Featuring a completely contrived but interesting Four Layer Model for Gameplay
So, I create LARP experiences, design games and the like. That means I think a lot about what makes something a game, and I like teasing out how systems work. Sometimes I do this just for fun, and sometimes it reveals some important things we should keep in mind when we are designing, running and playing games with each other.
A few years ago, I started unpacking the difference between a system and a game after reading the seminal and amazing book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a weighty 777 page tome about mathematics, rules and the nature of systems. And in spinning out these ideas, I came up with some categories of what goes into designing and playing a game. And I came to a beautifully weird conclusion –
I don’t design games. No one designs games.
We design systems – and we might suggest, cajole, pressure and clear our throats while nudging our head in the direction of how they might be turned into a game. But only a player can choose which game they play.
Beyond that, as a designer, I’m powerless. And that’s wonderfully humbling and utterly frightening.
Unpacking the Game Box
Now, going up to a game designer and telling them they don’t design games is a pretty bold move. It depends on a lot of definitions of what a game means, what rules mean, what a system means; and my choices of definitions here are just one option among many. But I think they tell us something useful about how playing games really works.
It’s been a while since I got the late night inspiration to do an experimental tabletop game review. While our group still meets every two weeks, I must admit it is only when I encounter a game that falls just short of its mark that I feel really inspired to review and critique it. So, that brings us to our latest installment – The Quiet Year.
The Quiet Year is a story game, not really a role-playing game. It comes from a decent pedigree – the author is also responsible for the seminal Monsterhearts, a popular Apocalypse World hack. It is part of the sub-genre of story games that revolve around drawing a map in order to tell the story of a place, in a similar fashion to Dawn of Worlds. It has a very simple setup – there is a post-apocalyptic community who have just emerged victorious and driven off an undefined enemy called The Jackals. There will be one year of relative peace before similarly undefined Frost Shepherds come in the winter and the game ends. You and the other players will determine what happens in that year to this community.
Notice I did not say you are playing members of this community. In fact, the rules make it very clear you are not. You are instead supposed to be the disembodied advocates of the community and its members, its prevailing thoughts, but at no point do you play out a scene or track a single character too closely. This game is about the players growing and exploring the community and its landscape together.
What happens during each week of the year is determined by a draw from a deck of cards, each player getting a turn. On your turn, your draw dictates what happens to the community and you decide how to implement it. Sometimes you are given a choice – either a project fails but you gain a needed resource, or a project succeeds but you lose an important resource. Other times, you are just given an outcome and decide how to implement it.
Also, the active player can have the settlement start up projects, discover something new on the map, or hold group discussions – the only time other players are allowed to give input.
Yes, the game actively forbids you from engaging in table talk with the other players about what you are going to do. The first way to get players input on the possible path of the settlement is to use your action to call for a discussion and positing a question, and even then, each person talks in turn and cannot say more than two sentences. Other than that, the only feedback the other players can give is non-verbally signalling their displeasure with what you have done by taking Contempt tokens from the middle of the table.
The designer does this with the intent of showing that community decision-making and group activities are actually quite sloppy and it is hard to really get a feel for what everyone thinks comprehensively. In large groups, it is easier to tell that people are unhappy than to find out why. Human interaction is messy.
The game does create a map and chart out the story of a community as they engage in projects, solve problems, find things that are scarce and deal with shortages. The deck draws are interesting but generic enough you can make anything happen – working ‘the weakest of you dies’ or ‘marauders approach’ is possible in any situation of desperation.
In real play, the limited communication clause is more respected in its transgression than in its enforcement, and it takes a disciplined group of role-players to keep restrained. But, the Contempt tokens to give a good way of ominously but abstractly expressing that not all is well and strain is rising within the group as to the decision that have been made.
What Doesn’t Work
The main weakness of the game is the very lack of definition that makes it possible to be so adaptable. Things can get very odd, very quickly, since there is no GM on board to guide things and people are banned from communicating their displeasure or objections fully. Not only the tone but the metaphysics and assumptions surrounding the game world can rapidly go into the realms of what I would call High Weirdness, where fantasy, science fiction and just plain Fortean elements mix together. In our game, bandits armed with old Russian army equipment and abandoned bunkers hidden in hillsides mixed with psychic healing magic priests and zombies, mainly because of the predilection and prejudices of various players naturally pushing things according to their tastes.
