2007-11-20: A Lineage
In a thread not so long ago, Mattijs said about our friend Julia:
One thing I didn't mention in the review (I think), because I'm not sure where the thought belongs or whether it's useful to anyone, is the fact that she's part of a very specific group of designers....
Yes, she is part of a group, our group. Why not speak plainly? But then, there isn't really a name for who we are. We go by the western Mass crew as much as anything, but that is not as catchy as the Durham Trio (/Foursome :) or the Collective Endeavour. We do have the moniker Play Collective, but that is yet a different group of folks. It doesn't actually delineate the group of us who play together regularly, are in each others' lives and collaborate together on each others games.
So, given that, who and what are we?
The answer goes back a ways in time. Back to 1991, when Vincent, Meg and I met while in college. I was living in a shoebox sized apartment with my partner at the time, Scott. We met and then lived with a group of folks who greatly influenced us all. Later known as the Ennead (at a time when the group of us living together numbered nine) these folks were a group of friends who met at Oberlin and transplanted themselves to first Boston, then the Amherst area.
Barry, Jenn and Paul were comic artists involved in the indie comic scene. Paul and Jenn just visited at first, but later were lured to live with us, partly due to the fact that Scott McCloud and his wife Ivy were in Amherst. Scott M. (via Barry) introduced us to the fine game of 5 Card Nancy, and inspired us with his lofty dreams of taking a very different view of comics as a form. Jenn and Barry have continued on with their comics Dicebox and Hereville among other projects. (Do read Hereville, Barry has just started it up again and it is rather good.) And have fallen in now with a large community of artists in the Portland area who host events like the Stump Town Comics Fest.
Gaming immersion (no, not that kind)
How does this connect with gaming? Oh, yeah, the entire household was involved in a long-running homebrew, then freeform Ars Magica-derived role playing game with novel+ length setting material made through collaborative world creation, masses of characters played by everyone, longer-than-real time play, decentralized scene framing. The setting, called the Known World, is still being used in play. At it's height the game had 11 players and was being recorded on two tracks of an 8-track recorder with dual mikes picking up what people were saying in different parts of the room. We had a gm, but that's about the only standard thing about the games. Imagine all that with a recording studio in the basement used for experimental music and a satiric radio serial, an art studio for marblizing and silk painting, various computer, board and war games being played and some written, in a house with 9 to 11, two cats, a dog and a rabbit.
It was an insane and blissful time.
Gaming was part of the lifeblood of the household. An important part of the system involved random chatting and all night discussion of the background and politics of the world we were in. Ben got to take part in some of that while he was in Portland. Questions were as important as answers. And theory was hard at work. This was during the heyday of rec.games.frp.advocacy (which still continues to this day), and our housemate Sarah was deeply involved.
Post-rules and back again
Fast forward a few years. The core of the Ennead moved to Portland, OR (and took the name), while Meg, Vincent and I remained behind but continued gaming together. Some time after my partner and I parted ways, the Bakers and I started our long-running campaign, Griffon's Aerie, this time we threw out the safety net. No formal rules, all co-gm'd, starting in the same world we'd played in before (our version of the normal Ars Magica background) but starting from scratch with characters founding a covenant in virgin territory, unplayed in by any of us prior.
Vincent had been doing game design for a while at that point, working with Meg on various projects like the lavish Jastenave (sp?) magical world they created. That game still has some of the best magical systems I've encountered. Vincent cleaved to the Forgean vein early, and started seducing us with sweet little tidbits of techniques to use, calling us back from the wilds of freeform—and making us like it too, the bastard. It's here that the influence of the Forge and Ron Edwards starts being felt. No doubt, no question, Ron was to us as Scott M. was to our comic writing friends.
I (Emily) started working with V. around then, helping on things like the Cheap and Cheesy and Otherkind. Then after taking part in the 2002 or 2003 Game Chef, I was converted to writing for publication, too. Finally getting Sign in Stranger (my chef submission at the time) up in running, all these years later. :)
Meg had dm'd since a tender age, so I've actually always thought of her as the veteran role player and gm in our group. She resisted the lure of design for a long time, though too. Then, after a long car-ride home from GenCon with Joshua and Ben, it was all over and Meg took the plunge with the game idea she'd been thinking of, 1001 Nights.
Joshua and Ben. Joshua we had to import in from out of state, along with his amazing wife Carrie (who has also game herself). Old friends of Vincent and Meg from their Hampshire days, we lucked out that CT is suckier than western MA, and Carrie, a rare Amherst native, has friends and family to here who helped us bring them back to these haunts.
