Down here

I think you’ll find this one interesting. Jared and I have known each other a long time, and in a significant fashion affecting the history of role-playing design. We don’t explain when we talk, we say things and the other gets to process them internally and to decide what to say next. We just take it as given that there’s some connection made and go on to make our own, and there is no overt “work” concerning the game design. It’s a different kind of interaction; I know Jared is doing it himself in reference to what we talk about, and Jared knows that I know.

Furthermore, you may not realize that the whole time, we are talking about game mechanics. You get a hint or reference every so often, but all our seeming divergences into film chitchat, or the ongoing musing about this or that Burke story, are brought up because they seem relevant to the game function that may have been mentioned a while before. If you listen to the spoken words, it’s all dots; if you were one of us, then it’s all the connections.

So, for orientation, Jared is talking about his game in design Night Waves, which has been a little elusive for some years, and we’re picking up more or less directly from the last time we talked about it, without needing to remind one another, as friends will. That last time was here in Norrköping when he visited us, but it could have been ten years ago, or fifteen.

You probably don’t need this if you listen and watch even a little, but our primary point of reference are the novels by Andrew Vachss concerning his long-running character Burke.

Warning: includes strong words concerning concepts, titles, and game design trends. Go ahead and watch, but if you do, this is straight, no chaser.


18 responses to “Down here”

  1. Useful Process

    I found this useful and entertaining. It triggered a few thoughts that I wanted to express

    I was gratified to hear someone praising Moldvay, reinforcing the notion that it needs some play to shed some light on what that version of D&D does well.

    The discussion on places that are important or defining for a character was the idea I grabbed onto hardest. I reacted strongly to the notion that the driver type character would be defined by their garage as opposed to their actual vehicle. My two thoughts were Magnum, although maybe a bit outside the sphere of influences, certainly has a vehicle as one of his defining characteristics, and the Mustang from Bullit, which plays large in one scene but is present in many others and its absense is noted by the viewer. In the case of Magnum, the Ferrari is a constant reminder that, although his to use it can be taken away from him on a whim. 

    But my thought was, if Bob is the driver character then one is either getting picked up by Bob, or Bob is taking someone, somewhere, or Bob is working on the car. 

    The conversation that circled around genre also had me thinking. Namely that we (and I mean me and others, not necessarily the people in the video) don't understand genre as well as we could. And certainly do not understand it as well as we could in terms of designing a game to specifically call out to or call back to a genre. Maybe genre in the broader pop-culture terms is a red herring. But when it is doen well, I think Mothership does a good job of nailing space trucker horror for example, you can tell right away what a game is trying to do.

    • Sean, you’ve seen Medium and

      Sean, you've seen Medium and idiom: they fight crime!, right? I solve the "genre problem" for good there. It's presented in a more teaching-ish way near the beginning of Champions Now, although the layout borked my bullet points. The original/intended layout is here.

  2. Character and Location

    My thoughts on characters and locations, from two games I worked on (one published, one unreleased)…

    From Against the Reich!:

    So how do locations actually relate to one another? Well, just like the action figure sets we keep talking about, locations "snap together" via character interaction. It is useful to consider this concept when designing the Playset. Look at our Hollow Earth locations. How do they “snap together?” How do your get characters from A to B? 

    Often a simple chart will suffice for nearly all encounter issues. Write out the game locations on a sheet of paper, and connect them up with lines if there is no reason why characters can't travel between them. As an option, a single description can be written along each line to represent the type of terrain to be traversed (mountains, swamp, Desert of Skulls, the docks, etc). GMs are free to skip these terrains entirely during in-game play, or utilize them as springboards for encounters. 

    Lines mean nothing though, unless characters have a reason to travel, and it is Extras and Antagonists that provide this motivation. Princess Minarr could connect the Amhar camp with the Naga or Vril city, Rokkor can connect the Naga city with the Ape community, and so on. Every line needs at least one non-player or player character connection to link it with another location. It's not enough in this game for a character to hear rumors of a desert oasis and decide to travel there. The oasis must mean something for a PC or NPC, it might appear in the profile, or be the hideout for an antagonist or the location of a vital clue for the acquisition of a magical artifact. Feel free to introduce new locations; just make sure they're relevant to the characters in the Playset.

