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More than one kind of Dark

Dustin isn't a naive game designer, having produced Synthicide and generally navigated modern publishing. He asked me how to promote a game which did not fit neatly into "trad or indie," "OSR or story game," or any other dichotomy which people presented to him. Which is a perfect opportunity for me to stomp upon those dichotomies with my hobnailed boots, both for him and as a general PSA.

By odd coincidence, his current design, working title Heroic Dark, and Kinfolk, Justin Nichols' "lab" example for our Design Curriculum discussion, are very similar. Each pits our heroes as champions defending a realm from a vast threat, racking up successes and failures which have local consequences and also eventually total to determine the fate of the realm. Both designers were also concerned with establishing genuine effects and consequences while stuck in the midst of a dangerous situation, rather than relying on "just describe it" techniques in a causal role.

The similarities are strong enough that I sometimes confused myself during the edits as to which one contained the point I was currently working on, the more so since the conversations were two days apart and the two persons' names differ by a single letter. So I urge both of you to examine the other's video for material that may be helpful as well as to consider the differences in their inadvertent role of comparative design decisions.

Here, or rather, following my boot-stomping discussion at the start, we talked about customizing play in ways that are not merely skinning the same mechanics, and also about important player decisions which do not factor into the "defend vs. the Dark" umbrella conflict, but rather operate as orthogonal ethics concerns or characterizations. Sometimes "heroic" isn't defined only as "against the Dark." I want to concentrate on that some more, not to devalue the larger arc or problem, but to bring out the strengths of table-top role-playing in comparison to the highly codified and episodic digital-game model.

Department: 
Consulting

Comments

A new approach to character advancement seems like a huge challenge! I'm used to traditional games, which as you point out, rely on mechanical progress to tickle our lizard brains. It also plays into dramatic structure somewhat, especially as seen in anime and comics, that the heroes get stronger but face more intense challenges. The old fashioned gamer in me revels in these mechanics, even if they're slightly shallow. If you help me wrap my mind around another form of character advancement, I'm not sure I will jettison traditional mechanical advancement. It's a trope that, while somewhat tired, is comforting and familiar to me. I'll probably just enhance that form of advancement with some other characterization methods. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I still like to frame it as character change, for which I think "advancement" is a poor term. Therefore it includes injury, reduction, and death as well as improvement in any capacity, and it even includes redefinitions of a character's social situation and immediate concerns. I think a lot of those have been present in role-playing for a long time, but not recognized as part of the same category as experience points (by whatever name) and leveling-up (by whatever name).

In that context, there is nothing wrong with improvement as such; it merely receives the same questions as any other game mechanic, whether it's well-suited to this particular project's general cycle of excitement-play-inspiration, and whether its details mesh well with this particular project's other mechanical details. And its own details can be tuned this way too, as in,what exactly improves, by how much, and why. These questions only seem shocking when the familiar form of advancement is perceived as its own special category of game components.

Maybe I'm not making my point: that there is nothing specially traditional or classic or old-school about advancement/improvement, relative to the other important changes a character may undergo, and which they have been undergoing in the hobby for as long as advancement/improvement has. Knocking it off its pedestal doesn't mean throwing it in the dumpster, nor does the enjoying of improvement only reside in thr crack-addict cycle.

So, if possible, try to see that I'm not saying "throw it out." I'm asking when it happens, what it does, and how that relates to the overall realm fate context of play that's so thoroughly-addressed in your game so far.

I can put it quite harshly: is the entire "defend the realm" context merely a gaudy, elaborate excuse for experiencing the thoroughly familiar level-up cycle? Or is improving one's character's status and abilities a significant, exciting subroutine in the drama of a given episode's crisis, as well as in the drama of the overall fate of the realm?

All too many role-playing games fail that test. Once you put your game design through it, with the result of these mechanics looking and working exactly like you want them, you'll be able to count the titles that you're standing among by using your fingers, once.

Next time we talk, I'd like some examples of games that do this differently and do it well. 

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