Monthly Archives: September 2013

GMotW: Lasers & Feelings & being prepared

It’s that time.

Game Mechanic of the Week!

This week: Lasers. Feelings. Together they are: Lasers and Feelings!

It’s a very light, very friendly game of space operatic adventure from John Harper of One Seven Design. If you haven’t looked at it yet, go do so! Don’t even read it if you don’t want to, just take in the design, which is beautiful and makes me wish I could make a thing that looks so lovely. Then read it, because it’s only a page, alright.

Characters come together basically instantly… pick a style, pick a role, set your stat (you only have the one, which represents your relative aptitude at Lasers and, conversely, Feelings), name yourself and you are out, onto the ship, ready shoot aliens in the face or, alternately, diplomacy aliens in the face.


But not precisely what I want to chat about today. No, what I want to talk about is a bout conflict resolution, which is to say, dice rolling.

When you do something risky, roll 1d6 to find out hos it goes. Roll +1d if you’re prepared and +1d if you’re an expert.

Specifically, right there in the middle. Roll an extra die if you’re prepared.

Dang! Daaaaang, wowie zowie and YES, this is such a small thing but it’s so great. Obviously, with a one-page RPG, every rule has to be as small as possible, as broad as possible, as open-ended as possible. Everything has to be squeezed down to its purest essence, if it can’t be ignored entirely.

(And a lot is ignored entirely! There are, for instance, no rules about taking injuries, or performing injuries. No guidance for interstellar navigation times. No tables listing the difference between a polearm and a glaive. No enchantment system. All of which are essential for ANY game, obviously.)

+1d if you’re prepared covers so much space, though. Off the top of my head, the presence or absence of that die can used to represent:

  • Being surprised or ambushed in a combat situation.
  • Being on your own ship, rather than a completely alien vessel.
  • If you’re an alien, interactions with your own culture.
  • Setting-up complex maneuvers.
  • Tactical decisions made by leaders, either “on-screen” (the players have been planning) or off (we should logically have been prepared for this sort of maneuver).
  • Having your hyperspanner with you, versus jury-rigigng a repair with a laser-decoupler and a paperclip.
  • Teamwork. That is to say, knowing what others will do in a given situation.
  • Making a moving, emotional speech before your charge off into certain death.

And so on and so forth. All of those could be read as some sort of version of “prepared” or “unprepared,” and there are plenty more besides.

What really tickles me, however, is the fact that this is a system where you can get two situation bonus dice (well, plus some more if you have assistance, but that’s not important right now), AND where your character has two broad descriptors (style and role), but the two don’r relate one-to-one. It would have been so easy to say “+1d if your style is relevant, and +1d if you are working within your role.” But that’s not the way it works here.

Style and role are relevant, sure, but both of them would arguably contribute more to whether you are an expert or not; role, especially, but styles like “Sexy” or “Dangerous” have an obvious place in determining expertise as well. Being “prepared” attaches to the narrative more so than the character, which I like, because it encourages players to branch out, if just a bit, from only doing things that their characters are prone to do. You’re a doctor, sure, if if you can grab the appropriate manuals then you are arguably prepared to realign the engines before the ship explodes. And you can succeed at it as well!

And that’s a really nice touch, something that sells, more than anything else, the space opera aesthetic of, say, Next Generation. Anyone on the ensemble can do just about anything. It might be hard indeed for Troi to repair an engine (because she’s all about feelings, not lasers) but she can do it, because she’s an amazing person, a hero, superhuman. She just needs a little time to prep, a little help if possible, and a bit of luck.

And that’s Troi. I don’t even LIKE Troi, but if danger was about I’d trust that she could handle it. Because preparation can let you handle ANYTHING. Even lasers. Even feelings. Even laser feelings.

The Quiet Century

Hey you lot; it’s been an EXCITING week. Just found employment at the local community college, teaching English composition, rocking out. Escaping from the Halls of Retail. It’s a sweet gig, so I spent yesterday celebrating, but that’s no excuse to not come out with a Game Mechanic of the Week, now is it?

Today, it’s from a little game called The Quiet Year by Joe Mcdaldno. I know, I know, I did one about the Quiet Year before, in which I lauded the game’s economy of contempt tokens and the way it reflected the difficulty for a community to come to a collective decision. Now I’m going to talk about a different clever mechanic, but I’m really only using it as a springboard into a hack I’d like to try out.

Quiet year. Chapter 3, the mechanic holding my interest today:

The basic unit of play in The Quiet Year is the week.

Every turn one player draws a card, and it reflects the events of that week. Then they decide what else happens that week, whether it’s discovery, discussion, or the beginning of a project. Point it, it’s a game about the passage of time as reflected through weeks.

