October Q & A

These things can take a lot out of me sometimes. Christoffer and James earn respect and probably sympathy for triggering highly motivated position pieces, and with any luck their actual questions receive replies too.

I realized during editing that I didn’t quite land the point regarding changing-up actions in Circle of Hands. The idea is that after character A’s action, regardless of what the action turns out to be later, other characters can act upon what the player stated it looks like that character is doing. Their posture, their attention, their specific strong and weak points in a tactical sense, are all evident for everyone else to act with or upon, as well as plenty of other useful things like line-of-sight.

9 responses to “October Q & A”

  1. Discussing a design in progress

    I think there's subtlety about testing some features of the thing (e.g., you CAN/should test a saxophone to make sure the valves are functional), but I think the point about playtesting generally is well-made here.

    But I've menioned to you before, Ron, that the "don't process" approach is kinda alien to me. I mean, "not an encounter group", sure, yet discussion is usually good, isn't it? I've been thinking about that off and on since first listening to this Q&A*, and maybe had some useful thoughts/insights, so – here goes.

    The first realization was that I could ignore my long-ago written-word training/experience that runs counter to this advice. While I consider what I learned there really valuable, for multiple reasons it might not apply to RPG creation, so – just ignore.

    Still, even within RPGs I consider the frequent, open exchange of design opinions (both the listening to others and the being listened to by others) a really important part of some very positive play experiences involving rotating GMs. I'd go so far as to say it certainly felt entirely like playful play, and I'll defend the approach and disagree (gasp!) with you as needed.

    BUT, there is a flavor of design (RPG-endeavor, or whatever you want to call it), where you are trying to express something very personal you sense about the medium, your desired approach, subject matter, color, and etc., and that particular maybe-not-yet-coherent thing really is THE POINT of it all. I love those kind of RPGs, and for that … OK, I see why another approach is better. Needed, even.

    Thinking that way, your comment about not focusing on "design goals" as a term made even more straitforward sense. My experience with software development sees them as INCREDIBLY useful tools, even allowing that they are also easily-abused into corporate-speak and empty rhetoric. Substantial, somewhat-independent effort across multiple people to produce something that needs to be useful in a/some particular ways(s) – design goals are important for that. But not the main tool needed when trying to give birth to a personal vision, even when you 100% are relying upon/sharing with others for that.

    I mean, I've known for a LONG time that "Ron is usually only talking about a particular kind of RPG design/experience", but somehow bringing that to bear on these issues took … more work on my end. Hopefully that's also helpful to others.

    *These Q&A's often REALLY get me thinking. Productively? I'm not always sure. But this one stayed with me all month, so – some posts.

    • Discussing my designs with my

      Discussing my designs with my players has usually not been very productive: I'd think out loud (somewhat helpful to me), only to find myself politely ignoring their feedback (stressful for me, frustrating for them).

      There was one exception when I went for a series of 'cinematic' designs and one player was on the exact same wavelength. He ended up contributing key mechanics and it felt like how I envision Lennon & McCartney's collaboration (not that I know anything about that). Alas, my tastes have developed in a different direction and we're mostly at odds these days creatively.

    • @Gordon, I’m staying with

      @Gordon, I'm staying with your qualifier "usually" as the guiding concept. My experience and at this point approaching or over a thousand observations of individual games in design (no exaggeration) is that discussion is usually not good.

      There are several people with whom I share supportive, critical, ongoing, often casual dialogue about games in design, mine and theirs. I count them among my most valued acquaintances, with the important related point that some are close friends and others are not. Johann's description of the mutualism and unique one-on-one effects in his comment is very accurate. They are also few, because I have ended up with them, essentially inadvertently, rather than sought them or collected them. This phenomenon is the opposite of "usually."

      What I usually see in role-playing design discussions – overwhelmingly so, constantly – is the absolute worst of the stereotypical encounter group or the pointless, endless pitch/critique circles in corporate or academic culture. The result, before my eyes, is either the ruination of a person's motivation to continue or their self-subordination to a domineering person or perceived peer-group in the most threatening sense of that term. 

      I don't think the specific rules-set is relevant. I see both the (few) good and the (many) bad regardless of rotating or not-rotating GMs, or with any other arrangement of persons or procedures.

      The good experiences of discussion and enjoyment should definitely be discovered and with any luck persist into the long-term. But if a person is currently floundering in the many venues and subcultures that favor this nasty and very prevalent factor, then they'll never find those at all.

    • I feel like I’ve pretty much

      I feel like I've pretty much experienced the full range of feedback and figured I'd share some concrete examples across the spectrum.

      Good Feedback

      A long time ago for one of those little design competition things I wrote a game called The Extraordinarily Horrible Children of Raven's Hollow. It basically involves horrible muderous children trying to kill each other while not getting caught by the adults. I left the thing up on a website as a curiosity.

