23 November, 2010

A New Design Collective

Just a quick post to see if any readers out there might be interested in joining a design collective. A group of designers who are interested in cross promoting their games and game ideas, who will help each other out with industry ideas and game design advice. This group will probably also work on a few communal projects, as well as getting the support they need to get their own games going.

There are a few core members, and the finer details are being worked out. I just thought I'd share this news to see if anyone else was interested.

Reply to this or send me an email if you'd like more information.

Project Death Race

Seems that my "Babes and Bitumen" idea already has someone designing something similar.

Project Death Race can be found here.

It's associated Kickstarter project is here.

It's similar to the concept I was going for, but I was thinking of developing a bit more story around the cars and the teams that support them.

22 November, 2010

Babes and Bitumen

I've been thinking about some alternate ideas lately. It's an annoying habit that I have.

When I'm meant to be working on something, I inevitably start thinking about something else.

When I tried to create Bunraku nights for the Cyberpunk Revival Contest, my mind spontaneously generated FUBAR as a side project (which has now reached over 1000 downloads)...and now that I should be refining Walkabout, my mind has taken a wild turn into a completely different genre.

What would roleplaying be like if it developed from slot cars and model race tracks rather than wargaming with toy soldiers? Instead of stories about dungeon exploration, a game might centre around a big race. Buying gear in town might instead become upgrading a vehicle, and haggling with the thieves guild might become negotiation with corporate sponsors.

The intrigue would still be present with different race teams developing animosity toward one another. Relationship maps could be drawn up for the individual members within a team.

Betty the mechanic likes Janet (the team's "media liaison") due to a one night stand a few months back, but he doesn't like Roxy (the team's "ace driver") because she's reckless on the brakes and keeps burning out the clutch.

It doesn't need to be an all female team, I just thought that might boost up the soap-opera angle, and it's makes for a catchy game title.

Is it an option worth pursuing?

16 November, 2010

Post Apocalyptic Instructions

If you knew the end was coming and there was nothing you could do about it, how would you prepare?

I just read this article on Wired...it's a couple of years old as I write this, and it discusses a mystery that is decades older still.

But reading it really made me think of my game WALKABOUT, and some interesting directions where it could be taken.

Table Consensus

In my readings and podcast listening, I’ve noted a few people discussing the idea of collective GMing, especially in regard to the notions of dividing up responsibilities such as narrative framing, awarding experience and determining if a character is “being played correctly”.

Each of these is a very different topic, but the last one has seen some controversy. So that’s where I’ll be turning my attention.

GMing is a delicate art of maintaining a collective dream (that mysterious thing that many people refer to as a “Shared Imagination Space”), and by keeping a degree of authority imparted to them by the gaming group.

In traditional roleplaying games, a group might impart virtually limitless control to their GM. They allow the GM to frame scenes, tell them when to roll dice, and then tell them how the results of those die rolls manipulate the unfolding narrative. Often, in this type of set up, the players don’t even mind when a GM fudges die rolls just to ensure their story unfolds in a predetermined manner.

It’s a lot of responsibility on the GM. They basically have to prepare the story in advance, prepare the scenes and any props that might help make things more immersive for the players. The GM basically plays the role of a raconteur, telling a story to their group and occasionally allows their players to become scene focal points when the story demands it. The players sit back and either enjoy the ride, or get bored/frustrated and find a new GM. It’s just the way things have been and most players put down a bad gaming experience to a “bad GM”…and as a flipside to this, most traditional players feel fearful of the idea of stepping up to GM duties.

The main “expected right” in a traditional game is the idea of player advocacy or protagonism. When a GM is given the rights over everything else in the story, a player expects the right to make choices that are important to their character, and through the process of character generation and backstory, they expect the right to decide which choices will actually be important.

If I make a character who is a “high school kid seeking popularity while coming to grips with newfound psychic powers”…I expect a story where seeking popularity will play a role, where I’ll get to use my character’s psychic powers in interesting ways, and where I’ll probably face issue of being something other than human. If my GM isn’t planning to tell a story relating to any of those things, I’d like him to tell me from the beginning. That way my character choice won’t clash with the GMs story and I won’t get frustrated.

