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.

How to make a game friendly to single-session play. by Nathan Harrison

photo credit: Christopher Onstott for  The Columbian  ( article )

photo credit: Christopher Onstott for The Columbian (article)

My post from the other day about making conscious design choices for convention-style play was mostly throat-clearing — I mentioned a couple examples, but it’s worth addressing more directly the methods that I’ve seen prove themselves useful. So, what are some concrete steps that a game or designer can take to better respect the time of busy players?

A reality check. What does this game really require in terms of time? When it comes to running it as a one-shot with just a few hours, is such a thing even possible? It’s fine if the answer is no! But be sure to state that plainly in the text, and ideally include the basis for why it can’t or shouldn’t be done. Let people know what the obstacles will be, if they attempt to try and do it anyway.

Start-up prompts for players & facilitators. Lists of traits, looks, opening situations, provocative questions, possible conflicts already in play, and perhaps above all, names! You can use soft prompts, meant to be used or just inspire other options, or hard prompts that must be used to speed up the setup process even more. Life on Mars and Fall of Magic both do hard prompts well, and I mentioned a host of other games that do all or part of this well in my previous post.

Rules or adjustments for faster play. This could mean an abbreviated system instead of resolution rather than using a particular subsystem, like Bloody Versus instead of the full Fight! mechanics in Burning Wheel. It might also mean adjusting a mechanic that controls the number of scenes, when end conditions trigger, where the game starts, etc.

Advice for what to use, what to do, and what to avoid. Tips that are focused on what a facilitator should do in general are an expected part of a game’s text, but running a one-shot or convention game presents unique needs. All of these questions hit on those needs: Are some player roles less beginner-friendly, other otherwise outside the “core” of the game? Do certain setup choices lend themselves for a quicker start and better one-shot play? Does a particular subsystem eat up a lot of time? Do certain kinds of settings, plots, etc. work better for longform play than for shortform? What should absolutely be included for a typical one-shot game to be a success? The designer of a game probably has a lot of insight into what would make a single session the best it can be, and it’s incredibly useful to share that in plainspoken terms.

Dead-simple reference sheets. Not all games have a form that easily suits this, but when a game can boil down the moving parts of the play experience into an easy-to-follow outline, it’s a huge relief. The play reference for Kingdom is a great example — you can nearly play the entire game off that sheet. The book is still necessary for reference, as each step is listed more than explained, but it’s a wonderful tool to be sure you’re staying on track. That kind of tool puts all the players on more even footing, too. Anyone can look over the outline and have an idea of what might happen, how the game might end, etc., and inform themselves without needing to use more playtime to go over everything.

Doing more with less time. by Nathan Harrison

There’s a tension when it comes to plotting the timeslot a game is best designed to be played in. On the one hand, my guess is the majority of players across the entire RPG hobby devote most of their attention to multi-session play. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the lion’s share of actual games happen at conventions, meetups, and other one-off gaming situations, owing to sheer volume. The spikes for things like D&D are awfully high, but never overlook that the Long Tail is long.

Few games truly excel in both spaces, so focusing on one or the other is usually the right move. Selfishly, though, I wish more longform games included optional accommodations for shorter play within the primary game text. (By which I mean, present in the rules corpus as published or released, rather than bodged together later and perhaps tossed out online.)

The bulk of the games I get to play are one-shots — whether through Ready, Set, Game; or major convention lineups similar to Games on Demand; or smaller events like the Indie Hurricane at GameStorm & other cons organized by Games to Gather. So yes, the desire for more games I can play, and run, is a self-serving one. It’s hard not to feel like it might be in the better interests of many games though, too.

The reality is that most would-be gamers don’t have the ability to commit to a regular campaign in a single system, in the manner that’s the assumed default for traditional RPGs. The player who misses every other session is a trope that’s as venerable as the concept of the multi-year campaign arc. So why do so many games continue to focus on the narrow group of gamers for whom free time is in surplus? It certainly doesn’t lend a game any advantages in trying to get the attention of and access to a new player.

The one-shot storyline is D&D’s answer to the dilemma, along with most other makers of traditional RPGs. Which makes sense for the challenges faced by that group of games — hastening advancement so that players experience more of the system would only bog things down further, so instead the compression effort goes into the narrative arc that play produces as its side effect. Create a compelling beginning-to-end scenario in that space for players to move through, and hope that it creates a good experience in a short time.

