archetypes.

The more meat we meet, the more effort we need to buy into the fiction. Online you are often what you claim to be. In table-top it’s a bit harder. When you’re a little annoying kid, who can’t be patient about anything, maybe you’re better off not playing the mature Paladin. In a LARP, you and your character are often one. If your character is smart, athletic and female, and you are male, dim and 200 pounds overweight, don’t be surprised if people have a problem reacting to your character fully.
And yes, the smart player/character divide is an issue all of its own.

Why are we capable, or at least willing, to let ourselves be a multitude in real life and unwilling to give others the same benefit during games?
The answer is twofold:
1) We let ourselves be a multitude, not others. When others act in a manner different than that in which we expect (allow?) them to behave, we are surprised, and often offended. We are not honest in our assumptions regarding others. Just as we assume we have free-will but expect others to behave in the manner dictated by their previous behavior.
2) We are different people in different situations, one game, one situation, one mask. Perhaps we can even go further. You know how often some people play the same character in all games? One situation: game, one mask.

It is more than that. It is not only that others can identify us, it is how we identify ourselves. There is no mask as constricting as that of the skin. And that is what role-playing is about eventually, breaking out of the mask, or shapeshifting our skin into a new shape, as if we were shamans.

It is often educational to look at edge-cases. Cases where one portrays many a character (such as most games’ GMs) and games where one does not even play one character. One of the comments about my game, Cranium Rats, and rightfully so, is that people have a hard time seeing what to play in it, because not only do they have a hard time identifying with something or someone, that I actually disturb them. What the players portray is utterly inhuman, and they have a hard time identifying with it/them, and the characters don’t belong to them and are out of their control, and so they have a hard time identifying with them either.

I find that interesting, because how often do you not only find yourself identifying with, but actually imagine yourself in the spot of a character from a book or movie, their stories often complete, with no hooks left for you to immerse yourself in the character. Is it possible that when we come to the role-playing activity we already come expecting to be “let in”, to immerse ourselves in other personalities, to tell stories vicariously. And when denied we feel cheated out of what we came to the table to get?

Anyway, let’s look at competitive games and Identification. I think that people require identification, of sorts, in all of their games, and competitive ones are no different.

  • In most sports games, or games where what is at stake is your own skills and is known (chess), we are the players and we are the ones we identify with. Win or loss, it’s ours. The easiest identification there is, with ourselves.
  • Sometimes a game is of ourselves, or abstract, and yet we tend to latch onto identification. Look at Monopoly, supposedly it’s our skills that let us win or lose, but more often than not it is luck, and Monopoly games are quite long as it is, and actually serve the purpose of teaching kids the value of money. And yet, people often make “Vroom vroom” sounds when they play the car, or portray the dog kicking someone away. Identification is that important.
  • In abstract concept but detailed competitive games, such as Settlers of Cattan, it is obvious we are not the settlers, nor are we actually the rulers. The luck of the die rules much and yet it is not as widely accepted as Chess that winning in Settlers proves one’s intellectual might (more likely their social acumen), and yet we yell and shout when we are winning or wish to stop another party from winning. We clearly fell invested, we feel as if it’s us who are at stake.

In your games, either make the competition so entranching that the players identify with themselves, make the stake personal so they have no option but to identify with themselves or give them tools to latch onto something, to enable identification. The easiest way is obviously to give them a character that is theirs to create and control, a role-playing option. But if you want an external storytelling vantage point, you should consider how to let your players into a mask.

This is what they come to the play with, this is what they pay you money for. Success and failure often hinge on identification, and its strength.

Blinders; Once More with Feeling.

First, the previous entry got mentioned on RPG Theory Review, making this the 3rd mention there of this blog, and the fourth of CSI Games.
Second, this is the second post of December 2006, I’ll do my best to keep at least two entries a month, which leads us to the next point!
Third, if you have any ideas or thoughts regarding CSI Games as a whole, or something that might be relevant, feel free to send me articles via my email and I’ll upload them. I think content from more contributors should be helpful, especially concerning that my writing is not that clear.
Fourth. There’s a good reason all the entries are shown on the front page: They are all open to discussion. Feel free to peruse and comment, and engage in discussion on all entries. It’s not only optionable, but encouraged!

There’s already an entry planned for the upcoming weekend, another for the week after, and yet another (and this one will be most interesting) for when Jessica Hammer completes her part of our “trade” :)


I think this is an apt topic for the last subject of the year. It actually closes a circle with the first post on the topic of Blinders (disregarding the Meta-Chanics post which is only a bridge). The issue came back to my mind because of the thread “Does System Matter?” on The Forge.
I looked at my own game, Cranium Rats, and what happened in its playtesting. I wrote in the manuscript that there should be violence and interwoven storylines. In the playtests the characters were mundane and normal if there ever were mundane characters. As such, violence was low.
But the storylines slowly began to cross with one another, work-place of one is the shelter of the other, one sees the third as he drives to work, etc. But there were no benefits to this behaviour, if the players had the characters and their stories cross-over or not, the effects would be the same. There is nothing changed, nothing gained, nothing lost, in each of the scenarios.

But those of the Indie crowd keep saying “System Does Matter“, and that was when System usually meant “Mechanics”. If I were to write in the game’s manuscript: “Storylines should interweave and cross-over, with the storylines drawing tighter and tighter and towards a conclusion where all the loose-ends are tied together”, and this were to occur in the game, then why do you pay someone to write game-rules and game-text, the mere idea is enough.

We keep saying we’re “beyond” Cops and Robbers, that this is not make-believe, but make-believe shaped by rules which help you govern what occurs.We have different rules for different games. We use rules to help maintain the mood and theme we want to introduce. But that means introducing rules, and not telling people what kind of game they want and how to get there. They can do it themselves by imbibing the source-material.