The game taken on its own does not establish a common tone or shared fantasy very well. The tips in the rulebook make mention that the ‘weirdness dial’ should be pretty much set by the mid-game, but in our game, it rapidly became a mess long before that. As is the weakness of most GM-less games, you have to start out with a strong consensus as to the type of game and world the story is being told in before you can begin, especially in a game that forbids you engaging the person making additions and changes to the world that might violate your notions of the shared fantasy.
This outlandishness can contribute to another weakness – the lack of emotional investment. The rules encourage you to not focus on individual characters but advocate for the entire community, but that means each individual player is just a nebulous opinion or will floating amongst the community’s population. For a game that wants us to care and ask hard questions and talk about what happens when communities are faced with crises, it would be better if there was more for our emotions and interest to hang on.
Also, the game and its events table are not hard enough on the community. Many in our group were expecting a rapidly worsening situation especially as summer drifted into autumn and the winter approached, but the random events of the later seasons were not much worse than the ones before. There was a feeling early in the game of establishing hopes and goals only to see things destroy or hinder them as the seasons got more harsh, but this was not supported by the events themselves. If this is supposed to be a somber post-apocalyptic setting, a bit more fatalism and unfair brutality might be called for. There were several points in the game where our players thought the citizens of our community had it far too easy.
Tips for Playing
It’s not in the rules, but I would lay out ground rules as group for your universe before you start drawing the map. This can be as simple as agreeing to a movie or book you’d like the world to mimic – such as Road Warrior – that players can build upon and use as their baseline. Or, you could take a page from games like Microscope and have players say elements that they want explicitly allowed or banned from the game – yes to magic, no to super technology. And allow for objections during play on the basis of those agreed on elements and that alone, e.g. “I don’t think radioactive clown zombies really fit the tone here, Bob.”
Also, actively restrain yourselves as players to think small and personal. Realize how little a group of eighty people trying to survive can actually accomplish in a year. And make an effort to define personalities and groups as you go along, not just when they are specifically called for in the event. Keep track of them, make them more human without exclusively following what particular set of characters. Many of the later events involve people dying – it works better if these people had names and histories to the group before they did.
7/10 – Simple with good execution and beautiful art, but needs a few tweaks.
I’ve decided to start keeping reviews and notes of the bi-monthly experimental tabletop night that several friends and I hold. The concept is simple – we find one of the plethora of new indie tabletop roleplaying games available on the Internet, and try one out that night.
We’ve done several already, and it’s been great. Some games have failed, others have been brilliant, but all have taught us something about game design and roleplaying. I am not going to attempt to summarize the mechanics, but rather give a quick overview and review. Less is more, I say. So, here is my first installment. Last night we played a little game called Dirty Secrets.
Dirty Secrets is an homage to the hard-boiled detective stories of the likes of Dashiell Hammett, but set in your own hometown, one week ago. It is about an investigator scouring through collections of sleazy characters in an attempt to find the perpetrators of a small set of crimes. It is a GM-less game. It takes the interesting twist of having only one player portray a single character throughout the game – the Investigator.
The rest of the narrative control (a position known as the Authority) is passed around between the other players around the table, as the Investigator pursues more and more evidence.
The rules deliberately keep any player from actually declaring who committed a crime until a set of criteria are met, so it is a mystery to everyone until the reveal. Conflicts are resolved via a game of Liar’s Dice between the current Authority and the Investigator, and the Authority can pull in the various other players to improvise specific roles in the scene that the Investigator is in, as well as interrupt the Investigator’s activities with acts of violence.
The game manages to create an excellent collection of sleazeballs rather seamlessly, and our game moved at a good pace to begin with. Evidence was acquired, leads pursued, seemingly innocuous characters became more and more important.
There is an excellent mechanic for becoming unstuck called ‘Revelation Sequences’ where a relationship is randomly determined between two existing characters in order to break open the case – which was amusing in our case when the local Mexican mafia crime boss turned out to be having a homosexual tryst with a illegal immigrant caretaker we met in an earlier sequence.
