Tuesday, July 26, 2005

And Now the Frankenstein Procedure

So for the past couple years I have been writing sections of Full Light, Full Steam -- I've had an outline (well, many versions of outlines) and I've slowly been picking off items from the list and writing them out. It hasn't been very fast or industrious, but this is my hobby, so it needn't be any faster than every-other-weekend-when-I-get-around-to-it.

In any case, I've now got something like 85% of the manuscript drafted, and it's time to start stitching the pieces together. Instead of 200+ files, I've condensed them down to chapters, and the second half of the book I've condensed into one long file. The holes are now obvious and marked with placeholders, and the transitions that stretch between chapters and sections are now made evident. Needless to say, there's still a lot of work to be done.

Part Three, Gameplay, is my current quagmire, as I'm trying to set the entire thing up procedurally instead of as chunks that do not quite work together. I reason that, if the first thing your playgroup should do is sit down and discuss their goals for the game, that should be the first thing in the Gameplay section, before character generation, before how the rules work. If the GM is supposed to prepare the adventure based on the players' expectations and the player characters' themes, that section should go after character generation and before rules. Et cetera. When I'm done, it should be a step-by-step procedure rather than a collection of separate and disparate chunks of rules. Here's hoping.

In the first half of the book, though, the disparate collection of documents forming a collage of information is something that I'm aiming for. I really hope the personality and character of the setting will be expressed through all the voices that I've compiled.

In tangential news, I've decided that I'm just ditching Prussia. They're overshadowed by the other Powers that got to the other planets first, Bismark got hit by a falling meteor, whatever. That, and I've set up everything else in the game for Britain-France-Russia-America-Japan. With Spain and the Dutch in the background. I don't need another freakin faction, and I don't have any place to put them. Additionally, the focus on colonial holdings means that Prussia, who never really got into the colonial game, is a poor fit in any case. Bah. Bah, I say!

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Roadmaps and Toolboxes

So Bankuei of Deep in the Game recently posted about the Roadmap to Play he sees in RPGs. In his terminology, all games are roadmaps to Fun, and some games are good maps that get you there, and other games are not good maps and don't.

I agree with the latter half but not the former half. That is, some games are good maps and take you to Fun, and other games aren't good maps and don't -- but the reason that some games aren't good roadmaps is because they're not roadmaps at all. It's like trying to use a granny smith apple to tell you how to get to Nova Scotia -- and then decrying that the apple is a 'bad map'. Most of the Forge games are roadmap games, because with their eye on making Actual Play hit a Creative Agenda with precision, they are highly didactic, highly focused, and rather explicit. This is great -- it makes really good maps -- but not all games need to be maps.

This ties into what Ben was saying in Brand's blog Yog Shoggoth's Dice, in the Intensity and People You Don't Play With thread. Perhaps we have a little too strong of an emphasis on focus, to the point where the insistence on focus is turning into a predilection for intensity -- and not all games need to be hardcore Agenda X with the volume knob turned to 11. (It occurs to me this is much like my perpetual pet peeve where people conflate precision and accuracy, but that's tangential.)

There is another scheme from which to design a game, not the roadmap but the toolbox. Examples are GURPS, Universalis, HERO, and their ilk. These games basically present the players with long lists of options and lets them do whatever they like with them. There are always house rules and "drift" in these games; in fact it's necessary in order to play them, but this is okay because that's part of playing the game. These games don't tell you what to make with the tools and materials they give you; they let you do whatever you like with them. Play in these games does not begin when the adventure or campaign begins, it begins when the GM and/or players sit down and start making the adventure and characters. In GURPS, with which I have the most familiarity, you can sit down and make vehicles purely for the enjoyment of making vehicles -- who needs to actually roleplay driving around in them?

Toolbox games are more flexible than roadmap games, but also less structured, with fewer guarantees that your actual play will hit your desired agenda. It's much more up to the GM and players to take the tools and build what they want, rather than follow directions to get where they want. Perhaps the game-as-published does not have rules that explicitly support Aspect X that you want to focus on; it's your job to make Aspect X important to your game, either in-game with character decisions and how you narrate, or by making house rules that highlight the things that are important to you. A lot of people dislike toolbox games because they are 'bland' and I think it's this that they are complaining about -- these games do not provide any color (or setting or situation or character), just system.

