the Fairgame Archive

2006-12-04: Design goals and stealing from the best
by Emily

Here it is, December. A golden time for game design. Getting colder, so what is there to do at night but curl up with your design notes.  The spring and summer seems sooooo far away. (They're not really, but sh!) The [Your Game] threads over at Story Games tells me I'm not alone.

I've been working on Sign in Stranger. Designing this game is a whole 'nother thing from what I've done before, and I'm trying to put into words things that I've experienced in my past free-form play. I'm trying to systematize what's been systemless (ie mechanicless). Ugh!

So I got to thinking about how has this come about in other games? Are there games I don't realize could help me write this? What kinds of techniques have people already used to help folks do what I'm trying to do? In other words, who can I steal from?  I came up with some questions for myself that are kind of a riff on the Jared/Luke classic three and Troy's 19.  I'll list them here, then go into my answers in the comments:

1) In a couple words or a short phrase, what do you want playing the game to be like? What are your design goals?

2) What published, or otherwise, games deliver this?

3) Why? How do these games encourage what you're looking for?

This is also inspired by Roy's Structured Game Design post from the Forge, which is a great exercise for figuring out what form your game should take.

2006-12-05 04:44:23 Emily

1) In a word or short phrase, what do you want playing the game to be like? What are your design goals?

Sign in stranger is meant to be a long-form game. The players will work together to create humans leaving earth going together in a small group to colonize an alien planet. They also will collaborate to create the alien planet, the aliens, the plants, animals, strange technologies etc. that the humans encounter.  I want the players to create a rich setting for the characters that will grow and become more elaborate over time. More complex and rife with problems that confront the humans. From first what to eat safely and where to rest your head vs. pee, to being able to tell plants from animals from the sentient aliens, on to their religions, politics, wars. With the humans in the thick of it.

No single gm. To have everyone responsible for creating the world and the problems encountered together. So, low handling time and ease of remembrance will be key for any mechanics.

And finally, I want play to flow easily, to get away from turn oriented play.  I want for it to be—dare I say it—"immersive", by which I mean allowing long periods for people to act in character. Giving the players the chance to respond deeply to the dilemmas from perspective they adopt as their character. And also, I want to present the characters, with passionate decisions to make, things that make them question themselves and what they believe about the world. In Mo's terms, I want to the game to support catharsis and kairosis, perhaps even kenosis.

Okay, so what does that spell in terms of design goals?

  • Long-term, collaborative play
  • Decentralized adversity
  • Easy-flowing immersive structure
  • Simple guidelines and intuitive mechanics

2) What published, or otherwise, games deliver this?

a.Long term-collaborative play:

Not a hella lot really, just—

Ars Magica, Ennead play and Griffin's Aerie home brew play

b.Decentralized adversity.

Universalis, Capes, Polaris, Shock, Under the Bed,

Any board or card game, Great Ork Gods

c.easy-flow, immersive structure.

standard gm'd rpgs, free form, LARP (yes, I'm being general),

d.simple guidelines/intuitive mechanics.

Primetime Adventures, Shadows, Breaking the Ice, Nighttime Animals Save the World, the Magic system in Ars Magica

3) Why? How do these games encourage what you're looking for?

Long term-collaborative play

Ars Magica—AM is all mixed up in my head with the collaborative homebrew that my friends came up with for this game, but it is still one of the only published games that includes guidelines in the text for co-creating a world, and jointly, or at least sequentially, gming.  The Covenant structure supported playing multiple characters, and with serial gms you get turns fleshing out the background you are playing in. Or, as my friends did, you simply collaborate: opening it up to discussion and development between and during games.

Ennead play and Griffin's Aerie home brew play—Yup. Those are the friends. With the Ennead, while I played with them, there was a gm. One person at a time was in charge of the plot and got to have final say about conflicts, I suppose.

In Griffin's Aerie, it was completely collaborative, though I had some issues with how well I was able to provide adversity. It's not necessarily intuitive. The world building, on the other hand, was very. Lots of record-keeping was key. However, a running record of the continuity was what we really depended on rather than character sheets. We knew our characters very well, even secondary characters, since we played them intensively for so long.  We had certain characters that we used to drive play through conflict, and we had certain sections of the world that we had "full" say over.

Decentralized adversity

Universalis—Uni sets up crystal clear guidelines for creating all aspects of the game: components (including characters, objects, settings etc), their characteristics, complications. Each player has the same access to narrative resources and is rewarded for creating conflicts arise. But losers in conflicts are also rewarded, just less so than the victor.

Capes—Capes revels in conflict from all quarters. It is the engine that drives the game. Also, people are rewarded not only for creating conflicts, but for finding narrative outcomes that   threaten what the other players care about in their characters or respective plotlines. This has been verboten in games ("keep the party together" et al). It still seems a revelation to let go of having to keep the characters from being at cross-purposes. But it shouldn't be. Any card game gives you this kind of cutthroat competition. That's what sportsmanship is all about.

Polaris and Shock—in both these games each person has a responsibility to rain trouble on another player. It's very structured, based on seating position and rotates with each turn. The roles are clear. In Polaris, three people are dedicate each turn to highlighting the fourth's characters.

Under the Bed—Joshua's other game pits all against all, again giving each person the job of coming up with the adversity for one other at a time. It's decided by drawing chits so you never know whom you'll do this for. All are competing for a central goal.