    From Late-Nite Cable (the pre-cursor to Night Waves):

    Travel occurs at an abstract level in this game. Each important location within a city should be placed on the game map; a grid of lines with one location per grid space. When drawing the map, determine the main location (usually the character’s base of operations where most of the action happens). 

    Assume that characters can reach any adjacent location without comment within the span of one scene. If interrupted, a successful roll will put them at the start of the next scene; else they’ll arrive at the end of the scene. Vehicles or special circumstances abilities may speed up this process.

    To travel to each additional location costs either a scene or a die roll.

    • I love the visual of the

      I love the visual of the playsets snapping together. It calls to mind early age and the idea of building a city out of varuous play locations. And it makes a ton of sense for an RPG, where each miles and corner is not counted as they are not that interesting.

  3. Against the Reich! (written

    Against the Reich! (written by Paul Elliot, Jason Roberts and myself). The section on playsets:

    Imagine that you’ve been given a toybox (let’s call it a Playset!) filled with “pulp action figures” (i.e.: the character Roles and the villains). Your job as GM is to come up with various ways to play with those figures in a variety of settings. So although it’s cool to come up with background stories about the characters, villains, props, and places, the real point is to play with the action figures and see how they can be combined.

    Think of the overall setting as being that of the “pulp era,” the focus of the game as being “Against the Reich!” and the Playsets as little interlocking islands of adventure.

    The Set you use will automatically impose its own sense of style. For instance, if I’m playing with my action figures and my little brother drags out the “Volcano” play-set, I might get out toys to be the plane- wreck, a few bold explorers and an exotic jungle princess…as well as a good array of bad guys. Then, the fun happens.

    • Is a playset external to the

      Is a playset external to the characters necessary, and if you want one, how does it work? When I think about the influences we discussed, I see self-involved drama, i.e., whatever the characters are confronted with, it triggers their personal demons and extreme behaviors that they didn't plan and which they might not have ever admitted to before this point.

      From a creative point of view, the situation is more like a Sorcerer Kicker and the diagram that it belongs to, in that the majority of prep is taken from player-written or conceived things. The critical point is that once it's in the GM's hands, it's absolutely his or hers to interpret, develop, diminish, or otherwise use in any way, so the player is still encountering something external; it's not a circular process.

      How does a playset do this? It can, fortunately. In Trollbabe and Circle of Hands – which are also self-involved drama, in this sense – the situational prep is done completely without reference to the player-characters. The players choose, every time, usually intuitively, what matters to them and what makes it relevant to the characters.

      Those seem to me to be functional options, both viable, but also incompatible. Basically you do one or the other (or some version of either that's not exactly like my examples). Thoughts?

    • Playsets

      "Playsets" was the jumping off point to sets (settings, locations) developed by the players and inhabited by the characters and their connections.

      I think the "plot" should be external to the characters (i.e., it's not "all about them") but those situations will drag in the characters' contacts (professional relationships) and bonds (personal relationships), which will cause them to react in unforeseen, perhaps even suboptimal ways. Saving a kidnapped kid is different to someone with a spouse and family, someone who's just looking for a good score and someone without kids but who has a personal obsession with child safety. 

    • I’m drawing a strange line

      I'm drawing a strange line between internal and external, not as they're often used. Let's say that my character has "protect children" as a thing on his sheet. If that's the case, then any child in danger is "his," i.e.,, not external, never mind whether he knows the kid, in fact, especially if he doesn't know the kid.

      Taken to an extreme, it's possibly silly, in that the main character is always encountering allegedly independent phenomena that just happen to hit his buttons, but the fact is that most entertainment media lean hard that way and that's OK with audiences. I want to see the day when Batman gets his buttons pushed, not the day when he doesn't, or if the latter, then rarely, for contrast.

      Fully external challenges or situations are actually harder, I think. "Why should I care" can sometimes be reasonable, as in, "Yeah, you prepped it, but I brought this guy to play, not some guy who cares what you prepped."