There’s a simple way to see if a game does what you want it to do, or rather, if the mechanics do what you want them to. Present someone with just the mechanics and see what kind of game emerges. This isn’t the complete game, this does not include all the background and colour, this does not include the interactions between the players. But this is not your goal, this is you checking if your mechanics produce the effect that you desire.

If the mechanics don’t do what you want them to, you have two options:
First, add mechanics that add what you want to the game.
Second, add advice telling people what they need to do to get the desired result. This is also fine, but be aware that this is what you’re doing.


After an hour and a half of chatting with Joshua A.C. Newman and Nathan Paoletta about this post, we discovered what was unclear in the post. I add it in this format because it’s a conclusion and it’s an edit. The article though unclear still has its purpose, which is served better once these are added.

  • I’m not saying advice are bad, I’m saying it’s their job to point at what is already done by the mechanics.
  • If your mechanics do something you don’t want them to, remove said mechanics.
  • If your game doesn’t do something it should, add mechanics.
  • If advice in your game REPLACE the mechanics, then something is wrong, and you should either add mechanics or remove that advice/thing from the game.
  • It doesn’t work the other way around though, if something doesn’t work, or the mechanics don’t do what you need, you do not add advice.

And why say something once if you can twice?
If your gameplay does something, but it’s not included in the rules, but in the advice, either excise the advice or add a rule

On Flags; a Component.

First, let me say that I am still awaiting replies for this post,  and that you people should be participating. This is a group effort, feel free to reply to posts, no matter how old. You will note that all posts are visible on the front page, this is to note that all posts are still in discussion. If discussion on an old post starts hopping, I promise to link to it.

Second, it seems that it’s becoming standard fare, but I am still in a sort of a personal haze, so I apologise for the lack of updates. I will try to return to a schedule of at least one post a week, and about three posts every two weeks. You should feel free and are even encouraged to email me posts and post-seeds, which will then be displayed on this very blog.

Third, the next entry is expected on early Sunday, and will be about Gnostigmata (Scroll down to the bottom) and Story. I will talk about Gnostigmata, which is currently in Beta version 6.0, which you’ll all do good to read, and use it to talk about different aspects of Story.

Last, Cranium Rats finally got to version beta 3.0, where efforts at improving readability had been the main concern. If you can find the time to peruse it and give me your thoughts, I’d be thankful. If you’d be able to playtest it, I’d be even moreso.


This post is a direct continuation, or perhaps the post leading to the previous post on this blog, the one about ‘Tunnels’. I will explore Flags, or to be more precise, I will explore their usage, particularly in CSI Games.Flags are tools that allow for better communication between the different parties at the game-table, I think they are of special interest in games where the position of creating the game-world or story is held as a distinct right by a limited number of people, as it allows the players to inform these figures(GM is a good example) of what they want explored in the game.If you ask me who is the person to watch if you want to explore and understand Flags better, I’d say Judd Karlman, who goes as Paka on various fora, you would do worse than to go to RPG.Net and read threads started by him.Anyway, I’ve explained in an ultra-brief manner what Flags are/do, so, what is their use in Competitive games?

First, they act as Demarkation. In competitive games and areas you need to know where is the limit, what is being contested, using what tools and how far you may go. One example if Capes, where the other players do not have to engage in competition with you, but you want them to in order to be able to reap the rewards, so finding out what their Flags are is a key skill to the game, showing you where you need to apply force, because that’s what these players care about; in a way, this is the opposite of Flags, as players may not tell you what they want explored, but try to obfuscate it while at the same time following it and you have the job of pinning it down.

Another option is shown in Cranium Rats, which shows us another method of demarkation. You know what the competition is about, because there are set win conditions which you try to achieve. This promises that people will engage you, because they must if they are to win, or to stop you from winning. The competition isn’t defined by Flags, the competition is defined by the end-terms, the Flags in Cranium Rats are of a more mundane sort, they act to funnel the in-game fiction to align with what players want to explore. This will get more space in our next post.

Flags, especially of the Tunnels variety, may also be what you compete over. Whose story element gets advanced and whose remains unexplored. You probably want to change Flags as the game progresses, especially as older ones get resolved or dissolved (look at Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday), if you need to win a competition of sorts in the game to get a new Flag, then it provides a powerful motivation for players. What is the bigger rush than to define the world and the parameters of the story?

This post was rather bare bones and short, but as always, I consider my purpose to get you to think about things, rather than feed you well-chewed thoughts. Comments are as always welcome, especially if you wish to explore more purposes of Flags, in general and in CSI Games.

On Tunnels; A Repost.

The following post is taken from this post on the Forge, originally titled [Cranium Rats] On Flags Alone?, I refer to this post earlier on the blog, but it’s not really a Blinder, but a Constraint. I also need this post in order for our next Component post, the one regarding “Flags”.

There had been some discussion on the Forge post, you may want to head over there and peruse it. If you have any new comments though, please post them here.


So, I’m going to continue talking about what I call Blinders, and when it is discussed in terms of games or game-play is often called Constraints. This topic is about games in general, but I am posting this as a question regarding and using as an example, my own game, Cranium Rats, like the post about Codification of Session Length.So, let’s talk about Flags. Flags are there to attract attention to what the players want to focus on, what they want their characters to do. Flags are all about jumping up and down and pointing to the interesting bits.
But, no one enforces Flags in most cases, there is nothing that forces you to create a story involving them, especially in games where you have an omnipresent GM. Perhaps this is how people like it, but perhaps it is not.

In The Shadow of Yesterday your characters have Keys, the way to get XP is by following the character’s Goals. You also have Flags in the form of the abilities on your character-sheet. If you list Diplomacy or Spear-Fighting, then obviously you want these abilities to play a part in the game-play. There is no onus on the GM to provide scenes where either your abilities or your Keys come into play.
The issue of Keys is a step-up from previous designs, where you merely had Goals with no mechanical effects though, like the Abilities.

