A check-in on progress with Hinterlands, and other projects. by Nathan Harrison

It's that time again! I haven't shared what's been happening on the games front in a while, but happening they are. First up, here's a handful of design elements I mentioned in my last post that have been moved into the done column for Hinterlands:

  • Finished remaining content for last 4 playbooks (of 13 total)
  • Generated more entries in the GM's namelists, about double what I had before
  • Outlined and drafted initial moves for the Seasonal Moves sheet

("Done," here meaning a polished first draft I don't hate.)

The last bullet point is where I find myself a bit stuck right now. I have an overall rhythm for the year that I like almost enough to start testing in play — save one piece out of eight: the mandatory move for the summer season. As I envision it now, each season has one mandatory move that's triggered regardless of circumstances, and one optional move that represents something seasonal the village would like to see happen but that isn't guaranteed.

I keep waffling on what the solution to this blocker might be. Should these seasonal moves use different stats? (The minimalist side of me wants to avoid that.) Do I just need to read more history and fiction for inspiration to draw from? (Always interesting to do, but tough to decide if it's the best use of time set aside for progress on the game.) Am I focusing in the wrong place, and clarifying other systems first might open the path?

And so on in that vein. Probably, the real answer is that I need to dash off something that will work good enough, run it, and let the experience dictate how I move forward.

That's only one piece of what I've been up to since the last time I updated here, though. I was invited to contribute a year-end top 10 list for a friend's gaming site, Silicon Sasquatch. You can read my list here! It's a mix of both video games and analog/tabletop stuff, since trying to shake off the effects of being an omnivore for games would be hopeless.

Playing through 2016's highlights to write that list restored video games as a big part of my diet, no question about it. I've dabbled in streaming gameplay, and you can find my Twitch page here, and I upload my complete playthroughs on YouTube for posterity. So far, I only take to streaming things as the mood strikes, but even when it's just me talking to myself, I get something unique out of it. Life is ever-changing, and scheduling in-person meetups for games only gets harder year-by-year, but the form of interaction that streaming provides fills an interesting middle space between playing alone & together.

Most recently, I submitted an entry to the 200-Word RPG Challenge for 2017. It's called Studio Retrospective; describing it as a longform improv game might be most accurate. (I've participated in the same challenge each of the last two years as well, submitting The Caravan and Epitaph.)

Designing in that direction was partly fueled by what I've been playing a lot of lately; turning Studio Retrospective into a full-on party game would be pretty easy. Each of my 200-word games submitted so far have incorporated prompts in one form or another: it's the best way I can think of to expand the possible experiences wider than what 200 words might allow. And not for nothing, I just plain love games driven by prompts. Stitching outside inputs together into something cohesive is a type of puzzle that stretches my brain in ways I enjoy.

Separate from all those other things, there's Hinterlands hovering around it all, still getting a share of what available work-time & brainpower I have for personal projects. It's not been getting the majority of my available work-time & brainpower, though, which is what I'd like to fix.

This last six month stretch has seen me move into a new place for the first time in 7 years, and part of the search hinged on finding someplace I could afford with room for a dedicated workspace. I made that happen, and I want to keep making things happen. I want to keep aligning the habits and things in my environment to support the one big game I've ever felt driven to not just "put out there," but test & polish & even push on people. So that folks who'll never meet me will know this game exists, and I'll know for certain that it's worth their attention and time.

There's been a wave of PbtA projects surfacing on Kickstarter, too (see here and here and here and here...). I'd be lying if I said seeing them come up hasn't helped reinvigorate my desire to reach the end of the road with Hinterlands. I'm a long way from knowing if crowdfunding is what that will even mean, but that's still the hope, and I'm far from abandoning that goal.

Hinterlands: the state of the game, and playtest four. by Nathan Harrison

Looking back at the last two posts, I find it fitting that the 4th playtest fell on the same day that I posted about the 1st one — the year turns, and Labor Day weekend sees another installment of playing Hinterlands.

It also means that while it's been about 4 months since my last post on the game, it's been a full year since I started being more intentional about my design work. It doesn't feel like it's been that long (does it ever?) but the proof is right there in terms of how much progress I've made. One such step I've taken: registering a domain for the game! While it's just a landing & contact page now, feel free to bookmark www.hinterlandsrpg.com for future developments.

Since the beginning of this summer, I've been meeting up regularly with some friends who are also doing game design work, albeit their efforts are for digital games versus my analog/tabletop focus. But it's highlighted some additional tools I can employ to track my progress week-over-week on what I want to get done.

