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Forge Midwest 2012

In Convention Report, Links, My Thoughts On, Roleplaying Games on May 7, 2012 at 10:15 am

I attended Forge Midwest last weekend, and it was nice. Forge Midwest is a regional “playcon”, a relatively small convention that is all about playing (mostly indie/self-published/smallpress) games. No panels, no booths, no official sales, just meetin’ up and sittin’ down to play. Back in Boston, I attended/organized various JiffyCons, which is a similar concept, though only one day’s worth. Anyway, playcons are great, and seeing how I haven’t been to a convention at all since Gen Con of 2010, I was excited to go!

I had a good time catching up with folks I haven’t seen in years, meeting new folks, and playing games! I took it pretty easy compared to some people (there were people who managed to get 7 or 8 games in over 2.5 days, which I just am not creatively capable of, I think). I was exhausted at the end, but in a long-term way I think it was pretty energizing. I would certainly like to try and play more games in the next couple of months, at the very least!

I played four games: Pickets and Blinds, Dungeon World, Dark Sun HeroQuest and Hero’s Banner. I enjoyed them pretty much in ascending order, actually. More details about each after the jump.

Thanks to Willow and  Tim, the organizers of the event, and to everyone I got to play with and talk too! It was a good time!

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Game Chef Review: Coyote Pass

In Game Chef, Links, My Thoughts On, Roleplaying Games on April 26, 2012 at 7:09 pm

I participated in this year’s “Last Chance” Game Chef game design competition. Part of the deal is providing peer review to other people’s submissions. This is the fourth of a series of such reviews. Also, you can download my entry by clicking here (PDF): This Match Is Scheduled For One Fall.

Coyote Pass, by David Miessler-Kubanek (Download PDF)

Coyote Pass is very structured, narrative-focused game “about smugglers searching for identity and life beyond the Edge.” Most of the players play Coyotes, special operators in the Edge of Forever Borderland Territories (a border setting that’s created in play, essentially). The Coyotes are defined not only by their Traits, but also by the Debts that they owe people, and a specific Contract they they are attempting to fulfill. A GM plays the Innocents involved, as well as representatives of Authority (both the Law and the Underworld), and other incidental NPCs as needed.

My favorite thing about this game is that the Innocents, who could easily be vague outlines of plot direction, are actually strongly integrated into the Coyote characters by a beautiful mechanic wherein the Traits that define the characters can be given, or given up to, Innocents. Innocents are therefor partly defined by and partly the definition of the characters, and I found this relationship to be something I’d really like to explore in play.

The game is very, very light on setting and genre beyond the broad strokes of choosing whether the Edge of Forever Borderland Territories are mundane or supernatural in scope. What gives the game structure in play is the Contract that each Coyote is attempting to fulfill. These are detailed, with three specific actions that need to be taken, giving the GM a strong platform of what-to-do-now fodder.

Debts are the core reward cycle in the game. Coyotes can potentially die, if they take on too many Debts, or move on with their lives and leave the Borderland Territories, if they free themselves from Debts entirely. Gaining more Debts requires Coyotes to give an Innocent a Trait (or lose it entirely), linking them into the cycle. Again, I was really impressed with how clear and meaningful all of these interactions seem.

I was a little confused by the Authority Invocation rules, wherein you roll a die (1d6) under a list of circumstances – the rolls have modifiers after them, but I wasn’t able to tell whether those were automatic, or contingent on the roll in some manner. It took me two reads to see that the roll is actually to see whether the Authority in question would enter the scene, and I’m not really sure what effect the Authority has other than fictional impact on which NPCs are in the scene – there’s a note that says that interacting with Authority is how Coyotes create new Traits, which has a cost associated with it (see below) but no other details about how this looks like in play (and, frankly, I don’t know if it’s necessary).

Coyotes have one numerical rating, Courage, which they can spend to do things like regaining Hurt (Traits can get Hurt) and trading/gaining new Traits. It also can be used to help out in the few Conflict rolls you might make.

This brings me to my challenge to Daniel – I think you can make this game sing without using dice at all. You already acknowledge that resolution of a scene can/should come from the tension of Contracts and Duties vs. Debts. I think all this needs is a set of guidelines for Hurts as a result of the players choices, and you could dispense with die rolls entirely (or, keep them solely for Games of Chance). That would tighten up an already very tight game, I think.