In Nine Worlds your characters have Muses, which double up as both your Goals and which provide a bonus when you perform an act which follows them. You have narration rights as a player, so you can be pretty sure that your Muses will come into play, this is already some refining of the Flags issue, as you can bring your own Muses in.

In Cranium Rats, I took this a couple steps forward, and probably a couple of steps backwards as well. I have taken the Flags and more or less turned them into “Tunnels”, where you can only narrate new Scenes relating to your Goals. Your character sheet is also quite empty compared to most games, and thus the Goals act as the only Flags.

Now, the question is, how do you feel about this? Do you think you should have Flags and also non-Flags story(taking into consideration Flags may or may not get addressed at all, depending on game and GM fiat), or do you want a game where Flags happen, but not only do they happen, they’re the only thing story is going to address/spring from?

The GM Element; Considerations, Overview.

First, let me begin by noting that I’ve just found out Britt Daniel, aka Tetsujin78 is dead. What a blow. I have nothing to say really, no way to put it into the right words.

Our usual bunch of service announcements come first, as always, and we seem to have more of them as time passes. Our discussion concerning Immersion and the definition of RP spawned a further discussion on John Kim’s RPG LJ. Both discussions got mentioned on rpgtheoryreview in turn.
Also, I broke down and ponied the cash to get the Wiki Gold membership for a year, we have jumped from 12.5 MBs of storage room to 2,500 MBs, feel free to load files for your games, playtest games, whatever. I want the place to become a one-stop depot for our games.

Also, I am sorry for the sometimes slow nature of updates to this blog, I’ve been suffering from an extreme bout of tiredness over the last couple of weeks, and had been sleeping instead of writing and posting.


So, the Components posts are a direct continuation of the Blinders posts, in fact, the previous post about Blinders is probably a Components post. Whereas in Blinders we talk about external limitations you set upon yourself, Components talks about specific elements, usually mechanically, of games. CSI Games in particular, but I think such discussions would benefit all games.

In his Gamism article, Ron Edwards said:
All of them utilize control over narration as one of the variables of play, thus shifting around the privileges of a traditional GM role, and all of them are explicitly about winning the game much as one wins a traditional card game”.
I sent him a question asking him why he thinks these games share these traits(specifically the GM-role-shifting), but in a nut-shell, this is what this post is about.

What is the role of a GM(“Game Master”) within a game, what are the different options for including or not including him? The answers will be given in specific combinations.

GM as “Storyteller”, when the game is Competitive, this gives you two options.
When the competition is not about setting a story(Cranium Rats), that creates a problem of there being two games played at the table. There is the competitive game, and there is the story-creation game. The real problem is, that the GM doesn’t get to play the Competitive game, which is “The Game”, he agrees to not get to play the CSI Game, but a Story Game.
When the competition IS about setting a story(Capes), then you simply can’t allow for a GM as Storyteller. The whole point of the game is to compete for telling a story, and if you have someone who acts as over-Storyteller, then why bother competing when he can make the shots? That’s what Filip refers to as someone “Moving your rook” while you play Chess.

When the competition is between the GM as “God” and the Group(note, group, not individuals)(Hackmaster), then for me the whole game is problematic. The “competition” only acts between the group and the GM, is often not rooted in rules, and isn’t as all-encompassing as I like. Most of the game is actually Cooperative between the players as a group. This mode of play also gives rise to many bad play experiences, as it often promotes antagonism without a strong Social Contract in place.

When the GM is a referee(Cranium Rats again, or any sports), it creates and solves a host of problems. So long as the GM doesn’t act as part of the competition, all is fine with the competition, but this requires the GM to be impartial, or the Competition(and the game!) will not go as planned. This also creates the same problem with the story-setting GM; the GM agrees to not play the game. He agrees to sit on the sideline and act as audience for the most part. If that is fun for you, cool, but if it’s not, then there won’t be a game!

Games where the GM is rotating(Rune) solve some of these problems, you may not be part of the game now, but you will be later, and then again, everyone shares these duties. You can build further on it, like Capes did, and simply do away with the GM, which is what many Competitive games do. You have the rules/other players(Polaris) act as referees, and the Scene Framing rules are shared by all players(numerous games).

You can always have rare games where the GM as “God” or part of the competition actually enhances the competition. In Orx for example, there is Competition between the players, there are story-setting elements shared by all, and the competition between the GM and the players actually adds a level of Competition. It also created a situation where while you wanted to compete with your fellow players, you sometimes had to help them in order for your competition against the GM to not falter! I find that a great design that is often hard to accomplish, myself.

If you have a Competitive game, the issue of “GM” needs thought. Whether you decide to have a GM or not, it introduces new problems and new solutions. Whatever role you assign to the GM does likewise.
Whatever you choose, this needs to be given thought, and the alternatives considered. I hope this post will prove instrumental in such musings.

Specific Blinders; Constraints; Isn’t it Getting Dark in Here?

So, here we are, still with the issue of blinders. Blinders are practical things, they help shape your design and play, and as such we give them still more space.

When you use Blinders in specific games they tend to call them “Constraints”, pointing out what you can do and what you cannot, the limits of the game. People pointed out games like Polaris or even Dogs in the Vineyard are akin to Board-Games compared to other RPGs. In other games you can play any sort of thing, or nearly, whereas in these games session length may be dictated, as well as what you play and how you play. It’s often questioned if they are RPGs at all.