For most indie games, that’s a solution that either A) makes no sense, as everything in the narrative is created in the moment through play, or B) is assumed from the beginning, since the game scenario from the outset is a highly structured situation that the players will play within. Category A is true for a lot of storygames and indie RPGs, whereas category B holds for some games like that too, but is even more true of the larps of the American freeform & jeepform variety that I’ve had the chance to sample.

Category B works wonders for games where that kind of narrative structure is an assumed part of the experience, but it’s death for games that leave those assumptions up to the playgroup to decide at the table. In my experience, what works best for games in category A is the presentation of character, setting, and story offerings that the players may or may not choose to incorporate. Apocalypse World and its host of derivatives include it on playsheets as part of character creation. Kingdom contains its story seeds and prompting questions. In a Wicked Age has the four different oracles, Durance its system of planet creation, Serpent’s Tooth has the options within all the various kings, Fiasco has both its playset lists and insta-setups, etc.

For games running in a limited timeframe, that kind of accommodation is one of the best gifts a designer can give a facilitator. As open-ended as any game might be, it never hurts to have a list of ideas players can draw from. Blank paper induces creativity in some, paralysis in others.

Including that kindness within a game’s text also doesn’t really alter the play experience, which is both helpful and not quite helpful enough — it falls more into the grouping of “advice for the reader” and not an actual tweak for a game’s mechanics. Some games are in desperate need of this! Not all, of course: trying to rush & cram the full experience of Grey Ranks into a single 4-hour slot would be a waste of effort and the ruining of a great game, which is just one of several examples that leap to mind.

But to every game designer who’s thought to include a section on rules for faster play, or for shorter play, I say thank you. Squeezing a game to fit in limited time isn’t always the best way to play, but for a lot of us, it’s the only option we have.

Design space in chess. by Nathan Harrison

For Plaything of the Gods, I've been exploring how I can best make use of the elements of chess as part of the materials for a storygame. As ephemeral as the narratives from RPGs are, having physical objects as a tactile part of the game can be an excellent way to "ground" play. It's the same thing that I think makes dice such a fixture of RPG paraphernalia, and really shines in games that draw it into the play experience — like Ross Cowman's lovely game Fall of Magic, which I got to play at Indie Hurricane this year.

A chessboard & its pieces seemed like a good fit for the game from the outset. The source material I'm drawing from makes the parallels easy enough to see, and chess sets are readily available in most homes, too. Making use of those objects is something I want to maximize as a creative choice, which is where design space comes in.

Design space is a concept I first encountered in the columns of one of the chief creative forces behind Magic: The Gathering, Mark Rosewater. Whatever complaints others may have about the game, it's impossible to assert that the team behind that game has a poor understanding of how to make the most out of a limited array of components. In their case, those components are mana colors, card types, and card mechanics old & new. And time and again, Rosewater demonstrates in his column how the abundance or lack of design space in a concept influences their creative decisions and leads to better game-making.

To see what shakes out, I decided to make as exhausting a catalogue of the design elements present in chess as I could. I cheated a bit, in that some of the entries are elements that could be used in any game, whereas others are a kind of "thematic efficiency" that a game is afforded by using pieces from another well-known game. Both types are present in the list I came up with:

  • Color of pieces
  • Color of spaces
  • Horizontal/vertical moves, vs. diagonal
  • Matching vs. not-matching colors
  • Type of piece used (5 or 6 “kinds”)
  • Edge & limits of the board space
  • Squares shapes, 4 corners, etc.
  • Relative frequency of pieces, some in 8’s, others doubled, some unique
  • Adjacent placing of pieces
  • Rows & columns/ranks & files
  • Capturing pieces, also promoting
  • Gambits, or concept of sacrifice play
  • Point-based worth of pieces
  • Differing movement/capturing styles

I'm not sure yet if listing what I'm able to see as tools to play with in chess will be useful, but I haven't returned to design on this game since writing up the list. There's a few things I've tentatively settled on... rooks, knights, & bishops will likely represent three types of heroes/approaches that have a rock-paper-scissors relationship, for example. How I'll make use of all that, I'm not sure yet.