Finally, the game currently lasts “until all of the Coyotes have died or successfully found freedom” – I think this may be an option for longterm play, perhaps, but my instinct would be to play until each character either fulfills their Contract or dies/finds freedom attempting to do so. I just see the Contract as being so key to a Coyote, fulfilling one should be as climactic as one of the other two states.

So, overall, I was quite surprised and pleased with this game! I think the core systems are tight, elegant and evocative. There’s two or three sets of interactions that I think can actually be folded back into the main engine of play (Debts), and made even smoother. I really appreciated the very clear breakdown of Player’s and GM’s roles (and how they differ), and the example characters. I feel like I could play this now (with an eye out for the few moments I found confusing) and I would get an entertaining and poignant experience. Well done!

Game Chef Review: Rage, Rage

In Commentary, Game Chef, Links, My Thoughts On, Roleplaying Games on April 23, 2012 at 7:12 pm

I participated in this year’s “Last Chance” Game Chef game design competition. Part of the deal is providing peer review to other people’s submissions. This is the third of a series of such reviews. Also, you can download my entry by clicking here (PDF): This Match Is Scheduled For One Fall.

Rage, Rage by David Miessler-Kubanek (download PDF)

Rage, Rage is a rules-light, narrative-focused game that asks the players to set up the End (the world, someones life, a civilization, etc), and then play out the reactions of a cast of core characters who have an interest in that End. The game gives three broad category of “response” to the End – accepting it, denying it, or bending it to your will.

The group comes up with the specific End, and then a “End Pathway,” a literal object (based on the examples given) that represents the thematic impact of that End. I appreciate the extensive examples given of each, enough to be used as randomized tables to get started quickly. Characters are sketched out broadly, having 2 numbers (Madness and Courage), and the answers to a list of questions – what is the character willing to risk, who are they willing to sacrifice, and how will they prevent the “dying of the light”? These questions are very evocative and give some immediate hook into a characters mindset, for me at least.

Characters also have a Hope and Fear related to the Lantern, which is kind of an all-encompassing metaphor for both the End and the End Pathway. Essentially, a character has a related Hope and Fear, only one of which is active at a time, and some of the mechanics involve switching the focus of the character from one to the other. Each character also has a Hope and a Fear related to the backgrounds of one of the other characters, putting them into an initial relationship map with each other.

Gameplay, as far as I can tell, consists of using the cues generated during character creation to push towards some kind of dealing with the oncoming End – again, either accepting it, denying it, or bending it to your will. The game uses the word “respond” almost exclusively when talking about what characters do, which struck me as an odd choice. This kind of game, with a light atmospheric framework and a lot of narrative overhead, tends to work best when built around pro-active characters with definite goals, in my experience. This may just very well just be my personal response to the phrasing, but it stood out to me as not serving the text well.

I admit, I had difficulty parsing this game text. Part of it is that some of the mechanics share names but do different things, part of it is the use of the Lantern metaphor as an organizing principle in a couple of different and overlapping ways, and part of it is that I’m not sure if Daniel had a clear idea of what play would actually look like. A GM is mentioned a couple of times, but there is no note of what their responsibilities are, making me question why there’s a GM at all? I don’t see any reason why the players can’t all have a character and simply…do whatever you need to do to provide adversity for each other. The game calls itself cooperative, but characters seem to be pointed at each other (with their Fear connections), and there are mechanics for killing each other and dying.

I like a lot of the pieces of this game, particularly the relationship between Madness and  Courage. The relationship of these two numbers, looked at amongst all of the characters, is what determines “what happens” at the end of the game, a really nice twist to a My Life With Master-like “your numbers determine your fate” approach. I like that the players get to contribute to each others characters (by writing down each other Fears, and giving each other Signs of the End). I really like the two sample game setups provided, which really helped me understand how characters and their relationships are supposed to look.

