I’ve been thinking lately about the different kinds of play encoded in classic card games. It’s kinda cool, really: most card games are highly social games, in terms if where the locus of interaction lies. This means that they can do a really good job of informing the more game-y elements of our RPG design.

So, as work on our cyber-noir game Piece of Work, I see it more and more as having Texas Hold ‘Em at it’s core, where there’s common information and there’s hole information, and you need to second-guess the forces arrayed against you and use what you have to win by strength or bluff.

As we work on Austin’s top-secret game about what it’s like to fight for your home against its enemies, both internal and external, I see it as being shaped like Hearts. You take on some pain and risk as you fight, but you could go another route: take on all the pain and shoot the moon. If you fail, you fail bad. But at a certain point, do you have another option?

And as I work on Et in Arcadia Ego, I see it like Blackjack. You push for what you want, but constantly risk going too far. Then the façade of civility falls, and everyone sees the raw human malice and desire and need under it all that they’ve been furiously denying, and they turn their faces from you, making you carry the burden of their shame.

Of course, Arcadia is the only one of these games that actually uses cards. But the structure is there regardless of the implementation.

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So, the other weekend, I was in Oakland and met up with the wonderful Ryan F. Macklin from the Internet. Over dinner, he brought up Kenneth Hite‘s analyses of the Western as a genre. Granted, me telling you this is third hand, but the big points I took away were that:

  • the Western is, at its core, about the gun as a civilizing tool, that makes its user inevitably and irrevocably someone outside that civilization,
  • the Western is the national story of this country.

Once you’ve characterized a Western in those terms, you sure do see them everywhere. It’s a particular angle on “power corrupts”, and a particularly American angle. The hero has to ride off into the sunset, because by the very nature of how he has and exercises power, he cannot live in the world that power creates for other people.

But not every story we tell is that kind of story, of course.

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Metatopia was great. That’s the short of it. It was a relatively small con, but full of good smart people. I played two games, besides my own playtests, but went to a lot of panels and talks and spent a lot of time hanging out at the bar discussing game design. It was just what I was looking for.

Rob said it well. So I don’t have much to add about the con per se, but I do want to talk a bit about what the con did for Et in Arcadia Ego.

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Sometimes, I think about game development in a computer-game-y way. Particularly, I divide system—procedures, rules, crunch, etc.—from assets—the pre-provided things you use to engage with those systems.

As I’ve been working on Et in Arcadia Ego, and particularly thinking about how to make room for continuing content, I’ve realized that the continuing content has to be an asset, though not all assets have to be that pluggable. I’ve also realized that making assets is a very different skill from making systems, and engages people differently.

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John and I were talking recently about Exalted, a game that Austin has a deep and complex relationship with, that I have never cared for or about. I was trying to hash out what my problems with it were, and we stumbled on something I think is interesting. What follows may be rambling.

Other people have talked about implied setting before, notably Ryan Macklin. The short version is that there are two ways to communicate the setting of your game to the potential players: one, stated setting, is by outright telling it to them (“The Order of the Basilisk was formed in 1132 by the archmage Rowan Farlight, to counter the forces of the warlord Grum…”) and the other, implied setting, is by hinting at it through bits of the game’s content (“Spell: the Basilisk’s Eye. When you cast this spell, anyone loyal to the warlord Grum glows with a faint aura visible only to you…”).

What I want to talk about, though, is a distinction that is related, but different: the distinction between living setting and calcified setting. ETA: by living setting, I mean setting that is amenable to addition, typically through play. By calcified setting, I mean setting that has a definite canonical form that does not admit of change.

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I’ve been continuing to work on Et in Arcadia Ego, my Regency-magicians game. The current issue is how the magic in the game should work. For magic to be weird and a bit wild, it has to strain the boundaries of something very important to a story-game: cause and effect.

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Et in Arcadia Ego is our game of Regency-era magicians. It owes a lot to Susanna Clarke, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley. It has also been a fickle beast. We’ve been hacking at it, tweaking it, revising it, overhauling it, again and again for the past few months. It’s very much been a case of the tenth point of the Ten Wings.

But we’ve settled on something that seems to be at least in the right direction. Last night, we tried it out, and a few interesting points arose.

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Hello all. Long time no write. We are hard at work on Et in Arcadia Ego these days, and that’s been the subject of many trips to the Baker Street Pub. While all of us had a feel for the genre and had our source material in mind, we kept having problems modeling that material with game mechanics. The problem wasn’t that the mechanics were bad—in a certain way, they actually accomplished the goals we set out to achieve. But we kept iterating on them, trying to make them match our inspiration, only to have them twist in our hands like so many fae promises. Last night we had a lot of progress stemming from applying some old-fashioned questioning our assumptions.

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Just a reminder: we’re not going to be posting as much until we get In a Dragon-Guarded Land out the door. We’re aiming for the first of April, but that release date may be a joke.

I’m a big fan of Bully Pulpit’s games. Lately, we here have been playing some Fiasco, and dissecting it a bit. It’s caused me to do some thinking about what a GM is and does. This is particularly timely for me, as I am trying to decide whether Et in Arcadia Ego needs to have a GM. Both of the other games we’re working on clearly do—In a Dragon-Guarded Land because someone needs to represent adversity and the temptation of evil, A Piece of Work because someone needs to represent the target of the heist. But Et in Arcadia Ego is a game with much more room for player-versus-player interactions, and may not have a role for a GM as such.

Some months ago, Robert Bohl started this interesting thread at Story Games that got me thinking about what I like to call GMderfuck, or GMderqueerness. He talked about breaking down the GM-ful/GM-less binary and instead talking about how GM-ly authority gets distributed[1]. I think a lot of games that are “GM-less” actually have done this. Let’s look at what are, to me, the classic examples of GMderqueer games: Polaris, Fiasco, and The Shab-al-Hiri Roach.

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  1. Ben Lehman recently commented on this subject, too. I think he’s right, authority is the question. Resolution systems are one place to put authority. []