There is advice like this in GMs guides for many games, White Wolf’s Storyteller system is riddled with it. But that’s the whole point of the storyteller system; it’s right there in the title. The system is designed for one person to tell a story with their friends portraying characters in some of the key roles. It gives you the tools, gives you pages and pages of advice on how to use those tools and offers suggestions for how to tailor those tools to your group. Too many GMs I know simply ignored those pages of helpful hints and advice, simply running the World of Darkness as a dungeon bash or concocting elaborate conspiracies regardless of the character types devised by the players. To make things worse, a lot of GMs would then tell their players “make any type of character you want”, to appease their players up front, not realising the treachery of their words in the long term.

On a few occasions, I was one of those GMs; but over time I learnt the art of incorporating the chosen concepts of player characters into my stories, getting players into the story generation right from the point where their characters are created.

But is it enough to ensure characters are integrated into a story to ensure that they have a degree of fidelity and internal consistency.

I’d say probably not.

These are just the elements for valid testing of integrity. If a character is incongruous with a story, none of their decisions make sense in context. If a GM declares that I’m not playing my character right, I need to have a valid point of reference if I’m going to take their critique. Metaphorically, if an accurate portrayal of a certain character is 23.5 degree Celsius, an inappropriate story is like trying to determine that temperature with a ruler. If my “high school kid seeking popularity while coming to grips with newfound psychic powers” was critiqued in a setting riddled with immortals, vampires and werewolves in the southern states of the US, it would probably get a very different critique to the same character played the same way in a sci-fi space opera. If I knew what the Gm was planning from the outset, I’d tailor my performance…and my performance would tailor the way the true nature of the character was portrayed. I guess it’s a symbiotic feedback loop. When certain things get tested, those are the things that become the defining aspect of the character.

That could be argued as one of the important reasons why “system matters”… but it’s probably more of an important reason why everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to story, character and the shared dream.

That gets me back to the topic title, and sets groundwork for the actual things I’d like to delve into.

In a traditional game like Dungeons & Dragons, characters advance based on their success in encounters. More recent (but still traditional) games, like the Storyteller system and certain variants of d20, characters get the chance to improve based on a player’s consistent portrayal. Maybe they earn Willpower points (or some other mechanism altering benefit) for acting according to their “nature”; in other games they might earn a few bonus XP for achieving goals associated with their personal agendas. This type of advancement is another arbitration decided by the GM, but many groups I’ve been a part of have allowed this decision to be arbitrated by the other players on the table.

Here’s where the controversies arise in the discussions I’ve been reading/watching/listening to.

How do we determine what is an accurate portrayal? How much do we want to reveal about a character at the early stages of a story, especially when a character is meant to be slimy or treacherous?

How much do we allow meta-knowledge into the game? How do we persecute it when we discover that it has been used/abused?

I’ve been playing with the idea a bit in some of my recent game writings…

I’m trying to find a way for a player to be rewarded for sticking their character to a core concept, while allowing that core concept to grow.

It’s one of those problems seen fairly frequently in the fan-fic community. One person writes a story about Leia Organa in the extended Star Wars universe, carefully defining the character’s reactions through the instances when the character has faced something similar in the past…another person says that the character isn’t portrayed correctly because things worked out badly the first time the decision was made and now they’d make a different choice…another person still claims that certain events aren’t canon and therefore the whole piece of prose is inaccurate.

The shared dream just isn’t there so the gauges of character fidelity are instantly skewed. With established and famous characters it’s hard enough to get agreement on the accuracy of the choices made. Therefore, trying to get an accurate assessment of a personally created unique character must be next to impossible. It seems like a great way to get the players more active in the decision making for the game, but is it sound judgement to base a game reward mechanism on a system that is inherently flawed? Is there something we can do to make the system more structurally sound?

13 November, 2010

Theory From The Closet

With over 50 episodes under it's belt, "Theory from The Closet" (referred to hereafter as TFTC for this post) seems to have become one of the heavyweights of unconventional/non-traditional/independent roleplaying podcasts.

After being referred to a recent episode in regard to my Game Chef entry, I decided to download the entire back catalogue. I figured that I needed a bit of context before I just sat and listened to a new podcast, and I can be a bit obsessive so I just went whole hog and downloaded the lot.

