Monthly Archives: June 2013

Synanthropes: Killing my babies.

Synanthropes, is now on the receiving end of several thoughtful reviews and a couple of playtests. I’m watching reactions and making changes and enjoying the process but saying to myself, well, it’s about time to start killing some of my babies.

(It’s the Cane Toads, to be honest. Can’t write about cane toads without wanting to kill some babies, amirite?)

Right, not actual infanticide, but some massive design alteration. Specifically, it’s the hoard dice, and how it fits into the central die mechanic as a whole. It’s… it’s not working so great, to be honest.

Why isn’t it working so great? Well, let’s start with what it’s INTENDED to be: It’s intended to be a mechanical way of making the different characters DIFFERENT, rewarding them for acting in a manner which is… for want of a better way to put it, stereotypical. It says some things about how the different creatures act, and gives two points of intersection with the narrative: gaining hoard dice and losing hoard dice.

And there… there is part of the problem. On the one hand, there’s a balance issue here: characters must be reasonable able to gain and spend these dice at a similar rate, they must be equally interesting, equally useful, and not only is that incredibly difficult (oh my, yes) but it’s also… well, redundant. That’s what Traits are for, and those are tied specifically into the synanthrope’s physical form (and can easily be adapted to include their social upbringing as well).

Additionally, the hoard is intended to be a pool of dice that can be freely added to rolls when victory is paramount, or in order to increase the odds of finding a clue. And that’s all well and good… if they can be put into rolls easily. It’s silly to think, however, that roaches will only find clues when they’re getting squished in doing so, and rats only find clues by exposing secrets and so on and so forth. Since I dropped “Roll to find a clue” (which is for the best, I think) in favor of semi-random stumbling across clues, it makes since that they can come up at any time for any reason, although you should still be able to put in a little extra effort in order to push the outcome.

That said, I like the idea of a hoard in the abstract… it’s the things that you are keeping away from the others, and that allow you to be unique. The hoards as they are now hit on “keeping something from the others” sometimes, and “unique” occasionally, but never really hit both, and… well. They just aren’t doing it for me.

So I’m going to kill them.

Or, if I won’t be a toad eating my own tadpoles about this, I’m going to burn down the Hoard Dice mechanic as it currently stands, and allow something to grow in the ashes. Something different, something new, something… dare I say brilliant?

Are you ready?


No, no, don’t run away just yet! Hoard points instead of hoard dice, represented by, oh I don’t know, pennies or whatever, physical tokens you pick up and put down (which is way better than jotted-down numerals or physical dice which you might want to share or use for other things).

What gets saved: unique methods of regaining hoard points. In deference to the fact that, seriously, some shit was totes esoteric, these will be greatly simplified and now refer to coherent events within the narrative–something that might happen as often as once per floor. The Crow is able to studiously examine an artifact is a good example… specific, coherent, relatively common. I’ll be shooting for one hoard point per player per floor as a reasonable clip, though they’ll still be events that need to occur.

What gets changed: they will be much, much more powerful. At a baseline, any player can spend a point to add a die to any roll, or to re-roll any die. So, that’s pretty boss. Use as many as you want per roll. Yes. Secondly, the unique instances of being able to spend hoard dice will remain in spirit, but they will be opportunities to spend a hoard point and gain TWO dice. Ooh, double trouble. Roaches may stumble across clues at any time, but the odds are even higher when they’re swarming mindlessly over something. That, that I’m fine with.

Additionally, and here is where things get potentially wiggly: each species will have a unique Power. That’s a thing that they can just DO, no roll, nothing, which is activated by a hoard point. A Raccoon can get a door open, no need to roll, if he spends a point. A Toad can cause an injury, no roll. A Gecko, when they come to exist, can disappear from sight, no roll needed, if he spends a point.

What does this do for me? Well:

  1. It gives the animals animal-based superpowers. Maybe one, maybe two, maybe two or more. Perhaps an innate, biological ability and an acquired, cultural ability. I like the sound of that, and at this stage, throwing in things I like the sound of and seeing how it goes is pretty much my task as a designer.
  2. It helps re-enforce the notion that these creatures are truly different from one another, if one has an ability that the others simply lack, especially one which seems almost magical.
  3. It provides a measure of resource-management… if you can spend a hoard point at any time, is THIS the best time to spend one?
  4. It is much easier to expand on and adjust, as need be.
  5. It can be more thematically consistent, if I’m able to keep hoard generation linked to somehow HOARDING things.
  6. It should be more intuitive. Even down to the language of points versus dice. Intuitive is good.
  7. When in doubt, I can add other abilities to a hoard point. Friggin’… spend it to redraw the danger, to seize narration, to reroll a clue, to etc. etc. etc.; I don’t think those abilities NEED to exist, but if it seems that they are lacking I have a convenient place to shove them. I can also allow hoard points to be spent as narrative currency asymmetrically… that is to say, the Toad can always spend a point to spawn a creature looking to fight, while the Rat can spend a point to spawn some surviving texts worthy of investigation. That is a weird but compelling idea.