Ben we had to ship in all the way from China. I count him in our lineage partly because he's collaborated substantially on games with practically each of us, partly because he's slept on our collective couches, bed and floors more than likely anyone else's (well, Andy and Orie are in the running) and partly because we like him. But also because when Ben started working on Polaris, he cited our Griffon's Aerie game as a major influence, which along with all the long talks into the night put him pretty squarely in our camp. Or so I'll claim, anyway. :) Plus, that means we get Alexis, too. ; )
And then we come back to Julia. Speaking of the ground floor, we brought her in from square one. Never even role played before we got our hands on her a year or two back. It was a one-two, of Primetime Adventures, then Dogs in the Vineyard that hooked her. I love watching her design aesthetic develop: lots of elaborate diced mechanics, with strong psychological impact, and not necessarily doing what you'd *expect* them to do. We are very luck to have Julia as part of our group.
The Ennead folks have continued developing their own brand of free form play, and have even spawned off three publishers in their midst too: Matt and Jake of Panty Explosion fame (the name is my fault too, so I'd be wicked remiss to not claim them) and Kim, Matt's wife, who with Matt is starting to work on a victorian game that began as a spin-off of PE, but has taken on a haunting life of its own. When Ben visited he got on thick as thieves with Matt and Jake, so perhaps they and the Ennead are forming the nucleus of the Amherst School west. :)
So that's us. There may be others to claim too, but either I don't know they'd think of it that way, or I don't feel so bold as to do so.
[edited to add:] We're thinking about a name we like for our group. More to come soon! :)
2007-11-21 16:39:00 Emily
And, Matthijs: agreed.
2007-12-06 16:43:35 Gregor
Great post, and I think it shows what a long trip it has been. I vividly remember talking with the people I designed games with in the very early 1990s, and we used to have great debate about whether what we were doing was art or not, and all that stuff. In some ways I miss the life we had then (at university, gaming all the time, experimentation, finding ourselves, living out each other's pockets) but in most ways I don't. It was at times volatile and the creativity and gaming was intoxicating. It was good after a few years to get a break from all that and move on. I'm pretty bummed that we didn't have the internet to publish a lot of the designs we came up with, though, that would be trivial (and almost expected) now. The bottom line we had was to design and write for ourselves and I think that's the key for me.
2007-12-15 17:43:30 Meguey
In case you were wondering, we're Western Massive.
2007-11-21 07:58:47 Matthijs
Ideally, all games should be playtested & edited by people who haven't been part of your gaming circle, or discussed the game with you. Playtesting your own game with others is good, but blindtesting & external editing are crucial if the game is to be sold to others. Everyone knows this, I believe, but it's not always easy to get playtesters & editors, and it's very easy to just publish a game when you're happy with it yourself.
2007-11-21 14:19:28 Bret
Man. We have enough designy type people in Ithaca. We need to form a POSSE.
2007-11-21 02:26:35 Emily
Hmm. I think you may be making some assumptions here. I know that Julia had several playtests with outside groups before she publish SAJ. She was actually better about that than most of us.
That is a different thing, however than getting blind playtests. What I mean by that is having people run the game without you there. I think she may have had fewer of those than others of us, but she has just been getting closer to folks in the larger gaming community so may have had less access.
I think we all in the indie gaming community could do with more testing of our texts before publication. Well, not all of us, but that sure does seem like an easy thing to miss.
2007-11-20 16:56:21 Matthijs
Hey, I just saw this - thanks for the link, Emily!
The reason I mentioned your "very specific group" is that while there are huge benefits to being part of such a group of like-minded designers/players (I wrote about this over at Story Games), there are disadvantages, too.
To me, it's quite clear that some games - like Shock: and Steal Away Jordan - would have benefited from exposure to people outside the group before publication. They've been playtested by Joshua and Julia's friends, who seem to share the designers' play style, but also their blind spots. The games aren't always playable right from the book; the designers seem to assume the reader is familiar with the set of techniques and methods they're based on, since your group are used to those techniques and methods.
2007-11-20 16:34:18 Meguey
Nicely put, Em.
2007-11-20 16:34:54 Seth Ben-Ezra
I discussed some of this here, specifically wondering if there are certain "schools" of emerging in indie design.
And you knew Scott McCloud? Cool! (Or am I reading too much into this?)