Pacing is a difficult thing indeed; it’s something I have been struggling with while working on Synanthropes, but it’s something that the Quiet Year does a fine job with, because it’s able to make that pacing absolute. Every turn, one card, one week. There’s only so much you are able to do in a turn, there’s only so long it can last, and the arrival of the Frost Shepherds is on the horizon, and time is moving implacably forward. Sometimes it seems too long, sometimes it seems too short, but it never actually changes pace. It’s really effective, and works, well, just like actual time in that fashion, ticking along at one second per second but never quite seeming like it is.

But tell me then, because I like to think about these things… imagine if we changed nothing else about the Quiet Year, but altered that basic unit of play.

The basic unit of play in The Quiet Century is the year.

(Well, the Quiet Half-Century, but who’s counting cards, right?)

A minor change, which makes the game last fifty times longer in terms of narrative, while covering the same time in the real world. Suddenly, change happens quickly, society rises and falls in a blink, and people can be children at the beginning of the game and dead at the end without it being a tragedy. True, the Quiet Year doesn’t really do characters, per se, but it is common to have a list of figures who become relevant and recurring, names that keep popping up, often attached to specific modes of thought. It’s useful to keep track of, for instance, that charismatic young girl who causes so much fuss, because she may be related to other causes of fuss later on.

The Quiet Century? Well, the next time you see her, she might be thirty years older. Or the matriarch of an entire clan or rebel group. That’s interesting. That’s one way in which we fit in a LOT of change in the same two- to three-minute turns (because remember, we’re changing nothing else. Yeah, that means seasons last thirteen years wherever we are. I don’t know, it works for Game of Thrones, so deal. Or just call them metaphorical seasons, that works too).

Of course, filling in the blanks is what The Quiet Year is about, metaphorically AND literally, but these year-long gaps will mean the blanks are MUCH larger, so filling them in becomes really, really important. Every event has to be notable… it’s not just some guy who goes missing, it’s that fellow who everybody knows for some reason, maybe he’s the richest man in town, or the mayor. He’s all everyone seems to talk about that year. Every discovery must be huge, because that was the only thing worth discovering for an entire year! Every discussion is going to be of massive import, because it signifies a year in which nothing happened except argument (imagine the horror of spending all year to talk about what to do about those folks in the next town over, only to realize that we were all in agreement the entire time!). And every project, well, instead of being something that takes weeks to occur, it’s something that takes years. Every project is, thus, an Undertaking. We’re not talking about repairing the old truck, we’re talking about erecting viaducts, constructing entire villages, inventing new technologies from scratch.

Scarcities too take on more power, because if we’ve been scarce on food for a few turns, we’ve been hungry for years! That’s not just a lack of food as a physical thing on our plates, it means there is a huge logistical problem in supplying our people with what they need. The longer it goes unaddressed, the more people are suffering, for YEARS.

At the same time, you lose a lot of the little interactions. It’s really easy for discoveries to get lost in the shuffle. The other community on the map? In a turn’s time they could be extinct, they could be indoctrinated, they could be the first leg of the empire. The world becomes divided into the extremely short-lived and the extremely long-lasting, because of the scale of the thing. And of course, though you might be suffering from scarcities, you would lose that sense of life on the edge… no matter how much things suck right now, we know society is stable enough to keep trucking for a few more years at least.

(That said, you can put in a lot of civil unrest, coups, instability on the personal level. We’ll just know that SOMETHING will continue, even if it is much changed over the course of a decade.)

If I were to play the Quiet Century, I’d probably be tempted to give folks an extra activity every turn… I know, I know, this is violating my “only change the basic unit of play” rule but… well. I’m spitballing. Roll with me. It would be “Check in on a situation.” Checking in is like discovering something new, except instead of putting an actual new thing on the map, you alter something that is already there to reflect the passage of time. It keeps the world from being too darn static, it happens after the card is drawn but before the action for that year.

The money question is this: Will this function as a game? Will it be FUN?

Answer: I don’t know. I’d like to try it. I don’t think it would take any real manipulation of the standard Quiet Year cards to be a viable game, either… a little creative interpretation as necessary, but even then, only a little, mostly come winter when events start feeling a bit immediate. Even then, only a bit.

I think if nothing else, it would be nice to give it a try.

(Those of you who follow me on the Twitter, @EddlyT, will likely know that hacking Quiet Year has been on my mind of late. Keep your eyes peeled for more on this topic in the near future.)

Synanthropes: How much difference can one word make?

So, here I am, working my way from Synanthropes v. 3.1 to 3.2. It’s a bit of a slog. But there’s one change, at least, I’m very excited about: DANGERS are gone. Stricken from the game. OBSTACLES are in.

Oh, there are other tweaks going on… Dice are different, in that you start with more of them but only succeed on sixes. In theory, this will increase the odds of doubles being rolled, and increase the imperative to seek out every opportunity to net an extra die possible, because seeking out every little advantage is very much in character for these little explorers. Will it work, or will it just make you feel too weak, too helpless against this big, scary world? We’ll see.

