Fun and games in the Book of Job

It seems to be my month for consulting on projects which have hunkered down in people’s notebooks for fifteen or twenty years, refusing either to get past a design hump or to yield gracefully into “not gonna do this game” status. The full name for this one is Variations on a Private and Lonely Hell, which Jesse might like either to lift into moving, playable form or (I suspect) to put down for good in the backyard all game designers should maintain for this purpose.

There are characters moving through symbolic scenes and situations of potential trauma or at least personal disquiet, there are surreal meet-ups for the characters as players exchange and bestow cards, there’s a “good” GM and a “bad” GM, and ultimately a diffuse judgment of the characters …

There’s a reason I drove straight into “what does it look like in play first” mode – lately, I am coming down even harder than usual on the engineering or IT mode of game design. It’s not because of the formalism, which in fact I rather like, but because of the emphasis on product. Not even the commercialism either, but the notion that you know what this will do, you know how it’s supposed to do it, you have implemented it, and now it’s time to test that very function in both the “how well does it perform” sense and the “breaking point” sense. The quicker we recognize that we are not experts and not specially-qualified, the better. I’m not talking about one single rule or procedure or intended aesthetic or social result until I know what might happen in some fictional circumstance of play and what it should be like in terms of raw aesthetics.

Now I’m just raving away on the street corner instead of getting to the business of this consult, but one thing Jesse said, briefly, did peek out like a quasit from a cookie jar, and I know some more of you out there say it too: the idea that you have to convince anyone to play a game in design, with the implication that it must be pitched to them, promising them that it is in fact already “good” or “awesome” or “just wow” before they get there. This is total paralysis: one cannot design (the verb) by showing off a design (the noun). One shouldn’t be playing with anyone who isn’t ready to pitch in and be supportive, no matter how provisional or rudimentary the current procedures are.

Anyway, back to this project which is not really in dire peril in these ways, just a little danger nearby is all. Now that I kind of get the idea of play-imagery and situations, I’d like to get into the numbers. I think card transfers and cycling across the participants are wonderful for RPG design, so all this aesthetics talk sets us up to learn out what any procedures and numbers are for. Jesse ran a simulation to see what the current rules would do at random, or in terms of play, if no one cares what they choose for another person’s hand. Looking at that will be my homework for the next session, but I have some other cards-based mathematical logic in mind to apply as well.

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12 responses to “Fun and games in the Book of Job”

  1. Talking, cards, and momentary play

    Second consulting session! Here's the application of several critical points that showed up across several discussions of the past few months. It also includes a rare explicit discussion of how system interacts with playing on purpose, or"matters," as I believe was mentioned some years ago.

    • Here are some additional

      Here are some additional (unordered) thoughts that came to me after this second session.

      With regard to consequeces of the room horrors I came up with these three phrases:

      • Objects burden you.
      • Phrases diminish you.
      • Creatures wound you.

      I'm thinking these might very well be things you write down on your sheet.  And if you manage to completely defeat a thing in their recurrence in Flashbacks you can cross off the associated trait.

      This lead me down the path of thinking about the same questions but for the Flashback sequences. It's a trickier question because the Flashbacks are unmoored in time. They can jump around quite a bit. Ultimately, there are really two types of Flashback sequences: those that have a confrontation with one of the haunts bleeding in and those that don't.

      Those that don't are really context building scenes. "This reminds of the time I argued with my father about my decision not to go to college."  We do this to see where, when, and how that happened.  We're fleshing out details.

      Now, for the Flashbacks where one of the haunts bleeds in, I mentioned that while they might still be weird and errie they shouldn't derail the in progress scene.  This isn't a "And then a monster burst through the wall" moment. Thinking on that a bit more, I realized it's because these moments should have real fictional stakes (I hate using that word after all the abuse it's been through). 

      I know that at some points in Murderous Ghost sthere's a question like, "What are you affraid might happen?" and I've seen other games that include, "And what do you hope will happen?" I wonder if such intention questions might help ground these moments and help establish real consequences.

      Changing focus a bit, I realized that we kept saying "exchange cards" when talking about the one-on-one and group meetups.  We really should be talking in terms of locking and unlocking cards.  Players don't trade cards with each other.  As written during one-on-ones they have the option of "unlocking" a card in the OTHER player by moving it from Latent to Active Psyche.  And in meetups player can choose to "lock" a card for any of the other players by moving it from the Active Psyche to the Latent Psyche.  Those card movements are always within one character.  Not between them.

      I emotionally like your idea of removing that mechanic and allowing those interactions to be authentic character play. I think you were right to point out that, that lines up much more with my intentions.  I have two thoughts about that.