It's not like Here Be Gamers which I started listening to from close to the beginning (besides, I know Nathan from GenCon Oz, so I understood a bit more where he was coming from in his podcast)....but I digress, this post is about TFTC.
I've been plugging away at listening to the whole thing, in my spare moments and when I'm writing away at my assignments and own gaming projects. Trying to listen to the whole thing in chronological order where possible, and condensing years worth of podcasts into weeks worth of listening.

A few things stand out to me:

Clyde L. Rhoer seems like a really interesting person. I like the fact that he doesn't shy away from the mistakes he makes in the sound recording and the awkward pauses in conversation. The discussions/interviews he holds with various designers throw up a fresh perspective on a lot of the people and the games they produce.

He seems to have a bias towards the Burning Wheel team, and the IPR guys but since they're basically the heavyweights in our gaming scene it's not really surprising. They've been doing some cool stuff, I didn't realise how cool until I actually listened through the interviews with Luke Crane and his posse, and with Fred Hicks. But, to be fair he has also interviewed Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker (with Ron being especially noteworthy as he is often seen to stand on the opposite side of the indie game fence to the Story Game crowd).

It's weird being here on the other side of the world, knowing the names of the people involved and now being able to put voices to those names. There's no way I'd be able to actually head around the world and chat with these people face-to-face, but it's added a level of familiarity with them.

I guess that's one of the cool things about podcasts.

TFTC has settled into a rough pattern of interviews, with a scattering of pure theory monologues by Clyde. I don't know which of the two options I find more interesting, both certainly have their merits. I think it's actually a good thing that the show hasn't become too formulaic and polished. That really doesn't seem to go with what we're about as a community.

Independent game design is about experimentation, expression of gaming individuality, not giving in to the demands of "the man"...but I guess that's one of the reasons why we don't make any money off it either (not much anyway).

So far for me, some of the highlights have been:

Episode 12...about 28 minutes in...where the discussion seems to draw some amazing parallels to what I was trying to achieve with Vector Theory. Even the terminology gets close, but then the conversation drifts away.

Episode 59...sorry, I can't remember the time reference (it's at least an hour in)...where I think Clyde was raising a question to Vincent Baker, in it he states how the "Forge theory" and the big model aren't really about game design at all. They're about social design around a game. The rest of the conversation basically meanders around the topic that "The Forge" was designed to set up a parlance for discussing game design and it's basically taken 10 years to get to the point where a meaningful conversation can now be had. We now have a range of mechanisms, and we have a range of outcomes that various people want from their games. Now we can start the process of designing the connections between those two sides of the equation. Now we can actually start designing rather than just theorising.

And that's another point where I was trying to go with my Vector Theory. It's not about defining outcomes, it's about the minutiae of actual game design...this mechanism affects the game in this way...that mechanism affects it in that way....this affects the flow of the story, this changes the direction of the story, and that alters the characters effectiveness within the story.

It's been really insightful to get the combined perspectives of dozens of game designers. Seeing that we all share issues, and the various ways we've used to overcome them...or at least the ways we're continually struggling to overcome them.

Maybe I'll get interviewed in a podcast one day...then my thought patters can filter through the world via a different medium.

...it's too much effort to set up a podcast of my own at this time.

Anyway, if you're interested in game design, I'd recommend you have a listen to a few episodes.

08 November, 2010

NaGa DeMon

Crackpot genius Nathan Russell has come up with a bastard variant of the National Novel Writing Month.

He has called it the National Game Design Month...(or NaGa DeMon for short).

Participants basically spend a month writing a game, getting as much done as possible. Hopefully turning out a complete product by the end of the month.

I'm going to be refining Walkabout over the course of the month.

I've done a little so far...

A progress report shortly.

03 November, 2010

The Myth of Cultural Appropriation

This is a rant, it's designed to stimulate thought.

It is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, because there are certain people on the periphery of the independent roleplaying community who get very vocal about the topic.

Cultural appropriation is argued vehemently by a number of people who have very strong opinions on the topic, but in many cases when I’ve tried to nail someone down on the subject they get very ephemeral in their responses. The more I look into it, the more I feel like this should be a topic for the Penn and Teller television show “Bullshit”.

As far as I can see (based on the rhetoric and histrionics), cultural appropriation is the taking of a cultures elements and the use of those elements to pigeon-hole or even belittle the culture. If you take the stereotypes of a culture and use them to engage the typical stereotypes of the group, then it seems you are engaging in cultural appropriation. If you are prejudiced toward a culture, drawing opinions about them based on the information of others and not doing research for yourself; that also seems to be a case of cultural appropriation.