Someone else mentioned the difference between Video and Board games and RPGs(much like Thomas Robertson does here, but it was earlier during the week, but specifically mentioned competitive games). In Video games anything you can do is wired into the game, if it’s not wired(coded) in, then you can’t do it. Board games where strategies that weren’t accounted for exist are considered ‘broken’ or require errata(can someone help me find said post?). RPGs that want to foster such a feel need to have every possibility accounted for or they’ll fail.

And this folks is why CSI Games have such a strong inclination to include Blinders/Constraints; the more options available to the players, and this being hybrid-RPG means the options are numerous, the less you can prepare for all of them, which in turn can lead to the system falling apart and people abusing it. The more Constraints you add the less situations you’ll have to deal with and the better you’ll be able to plan for what you are to deal with.

Over on The Forge I created two specific Blinders posts, using Cranium Rats as an example. Though they may have seemed like they were about CR, they weren’t, that was merely the example and the specific design question that related to them.

In the first post, “Codification of Session Length?”, I talk about the prospect of tying session length down mechanically, much like in Board Games with plays. When a certain parameter is met the game session ends and unless it is met the game continues on. RPGs and their kin fill a certain niche in the social zone, so it may not work just yet.

In the second post, “On Flags Alone?”, I coin the term “Tunnels” as opposed to “Flags”. Flags exist to attract attention to things the players want to cover, but in most games, nothing forces the players to focus on the Flags. So why are they there? I thought “System Matters”. The concept of “Tunnels” says that nothing but the Flags are addressed. As for “Emergant stories”, that can be solved by putting in a way to create new Tunnels during the gameplay.

Last, I’ll raise a new idea here, for you loyal readers, a third Constraint. The issue of “GM or Not?”. It seems that CSI Games are much like Board games in this regard, and that there is either no GM(Gnostigmata, Capes) or the “GM” isn’t really one and he’s a player with different capabilities and responsebilities(Threads and Cranium Rats).

This is an antithesis to some of the games who had Party Vs. GM, they weren’t CSI Games as you didn’t have an option of allying, you were given that you were cooperative within the party, very much a proto-CSI Games issue. In a CSI Game you need the competition to be nigh all-encompassing, and there isn’t room for “We” as much as “He and I, for now”. And so the issue of “GM or Not” takes rise, and the answer for most CSI Games will be “Not”, because if he’s there, he’s a Conflict stiffling and out-of entity.

Blindness without Blinders.

Well, this is the third in a series of posts, that originally was planned to host only two entries. These posts present practical theory(?), they give you concrete considerations when you play, design and especially playtest a game, specifically a CSI Game.

In the first post I pointed out why the system deserves its own playtesting, where you test the system rather than the game. We keep talking about "The system should push the feel/message of the game", but it could be a self-fullfilling prophecy if we do not check it on its own.

In the second post I pointed out that who you play with has much impact on your play experience and playtesting. This is obvious, which is why I pointed out that "Who you play with" in this instance is either "people you know" or "people you don't know". And to answer Dave, these posts are about self-imposed Blinders, so the Either/Or are ok.

In this post I won't talk about Blinders, which are self imposed, but Blindness, an area that is beyond our control; our personalities. The last point was actually an example of this one, in a way. If you didn't understand what that post was about, well, it was that personality counts, especially when one makes a CSI Game.

I feel a bit lazy, so instead of just writing it, I'll repost a discussion I had with Mike Holmes and Thomas Robertson(TheSmerf) on #indierpgs, on 15/06/2006, this also shows you the other side's opinion:

[08:36] LordSmerf: So, Guy…
[08:36] Thunder_God: ::listens to Smerfy::
[08:36] LordSmerf: I find your most recent post to be mostly content-free.
[08:37] LordSmerf: I mean, you talk about the fact that you think Tony should play up the Conflict thing.
[08:37] LordSmerf: And you talk about the Sweet spot in the middle.
[08:37] LordSmerf: And you talk about Lose benefits.
[08:37] Thunder_God: You mean I have no coherent point?
[08:37] LordSmerf: But you just mention them.  I don't see any sort of discussion of why you'd use them or not, or anything like that.
[08:37] LordSmerf: So it seems to me, Guy.
[08:38] Thunder_God: The point of this entry is simple, and a very "D'oh" one.
[08:38] LordSmerf: Well, I missed it :)
[08:38] Thunder_God: It's that the personality of the designer has much effect on his game and design.
[08:39] LordSmerf: Ah…
[08:39] Mike_Holmes: Tony in this case being Tony LB?
[08:39] Thunder_God: Yes.
[08:39] Mike_Holmes: I agree in general, but extra so with Tony LB. :-)
[08:40] Thunder_God: Yes, that's one of the two reasons I picked him ;)
[08:40] Thunder_God: The other is, because Capes and Tony fit my model, IMO.
[08:40] Mike_Holmes: Makes sense
[08:41] Thunder_God: It especially fits Competitive games. I think most Competitive games are an outgrowth of personality, more than non-competitive designs, though that's my claim.
[08:42] Mike_Holmes: Interesting. I could make a case that non-competitive designs are reflective of very specific personalities that regard conflict as potentially damaging to creativity.
[08:43] Thunder_God: Mike, that's a possibility, but let us look at the following: If you follow the "standard philosophy" of your culture, it could be because you agree with it, or merely because you don't wish to confront it, or never thought of confronting it! Whereas the "heretics" have _chosen_ to follow another path, with less A or B, and only B.
[08:44] Mike_Holmes: So…competition is heretical in RPGs?
[08:44] Thunder_God: Smerfy, you'll note how often I mention personalities, I mention "Sweet in the middle" only in order to later mention "Losing Vs winning", which is an outgrowth of personality.
[08:44] Thunder_God: No Mike, it's just less common, not the default.
[08:44] Thunder_God: Thus me using quotation marks.
[08:45] Thunder_God: Those who ascribe to the default could actively agree or could passively not care, those who do not ascribe to default actively disagree.
[08:45] LordSmerf: Guy, you don't make it explicit that they're outgrowths of personality in your post.
[08:45] LordSmerf: I don't disagree with you, but you didn't say it.
[08:45] Mike_Holmes: Interesting…I think you may be right in terms of sheer number of games designed, but in terms of play, most RPG play is competitive, IMO.
[08:45] LordSmerf: Or if you did I missed it.
[08:46] Mike_Holmes: The vast majority of D&D play, for instance.
[08:46] Thunder_God: "However, look at Winning and Losing, which seem to show our personal philosophies, and how Tony may not be as Muy Macho as he claims(desires?) to be."
[08:46] Mike_Holmes: Heh
[08:46] Thunder_God: Mike, when I say Competitive DnD old-skool is only halfway there.
[08:46] Mike_Holmes: I think that Tony's designs are incoherent, yeah.
[08:46] Thunder_God: There's antagonism and competition between GM and players.
[08:46] Thunder_God: But the players work as a group.
[08:47] Thunder_God: I mean competitive like a board/card game, where it's free for all.
[08:47] Mike_Holmes: Players working as a group doesn't mean that they're not competing.
[08:47] Mike_Holmes: I think they very much do. And, yes, this leads to problems.
[08:47] Thunder_God: It also depends on house rules such as "killing blow" and so on.
[08:48] Mike_Holmes: I mentioned that recently, where "I kill him as he sleeps" becomes a very effective winning move.
[08:48] Thunder_God: Hm, well, I'm still talking about design, and set goals. Players play competitively because that's what people do in games, as you said, it leads to problems because the game does not facilitate "human nature".
[08:48] Thunder_God: Heh.
[08:48] Thunder_God: Stevil Van-Hostle kind of win ;) you won't see the Untouchtable Trio+1 pull it though.
[08:54] Thunder_God: I believe Cranium Rats's design, not in details, but overall is a reflection of my personality.
[08:54] Thunder_God: I think of my personality as a battering ram, so I created CR, and used a "gale" to get my goals down, sweeping through whatever I didn't like, ho ho.
[08:55] Mike_Holmes: Guy, I can see that. It's definitely philosophical in it's apparent output.
[08:56] Thunder_God: Mike, that's exactly what I didn't mean :: smiles:: Of course I meant its reflective of my personality, but I'm talking about the design process, where I batterred away anything that I didn't like, forcefully.
[08:57] Thunder_God: And yes, that does sound funny.
[08:58] Mike_Holmes: I see what you're saying, Guy, but it seems to me that it's affected both. Also, your comments about Tony's designs seem to focus on the output, no?

 Just a note, Mike's point about play is certainly a good one, but this point is mostly about design and playtesting. And heck, why do we have CSI Games if not to remedy this lack in design?
So, do I need to explain this further?

…and Double Blinders; The Players Don’t(Stand Alone).

This post is a direct continuation of this post, unlike most posts which build indirectly on what has come before(Yes, reading this blog in order helps greatly). Seems like there'll also be a surprise third post in this series, though I'm unsure if it'll be next or one after, since the next two posts build on one another!

So, when playtesting it's important to test the mechanics on their own, to see how they work, rather than how your interpretation of them makes them work.

So, the players you play with will dictate a lot on how the game goes, you play the game, but so do they. When you play a game for fun you'd rather play a game with people you know, so you can gel as much as possible with them and collaborate to create a fun enviroment.
But what about when you play a competitive game, and especially when playtesting one?

I'll begin with several stories, taken directly from the First Post on this blog:
"..(In M:tG)Another instance was of me creating a deck specifically for multiplayer. But rather than have a deck which hurts multiple opponents to my benefit, I've created a deck based on "Fear Factor". The deck made use of Pestilence, a card which hurts all players and characters equally. I told the others so: "You don't attack me, I may or may not use it, you attack me, I use it and everyone, including you, suffers". It worked, no one wanted to lose, so no one attacked me, letting me watch with glee and mess with everyone as I saw fit. This was an especially good choice for me as I am often the "Strong Pick" and thus marked for execution early on, more on this later…

…Enter Settlers of Cattan, a classic if I ever saw one. I've first played Settlers of Cattan in a convention, where the three other players knew one another and I knew none. You may think that I had the disadvantage, that they will unite against the unknown, the outsider, and will only later turn against one another to finish business. That was not so.
People who know one another mark each other as "Strong" and "Weak", "Ally" or not. They assume that the opponent they know to be strong must be stronger than the unknown. So I used it to my advantage, as two of the friends united I offered an alliance to the last remaining player, and dumped him the moment I got what I wanted from him, trusting in my own capabilities. His friends later would not ally with him for he allied with me, leaving him alone, as I was, but much weaker.
Towards the end the other players noticed my burgeoning kingdom and decided to ally together in order to stop me. This was too little and far too late. Their pooled resources could not stop me…"

I believe you should play with people you know, whereas Dave Michael, author of Legends of Lanasia, believes otherwise. Dave, I'm inviting you here to explain in the comments why you believe you should play(test) (competitive?) games with people you don't know.

When you play with people you know who is a danger, you know why they are a danger, you know who will betray you.
I play Worms with my cousin against two computer enemies, we always agree to squish them first and only then turn on one another, but when that "Sweet Hit" calls, and since no one wants to get hit first we turn on one another, but we always know it'd come…

Sure, you don't fully test the system, but the system only builds example conflicts, situations for you to clash. There must be some conflict between the active agents in order for conflict to actually occur. This is often done by human nature, expectation and the need to prove oneself's as winner.

Sure, you know what others plan to do and what are their weak spots, but that doesn't mean you won't fall again, like Charlie Brown and the Football, or me and my cousin. You know the others' weak spots, but so do they know yours.

