Something reading Johnstone's *Impro* reminded me of - writing fiction can be fun. And it doesn't have to take forever.
First - the idea that all human conversation can be considered a status transaction. Once you start looking at the conversations you have this way you'll be both alarmed and maybe even a bit depressed, but it will also give you new insight and understanding. Just as an example, the thrust-parry-riposte -- "I'm reading War & Peace" "That's my favorite book!" -- has the first speaker trying to elevate their own status by showing how smart they are, reading such a big novel; and the second speaker trumping by saying not only have they already read it, they have a deep appreciation for it. (And it sounded so innocent at first!)
So, yeah, after reading that, I can't make a blog post or write an e-mail without being aware of how I'm trying to elevate my own status, bragging, etc. (Look at this book I just read! Look at this thing I just coded!)
But also there's insight into other people: if somebody else says something that seems arrogant, it's usually because I've played high-status first and they're just trying to keep up.
Playing high-status can often get you what you want but it also can make you look like a jerk; it can lead to success but nobody likes you. Elevating someone else's status starts to look like a magic weapon, a way to create enough space for you to play high-status without coming off as a jerk.
Notice how almost all the media we consume is retread - or, at best, remix and mash-up? (sixty second shooter's a good example of mash-up.) Nothing unethical about that (though it does get tired) but what if you want to do something truly creative? Johstone has some neat tricks for getting right at your subconscious that can even be done by just one person. I played around with his 'automatic writing' trick (you imagine you're opening a book in a library and reading the text there) and came up with this weird thing. Another trick is to write a list of unassociated words. Combine that with reincorporation and boom - instant story.
What I'm wondering now is how to apply that to video game mechanic ideas ... using this technique, it would be easy to create a truly creative game story, but what about its mechanics ...? Any ideas?
At the end of the book, he starts talking about 'mask work' and here he starts to sound batshit crazy. Apparently in his workshops when people wear masks they get 'possessed' and truly become different people. But it's actually not that far-fetched: no, I don't think that his students were suddenly taken over by gods, but there are lots of studies that show being cast in certain roles or being 'hypnotized' can make people do some surprising things.
I'm not sure how to apply this to videogames but some of the best roleplaying experiences I've had were when the game rules encouraged or allowed me to play characters or act in a way that was totally out of my comfort zone. When I used to play 3rd edition D&D I tried to 'stay cool' - rarely talking in character, not getting too excited, usually keeping things to the math of the tactical situation (skip the role-playing, GM, we want to kill something!)
The other end of the spectrum is playing Munchausen - a party game where you play someone else telling stories. Maybe it was the booze (the game, I think, requires or at least strongly recommends that you drink) but the last time I played this I acted in a way that I never would have done if I didn't have an excuse. ("It wasn't me! It was the Munchausen!") Apocalypse World, Fiasco, and Kagematsu have all had similar effects on me - have me playing gay characters and love relationships like it's the most natural thing in the world. In a way, these games have hypnotized me - given me permission to act in ways I normally never would.
Is there a way to apply that to computer games?
D&D players get a little freaked out by the idea of playing an RPG with just 1 GM and 2 players. Partly it's social proof ("Well, if we couldn't find anyone else who wanted to play, this activity must suck") but a big part of it is that D&D has the whole 'you need a whole party of adventurers to survive' thing.
Unfortunately, the attitude rubs off on other RPG's - I know at least a couple guys who like RPG's but refuse to do it with only two other people at the table. "Well, maybe if they're GM-less," one of them said - but that attitude doesn't make sense to me - in fact, the way I see it, the more players you have, the more of a burden the GM becomes. Because games with GMs typically take the form of the player telling the GM what they do, and the GM responding, in any game with a GM the GM is going to spend about 50% of the time talking. In a three player game, the players still get to participate 25% of the time - but in a five player game it drops to 12.5%.
But I digress. My point being: if a three-player game is to be avoided, what must these guys think of a two-player game? That must be completely nuts!
And - usually - I'd agree. For the most part when I've done two-player role-playing, there's been a noticeable lack of momentum. You're both straining to come up with ideas. When it's your turn, you're put on the spot - you can't just sit back and let one of the other players fill the void. And that pressure makes it even harder to contribute.