I personally would have trouble playing this game as written, right now, due mainly to my vagueness about what the GM is supposed to do, and what kind of approach the players should have to their characters. I don’t see any major procedural holes (there aren’t many procedures to consider!). I would need to have a stronger idea of Daniel’s vision for actual play, either directly expressed in the text or in the form of illustrative examples, to have a less analytical response to this text. I really appreciate the levels of metaphor and the overall aim of the game! There is a bit of poetry here that is very appealing to me. It’s just obscuring the prose, as it were, a little too much.

Game Chef Review: Oath of Steel

In Contest, Game Chef, Links, My Thoughts On, Roleplaying Games on April 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I participated in this year’s “Last Chance” Game Chef game design competition. Part of the deal is providing peer review to other people’s submissions. This is the second of a series of such reviews. Also, you can download my entry by clicking here (PDF): This Match Is Scheduled For One Fall.

Oath of Steel, by Jeffrey Fuller (download PDF)

Oath of Steel is a GMless/GMful game that asks the players to both threaten and defend the last bastion of magic in a world on the brink of destruction. Two of the nine pages of the game give the flavor and background of this world, where the Nations of Spire (mad godkings) are besieged by the 72 nations (united by an anti-magic faith). Six of the pages are the pre-generated Champion characters, each provided with two differently-gendered names. The overall structure for the game is contained on the remaining page, and each Champion sheet has a copy of the character-centric resolution rules and options, so there’s essentially two pages of hard rules.

Structurally, the game is of limited scope and has a definite endgame. The Champions are presumed to be defending the last surviving Godking from the encroaching armies of the Faith. Each player generates a set of Events and related Threats that face the Champions. These Events and Threats are organized into Waves, and each Champion faces a Wave in turn. The game ends once either all of the Champions Burn Out (i.e. are destroyed), or once all the Waves are defeated.

Honestly, after reading the color-drenched, evocative opening text, I found the actual procedures of gameplay to be a little underwhelming. The setting is rich in contradiction (is magic always going to corrupt? are the godkings really worth defending? what do you do when you’re functionally immortal but you can’t remember each individual lifetime?), but the game is very linear. Over the course of the game, each character has the opportunity to answer a set of questions (called Drives) about their character. This is the only real opportunity I see for the players to address any of these questions, but mechanically, answering them feeds into the only reward cycle, which is focused on fighting the Waves. So, an opening, but not necessarily one that leads out of the hallway of play, as it were.

Mechanically, I had a couple of questions. The main currency, Power (essentially “magic points”) seems like it’s a little incomplete. You can wager Power on any die roll, picking one number (on a d6), and potentially recovering Power if any of your dice roll that number. I don’t see any downside for making a wager, making it a no-brainer to wager on every roll. Also, you can spend Power to get more dice (which are “strikes” on 4+), or you can spend Power directly to make strikes. Threats need between 1 and 5 strikes to overcome, and you start with 20 Power. Your character reincarnates as long as they have 1 Power remaining.

So, is there any reason not to spend Power directly to take out Threats until you’re down to 1, then let the next Threat kill you (if you take 4 stress, you die)? You reincarnate with 20 Power, and can continue without ever having to make a roll. I may be missing something here, but having this cycle be this straightforward really takes the teeth out of the potential tension of having final destruction for your Champion be on the table.

I do really like the evocative world, and the character write-ups. The idea that Magic is this horrendously powerful force is compelling and well-supported by the mechanics behind it. I like the ritual swearing of the Oath of Steel. Structurally, this game is primarily cooperative – yes, you create Threats at the beginning, but the point of play certainly seems to be working together to overcome the adversity. In this kind of setup, that adversity really needs to have mechanical teeth provided by the game itself, or there’s little tension to drive the players choices.

I would recommend lowering the amount of Power that characters start with (maybe to 10, or even 5), and make sure that there’s a downside to wagering Power points that makes it a real risk (perhaps you lose all remaining Power, opening you to the risk of Burning Out). Finally, I think that answering the characters Drives should give the players an opportunity to say something about the world, as opposed to more currency to put into fighting, that could have some relationship to the Epilogue at the end of the game.

I’m sure that Jeffrey already has answers to some of my concerns in his head, so I think the next step for this game is taking a look at the text and making sure it says what you want it to say, and a solid playtest where you see whether the game hits all the points you want it to hit. I would personally need to houserule a couple of things (like the Wager mechanic) in order to feel like I could play the game right now – however, I don’t think I’d have any trouble pitching it, as the setting and situation are, as I’ve said, extremely evocative and eminently playable.

