Weighting Rooms is a character and story building game for 3-6 players that I am currently designing with a group of students, along with some consulting advice from Ron. The basic premise of the game is that the players take on the roles of characters who have died and gone to limbo. They all suffer from massive amnesia. In the course of play, question cards are turned over, and the responses to these questions establish the memories of the characters: their relationships, their occupations, their dreams and failures, and their destinies. Responses also trigger the assignment of karma tokens (based on attributes like loyalty, caution, passion, serenity, etc. revealed by these answers), and at the close of the game, the characters are judged.
We have been working on a revision of the game, and this past week was able to run another playtest.
The players included me (English teacher and game club sponsor), three boys (two seniors in high school and one ninth grader) and one high school senior girl. The ninth grader was new to the game, but he quickly caught onto the procedures. We met in my classroom on a Saturday afternoon to work through theplaytest.
I’d like to focus this actual play report on three specific aspects: emergent narrative (with attendant character relationship), pacing, and lines.
Two key revisions to this iteration of the game: (1) At the start of a character’s turn, another player mentioned an object existing in the new room of limbo, and this object triggers a memory for the character, and (2) players were allowed to ask clarifying questions after responses. These revisions to the rules supercharged the building of characters and narratives. Right out the gate, we were sparking conflicts, relationships, and story lines. A few of these included:
A matriarchal despot (played by the senior girl) who kept a harem of young, handsome men (NPCs) and whose closest real friend was a cyborg (my character) who served to clean up political messes she had created. This despot was cruel and self-absorbed, though there were cracks appearing in her facade of toughness and indifference.
A down-on-his-luck middle class worker who deeply resented cyborgs on both economic grounds (he blamed them for taking jobs away) and personal reasons (his sister ran off with a cyborg). I was setting things up to reveal that my soul mate was (currently unbeknownst to him) his sister. The worker was also a member of a faction which was abusing and even killing cyborgs in brutal fashion. The government officially prohibited this behavior but turned a blind eye to it.
A younger cyborg (played by the ninth grade boy) was naive in the ways of the world. His father was a close friend of my cyborg character, and he was also forming an attachment to the cruel middle class worker, who was clearly leading the ignorant cyborg down a tragic path. An illicit psychotropic substance was an enticement which was luring the young cyborg.
A cyborg (played by me) had a contingent of special friends. We were secretly having rendezvous where we exchanged body parts and memory chips with each other, which was an illegal action, but one that we found personally satisfying. We were also carrying out a secret war against the large faction of humans who were attacking us. At considerable personal risk, my character laced a keg at one of the humans’ parties and stole personal information from them while they were knocked out.
In brief, there was no shortage of antagonisms, alliances, and juicy plot hooks for us to work with.
There was also a heady dynamic at work in terms of the mixed collaborative and competitive aspects of the game. If you get moving early enough in the game, you can introduce rivalries and bonds, and you can also assign qualities to other characters. The rule is that, when responding to a question, your character has to focus primarily on themselves, but you can implicate other characters while going about the business of providing your answer. That aspect of the game leads to provocative developments. And what makes it even more intriguing is that, if you are aiming to survive the final weighing, you can’t be sure exactly how your strategies are going to play out in the end game. You might, for example, put another player in a position where they are going to earn Cunning and Fervor tokens, but in the final weighing, those might turn out to be favorable tokens.
The supercharging of the game, however, ended up being too much of a good thing. It was taking us 60-70 minutes to work through each story, so we were looking at 5+ hours to complete the game! We stopped the playtest at the 2.25 hour mark.
During our debrief, the players said that we were getting too much information about our characters too early. Some were wondering if they would be able to continue developing the narratives, which in their eyes were already quite rich. This would not be a problem in my eyes (I don’t know if creativity or complexity have a limit), but I do see a point of providing more build up for revelations about characters, setting, etc. Hence, on to pacing.
Previous playtests ran about 4.5 hours, so one major adjustment we made in this revision was to reduce the “stories” of limbo from six to five (you have to have explored part of each story to trigger the end game). And given that we were mostly seasoned players who grasped the rules, our thought was that we would meet the target. The introduction of a “memory object” to each turn and the allowance of clarifying questions obviously counteracted the time saving reduction of stories . . . and then some.
Weighting Rooms is a game which we want players to be able to finish in a 3-4 hour session. It replays quite well, and you can easily mark your progress to carry things across multiple sessions. But the design of the game strongly indicates a single session completion. This puts added demands on the issue of pacing.
Aside from missing the final time goal, it was also clear that it took too long to make it through a player’s turn. I feel that, in our next playtest I should bring a stopwatch and do some careful timing of how long each micro-segment of the game takes. How long does it take for a player to draw a new “room” of limbo? How long to think about a question? How long to answer? and so forth. I also need to get a more precise sense of what the “Goldilocks” timeframe is for a turn in Weighting Rooms--that is, when do players thing the game is moving too quickly, when is it moving too slow, and when is it just right?
With the design of this game, that determination is going to be easier than it would for other type of rpgs. But I do wonder what work other designers do to address pacing. How do they determine whether the game design is too slow or too quick? There is obvious a heavy player variable at work here, but game design also factors heavily into that pacing equation.
[Side note: On Sunday, I met with a different set of students to run through the legendary Tomb of Horrors, which opens a whole other set of pacing issues of a different type!]
The solution for Weighting Rooms? To begin, we will be drastically limiting the number of clarifying questions other players can ask (limiting them to one clarifying question per story/level), and we will no longer have a question about the object in the room. Also, we will keep limbo at five stories.
I was prepared to video tape our playtest session, but I always ask if this is o.k. One of the students was uncomfortable, so I immediately complied. As always, I was also diligent in talking about safety: I pointed out that Weighting Rooms was very openended and that we should keep things PG-13, but that if anything came up that anyone perceived to be crossing a line or that was resulting in an unpleasant, harmful, or hurtful experience, they should mention that and that we would immediately pause, rewind, and supportively discuss what was going on.
The session ended up being one of the most intense sessions I have held with my students in terms of content. Early on, one of the characters (the cyborg hater) disclosed that he secretly produced YouTube videos which, through their images and sounds, triggered ASMR, and that this became an obsessive fetish for him. I had a sense that the student playing the matriarchal dictator went down some of her provocative paths as a result of that opening. And we also had the violence against cyborg story which had a separate set of disturbing implications.
The tone and content of the session varied wildly. At points it was grimly humorous, at points it was darkly satiric, at points it was bizarre, at others touching. It was fun and memorable. We always kept it PG-13--no foul language, no vivid descriptions of violence or sex. The bloodiest part of the game involved a couple rabid cats scratching humans. But the game was swerving around topics that were sometimes weighty, sometimes perverse, and sometimes unsettling. If we had the video running, my sense is that the students would have been more reserved and that an entirely different set of stories would have emerged. I have done actual play rpg videos with the students, and I want to continue to develop those, but this session made me especially aware of how videotaping (which I always keep low key) might impact players and their approach to the game.
Final reflection: Weighting Rooms still needs work, but it will be worth that effort. If we can work out the issues of pacing and continue to polish mechanics, we will have a potent game in our hands.
I’ve also made some progress in finding some easy tools to use to make the game accessible for online play. Google Drawings should work as a replacement for the posterboard we use in the face-to-face context, and Google Forms will work for the assignment of Karma Tokens which occurs throughout the game. I need to work out how to deal with the decks of question cards, but once I have that worked out, I’m eager to expand the playtest to the Gauntlet and other interested parties!