It is considered "Bad Sports" to bring outside occurances to the game, but let's be frank, much of the conflict inherent to competitive games actually comes from the friction between the players. Why create artificial conflict when there's real conflict to be drawn upon so easily?

You want to test the system, you don't want to create conflict between players. You want to test the game, you do not want to test the situation between players, just use it as a tool.
You have winners and losers, and those feelings add on to the next time you play.

I believe you should play competitive games with people you know.

With Blinders…; The System Stands Alone.

This post relates directly to the previous post. I am not going to tell you why; I'd build you a rifle but not shoot for you, I will build you a fire but I will not cook for you; I will present you this analogy but not explain it to you.

So, building on the last post and also going directly from the Meta-Chanics post, I'm going to start this 1-of-2 post, about testing pure systems.

So, when you're playtesting you need to know what it is you're testing. If you're saying "System" then more likely than not you are deluding yourself, for you are testing the Game as a whole. I believe much can be learnt from testing the system on its own.

So how does one test the system on its own? First, one cuts off all mentions of colour and background. The three Aspects become Three Aspects that cover A, B and C, or even just three Aspects. This is easy, and allows you to see what directions it could go on once the colour is peeled off, which happens with most games after a while anyway.

Then, you take away all mentions of how the game should be played, the "Meta-Chanics", you don't tell players if they should go cooperatively or competitively, you let their own nature take them where it will.

This is the way to see what the System encourages, rather than what you encourage. If you want your design goals and what the system actually encourages, rather than what it encourages once you point it in the "right" direction, then you have to see what the System does.

The System and not the Game.

And you could see it as a way of me agreeing with Troy, Setting does matter. Though I look at it from another angle.

Cranium Rats – Meta-Chanics.

This is a post which is not re-posted from my LiveJournal, hard as that may be to imagine.

I did not post this on my game, the Meta-Chanics section because I believe in a "Double-Blinders" test of the system, but fuck it, we could have that later. I'll explain this concept later in two posts or so, expect it by the end of the week.

The following is more or less the way Mechanics work in Cranium Rats. Since this blog is about Competitive Games, specifically CSI Games, and Cranium Rats is one such game(and because it's mine the one who will show quite prominently as an example) I thought I'd show it.
Let me note that much could be considered as "Added weight", unlike Capes which to me feels like The Wheel of Time or The Lord of the Rings – Constructed. The world/game was constructed in advance, and then things were added to it. I go the other way, where you create the world as characters experience it, so much was created by "urge" and "instinct".

Here goes:
First, why this is NOT in the playtest file:
I want to see if the mechanics actually work as intended, IE, whether the meta-chanic goals are reached. If I tell people why things operate as they do and what they should operate as it’d become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which I’m very much against. I even think each game needs playtesting of its mechanics alone – where the playtesters get no background bits at all but just have the system and we see what they reach.

Tokens exist to support the Narrative. In a way they are also a tool for you to “Mark” other players as Tony explains in Capes. What people spend their Tokens on is what they care about, which gives you more information regarding them.
Note that at the first session the Enlightened begins with 8 Tokens, 5 for session and 3 for the three initial Flood Scenes that culminate character generation; this is so he could set the general background and feel of the game during the first round or two, by narrating both the scenes up to conflicts and their results, or by giving people Goals.
Tokens belong to the players, and since each player plays across three characters he needs to choose where to spend his effort, given that those who spread themselves are less likely to win in any location. Players will likely concentrate on their Rat and Dirt since they exert more direct influence there, and will use Tokens for Water as intended, when they want to advance that character’s story, which they are already pretty much in control of.
Tokens are finite, generation of Tokens is not that easy, at least not for players. When players spend Tokens they usually go to the Enlightened, and when he spends them they usually disappear. Using Tokens to exert mechanical influence “Removes” Tokens, using them to exert story influence gives them to someone else, who may end up using them against you. This would make players hoard their tokens, thus the “Use them or lose them” bit, which stops them from sitting on their asses passively, which leads us to our next point:
Game Length is helped along by Tokens and thus fulfills the movie/TV episode feel I want the game play to have! If you have a Medium session it’ll be followed by another Medium one, where people have Tokens, use them, resolve Goals, use Tokens. When you have a Short session it should be followed by a Long session and then another Short session; At the end of a short session players are left with unused Tokens so they will scramble to set them up in the only way they can “keep” them: they will set up new Goals for themselves. The next session should be long, so that players would use up all of their given Tokens, would have to resolve their Goals for more Tokens and then use them as well. The next session should be short as well to let players set new Goals.
The Enlightened “opposes” the Aspects’ selfishness, thus the conditions when he gains new Tokens.

Die Reservoir is there to let the players exert direct control over things. The reason the Die Reservoir limit and where it starts when you go up/down is set is to combat Death Spirals. If the higher you go the less likely you are to be able to exert influence, and that’s crap, I don’t want that.
I used “Sweet in the middle” in order to get people to haul ass and do things. You want to control the character in a scene (You do, you can’t gain Marks, go up and eventually win otherwise), then you need to use dice in Biddings. But in order to gain Dice anew you must participate in Conflicts, and win them.
The “Sweet in the middle” makes you want to use your Dice, because otherwise when you win you give the other players Tokens, which you’d really rather not. If you use them and lose, you are in risk of going down since you lose a die when you lose a Conflict.
Those who participate can use dice from Die Reservoir in conflicts on a 1-for-1 basis, those outside it need to pay 2-for-1, giving more importance to Tokens and showing that if you’re not on it, then you have a harder time exerting influence, propelling you to be “on it”.