      The first is kind of tangent about the local play culture I swim in.  My closest local "gaming buddies" are very system oritented thinkers.  Favored games in my circle are: Burning Wheel (and related games), Blades in the Dark (and certain hacks like Band of Blades), stronger PbtA games (like original AW and Mosterhearts), and a lot of the Fria Ligan stuff (like Vaesen).

      So that crowd I know has a tendency to look at games and the things it says you can do and the first question they ask is, "Why would I ever do that?" and they look very closely for some gear that engages the bigger machine.  Does a resource refresh? Do I earn a currency?  Is there some risk/reward trade off to be had? Do I get to convert one currency for another? It doesn't always HAVE to be numerical but it definitely has to be some kind of clear input/output transaction that feeds back into the main drive chain of the game.  They aren't even interested in this as win/lose kind of thing, just as a "How does this game keep things rolling by drawing me into the kinds of interactions it wants me to have?"

      So, when we say, "Let's leave those interactions as authentic character interactions?" I hear the spectre of my social group echoing in my head, "But then why would I ever bother?  Let's just get on with the game!"  even if I don't always personally agree with that sentiment. (Overshare moment: Sometimes I feel very lonely in my emotional relationship to RPGs).

      Now, that said, even if I shunt that spectre out of my head and say, "Yeah, fuck it, let's just let those scenes be organic," I still actually like the idea of the players being able to "weigh in" in on the judgment aspects of the game by the locking/unlocking mechanism, so I feel like it should go SOMEWHERE even if I remove it from either or both of the individual or group meetup scenes.

    • I’ll start harshly: the

      I'll start harshly: the design concept you are describing isn't role-playing design at all. It's widgetry. It is predicated on the concepts of reproducible results, idiot-proofing, and satisfaction of a known, promised outcome. In this context, "playtesting" is test-of-concept in the sense of whether the can-opener opens cans, or the sex toy serves its purpose, much in the sense of target markets, test audiences, and focus groups.

      What I have been referring to as agency is precisely what this notion of design avoids in every way. As I see it, the best analogy for role-playing design is musical instruments. You cannot stress-test a musical instrument, or assess its success in terms of per capita production of a specific performance, or conduct preference-and-demand polls. The process of design, including assessment, is extremely different. I maintain it is concrete and not all arty-farty-whatever, but it is definitely not this … thing.

      Although you're clearly considering what I'm saying, and I'm heartened by some of your response, what you've presented in this comment shows that you are still thinking of what to put in and how it will fit in the larger scheme. Whereas I'm talking about what it does right now, in a far briefer and yet far more solid perspective on play. As I see it, there is not yet any "in" place to put it, nor a larger scheme in which it should fit – and there shouldn't be, at this point.

      I do understand what you mean by "I feel it should go somewhere," because I am not romanticizing pure, Role not Roll, no bad numbers, no bad dice role-playing – that's more 1990s nonsense we need not concern ourselves with. What I'm saying is that this "somewhere" may be maintained as a discovery via real play-design-play processes, what I call playful play. You may discover that it already goes straight into where you wanted the hard mechanic to go, or you may discover that the overall big-gears-little-gears framework you have so lovingly conceived is a pipe dream or at least has a different shape and motor than you thought, or you may discover, well, any number of things.

      Let's get specific, but not as design of a little gear inside big known gears. You don't have big known gears, you just have scribbles on paper and some dream of emotional connections among the players somehow happening when the big structure goes click-click-buzz like any good widget should. You do have some smaller-scale things which are so much fun on their own that you and I practically played them just by talking about them.

      A room, a flashback with one of the GMs including a sequence of card play, then perhaps a haunt in the same room with the other GM including a sequence of card play with the other GM. Let's get down into playing this. What matters? That "narration" not be unnecessary and tiring bullshit. If the card draw shows that I win, and I "get to say" whether I punched it or kicked it or outran it, and that's all narration does, then that's "narration" in the literal sense that I spoke words, but it is in no sense agency just because "I got to do it."

      So stay down and dirty in this room. Who says what? What did we know before anyone said anything? What do we know isn't yet known, i.e., could be discovered? What could happen? What's the worst that could happen? What can anyone strive for? When do we use cards, and how does that relate to talking? What do we establish that has to be (not just "can be") incorporated into what is said or done next, right now, right away?