One example of that is using Trello, to track my tasks for both this game, other games, and just work & my life in general. I found a tool called @cardsync that will let you link cards on two Trello lists together, and via that tool my public Trello board for Hinterlands is here. You can follow along with me as I check off each milestone, one-by-one!

Here's an overview of where I'm at right now, starting with what's done:

  • Custom moves written for all playbooks (about 7 per playbook; 92 in all)
  • Unique relationships for each playbook (7 per playbook)
  • Booklet form layout for each playbook
  • 9 of 13 playbooks in "finished" first-draft form with no placeholder text

This is what's not done, that I'm working on actively or will be focusing on soon:

  • Finish remaining content for 4 of 13 playbooks (intro text, look, possessions, etc.)
  • Outline and write initial ideas for the Seasonal Moves sheet (a mandatory move at the start of each season, an optional move open during the season, and other seasonal effects)
  • Generate more entries in the namelists for players & GM to employ

All told, the InDesign document I've been rounding out currently stands at 31 pages: the Basic Moves sheet, 13 playbooks, Village Creation & Village Charter, plus the GM's Reference Sheet. The default Seasonal Moves will probably be another two-page sheet, and eventually the GM's sheet will have material on its backside also.

Once those 34 pages are in a first-draft state, two much longer processes will begin. One: playtesting the hell out of Hinterlands to find out what doesn't work in campaign-style play. Two: starting in on the actual game text covering the ins & outs of the game in full detail — how it works, how to get started, advice on running it, suggestions on how to customize it, etc.

I'm not sure yet when I'll begin looking into commissioned art in earnest. I know a couple bits already that I'd like to have; for example, I'd like each playbook to have custom corner ornaments for the front page of the booklet, unique to that archetype. I can also imagine a couple of full illustrations that would communicate the concept/pitch of the game in an immediate way, though taking action on those ideas at this point seems like getting ahead of myself.

Quickstart materials are the other thing I have knocking around in my head as a good idea, though likely not until the full game exists in a firmer state. The materials I used for the 4th playtest are overloaded with stuff that's not really necessary for a convention-style oneshot game. I'd eventually like to winnow out the campaign stuff from the core, so that I have something that's easy to give others who want to take the game out for a spin, either at home or in public. As that starts to resemble having an actual "marketing strategy" for the game, it feels the most distant of everything I've mentioned. And given that one of the things I've mentioned is a book-length game manual, I have a humble appreciation for mountain of work that still lies ahead of me.

So, that's where it stands. I'm too much of a completist to show some of the playbooks before I have the full set in a decent place, though I hope to be able to share that soon. It's hard not to share! As a taste, and a sense of where the game is since 4 months ago, check out this version of the Basic Moves I exported just now, versus the one from my last post. Fewer major shake-ups than prior iterations, but lots of good lesser edits abound. That's been the task at hand — and if you're really eager to know what I've been up to, the Trello board is an excellent window onto my process.

Playtests two and three for Hinterlands: thoughts and next steps. by Nathan Harrison

Howdy! It's been a little while; two-thirds of a year, give or take. Game design progress has been chugging away for much of that time, in one form or another, and continued work on Hinterlands has been the biggest object of attention.

Two more playtests have happened since September, and I'm working toward more in the future. I've been keeping a log of each playtest on the forums, where there's a dedicated playtest channel. There, you can find my posts for playtest #2 last month, and playtest #3 from just one week ago.

This feels like a transitional point, moving from pure rapid-prototyping toward refining what works. Many, many things still don't, but enough things do work that I'm trying to take those pieces a little bit further ahead, to see what future pitfalls I can save myself from.

As an example, I recently invested in a subscription for Adobe InDesign, instead of relying solely on Google Docs to create play materials. It's a tool with a lot more versatility & depth, though not without its own limitations. (Sharing a raw document, or working on it from any machine, anywhere, is a lot easier done via Google Docs.)

Anyway, I roughed out a version of the Basic Moves and one playbook (The Authority) in InDesign, to a shape that at least in terms of being a laid-out document (i.e., game mechanics notwithstanding) I'd be pretty satisfied to call "finished".

It's still chock-full of placeholder game mechanics and detail (Apocalypse Word: Fallen Empires has been especially useful for having on-theme material I can use while roughing out layouts) but I'm seeing how everything might be arranged, and how much physical space I have to design towards.

Amidst that sort of graphic design work, actual mechanical changes have been issuing forth too. Good games rely so much on solid information flow that it makes sense to have changes in one affect the other.