This idea seems to be a very secular view of things, almost a reaction against religion. I say this because most religions have a view where their version of salvation or redemption is deemed the “correct path”, while everyone else is considered wrong. Those who indulge in cultural appropriation are engaging in the same tactics, by claiming to know something about other cultures and then claiming specific facts about those cultures based on their assumptions…a fundamentalist Christian says that all Muslims are going to hell because their belief system is flawed, a devout Buddhist might claim that a Christian will never achieve enlightenment because they draw their faith from a part of the illusion that surrounds us all. Those who take a stand against cultural appropriation seem to believe that the Christian fundamentalist and the Buddhist from the example are both flawed in their thinking. The religious examples provided are simply human nature:

  1. I join a group.
  2. I identify with the group I’ve joined.
  3. I know that there are groups that exist outside the group I’m a part of.
  4. I don’t identify so much with those groups.
  5. 5. In my opinion, the ways I don’t identify with those groups are ways that those groups are wrong.

“Cultural Appropriation” says that everyone makes their first choice to identify with a group, and in that way everyone is unique. It further seems to push the notion that you shouldn’t categorise other people based on the groups they identify with, in fact you shouldn’t categorise them at all.

It’s a nice doctrine, generally inoffensive; you shouldn’t judge others without engaging in their deeper aspects of being. But like most doctrines, when you push it a bit further it starts to crack. That’s when the adherents start to get defensive.

In Australia, we’re seeing this idea filter through the news. No longer are you allowed to say that a crime was perpetrated by a man of middle-eastern appearance, because that’s considered ethnic profiling, or even racism. You can say “light skin”, “dark skin”, “olive complexion”, but as soon as you get more specific you have a backlash from somewhere. I guess the same thing has happened around the rest of the western world. We saw the same thing come out of the United States a few decades ago when it was declared racist to use the word “Nigger”, the race had to be referred to as “African American”, “Black American” or whatever new catchphrase was deemed appropriate in each passing year…then the “African Americans” decided to take the word back for themselves. They were allowed to call each other by the name “Nigger” (or “Nigga” if they identified with street culture), but if someone not of their race used the term is was still considered an affront. This has left a generation of people unsure of what is offensive any more.

So it seems that people just take offense to anything and everything, just to be safe.

We’re getting to the point that descriptions are meaningless…you can’t say “Black” because that will offend someone, you can’t say “Muslim” because that will offend someone else, you can’t call them gypsies because that’s a racial slur that has been perpetrated for centuries. As soon as you try to identify someone according to some context, you run the risk of offending someone.

Those who oppose cultural appropriation seem to be the types who will take offense for the sake of taking offense. They take on the role of old ladies who tell young children that roads are dangerous because of cars; the kids don’t know where to play anymore because all the flat areas around them have been paved by people of a previous generation (people who had been told that grass caused allergies, so they couldn’t play there).

Everything offends someone, and it seems that there are some who are offended by everything.

That leaves us with a dilemma.

If we can’t describe people according to their appearances (because that’s prejudicial or racist), and we can’t identify them by their cultural affiliations (because that’s cultural appropriation or just another form of racism), how do we describe them?

You could describe them by the sum of their actions, but that would take a long time to assess and just as long to divulge the information. What if you only caught a glimpse of them or heard a few heavily accented words in a conversation? You can’t describe their skin colour or their accent due to claims of racism, blatant stereotyping or some other form of offense taken by someone.

I was referred to a TedTalk by an African author Chimamanda Adichie (Here). This was referred by one of those people who are vocal opponents of cultural appropriation. It was an interesting talk, but it seemed to be hedging around the issues rather than confronting them. An interesting point she made was an anecdote about an American university lecturer who claimed that her writing didn’t sound “African”. Obviously the professor had a prejudice about what an “African” novel should sound like; he had appropriated her culture and had pigeonholed it. She thought it seemed odd that as an African novelist her novels didn’t sound “African”. I’m not going to say that her novels are bad, I haven’t read them. Apparently they seem to be pretty good because she was invited to present the talk and has sold numerous copies of her work. Africans can identify with what she writes, but my question would be how well other people identify with what she writes.