      Those are what you need to play, playfully, and if different pieces don't hook up to one another yet, no big deal. Play them in isolation from one another, perhaps saving the connection to be an isolated piece to try and play later, or spitball how you get from this one to that one during the session if the momentum's there. Go ahead and use the current framework for cards in action as a placeholder, but subject to change, not as an alpha-to-beta-to-crowdfunding test stage, and for pity's sake don't talk about and construct the design with anyone. Just see what people do when they do it. (You can see that I've shut down or at least failed to pursue any talk about that level of play with me! That is on purpose.)

    • I’m not gonna lie, your

      I'm not gonna lie, your replies are kind of depressing me. Not in terms of this game's design but in terms of the hobby cultural scene I've been swimming around in. On the one hand it's very validating. On the other, it's not helping with that sense of profoud loneliness (with regard to the hobby).

      "What I'm saying is that this "somewhere" may be maintained as a discovery via real play-design-play processes, what I call playful play."

      "Those are what you need to play, playfully, and if different pieces don't hook up to one another yet, no big deal."

      These two statements seem to speak directly to the "quasit in the cookie jar" you mentioned. There is deffinitley presure that it's got to be 80-90 percent there before it's worth showing to anyone. There is a convention called Metatopia that is ostensibly dedicated to playtesting in-progress works. But I have heard (largely second hand) stories about people coming out of sessions and complaing about games that were in a more provisional state as "not ready" for playtesting because the desiger clearly hasn't finished "thinking it through."

      Okay, enough lamenting about the hobby.

      "You do have some smaller-scale things which are so much fun on their own that you and I practically played them just by talking about them."

      Yes, this is precisely what I observed in my little session that got through one full Room/Flashback cycle.  It was actually more deep and profound thann I was even anticipating which is why I decided I wanted to move forward with the game at all.

      I think I see now more clearly what you've been driving at. What I may do at this point is write up another doc with less concrete mechanisms and more ideas about what what I think each piece (rooms, flashbacks, meetups) are for.


    • Regarding the hobby, my

      Regarding the hobby, my response is "yes" (regarding the situation) and "good" (regarding your self-recognition). We can talk more about that at some point, including my visit to Metatopia in 2016.

      I'm reviewing your chart now in edged preparation for more cards and numbers talk for the next session.

  2. RE: Widgetry &/or Roleplaying

    I've watched all the consultation so far and been enjoying it. First and most importantly, I would like to play your game, Jesse, whatever form it's in.

    Now, onto this:

    So that crowd I know has a tendency to look at games and the things it says you can do and the first question they ask is, "Why would I ever do that?" and they look very closely for some gear that engages the bigger machine.  Does a resource refresh? Do I earn a currency?  Is there some risk/reward trade off to be had? Do I get to convert one currency for another? It doesn't always HAVE to be numerical but it definitely has to be some kind of clear input/output transaction that feeds back into the main drive chain of the game.  They aren't even interested in this as win/lose kind of thing, just as a "How does this game keep things rolling by drawing me into the kinds of interactions it wants me to have?"

    I can recognize this in myself. I think there's some good impulse in this that has gone wrong, or at least gone weird. For me it feels like this: given that system matters, and I realize that (whereas at one point I perhaps didn't), now I'll look at a game and try to understand how the system matters, as a way "into" understanding the game and whether it's a game I'll like. Widgets (i.e. clearly-visible elements of the design that change in a predictable way) are the easiest way to see this–or at least seeing them feels like seeing this.

    It's "I know what the game is like to play, now", before ever playing. Which is impossible, but has sort of become a normal expectation in the hobby, especially amongst people who know that system matters, because they fear blundering into a game that doesn't believe that and/or respect their time and intelligence, which is all well and good, but then it conflates with and becomes a (maybe latent) fear of the failure of play, which obviously has to be at stake for real play to occur. 

    Anyway — I don't mean to go into wild speculation mode. Just wanted to tease that out from your comment, Jesse, because I've recognized it in myself and it can be hard to see how it's bad for play from the outside, and so explicating it is me doing my best to look at it.

    Again, the most important part of this comment is that I want to play your game, because the fiction sounds interesting and grabby.

    • The Call of the Widget is

      The Call of the Widget is strong! I believe that this is because I think a lot of impetus to design actually starts with a desire to capture something.  A method of bottling and delivering a reliable experience. "I want a game that feels like this, flows like that, and ends in this target range." This is probably drifting too far away from the topic of my game so I'll leave the rest of the thoughts on this for elsewhere. 

      I'm glad you're interested in playing the game, Hans, and I will keep you in mind for future playtesting.

  3. Session 3!

    Our third session was the final casualty of my bad week of audio recording. I’ve made a couple of salvage attempts but ultimately discarded them, because our dialogue as opposed to any single stretch of one person speaking was impossible to recover. Here are some things we talked about in poor textual summary.

