Sparks flying still

Here’s one of those days when I feel like “it” (and what other “it” could I be talking about) was worth it. When people actually play and actually design, and put some thought into what others may have thought or done. When they care more about those things than about new hotness or hordes of backers.

J. Kaynin and the others at New Roles contacted me with very straightforward questions, raised from their perusal of the Forge. I don’t mean simple questions, though! Good ones.

Please stop by New Roles some time and participate a bit. I find vastly more value in these relatively personal endeavors than in any casual-click, pseudo-community, mass-arrival platform.

For those who’ve viewed or listened to other interviews along the history of Adept Play, beginning with Independent Publishing: Latter Days and Independent Publishing: Latter Days, the Sequel, you’ll find a lot of it familiar. However, I think you’ll also find my ability to articulate these things has been evolving and improving steadily since then. I also think it’s important for me to find the right words and the right ways to express them to specific people, or for specific purposes.

What I’d like from you is to help develop this kind of exchange further. Let’s say someone approaches me with inquiries of this kind … a lot of the time, the basic questions are pretty similar. Think in terms of what questions would be next, or rather, what questions you think follow best from the first round. What would they be?

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9 responses to “Sparks flying still”

  1. A few Questions

    Some thoughts on questions I might have and that might come up. 

    Given that you should play as much as possible, is it possible to overplay the game during the design phase? Are there signs that you have noted?

    What is the best time to hand the design to someone else to play without my input?

    Should I always "run" a given play of the game or should I let others run it while I engage with it as a non-GM? Does that even matter?

    How do I pick the right strangers to play my game? Is running for strangers good or not that helpful?

    Is there a point where you need to either publish now OR say "I am putting this aside" to come back to later. This is for basic personal sanity and also for the good of the design.

    Is there a rule of thumb or best practice or guiding principle to help you avoid the tar pit of designing for every player?

    System matters, but is theory important? Useful? Just a lot of big words that don't mean a damn thing? (Echoes of my very first interaction with Ron)

    • I watched the video and those

      I watched the video and those answers made sense. Thank you for taking the time to make a video response. In particular the emphasis you placed on the idea that these are not widgets with corporate deadlines, but pieces of art. I think is something I and others need to hear. It was useful even if I knew it on a intellectual level, but did not understand it on the artistic / emotional level.

      I wanted to rephrase this one in particular, because I actually meant person is in the role of a GM if there is one as opposed to the den daddy who organizes the social aspect. 

      Should I always "run" a given play of the game or should I let others run it while I engage with it as a non-GM? Does that even matter?

      Let me try this. Have you found it useful to sit in on one of your games that is in some stage of the design process and be actively involved in play, but not actively involved as a either a gm role, if there is one, or a the social event coordinator? I recognize the answer may be "that is not how it/I work" but I hope the question is clear. 

      As always, thanks. I will check out the video mentioned. 

    • I am happiest with the term

      I am happiest with the term "musical instrument" rather than "pieces of art," for many reasons. Even above those, I think the latter term causes immense and immediate problems, and I try never to use it.

      For your re-phrasing, one of the "back up, look at it again" principles to consider is that none of us are positioned to mount a development campaign similar to those in big/actually-funded entertainment media. I could say what I think would be a great, fun, and useful activity in the course of making a game, e.g., what you're describing. But that doesn't mean I can organize it, or encounter the people who would do it, or have the right frame of mind and the time for it, or any number of other things.

      Unfortunately, in practice, that kind of play, as you're describing it, doesn't happen very much until after the game is made available, usually commercially. It seems true that people typically only sink their effort and attention into a game once they've paid for it, and that saddles the whole sitution with the curse of post-release development. One of the many reasons I am currently arguing against deadlines and a hyped promotional release schedule is to minimize this as an unnecessary phenomenon, i.e., to keep its extent to a minimum, but I am forced to admit that it will never really go away.

  2. Tinkering vs. Designing

    I appreciate the insights about playtesting (no such thing as stress tests, must be enjoyable, good will required). I'm in a bit of a bind regarding my own game:

    I've been running a very lethal, challenge-oriented Wilderlands campaign for more than 150 sessions for my friends. We are using my homebrew hack of Dungeon Crawl Classics (modified to the point where we do not touch the original rulebook except for some fumble tables).

    I initiated the campaign with my regular group, developed my DCC hack before we began, and drastically nerfed the magic-user after about 50 sessions (after we had completed Barrowmaze). At that point, every non-MU had been relegated to bodyguard/sidekick status. The players acknowledged the problem and accepted the proposed changes after some discussion. For the next 80 sessions or so, I proposed many minor changes, most of which were accepted after some discussion. I also expanded the rules (e.g. with new classes). Then I proposed a further, minor nerf for the MU class and things got ugly.

    Two players, both playing MUs this time, strongly opposed the changes. I got frustrated because tinkering with the rules is a big part of the fun for me away from the table. However, the sort of fine tuning I'm talking about isn't really necessary i.e. nothing is broken.