This sort of game appeals to a certain kind of player, who wants to do things his own way. They don't want to follow a map; they want to build something of their own. GURPSfolk, at least the guys on GURPSnet, are usually highly (and weirdly) creative people who take GURPS off into horizons that other people wouldn't have ever thought of. They play games that have just as much focus on interpersonal relationships or spiritualism as any other game, often creating new game stats and rules to support what they want. That said, the type of player that the toolbox appeals to is not the mainstream player, and this approach does not have the broad-based appeal or instant-gratification that a roadmap game can offer.

A week or so ago I was musing on what gaming offers the player that the player wants, and I think this is one of the things that RPGs can offer, but that RPGs don't necessarily have to offer -- the DIY Fun Offer. This is the sort of game that can advertise 'Imagine Incredible Worlds!' and 'Play Any Character You Like!' on the back cover -- and can do so legitimately. Dogs in the Vinyard and Sorcerer can't (and wouldn't want to) -- they offer something different, something more specific, precise, and focused.

Neither approach is wrong, both have their advantages and disadvantages, but the distinction is, I think, and important one, because the game products offer players different kinds of play experiences. This is not a distinction about Actual Play; this is a distinction about Game Design and the products that a game company or indie developer create. When sitting down to design, this is an important question to ask oneself: are you trying to write up a guided tour, or are you handing the players the keys?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Writing to Serve Five Masters

I don't know if this is endemic to RPG writing, or is idiosyncratic to how I'm writing Full Light, Full Steam, but it struck me as unique to this writing experience. When I write a segment -- especially in the setting half of the book -- I am writing towards a number of different goals, all at once. Say I'm writing, as I was at lunch today, the section for American territory on Mercury. This 500-word section must:

  • be engaging on its own merits
  • exemplify the tropes of the genre -- ingenuity, tenacity, and duty
  • express the setting in general -- steampunk space opera
  • detail the setting in specific -- Mercury
  • color the portrayal of a faction of people -- Americans
  • offer a plot seed that could be expanded into an adventure concept -- rampaging insectoid monsters
  • attempt to portray prosaically how the game could actually be played mechanically -- die rolls, thematic batteries, handing off narration, et al

Now, I picked up this style of writing RPGs from Tribe 8 (thank you, Hilary, thank you, Brand) and I really really like it, because it squeezes a whole lot of information into very little space. It really packs a punch due to its compressed nature. But god damn is it tough! The only other example I can think of that comes close to this multi-layered writing is mystery and suspense novels where there is a narrative of what appears to be happening and another, hidden narrative of what is actually happening, and there's a couple books actually in the canon that tinker with ambiguity in similar ways (Ulysses, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse 5).

Hopefully, the resulting product won't be too dense to be enjoyable like Ulysses -- I'm hoping for something closer to Catch-22, which is enjoyable to read even if you're not aware of all the elements interacting on first read. I also have this niggling fear that I'm going to exhaust all the potential stories of FLFS in the rulebook -- that latter one isn't very likely, but it haunts the back corners of my mind.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Gaming Firefly

There's a lot of talk in the gamer blogosphere about replicating Firefly in a roleplaying game. I loved the show, I'm looking forward to Serenity, but... I'm really skeptical of the allure of playing it. Now, mind, I've only seen half the series (the other half is sitting there on my shelf, but I must play WoW six hours a day), so maybe the entire dynamic of the television show changes or something, but from what I've seen in Jaynestown and Our Dear Mrs Reynolds, the appeal of Firefly is the characters themselves, not the setting.

The setting is... not bland, but it is generic. Archetypal. It is the lovechild of Westerns and Space Opera. It's... not exactly complex. Further, I can't see any instance of play that would game in the same places that the series went. What is there left to do on Hodgson's World (planet in Jaynestown)? Why go back to... whatever planet had the plague in Train Job? The series' primary characters have already been there, done their thing, and left. If the PCs showed up, all they get is sloppy seconds. Any actual play would require the creation of new planets and new settings. Perhaps you keep the Firefly-designation ship, but... that's not much of a setting in and of itself, is it?

It's the characters that make the show shine. It's Mal and his past, it's Inara and her desires and restrictions, it's the Shepherd and his questionable past. Unless you plan on playing the characters themselves, you're not playing Firefly. Playing the characters themselves I will admit is an option, maybe even a viable one, but I don't think that's what people are after.

Of course, I've never seen the point in playing in the Star Wars universe concurrent to the movies, either (KOTOR has shown me the light of playing in other eras). The story that you want to emulate is about the characters -- if you take out the characters, how can you still say you're emulating that story?