    Regarding issues of playing and communities of play regarding design, here’s one of the slides from my Fun with Ronnies course, summarizing the social aspects of what I call “playful play.”

    I am quite definite about this. If you want, or better, have been seized by the urge to design a role-playing game, then your first step is to find or foster a community of people based on this slide’s points, instead of the nasty culture (I use the word in its bacterial sense) which arose in the vats of Story Games and has festered in the multiple contests and franchise brandings ever since.

    Here’s the current or provisional version of the starting array of information that Jesse sent me for discussion. The topic was to see what sort of play situation we’re talking about, if they’re considered our procedural first steps. A big part of this is imagining a kind of photographic negative to consider what is not known, but could become so during play.

    We discussed whether some of this information could be generated later, permitting more emergent identities for characters and reducing the chance for pre-fixing play into depictions. We also considered the columns, possibly shifting some of the information into mandatory or randomized content, especially the ones which are good no matter what, as long as it’s any one of the options.

    The big topic for me was the moral standing for player-characters, whom I perceived essentially as victims of abuse by these two entities whose players are not subject to anything, and whom the players must appease in some fashion based on imagining stuff they respond to in some way. I raised the possibility of “judge me, you have the power, but this is me, no matter what” as a player, which Jesse recognized or already knew as part of his aesthetic drive for making this game. Part of this exchange brought out the spine or core of play which ultimately discovered (created, found, learned, whatever) the characters’ backstories.

    So what seems needed right at the heart of this concept is Bounce for the two GMs, which in the current write-up or concept is absent, and Jesse hadn’t considered it before now. We talked about how unconstructed access to speech, i.e., “Now you play the father,” isn’t Bounce because there is no increase or decrease of one’s range of content that lands with that statement, in the game. We talked about players’ possible options during a card exchange with the Adversary, including taking more hits than the other player was going to deliver, partly as self-characterization and partly as a card-bleeding tactic that will affect the Adversary’s probabilities against the next player-character. With these or similar features, and more of them here and there, play shifts into an unknown, developing structure of who has revealed what and who has suffered what, with the two “judges” capacity for play being affected by what has just been played, at any moment. The notion that either of these players would be either locked down a bit or extra-supplied with a bit of momentum, in the very short-term, hadn’t been part of the design before.

    We also compared views on features of Burning Wheel (different versions of the Artha rules), The Shadow of Yesterday (Keys), My Life with Master and Montsegur 1244 (endings), and Ten Candles (“narrative control”), most of which ended in “let’s talk more about that some time.”

    • I’ve been mulling over how to

      I've been mulling over how to reply to this for a little bit because you did a pretty good job of sumarizing the take aways of the third session. What I can do is illuminate where some of my thinking went after the session.

      When I made the chart and noted that the guilt theme was first chosen from a list and then customized freely but at the group level, I knew you were going to comment on that.  I believe in the convo you said something like, "There's 40 minutes of blither I don't want." And I'm of two minds about that.

      You're right we could totally randomize the theme: Act, Victim, Motive and then randomize on a subchart such that we get something like: (rolled a 1) Act -> (rolled a 3) Murder or (rolled a 2) Victim -> (rolled a 6) Spouses or whatever. As you said, anything, would be useful or good.

      But the other side of that is that I don't want it to just be useful, I want it to be resonant. Something that the players discover they all have in common in terms of personal values. Which is perhaps expecting too much or maybe this doesn't even achieve that. 

      Additionally, I really dislike making fixed lists of things because I'm always afraid I'm going to overlook something that would be really powerful to someone with different life experiences than me.  (Side Note: I believe this fear is what is driving a lot of the 'Let's all make it up together' trend in designs.  If you make a list or a table or limit options you run the risk of excluding content that might be highly relevant to someone else's cultural or personal identity.  "I don't see myself in these choices, so I'm not going to play." Hence character sheets with lots of blanks to fill in, with basically yourself.)

      That said, I am thinking that it would be worth it to make a big list of Locations and NOT have the players pick 3 upfront.  Instead, they just pick them as they go along.  When it's time to go to another one you just say, "I'm going to the Hospital" or whatever.

      Which leads into an idea I'm circling about the Lure. The Lure is supposed to be the thing you are searching for. It can be an item or a person that if you found or reconnected with it would somehow make "everything better." I'm thinking about not having that defined up front.

      Instead, you play and at some point you announce the Lure based on whatever content in the game has moved you.  Ostensibly, I LOVE mechanics that trigger on "feeling it."  However, I tend not to trust that people won't just "make it up" at their earliest convenience just because they can.  I really believe there is a difference between discovering something via play (an actual emotional epiphany) and just making a delayed decision.

