I’ve been continuing to playtest Arcadia. It’s been going well, but the most recent playtest was that particular kind of frustrating and unsatisfying that a game designer sometimes seeks.
Clearly, some of the gears were slipping. This mechanic here wasn’t quite interacting right with that mechanic there, as the GM I had a hard time pushing for certain kinds of complications, et cetera. And so, I began to reach for the tools to which I am most accustomed: I began to tweak the crunchy bits.
I had to grab myself and pull myself back. That’s not where the problems were. I’ve gotten the design to the point where the problems are in the “soft” pieces, the “content”, the flesh on the bones. And so, if I’m to move this design forward, what I need to do is not change what you do with cards or tokens, but rather change what the cards and tokens and such mean.
I think that this is hard for those who, like me, are systems-minded, programmery people. The flesh always feels like something you can kick down the road, and do later. It’s not, really. You can’t see how your bones work without flesh on them—hell, you can’t always even see how they should be arranged!
And yet, for me, the flesh is also why I play. Without a compelling list of questions on the Read a Person move in Apocalypse World (to take one very arbitrary example), that game wouldn’t click the way it does. The two sides need to support each other, to be sure—flesh without bones only works if you’re an octopus! But the flesh is the part I tend to undervalue in my design work, so it’s the part I focus on.
Well, no, that’s not right. I don’t undervalue it. I fear it. I feel like that’s the place I don’t know well, where I don’t have analytical tools to bring to bear.
So, I stumble through it. What do you do? How do you approach the “soft” side, the flesh?
I ran a little playstorm of Et in Arcadia Ego this weekend. It was very informative! One of the best things to come out of it was that, while there are many changes to make, I did not have to rip everything down and start from the ground up again, which is a sign of forward progress.
However, I wanted to talk a bit about the particular observations that struck me in analyzing what worked and what didn’t.
There were two big things: the cognitive load of “does this rule kick in?” and the attention load of “how long does this rule take to sort out before we can continue the moment of fiction we were in?”
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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