Game Chef Review: First Impressions

In Contest, Game Chef, Links, My Thoughts On, Roleplaying Games on April 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I participated in this year’s “Last Chance” Game Chef game design competition. Part of the deal is providing peer review to other people’s submissions. This is the first of a series of such reviews. Also, you can download my entry by clicking here (PDF): This Match Is Scheduled For One Fall.

First Impressions, by Mendel Schmiedekamp (download PDF)

First Impressions bills itself as “part game, part ice-breaker, part trust building exercise, and part personality test.” I like that the game part is very evident, using a Candyland-inspired board and both card and dice mechanics to provide structure to an essentially player-created, freeform play experience. The cards are used Oracle-style to generate stats, pose questions about the characters relationships, and create possibility spaces of dangers and relationships during play, as well as to pace the actual movement around the board. The dice are used essentially as roll-under pass/fail resolution.

I personally found the use of dice, inspired by one of the Forge Thread ingredients Mendel got, to be the weakest part of this game. You use a d6, d10 or d12 as the tens digit, and a d10 as the ones, to get an extremely fine-grained result for such a binary roll. I understand the use of three die ranges to split rolls into easy, medium or hard, but this implementation seems to me an artifact of the ingredient use that could be heavily streamlined.

I appreciate the intent of the game to be agnostic as to whether the players will be competitive, cooperative, or somewhere in-between. I’m having trouble imagining what play would look like, though, because there is so much wiggle room. As with all games, I’d need to play to see whether this is as much a problem as it seems. I will say that there seems to me to be little need to add to the fiction during play beyond answering the prompts revealed by cards (which may or may not be a problem, depending on whether you feel like that’s an essential part of a roleplaying game or not).

Also, there is no structure that I see for the players characters to have any interaction beyond that generated purely from the players. This may be a problem for the stated goal of the game, in that if people are trying to learn how to play a roleplaying game together, they are probably envisioning playing a game where their characters are together, not just the players.

That said, the game certainly is procedurally complete, and I find the prompts given in the various randomized lists to be compelling and interesting. I think the Last Chance theme provided the core inspiration of the game, without being particularly expressed in the final product. Without reading through the inspiration threads, I trust that Mendel was inspired by a lot of crazy ideas, and I applaud the synthesis of so many elements into one coherent piece.

For this kind of game, the proof is in the pudding – would playing it lead two strangers to learn something about each other, and/or be better able to play other games together? I have no idea! It’s certainly a noble experiment, and only play will tell how successful it is. But the game is certainly ready to played to find out.

Habits For A New Age

In Commentary, My Thoughts On on June 27, 2011 at 12:35 pm

As a combination graduation/birthday gift, I received a very sweet iPad 2. So far I mostly use it as a radio and mobile Twitter platform, though I recently started reading old Sherlock Holmes stories on it as well. In many ways, I have yet to unlock the potential of this device.

However, there is one interesting way in which it’s motivated me to restructure my digital life. Due to a great tip, I got the Flipboard app, which is genius. It takes a cross-section of it’s own curated content, RSS feeds of my choice, and what people in my social networks post or link to, and lays out the content in a easily-navigatable magazine format. It’s great! But, after a few days, I noticed that the sites that I subscribe too that are more prolific (like boing boing, io9, stuff like that) tend to overwhelm all the smaller, more occasional feeds (like my friends blogs).

Thus, I just spent a couple of hours going through my google reader, deleting the high-volume feeds from it (along with legacy feeds that haven’t been updated in over 6 months), and then giving those feeds their own dedicated Flipboard section on my iPad. Hopefully, my “Google Reader” section will now be a more heterogenous selection of interesting things, and then if I want to see whats up on io9, I flip to the “io9” section, etc.

This also means that, except for links that come in through twitter during the day, I’ll mostly be consuming those high-volume sites via Flipboard, and not really on my laptop.

Big deal? Not really, except that it’s an example of how the structure of a well-designed app can drive behavior in a really interesting (and effective) way.