She might be a good novelist who is African, but does she write good “African Novels”. What is an African novel?

As soon as we start to identify traits of an “African Novel”, someone will claim that we are appropriating the culture. Perhaps she writes good stories about living in a newly urbanised environment within a specific African nation, but is that just generalising that particular urban area. Perhaps she writes a good story about a specific person, but who is that person out of context?

As humans we need descriptors to identify people.

Using cultural stereotypes may not be a perfect way to describe people, but surely it’s a distinct part of the whole.

If I write a story or a game about Australian Aboriginals and simply write them using common English speech and inoffensive mannerisms, how do I show that they are different to the Europeans around them? If I use a couple of stereotypical terms to place them in context, they actually develop character. Granted a stereotype will only generate flat characters, but it gives a reader a common ground, allowing potential for further and deeper exploration once the common ground has been set. If I don’t place them in context, the actions of these characters will be much harder to connect with.

If I write a story about the Lebanese community in western Sydney, I could use the stereotypical conflict between the Islamic and Christian Orthodox families within the community, tying this conflict back into their homeland. There are people who’d find it racist, but there are far more people who’d instantly grasp the background of the story. I could do the same thing through the car culture commonly found among young Lebanese males in the area. Again, it’s a stereotype, but it instantly sets up degrees of conflict within the setting. If I apply both stereotypes, I run the risk of generating caricatures of the community members, but if I apply other cultural templates across the characters to build up something deeper, they each become more complex.

That complexity just wouldn’t be possible without the cultural context.

Maybe I could rewrite one of Chimamanda Adichie’s novels using characters from the Lebanese community in western Sydney, simply changing the place names and the character names. If it still resonated as a moving story, then maybe it’s not a good “African Novel” after all, it’s just a good novel written by an African.

01 November, 2010

Hopefully time to settle down (and a bit of FUBAR)

The move has been completed, rubbish has been thrown away, rooms have basically been sorted. We've actually unpacked boxes that were never unpacked after our last move...so things are seeing the light of day after six years or longer in careful packaging.

Some stuff had to go, there simply isn't as much room in the new place as we had in the old place. I had the luxury of an empty double garage to use as a workshop/storage area in the old place, and now the range of ephemera once locked into that "warehouse" has had to integrate into the house, justify it's continued existence or be thrown away.

With this in mind, I've done a little bit of work on my first genre supplement for FUBAR. I'll hopefully have it out on RPGNow by this time next week. The aim will be to generate a supplement each month for the foreseeable future, I've got enough ideas to keep going in this regard for a couple of years.

The genre supplements will follow a basic pattern:

An introduction to the genre (one or two pages).
A twist on the core rules to help reflect this genre better in your games (one or two pages).
Two or three optional rules (one or two pages each).
A roughly laid out setting for the genre (a map page, a pair of suitable NPCs, some story hooks, and some evocative descriptions to help set the mood, all up about 4-6 pages).
A range of sample trait cards applicable to the genre (followed by a page of blank trait cards)
A range of sample location cards applicable to the genre (followed by a page of blank location cards)
A range of sample item/objective cards applicable to the genre (followed by a page of blank item/objective cards)
A range of sample organisation/plot-twist cards applicable to the genre (followed by a page of blank organisation/plot-twist cards)
A blank character sheet
(About 20 pages on average).

The cards and character sheets will be formatted in a style to match the genre; thus the first genre supplement is "High Plains FUBAR", a wild-west inspired setting. The character sheets look like wanted posters, and the trait cards are shot through with bullet holes.

Like the core FUBAR rules, there will be plenty of images and nicely laid out pages.

I haven't fully decided on the prices yet, but the supplements will probably be released at about $2 each (US). The core rules will always remain free, I'm hoping that interested players will show their devotion by buying a couple of supplements from me over the course of their play. Given that I've had over 700 downloads of FUBAR so far, it would be nice to think that at least 10% of those downloaders would be willing to occasionally fork out a modest sum for a way to invigorate or transform their game. I could hope for more, and maybe if the game develops a bit of a following those numbers might improve with time.

Once I get a few similarly themed genre supplemenets under the FUBAR banner, there might be the opportunity to print up a batch of limited edition physical copies.

We'll just have to see where things go.