31 October, 2016

Attitudes of Design

If I say that I'm going to "storify" or make a "story-games version" or any existing crunchy mainstream game, what does that mean?

Does it mean simply coverting anything an everything in the system to the "Powered by the Apocalypse" engine? 

That might be a valid way to point in the right direction, but misses a lot of the point. My disdain for games that are powered by the apocalypse is well known in a lot of circles, but it's a bit misrepresented. I'm not sure where I made the comment recently, but I'll repeat a paraphrased version here because the intentions still hold true.

It came from two artists that I had conversations with a long time ago. Both artists I had respected for their work, but after a half an hour or more of conversation with them, I really respected them as people too. The first artist was James Gurney, among other things he wrote a book you might have heard of called Dinotopia, and a couple of sequels.



The second artist, and the one who really struck me as a nice guy, was a fantasy artist named Keith Parkinson.



Both, masters of composition and producers of evocative work. I've aspired to produce stuff at their level, sometimes reaching a close approximation, sometimes failing completely, more often diverging into something very different.

Both artists gave some distinctive tips that had informed the way they produce work, such as using aluminium foil wrapped over an ice block as a pallet for acrylic paint...the reflection of the aluminium foil changes according to the lighting where you are painting, and gives an idea of how the colour of the paint shows under different lighting conditions...but more importantly, the paint stays wet longer because water condenses on the aluminium foil (and on the paint), maintaining it's moistness as you continue painting. Other tips were common to both artists, and one of those tips is particularly pertinent and adaptable to game design.

From an artistic perspective, the tip basically says..."if you want to create work like [insert artist here], don't just copy [artist previously inserted], instead look to their inspirations. Consider how [the artist] has incorporated elements of [insert relevant inspirations] into their work. Then consider where they have deviated, why they may have deviated, and how they have made the style their own."

If you want to paint like Frank Frazetta, don't just copy Frazetta, instead look to his inspirations. Consider how Frazetta has incorporated elements of light and shade as used by Zdenek Burian, the evocative used of colour to inspire emotion as derived from the Impressionism of artists such as Renoir and Monet into his work. Then consider where he has deviated, why he may have deviated [his artistic training had a lot to do with this], and how he made the style his own.

If you want to play music like Led Zeppelin, don't just play Stairway to Heaven over and over, instead look to their inspirations. Consider how Led Zeppelin incorporated elements of the blues masters, and the distinct sounds of various cultures fused into a heavy rock bass line (yes, there are endless debates about cultural appropriation at this point). Then consider where the band deviated (their choice of instruments), why they may have deviated (their interpretation of the elements based on their time and culture, and how any specific song ties into their overall body of work), and how they made the style their own.

This brings us to...

If you want to design games like +Vincent Baker, don't just hack Apocalypse World, instead look to his inspirations at the time. Consider how Baker incorporated elements from his own "clouds and boxes" and "otherkind dice", how the theoretical framework developed by the Forge informed his design ideas, and how he saw gaps in existing game frameworks that he believed needed to be filled. Then consider where he deviated from those inspirations (Apocalypse has distinct differences to Otherkind), why he may have deviated (therre are plenty of blog posts about this), and how the Apocalypse Engine became it's own thing.

It kind of explains my disdain for hacks in general, as well as the proliferation of Apocalypse games; but it's more nuanced than that. The lazy hack takes something that is cool and reskins it without really understanding how the mechanisms work underneath. A slightly better hack adds new mechanisms to reflect situations that the designer would like to see in play, or new mechanisms that circumvent issues they do not want to see. An even better hack takes two distinct elements, fuses them together where they fit, cuts off bits that no longer work in the shared context, and adds new bits to fill in the gaps and make a coherent whole. I appreciate Apocalypse World for what it is (on one hand it may not be the apocalyptic gaming experience I'm after, and it may consistently
produce that one type of story, but on the other hand the consistency of play was one of its design goals). I appreciate D&D, its heritage, the way it pushed the envelop initially to take gaming into a new hobby. I also appreciate the way Dungeon World took these two distinct gaming experiences and fused something new from them. Even if you know the heritage, you can see how it has been crafted into something new, and has developed a following of its own separate to either the Apocalypse World or D&D communities.