Okay, I’m a bad cane toad. I’m trying to kill my baby, but I just ended up with a different baby who looks similar and now I want to raise it like some sort of goddamn mammal. Shame on me.

Indie+ playtest of Synanthropes

If there’s anything in the world more terrifying for a game designer than allowing his game to be played without his being there to aid in the facilitation, I don’t know what it is.

Synanthropes being playtested by the Indie+ crew.

Exciting and frightening and interesting and incredibly, incredibly informative. Thanks to Brendan Conway, Richard Rogers, Mark Diaz Truman, and Chris Tregenza for playing!

Synanthropes v.II

Hey all!

So, I was not the Game Chef victor (that honor went to delightfully ridiculous-looking Paper Tigers by Ashok Desai, but given that I would have picked that one if I weren’t in the running, I’m hardly bitter about it). BUT I am still working on Synanthropes. Enough to take it for a playtest, enough to incorporate some feedback, and enough to create a new version:

Synanthropes Version II!

Up-to-date as of June 19th, it is a much, much better version of what was submitted to the Chef, and includes, among other things, mechanics that have been made more intuitive, rules for direct conflict, careers, improved rules for finding Clues, and most importantly, the fifth Synanthrope (of a planned six): The Cane Toad.

The Toads are vile, unpleasant bastards. They are poisonous and cannibalistic with very little respect for life. I love them.

In fact, I love all of my Synanthropes, and when the next edition comes out, I hope to love my House Geckos as well.


GMotW: Gunpoint and punching!

Been a while since I’ve talked about a game mechanic, hasn’t it? Ah, well. Game Chef kept me busy. Let’s try to get back on the horse with some gentle over-excitement.

Gunpoint! Gunpoint! Game of the year for every year ever, or, if you are less-inclined to believe hyperbole, a really freaking good 2D action/espionage/cyber-noir/hacking game.

You are a small pixellated freelance spy named Conway, who is investigating a murder through a series of missions, most of which involve charging up your bullfrog hypertrousers and jumping several stories at a go, and using the crosslink device to rewire switches and sensors throughout the buildings you’re moving through. And also, punching guards.

Oh, punching guards. Strictly optional, and to be awarded the badge for being a Gentleman at the end of a level you mustn’t do any guard any harm whatsoever (it’s okay though, because there’s a Psychopath badge as well, if not-harmful isn’t your legerdemain). Leap on a guard to knock him over and…

Click: Punch

…is what the game informs you. You click, you punch, and the guard is unconscious but the phrase hasn’t gone away. You can click again. And again. You can click ten times, at which point a pool of blood appears an the guard will not be getting up again. You can keep going. You can punch a corpse a thousand times or more, because you can click forever.

That needn’t be. There are any number of options… you could bowl someone over and they’re instantly asleep, of you could click to knock out and hold to knock out Lethally (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s takedown moves) or you could just stop punching when the dude is dead, or, or, or…

Lots of options. But may of them take away a little bit of player agency, and I don’t want to undersell this but clicking to punch is a very tiny bit of player agency–it’s a very minor thing. But Gunpoint, as a game, lives in tiny decisions and little freedoms it offers its players, even in a genre and medium not known for offering lots of freedom!

Tom Francis, the designer, clever bug that he is, realized that people want to punch, however. The player is given control over his character, not just to be lethal or not, but to be as lethal as they want to be. Me, I tend to punch four or five times, to make sure those guards stay down. After all, trying to sneak around in a game where one shot kills me and I have effectively no weapon is tense, so when I get an opportunity to release that tension in the form of violence, I tend to take it. This is, mechanically, idiotic… one punch does the deed, and all I do is waste time better spent jumping around the rooftops like a lunatic. But punching guards is satisfying… there’s a little animation, a purcussive noise, and a sense that, yes, Conway is acting as an extension of ME, whether I’m hitting once for good measure, in a brief flurry because I’m tense, or nine times exactly so as to not murder the operative who’s been shooting at me but make sure he’s never happy again. Or, a thousand times because this dead guy has pissed me off right hard.

And that’s great. It’s not complex, but it doesn’t need to be… it pulls me into the game and makes a little part of my brain smile based only on a very simple action with a very direct control, which is really all the Gunpoint IS. I could say the same thing about jumping and hacking: both very simple, direct, and controllable by the player. But while those are essential for the action and puzzling aspects of this action-puzzler, punching a dude out is completely unnecessary, from a mechanical level. And yet, there is is, allowing Conway to seem all the more real, and the world to be all the more exciting and worth experiencing.

Gunpoint is out now and is totally great, and even has a developer commentary which is basically worth whatever portion of the price of admission isn’t being paid by punching dudes on the snout and then leaping away to hide in a corner and rewire a motion detector to open a trapdoor to open under a guy when a third guy runs after you. YES. Get it, and punch a guy.