      But they're not always wrong either. As a for-instance, let's imagine that you or I made a Burke-like character who happens not to have a single thing on his sheet about romance – in fact, as created, and as initially played, he is horribly unsuited to any such thing. Then his situation becomes centered on a person's problems which involve one of his triggers (a child in danger), but unplanned, unexpected, the player finds that "sparks fly" between the two characters – the other can be an NPC or someone else's character, whichever. Role-playing romance leaps into play and there's no stopping it.

      So I'm saying that in most of our sources, the conflicts are obviously relevant to the characters as initially presented and conceived, so even if the character didn't know about it or have it baked into his or her past, then it's still "internal" because it seems tailor-made to push their buttons.

      A Better Tomorrow (the first) has the nice contrast between Ho, whose situation with his policeman brother is baked-in and very obvious, and Mark, who initially seems like he has no problems or concerns … but as soon as things get out of hand, it's clear that his friendship with Ho is a lot less superficial than it seemed. Obviously this wasn't a role-playing session, so we can't "say" whether the latter was internal (on his sheet from the start) or external (and then adopted and internalized through play).

      So to get back to my question, I'm really interested in what a playset looks like for this game, given that I've created either someone like Ho (a "made man" with a cop brother) or Mark (a similar guy with few if any qualms or concerns, but strong passions).



  4. I really like the “playset”

    I really like the "playset" metaphor. It helps solidify some concepts that have been simmering away in the back of my head.

    "Locations" are a key idea in my muddled stew, and I like the idea that they can be brought to the table by players.

    I'm intrigued by the idea that (for example) you can put together the following elements: an island, a plane wreck, a lost temple, a cave lair of a Giant Ape and a volcano (on the location side) with the Giant Ape, a lost scientist, a Jungle Princess (a bit sexist, but modify to taste) and A Bad Guy, and then just start playing the resultant Pulpy mess with only the vague goals of the Player Characters to drive things.

    Swap things around a little, and it works for Pulp Fantasy (Sword and Sorcery) or even Superheroes.

    At a certain point you probably don't even need a GM.

    • You always need a GM in an

      You always need a GM in an roleplaying game. You need that special "player" without a stake in the characters' success or failure.

  5. External/Internal

    The choice in Night Waves is when the player decides, "Aha, this person is going to be important" during the game. "Sparks fly" means that their (professional) contact becomes a Bond (superficial, maybe, but there nonetheless). During the game, the Bond (why am I capitalizing that?) can be upgraded through player action. The love interest becomes a lover becomes a partner or even spouse.

  6. Session 2!

    In which we discuss the nitty-gritty of putting someone in a coma with a surrealistically expert martial arts twin-strike.

    But it is nittier and grittier to know how we got there and what happens next.

    Here's the direct link into the playlist.

  7. Session 3!

    In which information gets real scrutiny, whether subject to deception or not, whether influenced by dice or not. Keep an eye out for when all the topics, back to the first dialogue in the first consulting session, all snap together.

    Here's the direct link into the playlist.

  8. Finally had time to watch this

    Ever since the picture of a motorcycle dropped into my mailbox in spring, triggering thoughts of Celty from Durarara!! or Jormungand in my mind. I followed the trail of Night waves. What a treat to see that it found it’s way to my favorite hangout on the internet. Watching these consulting sessions really is fun. To see the way ideas bloom up and thoughts are thrown back and forth between you, growing into something more than the parts on the way. This is a game I want to own and play some day, even though your reference frame and inspiration is somewhat different from what I felt at the start, it is very intriguing and drawing me in. Thanks for sharing.

    • One of my goals for this site

      One of my goals for this site is to bring consulting and design into the light. Your comment is wonderful and greatly appreciated.

    • Don’t worry, Helma. It’s

      Don't worry, Helma. It's still going to be all pink and blue neon and black leather. 🙂 And thanks for mentioning that character! I wrote about the Dullahan for Torchbearer last Halloween. I'm not well-versed in anime, but that show sounds pretty cool.

  9. Session 4!

    Do you want consulting? Because this is how we get consulting. In this case, all about damage and harm and related matters.

    It's also a showcase for what design dialogue among founding members of the Forge looks like.

    Direct link is here inside the playlist.

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