Monday, June 20, 2005

The Freeform Setting

So to switch tracks, I just put the other project into Playtesting. The other project is a card game by the name of Dynasty, in which the players control a ruling house of nobles and use warfare, scandal, and marriage to build a Dynasty that will someday ascend to the Imperial Throne (and win the game). One of the things that intrigues me about the game is that is generates its own setting, and does so differently in each game. To whit:

There are Noble cards, Land cards, Title cards (and Action cards, which don't really bear on this discussion). Nobles have first names on the card, and you put a family name chip on top to make their full name. So the "Phillipe" card with the "Montego" chip becomes "Phillipe Montego". Nobles typically survive about five turns, which is maybe a quarter of a full game -- you play through generations -- and the deck gets reshuffled, so the Phillipe card may resurface later. He may be in some other player's hand, or in yours, he may get another family chip (this is Phillipe Ettinbourge) or he may not (this is Phillipe Montego II). He is, however, a different guy who has the same first name and the same characteristics as the first iteration (in Phillipe's case, a tendancy to lose his wife). But a different guy.

Your nobles accrue Lands and Titles. The Lands are divided into a couple regions, with a few extra Lands unconnected to any specific region. The Lands have little flavor texts on them, and their game-effects imply some character to the specific area. There are Faithful or Infidel lands, Seaside and Landlocked lands, and so on, but they're all part of the Empire. But there is no map of the Empire. There is no established relationship between the Antilla Highlands and the Biblon Plateau. Are they next to eachother? Are they miles and miles distant? If one Noble holds both Lands, are they part of a consolidated holding or farflung satellites?

While the details of geography aren't written anywhere, in each game a sort of phantom sense of where things are starts to emerge. The Schullen Nobles control most of Carnathia as well as Biblon, so they're all up thereabouts, for instance. Other cards, such as the Biblon Plateau which is only useful if you have lands in other Regions, which it 'connects' via 'the High Road', actively encourage this sort of thing. At least in my mind (and this may be different for someone who isn't the game designer), a continent seems to distill out of hardly anything at all.

The Titles, too, are accrued and passed down through generations, and seem to elaborate on themselves to create a social context within the game, where those sneaky Schullen have had the Count Palatine who is also the Spymaster for generations, and they keep assassinating the Archduke, whoever happens to be holding the title. Again, the details sort of accumulate and stick together creating a semblance of substance.

The character of the Nobles, Lands, and even the Titles are very intentionally archetypal. Phillipe is a rake; the Carnathian Valley is a Versailles wannabe; the Spymaster is... well, the Spymaster. So when these archetypal elements are flung together "randomly" through the game, and in increasing order by intentional play, it's easy for the players to grok: Phillipe the Spymaster in Carnathia Valley is the vice-ridden intriguer in a den of luxury. As more events happen through the course of the game, the details just sort of snowball, so Phillipe's son (the mother Maria left in a huff) is Benjamin the warlord, branded a Bastard (an Action card) by those scheming Ettinbourge, so is off conquering the Infidel lands because he won't be able to inherit anything from his father. And take a step further back and you can start to typify families and Dynasties and the Empire itself: Carnathia is a place that is constantly being fought over, while Antilla is a haven of peace due to the robust line of succession of its rulers. This emporer (an NPC, more or less) was good and just and kept his nobles in check, that emporer lost all his holdings to court politics and is nothing but a figurehead.

It's a quirky little card game that takes an hour or so to play, but each time a new phantom empire is conjured out of hardly anything at all. Even the Families, which have no game effect whatsoever, they're just chips, take on personalities. And it's a different personality every time, for nearly everything. Phillipe is always a rake, sure, but when he's the Captain of the Dauntless he's a very different rake than when he is the Archbishop! Some Empires are august, serene things full of high purpose and honest, muted competition; others are fucking bloodbaths where nobles are assassinated and the Archbishop has legitimized-bastard children who inherit his lands.

I like the card game; I think it's a nice, complete experience all to itself. It's in playtest now to iron out kinks, but it is, in terms of scope and focus and content, 'done'. But I love the phenomenon of the players of the game cooperatively generating a whole world together, complete with geography, social context and even a rudimentary economics. And because I'm a nutbar who can't leave well enough alone, I keep thinking of how this can be applied to a somewhat grander project, a roleplaying game with no set setting, just the tools, parts, and pieces with which to make the setting cooperatively. I know Ron Edwards has made a GM-less fantasy game somewhat like this (but the details bandied about weren't specific enough for the sense I'm going for), and I understand Dogs in the Vineyard has some sort of cooperative town-creation rules (I pre-empt Brand mentioning it) that seem similar to the ship-creation rules I'm putting in Full Light, Full Steam. What I want, however, is a world-generation set of rules that the whole table does together, and then the players pick up individual roles within the world and roleplay that out.

The Next Project is a detail-oriented Fantasy(ish) game that tries to provide crunchy rules for all interactions on a par with how combat is usually provided in the 'typical RPG'. Whether or not a freeform setting would complement or detract from that design goal I'm not sure about. This may need to wait until the Next Next Project, or it may pre-empt the Next Project until later (in all truth, I suspect the Next Project is a phantasm on the horizon that is quite content to stay right there indefinately). As it is, it's just pecking at my brain, prodding at me to take the gestalt-consensus creation of every fictional world and make that process explicit and a focus of the game, rather than an implied and assumed (and unsupported) part of the foundation.

Anyway, lunch hour's over.


At 1:43 PM, Blogger Vincent Baker said...

Dynasty sounds way cool. I've been back-burnering a similar game and I'm always very happy when someone else designs one of those - so I get to play it without doing the work.

What are your production plans?

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

It just finished playtesting; now I need to do all the corrections and typos that were found, and then I'm thinking I'll market it to Steve Jackson Games. I entertained self-publishing for a bit, but custom cards are hella expensive, and I have no reliable distribution options. Better to sell for cash to finance Full Light, Full Steam!


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