      A number of years later I got an email from a guy in Hungary of all places, who just wanted to let me know that he had played the game with a bunch of friends and they apparantly had a blast.  So, I wrote back to thank him and asked if he had any thoughts.

      What I got back was a an amazing bullet point list of things they had encountered in play. It was super clear to me that they had absolutely played in total good faith. They filled in gaps with whatever made sense to them. They played around with stuff it hadn't even occured to me would interest people about the premise. It was totally "playful play" as Ron describes it.

      It totally jazzed me about revisiting the game and I was teaming with new ideas about how to bring focus to things that seemed to really inspire those guys in Hungary.

      So-So Feedback

      One of my games is a Ronnies entry from 2011.  It's called Haunted and is about a murderer being stalked by the ghost of his victim. I've playd it a bunch, mostly at conventions.

      One thing I hear, a lot from people who play the murderer is how trapped and hopeless they feel. The majority of games end with the murderer simply giving up and surrending. I would find this a bit disheartening if it weren't for the very first game I played with my friend Colin.  Colin lives for his characters to be buried under an avalanche of pressure and when he played he fought like hell as the murderer.

      So this feedback unfortunately has me stuck on a bit of loop. One the one hand the game is meant to make the murderer feel trapped and like their dealing with insurmountable odds.  On the other hand I can't tell if the game is maybe lacking something to help INSPIRE players to fight harder.  In video game parlance is this a tuning problem or a "git gud n00b" situation?

      The consistency is interesting.  The feedback itself is not.

      Disasterous Feedback

      A third project I have is called The Elevator of Regretful Memories. It involves dream sequences. As currently designed when in a dream sequence the majority of players are instructed to the play the scene straight while one player is in charge of "dream weirdness".

      The first time I had to remind a player that they were to play the scene straight because they had started to describe weird things, they immediately demanded I justify that restriction. Instead of actually playing the scene everything divolved into an argument about how keeping the weirdness in one players hand was robbing the other players of fun and collaboration.

      It was really awful and useless.  The irony is I had already I observed one critical thing that completely changed my mind about a design point while we were setting up the scene, and yet no one said boo about it.

      So yeah, feedback discussions are…. well…. dangerous.

    • I don’t want my point to get

      I don't want my point to get distorted. It's too important. 

      The good feedback you're describing is done exactly right. They played with a good will, without entitlement, and they told you what they did and what happened. This is the best thing anyone can do for you and the more of it, the better.

      When I ran the Circle of Hands Kickstarter, that's what I told people I needed. A lot of them did exactly that, very well – you can see it in the text, where I name them and sometimes quote them along with the relevant rules. One group did the opposite: borked play entirely in the mistaken notion that they were "testing" it, carped and complained about everything, and provided me with a list of objections and corrections, you know, "helping." It was worthless and I knew better than to pay any attention.

    • Ron – I guess I did include

      Ron – I guess I did include the rotating-GM component as a possible element of why/when discussion works, but very much only possibly and not likely singularly. Heck, I can't even say "some people" as a singular determinant – some of the same people I had great discussions with over a deacde or so of play recently annoyed the hell out of me in just the stereotyped ways you mention. Destruction of motivation and self-subordination are certainly things to avoid – I'm just trying to quiet those rebellious impulses saying "but discussion is good!" What I see you saying here is "maybe sometimes, but way more often I see problems." That seems sound to me, even though some of my instincts run counter. I wonder if there's a meaningful difference between "design for OUR play" and "design for public consumption" in this regard, but it's only wonder and only because I've done WAY more of the former than the latter.

      Jesse & Johann – Good to see that variety, thanks.

    • Ron – I guess my rotating GMs

      Ron – I guess my rotating GMs comment WAS wondering if that (or maybe design-for-our-play vs. design-for-public-consumption?) could be somewhat explanatory of successful discussion vs. not, but certainly not conclusively nor singularly. Heck, some of the same people who I had really successful design discussions with over a decade-ish of play were recently annoying as hell in some of the ways you outline. So I can't even say "the right people" is a reliable answer. Certainly, ruination of motivation and self-subordination are BAD. But that "discussion is good" impulse is (as you note) strong. Guess I'm working through reconciling those two sides here in the hope it's generally useful. Johann, Jesse – really good to read your experiences!

  2. Taking over the metaphysics

    HUGE agreement with customization of the rune-system by a particular playgroup as a key to great results. For a while, I came up with some variation on "the 4/5 Elements" (expanding them to 12 or 16 or so) as the "underlying" metaphysics of every fantasy game I ran, always leaving room for play to define details ("oh, I guess this location is metaphsically tied to Fire" or "hey, this PC really has a bunch of Water powers – how does that change the way x group views them?"). Seeing how you ran your teenage fantasy RQ made me think back on a lot of play and realize that the best play was always in games that followed "our" metaphysics rather than some pre-detailed structure. I mean, not like it even obviously showed up in play all the time, but the influence seemed really strong.

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