Which is why the new Murderous Ghosts is such a pleasure. When playing it, I never felt like momentum was lacking; I never felt stuck.
I'm not sure how it achieves this. It's sort of like a two-player Choose Your Own Adventure, where you each have a book to consult to tell you what to do next, but, completely unlike one of those books, it leaves the actual description for you to invent. It's the structure of a story without the details - bones without skin. And ... maybe because it tells the GM how to prepare for a minute before play starts ... or maybe because it holds your hand so carefully as you go ... or maybe because it gives you a solid foundation to build off of ... like I said, I never feel stuck.
Not to mention, it takes under an hour to play, and the subject matter - intense horror - is just cool.
So it's easily my new favorite two-player RPG.
Hey, if you're going to PAX, there's going to be a room (Room 306) set aside for those cutting-edge indie tabletop RPG's I've been on about lately.
I'll be there most of Saturday & Sunday - come find me and get in on one of my games.
Why are these games so cool, again?
I'll be ready to run Geiger Counter (survival horror), the award-winning Fiasco (the "Cohen brothers movie game" - real actors and television producers play this one!), In a Wicked Age (bronze age face stabbing), Love in the Time of Seid (no dice!?!), or Lady Blackbird (steampunk action adventure). Come and join us.
Fiasco won this year's Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming. (The Diana Jones Award, I just discovered, has nothing to do with the author Diana Wynne Jones. Huh.) I'd just like to say, good choice!
Fiasco epitomizes the new-school of tabletop role-playing game that I've been on about lately, the no-preparation, no-GM school:
The way I see it? Kind of like Wil Wheaton says in the introduction to the Fiasco Companion, Fiasco is the new "red box" Basic D&D. A gateway drug to this new school/old school roleplaying - and hopefully it'll have the same sort of success that Basic D&D had in its day. (It's already very succesful as indie rpg's go - but I think is it has a shot at the same sort of mainstream success D&D has. If Fiasco has a fatal flaw in that department, it's that it's not suitable for children, and although the Fiasco Companion partially fixes this (I still wouldn't want my 10-year old reading the text) I'm imagining that a "Fiasco Jr" would be at home on the shelves of Wal*Mart next to Apples To Apples. Jason & Steve: if you're reading this, and you do that, I want a cut.)
The more I engage with this game, and compare it to other games, the more I appreciate its genius.
The Core Mechanic
The core mechanic should seem familiar to people who have played D&D - it's a little less granular - instead of saying "I shoot him" you say things like "I point my gun at him and make him back down" ("going aggro") - but the idea is the same: you want to try something in the game, you usually have to roll for it. A lot of the modern collaborative-story-heavy rpg's have moved away from this traditional approach, but AW makes it sing. How?
Any move you do, you roll two dice, and add them together, and maybe add some modifiers if your character is good at that thing or whatever. And you try to get a 7+. Still, standard roleplaying, right? Roll dice, add modifiers, try to beat a target number.
Not quite: if you fail a roll in AW (6 or less), something bad happens. Where it just would have been a 'whiff' in D&D, here additional trouble is piled on. And if you ONLY get 7+ - if you don't get 10 or higher - you get a mixed result. Something good, something bad. Or something mediocre.
Bottom line: whenever you roll the dice, something happens. You don't get that feeling of "I might as well have just skipped my turn."
Historical note: this is a bit like Otherkind Dice and Ghost/Echo. There, you rolled multiple d6's, and some would be whether the good result happened or not, and some would be whether a bad result happened or not, so it was very possible to get mixed results. It was still possible to whiff, though - nothing good, nothing bad. AW fixes that and streamlines things.
Game Moderating As Maintaining A Collection of Threats or Dangers
There's a line in the AW book that says it calls for one method of GMing - that the entire game is built upon it. I didn't understand what this really meant until recently, when I was looking at another game: Danger Patrol. (A free game you can play right now, google it.)
A quick naive non-exhaustive taxonomy of roleplaying methods, divided by the kinds of prep you do:
* The sandbox: a map with hidden stuff in it. Could be a dungeon, could be a wilderness, could be whatever. Older D&D modules were like this: a big map. Where do you want to go? What do you want to do?