Pre-Final-Final Critique

In Commentary, Design Process, My Thoughts On, Self-Reflection, Thesis Work on May 6, 2011 at 11:07 am

Yesterday I had my Critique Week critique. Crit week, as we call it, is a pretty interesting feature of how SAIC works. Basically, the second-to-last week of each semester is given over to individual 45-minute critiques of each graduate students work by a panel of faculty and visiting artists. Classes are suspended and each student is assigned a day and time to present their work. In the fall you present to a panel of faculty drawn from the department you practice in, and in the spring it’s an interdepartmental panel. Mine, as it turned out, was moderated by a Printing faculty member, and included Film/Video/New Media, Painting, Sculpture and one Architecture instructor (who I had had in the fall for our CTA group studio project).

It went surprisingly well! The fear with these things is not just that it could go poorly, as in the panel doesn’t like or understand the work (that’s not really a big deal), but that it won’t be helpful in furthering the work. I worked pretty hard to get two games to a fully prototyped stage (pics forthcoming), and it really helped, even though we didn’t get into deign details. Having physical things to evaluate makes it so much easier to communicate the idea, every time. The tone of the panel was generally positive and complimentary, with specific questions about how to make the work more effective in really communicating food issues, and some solid suggestions for next steps to take. So it went well, and it was helpful – first time!

Some takeaway points about these critiques (gleaned from my experience and talking to my classmates):

  • Something is better than nothing. Having a prototype or model, even if it’s rough, will provoke more useful discussion than sketches and words, especially in these interdisciplinary panels.
  • They want to help. It’s easy to think of critiques as adversarial, but the faculty seem to genuinely look forward to critique week, and they are interested in what you are doing. Take advantage of their expertise.
  • Don’t talk too much. The panel only sees what you show them and knows what you tell them. They don’t need to know, and probably don’t want to know, the tortured journey from first idea to final product.
  • Take notes. I set up my flip to record the panel (haven’t watched it yet!) and took notes during. Some people get a friend to take notes for them. In any case, you won’t remember everything, get some kind of permanent record.
  • Have specific questions. When the general discussion dies down, it helps to have a list of a couple specific things you want to get out of it, like “do you have any suggestions for how to effectively showcase this feature in the exhibition” or “what kind of packaging would you expect this to come in.” Anything, really, that can guide the conversation towards usefulness and avoid awkward “we’re out of things to talk about” silence.
I have more thoughts on critique week in general, after the jump.

I Stole This Post

In Commentary, Links, My Thoughts On, Self-Reflection on April 2, 2011 at 9:33 am

A seriously inspirational set of advice crossed my digital desk this morning (thanks to @smashingmag). It’s worth reading in it’s entirety (plus he has funny cartoons), but I want to reproduce the list cuz, y’know, it seems like a good idea. With some of my own comments, of course.

How To Steal Things Like An Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me) by Austin Kleon

Steal Like An Artist (nothing is original, every idea is a mashup of other ideas, the artist is a collector not a hoarder, garbage in garbage out)

It’s really disheartening when you get halfway through a project and then you find that link to that site that’s showing something that you missed when you were doing your research and you’re all “crap, that’s totally my idea.” But all that means is that you have to do your best to make yours better.

Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are To Make Things (making things is how you find yourself, fake it ’til you make it)

If there’s one thing my grad school experience has taught me so far, it’s that my conception of “who I am as a designer” is going to be in flux for a long time. It’s a serious issue, because it’s really difficult to stand behind your work when, in the process of creating that work you discover that it’s not really the kind of work you want to do. Some of my classmates are still absolutely paralyzed by this issue of creative identity. I’ve tried to work around it by thinking of all my work as conditional, but this works better some times than others. Like anything else, it’s a function of just doing more work and learning from it. I hope.

Write The Book You Want To Read (write what you like, all fiction is fan fiction, make what you want to see in the world)

Well, yah. This one seems easy to me. It’s kind of what designers do.

Use Your Hands (your fingers are the original digits, bring your body into your work)

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I’m still not very good at it (both the skill and making it a part of my daily routine), but hand sketching and physical modeling is so much more productive than working on the computer. Even after less than 2 years I see a qualitative difference in the work produced by people who draw more – hint, it’s better.