Each step along the road only reinforces my appreciation for the games that have come before, and the ways in which the solid examples reinforce their agendas from all directions — Apocalypse World and MonsterHearts especially. I've consistently underestimated the difficulty of each subsequent design goal, thinking I've already bit off the hard parts. As should be no surprise, few parts of designing a worthwhile "Powered by the Apocalypse" game are easy!

To any who are inclined to make such a game themselves, I think I've at least been correct so far in how to attack the problem: first, be sure you have a genuine theme you want to explore. In my opinion, only having a genre isn't enough to build a good game using Apocalypse World's framework. (I've seen plenty of basically functional PbtA games that lack this key element.)

If you have the theme you want to explore, develop a clear enough idea of what gameplay should be like that you can give names to the 4 stats you'll use (give or take), and have a half-dozen solid playbook ideas. Before actually designing those, work like hell on your game's Basic Moves, since the bulk of gameplay will be accomplished through the tools those moves provide.

Once the Basic Moves seem at least semi-functional (on a pure mechanics level and in reinforcing your game's theme), turn to the playbooks, so you can start to differentiate the different gameplay goals and methods each will have. Try to rig up at least half of the playbooks with a full suite of starting moves before imagining what advancement might look like (and always always save moves you end up cutting, in case they turn out to fit better someplace else).

When those pieces are all coming along, and probably after a playtest or two, attack the topic of the MC/GM's "playbook", in terms of their agenda, principles, and hard moves. If you're like me, you might think this is a piece of cake, and fine to bang out at some random point. Not so.

Your game is probably angling for an intentional tone, and the MC/GM materials are the best way to communicate that in a direct way to the person who will probably be sharing it with the other players. You'll probably discover things about what you want that you hadn't even realized. And I'd suggest working via a mockup MC/GM sheet at the same time, so you can see exactly how much space you'll have. Communicating well & clearly will prove its importance when you see what you have to work with.

My thinking is that by this point, you'll be iterating on all the previous steps concurrently, with changes in one reinforcing the others. It's my battle plan, at least; the work on concepts like threats & fronts, tending campaign-length play and so on makes sense to come after all of the above are really nearing "done".

Possibly above all, look to the examples that exist, to study and compare what they do; how they do it. What works, and what does not. I've done things as rudimentary as draft tables comparing the stats in every PbtA game I've ever played or read, to see what that can communicate. It's instructive:

Example #1: Hot, Cool, Dark, Volatile
Example #2: Passion, Reason, Might, Luck, Affinity

To my mind, one of those stat lists communicates much more about its game than the other.

This isn't to try and start a discussion on what some games might do wrong, but is instead an invitation to study the texts of other games, and learn from them as much as you can. Enough that you can form opinions about even the finest points of their design, and perhaps decide entirely differently which ones are the best examples.

Powered (and disempowered) by the Apocalypse. by Nathan Harrison

It’s been a hot summer. Brain-melting hot. The cooler clouds and rains of autumn are starting to return, though, which means my time & attention formerly spent in sweat-drenched discomfort can be turned back to game design instead!

Among the game concepts I toy with to varying degrees, my thoughts under the Sagas of the Dungeonlanders conceptual label have started to gel into something real. That’s resulted in a different, less-jokey working title (Hinterlands), and a draft of basic moves that I’ll be putting to use in a low-key playtest soon. Adding to those basic moves are some other fundamentals, like the 4 stats the game’s playbooks and moves will revolve around, as well as rough outlines for the archetypes each playbook will embody.

Here’s a PDF draft of what those basic moves look like now — and it is basic. There’s almost certainly too many Common moves, and the moves for High and Low standing characters are extremely preliminary. Refining all that is part of what I’ll be looking for in playtesting.

If you’ve played many Apocalypse Engine games, a lot of what’s currently there will certainly look familiar. As it stands, I’m treating this as a “remix” of Sagas of the Icelanders rather than a hack, since it’s very similar indeed. Though I expect that growth & revision of the text will drift the moves, etc. into something more unique with time.

There’s also decent chunks of Monsterhearts and Apocalypse World: Dark Age in the brew, and my attention has had me digging through every part of the “Powered by the Apocalypse” family for instruction & inspiration. From that, I’ve developed a new respect for all the Apocalypse World hacks I’d class as the good ones, and how they do what they do.

As much as PbtA games are about loosening up how play feels, the good examples are all still very shaped & intentional experiences. Moves are far from a total limiter on player action, but they absolutely serve to guide what play looks like. One of the things that most surprised me before making total sense was the absence of “Read a person/Read a sitch” type moves in Monsterhearts, for example. More than anything, I was looking to compare the kinds of questions each PbtA hack cares about, and that game is perhaps the best PbtA hack for its design efficiency & delivering on theme. Yet it doesn’t have a basic move that covers either of those uses!