This might also tie into the reasons why I see the OSR movement with mixed feelings. A lot of it is simple reskinning, and trying to look edgy while rehashing the same stuff over and over... very much an "Emperor's New Clothes" situation, where you get people claiming that if you can't see the "innovation" then it's you who is at fault, and screaming vitriol and half-logical rhetoric for the purposes of sensationalism and claiming "art is being censored". Then there are those folks who are actually tweking the old systems to produce play experiences of their own.

I'm not saying that a designer needs to reinvent the wheel every time they develop a new game, I'm saying they they need to understamd the reasons why certain choices may have been made in the past and how those choices might impact on their current project if they are just going to adapt them for a new project.

I was recently introduced to the World of Darkness hack for the Urban Shadows hack of Apocalypse World. You can find it here. On the original thread where I was introduced to it, I was dismissive with a comment of "three strikes and it's out". Through the context of this post, I can probably explain this a bit better.

Strike 1... magic is formulaic in so many games, so when Mage: the Ascension came out with a setting where belief shapes magic and reality is a battle of consensual belief systems, that blew my mind. I knew a lot of the inspirations behind Mage, I liked them, I could see where Mage was aspiring to emulate those sources. On one hand I could see how it was fettered by the wider Storyteller System, on the other I could see it trying to push things in interesting directions. The reborth of Mage: the Awakening back to a more formulaic system was a backward step in my mind, back into safety, back to the types of magic users who had no real interest. So, when I saw that his hack used the Awakening rules for its inspiration, that did nothing for me.

Strike 2... Werewolf: the Apocalypse had some huge issues with the way it handled culture, but it was one of the first games I encountered where different cultures were presented as viable character options rather than stereotypical NPCs. The first time issues are presented, they are rarely presented "right", but instead they offer a dialogue starting point so that better presentations can come later. As further sourcebooks were released for Werewolf: the Apocalypse the stereotypical cultures of the tribes became more nuanced as they were presented in context with different locations in the world or focusd on through their own tribe-books. The stereotypes were a starting point, a shorthand of wide brushstrokes that could be detailed through play. It was also the first game I know of to address environmental issues. Once the game started introducing other shifters, that's when it really came into it's own for me. The ways that Werewolf: the Forsaken backed off from cultural issues, abandoned the environmental aspect (as far as I'm aware), and ignored other shifters (especially my beloved Kitsune) meant I couldn't take the game seriously. Don't even get me started on the way, shifters born from animal parents were dropped from the game. Needless to say, when the hack used Forsaken as its basis for werewolves, that also did nothing for me.

Strike 3... honestly, this strike was simply applied because it was an Apocalypse World hack. With a single strike, a batter can still hit a home run (and an Apocalypse hack can produce a Dungeon Wolrd), but after three strikes it's time to move on. The game just didn't look like it did anything particularly innovative to combine the inspiration sources, and while it seemed odd that the designers would choose to add the odd vampires mixed in with the new Mages and Werewolves, I didn't want  to disappoint myself further to look at how they might have treated the varied belief patterns of the  Sabbat (if they were even addressed at all).

It all just looked like a World of Darkness fa├žade cobbled onto an Apocalypse World framework. Taking elements of the WoD that I feel are regressive, and using an engine to deal with them for consistently producing the same stories of escalating melodrama. Don't get me wrong, if that's your jam then the game might be perfect for you, for me though, it's a perfect storm of all things wrong with hacks, the New World of Darkness, and Apocalypse clones.

I need to look for inspiration elsewhere. That's leading me back to the games and books that inspired Mage:the Ascension.

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