But all and all, the game manages to parade out a good collection of twists and turns, where everyone is considered a suspect. The Investigator is drawn into a pit of paranoia and tangled webs are woven, all without anyone knowing the eventual outcome will be.
What Doesn’t Work
When I say ‘eventual outcome’, I do mean eventual. The pacing mechanic is where the game can hit the skids. It is slow, which can be very frustrating for players not particularly familiar with the onion layers style of the hard-boiled genre and more familiar with crime dramas like Lethal Weapon.
The Investigator cannot force the story along; the reveal cannot be accelerated by violent interrogations or stunning situations. It can only come when it comes.
Like many games trying to replicate a single genre, the players, especially the Investigator, have to be familiar with the base works and their tone. This game works best with people who already like detective mysteries and understand what the game is attempting to replicate, not with just your average gamer looking for a night’s entertainment. It best produces stories that are tense and shadowy, rather than full of action and showdowns.
While the game has its share of violence (it is not a Miss Marple story by any standard), the violence takes forms more like bullets fired from an darkened alleyway with tires squealing off shortly afterward.
Tips For Playing
If you want to play Dirty Secrets, I suggest the most experienced and rules savvy player be the Investigator. And that the Investigator player be the one most familiar with the genre.
If you are a fan of hard-boiled mysteries who wants to play this with less-inducted friends, you definitely need to take on the Investigator role. The Investigator is really a sort of reverse GM, pushing the story along and producing scenes which the others have to improvise and attempt to play out. The Investigator controls the tone more than anyone else at the table.
In our particular game, the Investigator’s player became frustrated because the increasingly violent path the Investigator was on could not produce the results he wanted within the rules. When confronting the character most likely to have committed the game’s central murder with a gun, there was no easy way to resolve this situation in a satisfactory manner.
No amount of escalation can force the plot to resolve quicker, and the player ran into that brick wall hard as he attempted to achieve his character’s primary goal. While this certainly reflects the pacing of the chosen genre, it was frustrating to a Investigator player who wasn’t used to it.
What do you do when players make an in-character location that lets them avoid the game world?
You are running a game. Maybe it is a LARP, or an online game, or a tabletop. A player comes to you and says, “Hey, I’d like my character to set up a keep/club/house/ditch in the road that is “safe” and no one outside of the group knows about.”
This is a reasonable request, certainly. After all, every great hero has their home base, away from prying eyes. And like most things that go terribly wrong in game mastering, it starts with something that seems so reasonable.
Be warned. Your player may be showing the first signs of Fortress of Solitude Syndrome, and it is going to cause problems.
Why is this a bad thing?
Some players have a tendency to think defensively. They know the game world is dangerous, as are the inhabits that might be looking for them. They want to preserve their character against death, or just inconvenience, and want to be able take reasonable precautions to make sure their characters have a safe, often secluded, often heavily protected or at least secret place where they can do whatever they wish without worrying about the armies of darkness showing up at their doorstep. However reasonable this move, these ‘fortresses’ can be major problems with the game master if the players begin to overuse them.
Players invest time and effort into these locations, and expect them to be preserved. So, you cannot violate their Fortress of Solitude lightly. But, think back to your favorite television series or movie, where the heroes had some clubhouse or home base. How long did it take for the screen writers to violate that space? Batman didn’t go three movies without the villains tossing around explosives in the Bat Cave. Buffy’s living room, despite vampires being stopped at the front door, is practically a four lane highway for monsters and magic. Violating the character’s home and sanctuary is an easy way to investing and engaging the character against an enemy. But when dealing with a player that invested time and effort in creating their character’s entrenched position, they might find it hard to accept that effort (and often even points spent) being cast aside.
They lead to boring play if overused. For the reasons above, you cannot have the plot trounce into the fortress without creating a sense of betrayal. Also, it makes it very hard to threaten the player characters directly with force. The idea that Jimmy the Fish will be very disappointed if they don’t get him that wetware package before the deadline is hard to make threatening if your cyberpunk operatives can go to their Caribbean island base patrolled by attack drones and wait for the thing to blow over. And that sort of play, while ‘smart’ from a strategic perspective, makes the game crawl and lack tension, danger and conflict.
In larger games, exclusive locations can split the game up and break apart the social web of the game. Especially in large games such as LARPs, these fortresses will often also exclude other players, breaking the game into in groups or out groups. And the situation can quickly become Balkanized, and not in a good way.