On Player interaction:
The Marks work in a “One step forward, two steps back” kind of way. You need to win conflicts to go up, but if you lose, you lose them all. There is no benefit to having Marks less than your Ratio, so on you go, hoping your fellow players won’t screw you.
As shown in the Actual Play example, you can “Force” others to help you, because when a Trait goes to 0 it is the Highest Aspect that goes down, so he has vested interest in helping you not lose.
Aspect Ratios exist to make players form “alliances” or have vested interest. So you’re Rat, you may want Dirt or Water to be higher, depending on your preferred play-style.
There’s a double-helix tension going on here: Someone is getting too high, so the rest of you gang up on him to get him down. You get him down, but now he remembers you screwed him so he’s more like to be combative against you, across all characters.

On Currency flow:
Too many Dice results in others getting Tokens.
Too little Dice means a Flood Scene is going to occur, where the usage of resources is fast and furious, and The Enlightened gets a Token.
The higher you go, the more likely you’ll go over the Die Reservoir Limit, giving others more resources to stop you the higher you go. You may even be tempted to pour Tokens/Dice onto others to gain Tokens back.
The Free Dice in Flood Scenes means it’s most likely someone will have vested interest, seeing how he already has 50% of getting/retaining the dot if no one else bids. Note how when an Aspect Drops you first gain your full Die Reservoir, so you can bid the whole 6 dice; if you win it’s all good, you get your Dot back plus 6 dice. If you lose however, you lost a die and are very close to losing another!
Tokens result in Dice. Dice result in Tokens.
Dice can be used to gain control over story, instead of them being used to gain control over mechanics.
Tokens can be used to exert control over story, giving others the same right or letting them gain control over mechanics.

Advantages exist to help people be more invested.
Water narrates makes the Water player active, even though he plays a more passive role when it comes to the Aspects themselves.
Character win over Aspects is very rare, usually occurs in spite of what the players do, not because of, because it’s at the mercy of dice.

To recap, the mechanics are there to promote conflict, pacts and betrayals. They are there to encourage competition. Don't forget, the mechanics impose a "Win" condition, and once you have that, players will strive towards it.

Game Design as a Viral Disease.

First, for those who did not notice(most of you), I’ve begun syndication of game related, especially CSI related information to a new Blog, aptly called, CSI Games.
A question to my LiveJournal readers, do you find these game posts of any interest?

Second, I want to revise Cranium Rats, but first I need your help. I need more answers regarding the questions presented in this thread.

Now that we got that out of the way, onward!
This thread directly ties in to my earlier post regarding memes, on second thought it also ties to this post about Addictions. I believe Game Design (we’ll talk mainly of RPGs and TCGs here) is a disease, a viral disease. That may not be a negative thing, but it is something to be considered.

So there you are, sitting and reading a game book, and “Zing!” goes the light-bulb, when you notice something which needs some changing.
Thus you get House-Rules.
There you are still, playing a game, for example D&D 3ed or Exalted, and you want something that is not there, a new Prestiege Class, a new Martial Arts Style.
Thus you get Fan Material.
There you are, still, and boy doesn’t your butt ache from sitting down for so long? But you sure are persistent, and now you’re mucking about with Magic: the Gathering, and you’re building your deck for an upcoming tournament. Cutting down cards to 60 is hard, it feels like you’re sacrificing your own children.
Thus you get Design Process.

So you sat down and did all that, but you decided you want to do some more. You’ve been infected.
The above is how the disease transmits. It is easy to transmit, it is easy to carry, it is easy to keep alive even if somewhat dormant.
The virus does not stay content forever though, once you had flexed your designer muscles you find it easier to flex them once more. Such is the nature of muscles.
Once you set down the road it is easier to continue upon it.

So you start with Exalted, and you find that it is missing a Martial Arts style you desire, so you add one. Now you find Intimacies don’t do what you want, so you delve deeper into the kernels of the game, changing some basics of the game and much of how the rules apply to this specific case.
Then you are ready to progress to the next step. Exalted is no longer good enough. It just doesn’t do what you want it to, so you make your game, wholly your creation.

So it seems we’ve covered the “Why” you design games; you begin by designing pieces and then you grow in skill enough to design games.
NO.
It is the other way around, that is the “How”. You get the virus in you and so you begin designing(it’s often transmitted by holes and missing appendages in other games that call to you to fill them), once you build your muscles you move to bigger projects. You don’t go on a scale because that’s what you can do and as you go up you get more capable of taking on bigger tasks, you take on smaller tasks in order to prepare yourself for Game Design.

Game Design propagates the virus.
You design games because you can’t stop.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Memes and Games

I’ll begin with a quote, this quote is quite large, because it’s all good. This quote is taken from the book Memetic Magic which I’m currently way too poor to buy. If you want to buy it for me I’ll hug you lots. I didn’t read the book, but the excerpt is available at the link provided:

ARTISTIC MEMETIC MAGIC by Kirk Packwood
Opening the Portal to the Astral-Daemonic Planes Artistic Endeavors as Representations of Complex Memetic Structures: Spirit = Symbol = Complex Memetic StructureSymbols embedded within works of art are re-presentations of complex memetic structures which in many cases can be correctly labeled thought viruses. Since all human beings who have had any prolonged contact with society are programmed to some degree, large portions of the human mind (especially the thinking portion of the psyche which utilizes language) are constructed almost entirely of complex memetic structures. The complex memetic structures which form the cognitive linguistic (language using) portions of the human mind possess strong defenses, both passive and active, against contamination by invading thought viruses and memetic structures. A human mind will resist any ideas which do not bind correctly within the existing memetic structures which form the framework of its linguistic consciousness. Programmed minds will only listen to what they want to hear. Therefore, it is seldom possible for an idea to be taught to another person directly. Ideas which do not fit into the binding points within a mind will be resisted and rejected. In many cases an individual will desire to convey a specific idea to other human beings, but finds, when offered in their most diluted form, his ideas will be rejected. Oftentimes the solution to this problem is to create a work of art in which the artist’s message, or root meaning, is embedded. By work of art is meant any artistic endeavor which is traditionally considered to reside within the artistic sphere; be it literature, painting, music, movies, sculpture, etc. The artwork serves to focus the attention of the programmed conscious mind, while the root meaning (thought virus or memetic structure) embedded within slips unnoticed into the subconscious.
There is no inherent goodness in art. The idea to be conveyed in a work of art can have any quality from a startling revelation intended to better the human condition to a blatant deception designed to conceal truth and take power. On many occasions an artist will embed a root meaning into his art which he believes will serve the greater good, but in reality the artist’s concept of the greater good may be nothing more than an unusually complex example of the replication phase of a thought virus of which the artist has been infected without his knowledge. Most artists, like most people, are programmed by the dominant memetic structures, or cultural ideal types. Dominant memetic structures are only concerned with maintaining their dominance by replicating to as many minds as possible, not with the greater good of humanity, except in how the greater good of humanity serves to benefit the replication possibilities of the dominant memetic structure.

All artwork, even the most rudimentary, contains complex memetic structures residing at many different levels within the work of art. An intelligent mind can dilute a work of art much as a chemist can dilute a uniform mixture of diverse chemicals. Recognition of the root meanings inherent in artistic endeavors can lead an individual to a source of great understanding and power.

Artistic Symbolism

Every artistic endeavor contains numerous symbols embedded at many different levels within the work of art. Some of these symbols are imbedded into the art with willed conscious intent while others are the result of subconscious communication. Of the two types of symbols inherent in artwork the subconscious symbols are the most interesting. The consciously created symbols within artwork are complex memetic structures which can be correctly labeled thought viruses or thought contagions, depending on whether the memetic structure attempts to use the mind it has infected for the purpose of further replication.

A Memetic Magician wishing to spread fashioned thought viruses would do well to consider imbedding his creations into a work of art and releasing that work of art to a target population. The artwork serves as an outer guise concealing the true form of the thought viruses contained within. The entertainment or aesthetic value of a work of art engages the attention of the conscious mind of the individual partaking of the work of art, allowing the thought viruses embedded within to penetrate the defenses of the unaware target’s complex mental memetic structure. Once the thought viruses have penetrated, instructions can be disseminated and replication can commence.

The symbols contained within a work of art can assume a variety of different forms depending on the type of art being examined. For the sake of brevity, this chapter will focus primarily on literature and paintings. But the principals contained herein are equally valid in regards to any variety of artistic endeavor.
So we have Memes, and we have games. Games often have a moral that they want to teach us, or at least claim to teach us. But if we’ve learnt anything from the quote above(we probably learnt many a thing, a very long and meaty quote it is!) we’ve learnt that we resist the messages being given, and only hidden memes can bypass our conscious mind and infect us.

So let us begin with an example I’m sure all of you know. Monopoly.
What is Monopoly about(ergo, what is its overt message saying)? I asked my mother, and she gave me the obvious answer, “Monopoly is about buying and selling, it’s about acquiring, it’s about handling money.” That’s a very lofty goal, teaching the kids how to handle money, Market Forces 101. It succeeds in that, but the meme, the meme is what we’re interested in.
To perceive the meme one needs luck, one needs experiencing the right source material or having perceived the meme in its raw form beforehand. Monopoly’s meme is discussed in Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I’m not going to tell you much of the book except I think every person needs to read it at least once in their life. I consider this book important.
So what is the secretive viral meme inherent to Monopoly which worms its way into you, and then makes you repeat it after you’ve been infected(or in turn makes you play Monopoly to transmit it further, the Kids, the Kids! Won’t anyone think of the kids?!)?
Building as much as the land could support. Not leaving one tile untilled.
That’s Monopoly’s corrupted meme, to acquire as much land as possible and then use it up. Build as much as the land can support and then some more.

Every RPG could probably be summed in one line, in what it is about. Its message. Its meme would probably take up to three words, if you can find it at all. What attracts people is the message, they don’t notice the meme in the beginning. Surely not in a conscious manner.
I believe I’d put another example in about now:
Dogs in the Vineyard is about moral judgement. That’s what you create the setting for, that is what your characters resolve, that is what you sit down at the table and play. That’s the overt message, that attracts players.
What is the Meme? Conflict and its Results. The game doesn’t really care about judgement, it cares about what you do to others and how the third law of Newton applies then, changing you in return.
People who post modifications, or did till now mostly posted based on societies with certain codes, such as Mafia. That is taking the idea, the hook and twisting it, cool enough.
As time passes by, people will realize they don’t need that. That is the setting which is there to create Conflicts, but the game doesn’t really care about how you get to the conflict, it cares that it happens and then how many changes are wrought by it, and how drastic those changes are.

Games have a Moral. Games have a Meme.
The Moral is easy to find, usually intentional, and it is that Moral which draws people to the game(that and the system).
The Meme is hard to find, often unconsciously put in and hard to modify. Find it and you’ll know what truly makes the game tick, what makes you stay with it.
Memes are hard to put in intentionally, because they don’t work that way.

This also relates to my last post, posted below, here. The question is “Why now?”, why do all these games come up now?
One answer is that the Board-game backdrop had been taking up a larger part in our sub-culture lately. They meet it, they like it, they try to reproduce it in other places of their interest.
The other answer is that those games share a Meme, they’re board-games, and Competition is often a key-word in their Meme pool. Recent RPGs also slowly spread that Meme, even if weakened at first because it was in the form of Factionalism(party Vs. GM). But now it’s out, and it progresses, and Memes tend to snowball.

We live in an interesting time.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]