* The railroad: a series of encounters that the players will meet in order, providing they play nice and don't say anything like, "What? Save the world? I didn't sign up for that." This was how I used to GM, because I wanted to tell a story in a fairly linear order. Modern D&D modules are more like this - because you can only fit a couple encounters in in a session and they take a lot of planning, they may have maps but the maps are linear.
* The relationship map: instead of it being about the terrain, it's about the people and what they want from each other and who the players know. GMing this requires some creativity. "Okay, the players are doing this. How do my characters feel about that? What are my characters going to do now?" To make this work, the characters have to have incompatible wants, so that a story will happen. In a Wicked Age and Smallville are modern examples of games that rock this method.
* Threats or dangers. There's just a list of bad stuff that could happen or is happening. Could be a character wants something from someone and that's going to lead to problems - a bit like a link on the relationship map. Could be a bomb in the building. Could be a stormfront. In Danger Patrol, Ghost/Echo, and Poison'd - these troubles are written down on cards or post-its for all the players to see. When a player tries to fix one of the troubles, and gets a 'Yes, but...' on the dice - the trouble might go away or be mitigated, sure, but another trouble is plopped down, on another card. The whole thing organically grows and shrinks. The players have the freedom to do whatever they want and the game responds appropriately. And with DP, GE, and Poison'd, it would never occur to you to remove the index-card-danger mechanic. It's just part of the game.
With Apocalypse World, however, the dangers and troubles (called "threats" in AW) are (sort of) secret. The moderator keeps track of them on their own sheet of paper and doesn't show the players. So a GM might approach the AW rules and say, "Well, I'm going to skip that part." But that would be like removing the board from a board game.
So that's why the rules say the game calls for one kind of GMing.
And, just as a side note, this method of GMing? One could make a computer game out of it. The creator of the game would need to prepare ahead of time the things that ordinarily are made up in play - which is a lot of prep: most people would only see a fraction of the content unless they played multiple times. But there'd be a lot less prep than, say, trying to make one of those choose-your-own-story books. (And it's much more promising than my experiments in having intelligent agents with wants that are supposed to come into conflict - which is the relationship-map method - that was one I banged my head against for years with almost nothing to show for it.)
So I got to hang out with some kick-ass "story game" designers a couple days ago and, to my shame, have discovered that they don't like the term "story game":
* It's divisive. Players of traditional role-playing-games are probably saying, "What do you mean my game doesn't do story?" Any rpg can do story.
* It's vague. What about games like exquisite corpse, Once Upon a Time, Dixit - aren't those story games? But those are different from what I've been talking about lately.
Which leaves me in the lurch. "So what am I supposed to call these things?"
"Role-playing games," they say.
"But ... I have a totally different experience playing Lady Blackbird, Geiger Counter, or Fiasco than I have playing D&D. How do I tell people about that?"
And they shrug.
So I'm thinking about this, and I can't point my finger at any specific thing about one role-playing game that makes it a "story game" in my mind that doesn't rule out some other game that I also think of as a "story game."
GM-less? But Apocalypse World and In a Wicked Age aren't GM-less.
No prep? But Dogs in the Vineyard requires prep. And Paranoia and Toon, a couple games from my youth, didn't require prep. (Paranoia did have modules but my experience was they were irrelevant to the fun, as my friends would start shooting each other in the first room. Kind of an ancestor to In a Wicked Age in that way.) Maybe "story games" have been around forever.
Rules-light? Annalise and Burning Wheel and Universalis are actually pretty complex. And there are a lot of rules-light RPGs out there that don't scratch the itch for me.
So, okay guys, I give up. I will stop using a blanket term for a bunch of these games, and in the future talk about them one at a time on their own merits.
My daughter is only six, and is still a sore loser. I've given up trying to play Sorry! with her ... taking one of her pawns in chess can incite her to sweep all the pieces off the board ... etcetera.
Role-playing games can really bring out the sore loser in people. You spend a lot of time crafting a character, and then that character gets killed. Maybe it's by the rules, maybe you think the GM didn't give you a fair chance. Computer RPG's have savegames - you die, you go back, you pretend it didn't happen. With tabletop RPGs I've seen teenaged boys throw temper tantrums, and I've seen grown men turn to whiny bitches after a stray fireball takes their character out.