      (Another, perhaps gutsier option would be to reverse it.  You define the Lure up front but not your Guilty action.  Thus we know what you're looking for but not why and at some point you go, "Oh! Oh!  I know why I'm here.")

      Doing either of those things would certainly play into the kind of existential malaise I'm trying to foster and allow for the removal of the artificial limit on Locations played.  You keep playing until everyone has their "revelation" and then play one more Location through after that in full knowledge of that revelation.

      Bouncing the GMs is a really interesting line of thinking, because yeah, I'm usually still in the mindset of the "GMs are here to fuck up your day, you're not here to fuck up theirs." Along the lines of the idea that a Condemned player can keep fighting the Adversary, I thought of a similar thing that I could do in the Flashbacks that would basically be pushing the Divine Magistrate.  A way to say, "Look at what I'm doing, I deserve MORE forgiveness." It basically introduces more player agency in the form of a "press-your-luck" mechanic in both situations.

      Alright, that's what I've got for now.


  4. Design in action

    Resonance is a result, not an imposed or implanted quality. Neither a fixed list or a group discussion is going to create it for other people. Your only guidance is your own authenticity, as discovered in play, and the cognitive, emotional trap is to ignore that and start imagining shadowy other people who won’t have any, or who won’t resonate similarly to you. Nothing is worse for game design than fear of others who don’t even exist and distrust for your own center.

    As I hope I was clear about in the conversation, the idea of a list and a random result is not a suggestion by me. It’s an example of alternate means of arriving at things during preparation. Because multiple means in a specific order characterizes every game, I’m saying you should choose your own well-considered sequence and methods for it, whatever that may be.

    What you’re describing about Locations and the Lure is fantastic!

    Doing either of those things would certainly play into the kind of existential malaise I'm trying to foster and allow for the removal of the artificial limit on Locations played. 

    That's a "green light go" signal if I ever saw one, at least in terms of playing it like this next time. (and the same goes for what you were saying about the Divine Magistrate too)

  5. Jesse, I am enjoying reading/listening along with your development process of Variations on a Quiet and Lonely Hell. I’ve been watching a lot of found footage horror lately, and finding their aesthetics reminding me of your game. To name a few specifically: Hell House LLC, Deadstream, and Noroi: The Curse focus on run-down buildings and decaying infrastructure in a way I find quite evocative, and I’d definitely have them in mind if I were playing A Quiet and Lonely Hell. I know you mentioned Silent Hill as an inspiration. Are there other pieces of fiction that have provided guiding lights for this project, in terms of wanting to make fiction that resonates with a particular movie/book/game? And on the flip side, is there anything you miss in the inspirational material, things you hope people can do with this game that you haven’t seen in the fiction that inspires it?

    • Not just Silent Hill, but Silent Hill 2 specifically. For other media I would throw in The Machinist and Shutter Island (both the book and film). Probably Inception as well, if you center Cobb’s hang ups about his wife.

      At the risk of spoilers all these media deal with guilt over death. It’s always someone feeling bad about causing someone’s death, directly or indirectly. My other game Haunted deals with murder explicitly. The con game I ran of Variations was also about guilt over death. Causing someone’s death is the easy choice and I think it’s because it’s so final.

      What I never see are stories/films about the other kinds of things that haunt our consciousness. I think there’s a perception that in the absence of the finality of death there’s always other options. You can always call your ex-wife if you want to talk about what lead to the divorce. You can always send a gift to that parent you haven’t spoken to in 10 years, right?

      I think that’s a myth. I think there’s lots of mistakes and harms and transgressions we make, big and small, for which the ship to make amends has sailed. Or even if you DID right the wrong the fact that the wrong happened still lingers. We are ALONE with those memories and feelings.

      I know not everyone processes the past the way I do but I’m a pretty haunted guy. Little things tend to crop up in my memories, unbidden and kind of linger until I can wave them away like cobwebs. And we don’t see a lot of stories about those smaller kinds of transgressions that we worry are a microcosm of who we really are.

      I think that’s because if we gave to voice to them they would sound silly or trivial. If you watched a book or a movie about some tormented guy and it turned out he was broken up over something small, it might seem dumb or cheap.

      But in a role-playing game there’s just 3-5 of us sitting in a room. If you tell me your character is an emotional wreck because when he was 10 years old he broke his sister’s favorite doll and he can’t get the sound of her crying out his head, I will believe you. Those things have a way of shaping, for better or for worse, other interactions.

      I hope that once we’re past the obviousness of death, that Variations might provide a space for addressing subtler forms of torment.

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