My realization was that it’s not that Monsterhearts the game isn’t interested in those kinds of questions — it’s that the archetypes in that game aren’t the sort to consider much before acting. In Apocalypse World, it’s desperate times that call for caution before committing to going aggro or seizing by force. In Monsterhearts, it’s a teenage wasteland where the PCs struggle to understand others and themselves, and create no end of conflict by judging one another and acting rashly. Monsterhearts characters don’t want to find out the truth about others: they want to shut people down and assign labels to them, or use raw sexuality to get the upper hand. Moves like “Read a person” or “Read a sitch” would run totally counter to that, and give players tools that don’t serve the game’s themes or desired outcomes.

Design like that isn’t always obvious in play, if the choices made in building the game create the desired effect with grace. I’ve played Monsterhearts a handful of times without ever actively noticing that the closest thing to “Read a sitch” was “Gaze into the abyss”, which is appropriate too. One the one hand it’s pretty similar to “Open your brain to the psychic maelstrom” from Apocalypse World, but it’s also a great metaphor for the kind of teenage brooding that does constitute asking questions. But as they’re internal questions, the framework of vague insight, visions etc. jives better with what the game intends to deliver. And both of those design choices produce a compelling Fruitful Void centered on how identity for the self, others, & the world operates in the teenage years.

All of that has contributed a lot to my thinking in how an Apocalypse World hack should best be approached. The play options that have been eliminated before anyone sits down at the table deserve as much thought as what does get translated into a move. (Of course Monsterhearts is a great example for that reason in general — the ruthless paring down of basic moves while still delivering a game that does all it wants to, for one!) Which sounds screamingly obvious, of course, but seeing it in application and working backwards from the design to guess at intent has only served to drive home just how true it is.

The weight of tiny decisions in microgames. by Nathan Harrison

photo credit: Sebastian Vargas (Instagram)

photo credit: Sebastian Vargas (Instagram)

I recently made a game and plopped a PDF of it here on the site without much fanfare, but given that some cool things came out of the process of making & refining it (including the game itself!), I wanted to share a little more.

The prompt was a simple one: design a game in 200 words. Sure, there was the option to design a setting in that space, or a simple rule for another system, but why not explore the most minimalist option in the 200 words? Microgames and game poems are an area I’ve been really interested in, so I took a crack at that.

If I hadn’t been kicking an idea around already, I think this might have been a lot harder than it was! I had a simple end state in mind, and some ideas of what players would do before then that made sense to leave open-ended, so designing to that concept helped a lot.

The original idea I’d been mulling was for a freeform game that capped the experience by having everyone write a single 140-character tweet. (Id also imagined the game might be fully playable online, but alas, the needs of that goal demanded more room than I had.) Stumbling into a Wikipedia hole that spat me out in front of some famous gravestone inscriptions gave that idea more form — when combined with the RPG design challenge to do all that in 200 words, the final result was Epitaph.

The hardest part wasn’t polishing the rough draft of the game down to 200 words from about 260, but the importance of tiny design choices. Two examples! One of the rules states this:

“When you lay a vertical card, the player who wrote it adds a single theme word to it, reflecting something from that scene.”

Originally, that last clause read “reflecting the theme of that scene.” That ended up feeling both too repetitive, and too likely to always be an emotional or dramatic label for the scene’s content rather than something more personal and distinct. I also felt it ultimately made the writing players actions less meaningful — the player narrating the scene would likely be the one to dictate the theme, and the writer would probably just pick a word to match that tone. So instead of that, and rather than inviting fuss about archetypes or other detached analytical views, I wanted to provide the writer with more of an opportunity for shared authorship.

As for the second example of a small change, the last line of the game provides this instruction:

“Any theme words on your cards must be included.”

I kept toying with the idea that I might switch that to “Only two theme words from your cards may be included,” unsure of which play experience to highlight. The difficulty in trying to squeeze all of a full life into a few last words? Or the concept that any summation of a life must, by definition, leave things out?

I decided to stick with the tougher requirement, since the second concept still holds true anyway. 140 characters isn’t much, and no matter what, there will have been far more of note created in the previous scenes than could ever be fit into that space.

Hemming and hawing about that final line made me wonder how much attention I would have given that choice without the weight of the 200-word limit dangling over the endeavor. Would the design in any other circumstances gotten that finely-considered analysis? I’m not sure. I’m inclined to say no, though, and that’s a valuable lesson to take away. There’s no rule so small or self-obvious that it isn’t worth considering how a refinement or change might echo through the design & actual play of a game.