    Various compromises (waiting until after Dyson's Delve was over, waiting seven months in real time, granting old PCs continuance of some features etc.) were rejected. Then Corona hit, we put the current crop of PCs on ice, rolled up new PCs (same world and timeline) and moved to Roll20. I pushed through my desired changes – claiming that the whole campaign was a playtest, among other things – and we've mostly moved on — except that I'm still feel both guilty and frustrated: I'd like to tinker with the rules in the future and fear that anything that decreases the PCs' power (which I suspect to be the main motivation) will be contested.

    In your video Comment for Tommi you correctly point out that claiming special social privileges "because I'm the GM" invalidates play. "Because I'm designing a game here" is different, but I feel the line is really blurry in my case. The video speaks trongly to me because I think I implicitly played "the GM card" in the discussions, too, and I have realized that's socially unhealthy.

    • Hi Johann,

      Hi Johann,

      Imagine, if you will, my response to be an involuntary guttural noise which cannot help but convey strong critical judgment, no matter how much I try to pretend that it’s just a neutral space-filler: “Mmnnhh.”

      It’s my response to your phrasing, which is really pervasive, about how you propose, they may or may not accept, then there’s discussion, or a case to be made, or justification offered and may or may not be accepted … the whole social context seems out of whack to me. As if they were the managers who decide or at the very least must be convinced or cajoled, and you’re the development tech who makes proposals and pleads your case.

      At the risk of being obnoxious, I’ll say that if that’s so, then your first sentence needs to be revised, because it’s not your “own game.” OK, that was really obnoxious. You are offering highly personal and internal content here and I have got to find a better way to say this. Let’s see:

      I'm still feel both guilty and frustrated: I'd like to tinker with the rules in the future and fear that anything that decreases the PCs' power (which I suspect to be the main motivation) will be contested.

      What do you think of this: that perhaps the whole “GM” side of this is a red herring, meaning, that  you might have latched onto it as a purportedly objective variable in getting them to accept your proposal … but the issue is actually not whether this is a good argument for them to consider, but whether you are in the role of seeking acceptance for a proposal in the first place.

      You know my recommended answer – “No, I am not in the position of seeking acceptance, this is my game in design, and you participate in large part out of unconditional support for me in doing it.”

      If you’ve gone 150 sessions without that concept in place, then it’s 100+% certain that their concept of themelves as the approval committee has filled that vacuum.

      What concerns me most is the guilt feelings you referred to. Is it terrible of me to say that I completely cannot understand what you might have to feel guilty about?

  3. Nerfing

    I've been more or less following you since the Forge (as “Halzebier” back then, though mostly lurking), so I know that you're blunt — which I appreciate very much.

    I'm indeed the approval- and harmony-seeking type, so the image of the devtech making his case rings true but, having mulled this over, I still don’t see an approval committee. Team members I have to get on board for the project to work, more likely.

    Before this campaign, we had played the traditional German FRPG  “Das Schwarze Auge” for almost two decades, mostly with official modules heavy on metaplot, implemented via illusionist techniques, as well as the occasional indie one-shot initiated by me (from The Pool to Ten Candles). In the wake of the OSR movement I became enamored with challenge-oriented, player-driven games a la Ben Robbins' West Marches. Tutored by Eero Tuovinen, I set out to radically, systematically and successfully change our approach with the new campaign (choosing DCC’s crazy magic system to guard against lingering illusionist reflexes, starting with DCC funnels to get used to constant character death, removing molly-coddling from the rules etc.).

    Some players took to the new way like ducks to water, others were simultaneously hooked and stressed (“I loved that session but that’s probably because my guy made it out alive” — music to my ears!), and one has a hard time with the high lethality. He has repeatedly stated that he cannot imagine going back to our old ways and I believe him — but the game is stressing him out. He is one of the most dedicated players and very pro-active (i.e. he often takes point both planning the PCs’ forays as well as in the dungeon and has lost more characters than anybody else as a result). He says he feels “somebody needs to shoulder the responsibility” and I suspect he really hates failure. He has been the most vocal critic of almost any change ‘nerfing’ the PCs.

    Players strongly opposing ‘nerfs’ is a common phenomena in online multiplayer games (with a ton of hard feelings involved, people leaving and worse) and I’ve seen this in RPGs, too. I frankly don’t know how to deal with this because it seems irrational, hugely emotional, and lacking all perspective save the one advocating for one’s current character even at the meta-level.

    I feel bad – guilty, as I put it earlier – for repeatedly putting my players (or rather, this particular player) through this ordeal. I think he is wrong to oppose change but can’t ignore his suffering. He retired his beloved high-level magic user after I went ahead with the nerfs and this took me by surprise. 

    • My question for you is

      My question for you is whether you want to discuss this game/process in design any further. You brought it up, and I appreciate the sharing. But from here, let me know if you want this exchange to continue, or if we let this topic (your game) stand as your reflection upon and a useful comparison with my conversation with J.

    • I think I lost focus –

      I think I lost focus – playtesting being the main topic here – and have no pressing issue myself, so let's call it a day. Your observations about my propitiative tone are much appreciated.

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