Exciting news!

I’m a Game Chef finalist!

… which means I can break out this badge:



Woo! A massive “thank you” to the folks who voted for me, and congratulations, both to the other finalists and to all the other participants! And happy Game Chef to all!

Game Chef: Talking a bit more about Synanthropes

Hey, so, I was a bit quiet on Synanthropes when I posted it, because it was literally minutes before the Game Chef time limit was up for me, so… so yeah.

Synanthropes is a game about exploring humanity from the view of those creatures which live in our detritus. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for synanthropic animals; that is to say, those who dwell in ecological niches which were created by humans. Its sort of a catchall term for non-domesticated urban animals, and the borders are pretty grey–rats, for instance, would not exist as we know them without the presence of humans, whereas urban crows are just one little species of a large and more wild corvid genus, and raccoons exist in the wild just as well (if not as well-fed) as in the suburbs. Still, they are animals who dwell with humans, not because we want them to, but because, well, nature finds a way.

I’ve always felt that, in a way, synanthropes are more human than many of our closer relatives in the primate family. They don’t come from the same taxanomic family, but they demonstrate the sorts of qualities which make humans so… human. Curiosity, craftiness, a drive to explore, a willingness to dwell amongst the most dangerous predators in the world because the rewards are so good. And of course, they like human houses and human food, just like we do (regardless of the fact that they like human houses because of the spacious tunnels between walls, and human food is presented to them as massive, heterogeneous piles of slightly rotten garbage).

Humans produce waste like nothing else in the world–from literal trash to mere claimed but unused space–and the synanthropes are there to remind us that, no, it’s not really being wasted, it’s being USED. And that’s keen. It makes me sad when old buildings are demolished to make new parks, because of the arbitrariness in destroying several species’ natural-but-artificial habitat in order to make an artificial-but-natural habitat for some other creatures.

I used to keep rats myself… pet rats, not quite the same as the ones who dwelt in secret beneath my home but closely related. And I always wondered what they thought of me… they learned to recognize me as the big hand who brought the food and sometimes pulled them out of the cage to go for a ride on my shoulders or explore the desk. Was I something like a giant rat to them, recognizable as a person? Was I a god, or a titan, or a mystical figure who knew the secrets of opening peanut jars? Was I a series of disconnected images… a hand, a shoulder, an ear, some shouting about how I had a rat nose in my ear, never quite coalescing into a whole? Who can say?

So I wanted to do something with synanthropes, which led me to this game. When humanity is gone, they will remain, or something like them, moving through our leftovers, because the world contains a lot of human leftovers. If left unchecked, able to blossom and make the most of the human ruins they live in, what would they think of us? What will they become? Will they try to be like us, adapting to life in the big rooms, rather than between the walls, and creating rather than scavenging? Will these little protohumans turn into something more human?

And what, I wonder, would they think of us?

Anyway. That’s the stuff that was going through my head as I made the game.

While my sources of inspiration include literally everything I’ve ever seen/played/done, special props go to Ocean, by Jake Richmond, which is great at allowing the exploration of something unknown and mysterious without A) the need for a GM to pre-assemble the mystery, and B) the mystery being a sort of canned, procedurally-generated mess. I pretty much stole clues from that. And the character sheets are heavily inspired by Apocalypse World and its ilk, with the playbook-style sheets that help re-enforce the notion that these beings are truly unique from one another by literally giving them unique rules right there on the sheets.

As for what’s lacking, if I’m going to do a game chef post mortem, I would say that it’s the combat and confrontation rules, which ended up being sacrificed because they were ever-so-slightly too long for a game which is already two thousand words over the limit (albeit with those extra words being “optional.” I could justify optional oracle and fluff… suggesting that a major form of interaction could be optional would be one toke over the line).

Beyond that, while it’s obviously in need of playtesting and tweaking, it’s received really positive feedback thus far. I’m pretty excited, and thinking about what I can do after Game Chef season is over to finish and finalize. I feel like this year that really is something I’m interested in, more so than I was for last year’s Game Chef–not that I wasn’t fond of my game last year, but its flaws were fundamental enough that it would take an almost complete rewrite before I would be happy with it, and that takes a lot of energy to dive into when I have other, sexier projects right in front of me.

Some minor mechanical tweaks, and some playtesting to see if there need to be major changes to the pacing. Legends and mysteries could use a little re-jiggering, if only because some of them are a little too silly, and some are not quite silly enough. I’d like to give everyone a fourth set of Traits, to further connect them to their species, and a Career, to help keep them more individual. I’d like to invest in a fifth species as well, perhaps something reptilian and definitely something that doesn’t begin with “R”. Doing some research into geckos and skinks.

And pictures, pretty pretty pictures of animals.

Speaking of pictures, I’ve earned a badge, and that’s really quite exciting.


Happy Game Chef, everyone.