Remember, a Fortress of Solitude is not just a location that the players have, but one they expect to be protected and safe.
Dealing with Fortresses of Solitude
1. If they haven’t already made their home base, be honest about what they are getting. If a player wants to set up their ninja mountain castle, just be honest and inform them that while their ninja castle will certainly be useful, it is not impenetrable. Indeed, the very existence of such a place is a call for their enemies to undermine and subvert it. Its servants can be infiltrated by rival clans. It can be besieged (with difficulty) by the Shogun. All sorts of things can happen, and while you are not saying no to having it, you should be upfront as a game master that all the planning in the world from the players will not make their location unassailable. The world is inhabited with foes just as clever as they are looking to get at them.
2. The solitude cuts both ways. Make staying turtled up have a cost. Isolating yourself from harm also means isolating yourself from critical information and resources. Make it clear through roleplay that staying bottled up is allowing the situation to get worse and keeping them from getting what they need. The ninja fortress does not get regular mail service, nor is it easy for even their allies to get to. Being in a place secluded enough to be safe is being in a place isolated enough that they cannot help their friends.
3. Give them concerns on the outside. Batman might have the Bat Cave, but he is not protecting just the Bat Cave. He has all of Gotham to protect. The reason the Bat Cave can exist is that Batman can easily be drawn out of it by Joker and Two-Face taking a few hostages. The ‘distress call’ only works with some types of characters – heroes such as Batman with a cause – but there are other ways. Have a huge castle? Give them a fief to go with it, one that can be harassed by bandits and monsters, villagers who count on their new lord to keep them safe.
4. Nothing is free, you know. Most Fortresses of Solitude need hard cash, or its equivalent, to keep running. Otherwise, the castle stores get emptied, the power gets turned off or the engineers keeping the nuclear plant running stop coming to work when their paychecks bounce. In one game I ran set in the Battletech Universe, the players were running a mercenary company where they had an extravagant defensible home base, but that Fortress never became a problem. Why? Because the contracts needed to keep the company afloat were out there, on other worlds. The home base was a place to regroup between missions and store their spare mechs – retreating back to it wasn’t an option most of the time, and wouldn’t get them the credits they needed if they did.
5. All else fails, have the big violation of the Fortress be a major turning point. If you feel up to it, and want to dispose of the Fortress completely, turn the anger and surprise to your advantage. Have the fact that someone got in after all this time and blew up Moon Base Alpha be the start or turning point of a major storyline. Taking away something that the players invested so much effort into can make it personal, and if you try, you can transfer that anger onto the in-character villain instead of you as the game master, so that the players will not miss their old toy as much as they enjoy the new plotline.
Games are supposed to be fun, to increase the bonds between people. But there are exceptions to that rule, the vipers lurking in the grass of geeky entertainment. There is a special class of game out there which seem innocent enough, but playing them quickly shows their true intent. These are the games which try the souls of men, put you to the test and, if not approached cautiously, lay waste to love and friendship.
7. Magic the Gathering
The grand-daddy of all collectible card games, Magic the Gathering starts off innocently enough. You buy a few pre-made decks and play a few games with friends. Maybe you start playing regularly over lunch, or to break up the usual board game night. It’s fun, unpredictable and quick.
And then, someone gets good at it; someone starts to take it seriously.
They start buying booster packs, constructing better and better decks. They buy cards online to fulfill this combo or that combo. Perhaps they even reach back into the game’s horrendous back catalog of banned cards to construct decks that no one has any hope of winning against. They use a multitude of computer programs to run the probabilities on their combos and optimize their mana pool.
What used to be a friend is now a monster. You have to start consulting the rulebook, the real one that’s hundreds of pages long, to figure out whether he can actually do that or whether that card is even legal anymore. You have to confront this jerk who was once your friend, because the game isn’t fun anymore. Either that, or you have to join him in an arms race that will suck up both time and money, and probably not be very fun.
And the worst part is, this is exactly what the designers of Magic want to happen. This is their business model, selling as many cards as possible to as many people in the eternal quest to dominate the competition. Their business model is based around people being jerks. Continue reading “Top seven games that destroy friendships”→