Side Projects And Hobbies Are Important (side projects are the ones that blow up, have something that’s just for you)

Last week we went on an office visit to gravitytank and local design luminary Craighton Berman had a similar piece of advice. “Have a side hustle,” he said “that’s the stuff that blows up, and informs your ‘real work’, and they’re both better for it.” I’m inclined to listen, as he does real nice work.

More after the jump.

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Playtesting & The Designer as Expert

In Commentary, Game Design, My Thoughts On on February 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

Ah! A Kerfluffle! Ben Lehman, who I count as a friend and respect mightily as a game designer, has posted a bit of a screed against playtesting over at anyway. I’m not going to go through his argument, you should read his post if you haven’t already (you being “independent amateur game designer” cuz that’s who he’s talking to and for.) I am interested in some issues related to what he brings up, though.

I’m not sure where this first came up (and I may have mashed it up from a number of sources), but there’s a phrase that I keep in mind going through the  design process that goes like this:

Talk to playtesters to find out problems, but ignore their solutions. Talk to other designers to work out solutions, but ignore their problems.

Playtesting is really good at revealing problems but terrible at solving them. If playtesters could solve the problem themselves, they wouldn’t need you to design the game in the first place. That’s because you, Designer, are the expert in this situation – you have specialized knowledge, training and experience in this field that gives you superior insight into the situation. It’s like user testing in product design – if your widget doesn’t work, real-world users will reveal that really quickly. But if you ask them how to fix it, you’ll get as many responses as there are users, because everyone has opinions about things and specific contexts for use and their own preferences, and your job as a designer is to take into account their experience without just averaging their feedback and calling it good.

Other designers are, of course, fellow experts. They have a critical framework within which to place your design and evaluate it. They are problem-solvers in your field, and know how to judge your goal against the expressions of that idea in an evaluative fashion. That’s why they are really helpful to solving the problems you run into (whether stemming from a playtest or any other part of your process). However, because they are creative individuals who think about this kind of stuff a lot, and have a million ideas that haven’t had a chance to see the light yet, they will find opportunities in your design for their ideas if you let them. I see this all the time in group critiques at the early stages of design work – if you say “here’s my basic idea, what do you think,” every designer there will take your idea off in a different direction, dress it in different clothes and make it do a different dance. This is great for brainstorming, but really unhelpful once you have a set goal and you’re trying to solve a particular problem.

Now, playtesting with a group of fellow designers can be the best of both worlds or the worst, depending on your relationship with them, their experience with your creative process and a host of other factors. I’ve had it go both ways; I suspect, though, that a lot of the Ben-you-talking-crazy responses are from people who have healthy playtest groups made of other designers.

Playtesting is critical for a game because games are all about the human element. In short, your game can be as mathematically sound and rigorously written as you like, but only playtesting will tell you if it’s any fun. But that’s also pretty much the only thing that it can tell you better than any other method, and uncritically accepting all your playtesting feedback is unhelpful at best and actively detrimental to your game at worst.

My Thoughts On: How To Design

In Design Practice, My Thoughts On, Product Design, Self-Reflection on August 25, 2010 at 12:21 pm

I recently came across this in the wilds of the internet: design methods for everyone (by john chris jones, a Welsh industrial designer and artist)

You should read it in it’s entirety, if you make stuff. But, for my purposes, here’s the neat bits.

What follows may seem elementary. It is – but it is more difficult than it looks. To carry it out requires some modesty and a willingness to learn, to change, and to share your thinking with others.

As I was reading through it, I could point at each piece and go “oh! oh! I’ve had that problem!” What follows are jones’s headings with my thoughts on them. Hopefully there’s some sense to be made.

1. designing your design process

The process starts with a problem (A) and ends with a solution (Z). Getting from A to Z is incredibly convoluted. Many of the design methodology texts in my graduate studies have had some kind of process that’s recommended for any of a million reasons (something like identify problem -> do user research -> ideate -> prototype -> test -> repeat until satisfied -> produce). The main thing I’ve found, though, is that not only does everyone have their own process (duh, right), but that each time I go through the design process, I learn about how to make it better for the next time. The process itself is a constant design problem – how do I create good work? There’s a meta-level of mindfulness that I think I just keyed into at the end of my first year.

(more after the cut)

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