Any board or card game—As I said before, competition is primary in most table top games, and it comes from all to all.  Occasionally there are teams as in Bridge or new games like Trivial Pursuit, but even so either everyone provides the adversity, or it is the game itself that does so (guess the sports trivia, pull the block from the Jenga tower). Sometimes it is your own team, as in pictionary where they have to guess what you are drawing.

Great Ork Gods—Everyone plays "god" to one another and assigns difficulty for tasks that relate to the area they rule over.  The GM still makes up tasks and obstacles but setting the degree gets farmed out, involving everyone. The players are competing to win a given scenario. I can't remember how Spite tokens work—I think they reward you when the player wins, which gives one a meaningful choice.

Easy-flow, immersive structure

standard gm'd rpgs—I don't mean this to be dismissive, I've played in two long-running campaigns using a hacked form of Travellers, which is what I base my personal experience on. When your job is to play one character, you can relax into that and flow along. The gm walked us through the mechanics until we got them easily, again making it simple to do.

tabletop free form—it strikes me that I had much deeper character immersion in the free-form games I've played. Likely because I played more characters and had a lot more latitude in what they were like. Also I really *got* the world in a way that I never really had access to in the gm'd games I was in. It was mine too and I could play a character deeply in it.  Plus I got to revel in some whacked up characters that I wouldn't have gotten away with in the other games. That is, they would have been fairly useless in play and not fit into the campaign. The free-form games were much looser in story arc. They just needed to fit into the world, not a given plot arc. I could go where my subconscious led me.

LARP—I've played just once (at last year's Dreamation) and had a great time. What struck me was how deep I could feel the character when I'd never played it before. And not that I turned into Elizabeth Taylor or something, but the emotional resonance, that catharsis I suppose, was strong. Speaking and moving in a role made it deeper.

Simple guidelines/intuitive mechanics

Primetime Adventures—TV is a great hook. People have familiarity with plot arcs, the roles of characters, how an episode can focus on one particular character's issues. And they have a neverending source of inspiration in their best beloved tv shows.  The use of cards, the simplicity of the conflict mechanic and the possible involvment of everyone each time makes the rules something that everyone gets involved in and has a chance to learn thoroughly.  The information about each character is simple yet gives everyone a good sense of them: their strengths, their place in the world.  And then fan mail, constant affirmations. All the best stuff.

Shadows—again a very simple game. Uses the fears of childhood as a frame for the setting. Something most everyone can relate to. The mechanics set up simple "y" conflicts: will what happens be what the character would want or what their mischevous shadow self would want. Letting the players delve into their own otherwise likely repressed sense of what could go wrong for the character.

Breaking the Ice—Simple to me at least. :) The point is though, to give simple guidelines for anyone to be able to make a good story: one always has many options for what might happen next, and you know how to make things go well or not. Again, dating as the setting, something everyone has some experience with (good or ill). The players are intentionally set up to help one another—giving rewards and suggestions.

Nighttime Animals Save the World—a simple adventure structure, using animals as the main characters which is easy for kids to identify with. Using coins for resolution (teaching kids about currency exchange) and using things you see around you to inform the play. The cues are concrete with a vengeance, yet the story is whimsical as are children's stories. Straddling the contradictions of childhood.

the Magic system in Ars Magica—I've always liked the noun/verb structure that Reinhagen and J.Tweet came up with for Ars Magica: 5 verbs (creo, muto, etc), 10 nouns (animal, herbam, ignem...), and each spell verbs a noun. It doesn't much resemble any way that I'm familiar with that folk would have looked at magic historically (it has such an enlightenment ring to it), but it is so easy to remember, with the latin to to give it just he right colorful feel. It made thinking up spells conducive to character immersion too—it was easy to think "in world" rather than meta while still relying on a mechanical system. Bravo.


That is a lot to think about. What stand out to me right now as trends are the fact that three out of four of the games I think of as simple and intuitive use a framework or setting that would be common and accessible to most anyone who played.

The lesson of Polaris and Shock is not lost on me—of having set roles for adversitizing—but I am resisting it strongly because I know it's not necessary. I've been part of it being done in any combination. It needs to be clear, but I don't think that seating is the only way to organize that. As a matter of fact, the structural divisions of the society in Ars Magica could be used to structure the adversity as well. I've been thinking of having everyone take "plot characters" who have power over and antagonize individual characters and the group. Marrying that to social groups might be key.

I'm clearly talking specifically about character immersion with my third goal. I socket to character for catharsis, no question. And setting/plotting for kairosis, perhaps. I think Joshua suggested dividing the world creation from the in-character play in time (do world creation at the start of each session) and that maps very well onto how we did it with Griffin's Aerie. Or rather, we did a discussion about "what we would do tonight" at the start of each game, which often entailed detailing the world some more, and then we'd jump into playing out what we'd wanted to see.

Having the system provide the adversity as in board games is the approach I took with Breaking the Ice. It seems related to how SiS will work out: interacting with the world is how characters will accrue complications, and also learn more. Madlibs informs the world creation, so that's clearly the direction I'm going. And if one does create adversity for another, rewards for doing so as in Great Ork Gods and Universalis make sense. Now to find how that would fit in.

Okay, that's some good grist for the mill. Now to get cracking on the second playtest version.  With a few rifled ideas to help grease the wheels. May that be a fit offering, oh muse.

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