2007-11-20 16:35:54 Judd
Funny thing, the long running Ars Magica game I GMed for years was called Gryphon's Vale.
2007-11-20 16:41:36 Emily
*grin* That is funny, Judd. Did your game involve the gryphon in question? Our's had a griffon with an interesting area affect—humans could not lie in his presence. Caused Vincent's character Accanthus a world of bother, and amused Meg, who played the griffon, immensely. Love to hear about your campaign sometime.
Seth—sweet post. I'm curious about the regional/group similarities. Our games are so diverse that what I see are the differences. But it is always harder to see similarities from within. Joshua, Meg and I are on the co-gm'd train, while Julia and Vincent (until V. started working on Synthea) have more complex diceful structures, but I don't see the overall trend in our group vs others.
And yes, we knew Scott McCloud, though not nearly as well as Barry and Jenn at all do. It was nice to meet him, he's a great guy, a real visionary. Though that meant he had to deal with being thought a crackpot at various times. Frex, he talked about the future of comics being online and digital long before it was so. I remember him working with a digital pallete in the 90s. Wierd and cyberpunky then, totally de rigeur now.
and two more things:
Rumblings are that there will be a West Coast indie booth at GenCon next year called the ???Sunset Consortium???, which is both an interesting idea and a cool name.
Yes, and yes. I agree. Super-cool!
And I think, ???Huh. That???s exactly what I did with Dirty Secrets.??? And then I realize that, in a lot of ways, Dirty Secrets is indeed a structured freeform game, or at least it partakes of this stream of design.
This really is a growing trend. Jonathan Walton has been doing it forever, but I was surprised when I finally got to play Spione to find that it fit nicely in the realm of what I think of as structured freeform. I suspect Vincent's Synthea game is one too, and Penny for my Thoughts clearly is in this vein. And don't get me started on things jeep. !!
That particular set of character ownership rules, "I own what happens to my character", is a, or the, standard rule for online narrative rp. I see it as a form of sweeping resolution, ie everyone gets to resolve their own consequences. It is problematic. In the absence of ways to set permissions and expectations such that bad things do happen and are looked forward to, it can be toxic. I'm interested to see how it works out in Dirty Secrets. Seems like it would be a game where you do embrace the good and the bad.
2007-11-20 16:42:34 Jonathan Walton
I tend to think that, with the internet, the schools are not as geographic as they may have once been. I feel like I'm a part of both the Jersey Pretty Iconoclasts (Shreyas, Dev, Kevin, Brennan) and the Raleigh-Durham Historical Society (Jason, Remi, Clinton) and I dig some of the Western Mass School too, but dislike mechanical counter traits more.
Weird thing is: I just read Sven Holmstrom's Beloved Jakob and thought "I might have written this a few years ago." But design styles and preferences change a lot over time. Now, that kind of game isn't really my thing anymore.
2007-11-20 16:43:01 Emily
Jersey Pretty Iconoclasts (Shreyas, Dev, Kevin, Brennan) and the Raleigh-Durham Historical Society (Jason, Remi, Clinton)
I love those. Perhaps we are the Western Mass Deconstructionists?
2007-11-20 16:43:40 Joshua
Yeah, "locality" means odd things in this era.
Over here in the Amherst School, it's funny where our interests overlap and where we're really doing different things.
Vincent and Julia are both excited about personal judgment of characters and situations. Emily and Meg both get hot and bothered about personal investment in characters. Julia and I are both interested in big, abstract social issues. Meg, Emily, and I like to distribute authority around the table with roles based in time and circumstance rather than location. Vincent, Julia and I like highly structured, high contact pervy rules that do stuff to the characters and situation while Em and Meg like rules that empower the characters.
Ben's not in that paragraph because I rarely understand his designs; they just work, and they do this stuff where I'm, like, "Huh. I hadn't thought of that."
2007-11-20 16:44:04 Judd
Yeah, there was a griffon. Someone was hunting her and the players wanted to keep her and her hatchlings safe.
The truth thing is brilliant. I bet lots of fun things happened due to that. Almost reminds me of the singing Buffy episode, "Once More With Feeling."
2007-11-20 16:44:30 Emily
They really did, Judd. It gave every scene with the Griffon this sparkling little frisson. :)
Oh, and looks like we are on the hunt for a real deal name for our group. I think I'll think of the Amherst school as the lineage, including the Ennead and Ben et al. And within that we all have our group names.