So you'd think role-playing with my daughter would be out of the question, but we can play Archipelago and it's fine. Why? Because of "Try A Different Way." Anything happens she doesn't like, she can just veto it. I have to come up with something else.
If you're a gamer, you're probably thinking: but that's cheating!
And if you're an improv actor, you're probably thinking: that's shooting down someone else's contribution. That's not cool.
I know, right? That's why we have rules. So we can agree ahead of time on what we're okay with. If we discover we're not okay as we thought we'd be, well, that's interesting. Better luck next time.
Here's the thing, though: role-playing games really are separate beasts from board games. They're stories and they can go places that we don't want them to go. In rare cases we need some kind of safety to protect us. Ron Edwards called them "lines and veils" - sometimes you need to draw a line, say, "I don't want to go there." Sometimes you need to "pull a veil over it" - do it off-camera.
Games need these safety valves whether they're written explicitly into the rules or not. (If they're not, and you don't want to allow a safety valve, your safety valve will probably be somebody quitting.)
So as long as we have this valve, why not put it explicitly into the rules? A protocol for drawing a line or veil, that tries to be fair.
And then why not let people use it for everything, so they can make the game into the kind of game they want it to be, on the fly?
Traditional role-players don't like it when someone else controls their character. But role-playing rookies new to GM-less games don't see the divide and have no problem with it. With TADW, the traditional role-player can say, "Hey, hands off my character," while everyone else enjoys what comes naturally to them.
But isn't there potential for it to be abused? You're supposed to use it when it would muck up the game for you. If you use it too often, it'll kill the momentum. If somebody's a jerk, or if they're playing to win, they could use it to deadlock the game. Well, so far in my playtests - blind or not - that hasn't happened.
BUT it's very complicated to explain. Sometimes you can push back against another player's contribution 'in-game': "I cut your hand off" "No, I pull my hand out of the way!" - and sometimes 'out-of-game': "I kill you dead" "Try a different way! I don't want my character to die just yet." Trying to explain the difference and keep the rules light is a serious challenge.
I think the answer I'm going to go with is to borrow from In a Wicked Age. With IAWA, you can say, "Wait, no, that doesn't happen" - but then you roll some dice. And you can lose. But then you can choose - do I give in and let the other player have what they want, or do I exhaust a limited resource which will result in me having less narrative authority and possibly my character's death?
In other words - although your character could always die with In a Wicked Age, nothing else will happen unless you're okay with it: "The soldier rapes you." "No he doesn't." (Dice roll - the king's player wins, but the loser narrates.) "He threatens me with his sword - I run - he slashes at me and I get hurt - but I'm not raped."
There's one kind of line/veil that, at first, this doesn't seem to cover: what if something you can't stand happens to someone else's character? You have recourse there as well. "The soldier rapes him." "No he doesn't - I rush to his aid and stop the soldier."
So ... that's where I'm going with the next draft of That's Drama. You have a hand of cards and you can trump to get your way - but you can also expend a card permanently if you really don't like where the story is going. The worst that'll happen is you use up all your cards, and your character will have to exit the story. (I'm softening In a Wicked Age still more by saying they 'exit the story' rather than 'they die' - maybe they leave town or something.)
So Typepad is supposed to let me integrate Facebook comments and blog comments, but it doesn't work and I've had a support ticket about it open for months and they said they'll look into it (I've even given them the password to my Facebook account so they can figure it out!) but that was months ago.
Anyhow, Christopher Kubasik asked on Facebook:
Could you unwrap what you mean by the word "Goal"?
And "Best Interest"?"
Or do all three terms mean the same thing for you?
And I said -
Goal / Motivation / Best Interest mean subtly different things to me but they all accomplish pretty much the same thing: for the game, they help give the player ideas for something to do "Hmm, I want to sleep with Daphne, so I'm going to go ask her out", and for the story, the character has to start out wanting something which will then be opposed/resisted.
A motivation would be something you want but you might not be sure when you're done. "I want to be famous."
A best interest would be something that's truly good for your character - but they might not be actively pursuing it or even know what it is. "I should forgive my son's killer."