Clues are being tweaked as well, to keep the game pace rapid. I’m decreasing the number of clues required by two, and doing that by making the answer to one question a clue for the next. Other advantage: this means that the answers to questions will be by necessity spread out a bit… it’s a bit less freedom in the clues you get, but should make the overall flow of the game better. Will it work, or will it make the whole affair seem a bit too stagnant? Time will tell.

There are a few more nips and tucks in the works, but honestly, I think the most important change I’m making from one version to the next is replacing that one word, turning Dangers into Obstacles.

Because I believe in the power of words. A game lives and dies on its terminology. The difference between a successful run of any given game and an unsuccessful one (or even a great run and a merely good run) is in the attitudes that the players bring to the table, and those attitudes are shaped by a million different units of context, making them brave or timid or prone to explore or vindictive or argumentative or straightforward or whatever. The only means I have at my disposal of manipulating the attitudes of players (especially when I’m not at the table, facilitating) is through the appropriate use of words, to tick the right little boxes in that contextual supercomputer that is the brain which activates the subroutines for, in the case of Synanthropes, “I want to explore!” “I want all the stuff!” “I want to argue!” and so on.

For instance, “Artifacts” is a good word for making folks want something. It sounds important! That’s why each floor contains a Human Artifact. If it were called “Human Trash” or “Human Detritus,” then why would anyone care? It’s valuable, because I SAY it’s valuable, but if you keep referring to a thing as trash, over and over, then you begin to think of it as trash, or at least, begin to underestimate its value because it’s being associated with trash. But Artifact? Well, that’s a dead sexy word. Sounds like it belongs in a museum. There’s a hint of magic to it. It conveys in inherent mystery. Human Artifact.

So why are Dangers now called Obstacles?

Simple. A Danger is something you avoid. It’s there to be evaded, worked around, worried about, and, if necessary, faced–but not faced willingly.

An Obstacle is something you OVERCOME. It’s there to be pushed through, to be dealt with, to be faced as a matter of course… you want what’s on the other side of the obstacle, because it’s important! If it weren’t important, why would there be an obstacle in front of it, eh? Eh?

As a player, dangers are scary, obstacles are inviting. As a Narrator, Dangers are vague… they could be put anywhere, be anything, wiggle around uncertainly. Obstacles are concrete: they are between the players and the door, or between the players and the Artifact, or both. Sure, a clever Narrator can and should play around with placement, but when in doubt, “this thing is in front of the door to the stairs” is a never-fail proposition.

Certainly, there are other implications, one of which being that everything on the list of obstacles must be something that stands between the players and the conclusion of their mission. I’ll drop a few of the more argument-based dangers, and add a few more creatures and constructs to stand in everyone’s way. That’s minor. That’s just… busywork, at this stage. The shift in tone and presentation is going to be more relevant, I think, to keeping the game moving the way I want it to.

Will it work? Well… I’ll find out Tuesday, I suppose.

Game Mechanic of the Week: Tokaido is Delicious

Tokaido is a board game about being the best damn tourist you can be, taking in the sights on the long walk between Kyoto and Edo, Japan. You’ve got a lot to draw your attention: souveniers to buy, local cuisine to sample, shrines to visit, travellers to chat up… but you only have so much time, and so much money, so you have to plan a bit. You might decide early on that there’s no real reason for you to see the temples, which allows you to focus on visiting the small villages instead, which is good, because there are a bunch of OTHER tourists walking the Tokaido road, and what good is visiting a temple that they’ve already seen, am I right? Which is to say, once a player has landed on a space, nobody else can visit it, which is mechanically neat and thematically sound, but also way too easy to get excited over.

But let’s look at this related one, from page 5 of the rulebook:

A traveler cannot taste the same culinary specialty twice during his journey.

Now that’s bizarrely specific. There is a deck of food cards; when you land at an inn (and everybody must land at inns, they are waypoints along the road), you draw a hand, and get a chance to buy one. Later arrivals at the inn can buy from the smaller hand. Food means points, points are how you win, so you want to get food… but if you’ve already purchased a meal, you cannot purchase a matching one. So woe betide you if you’re the last at the inn and everything’s been eaten except the same crappy nigiri you wolfed down at the last inn. Oh, you can hoover it down, sure, but you aren’t going to GROW from the experience.

Everything about Tokaido is built around one great conflict, and it’s not conflict between the players, or the hard choice behind whether to pursue your own adgendas or block other players from pursuing theirs, or even where you spend your money. Its’ this: You can move fast, or you can dawdle. The faster you move, the more control you have over where you go and what you get. The slower you go, the more you actually get to accomplish, even though it’s going to be composed of the stuff nobody else wanted. It’s fairly useful to dawdle, though… since the player furthest back on the road gets the next turn, you can hit every single space between you and the next player for free, and in so doing earn a lot of one- and two-point bonuses, which add up!

But then there’s the issue of food. Mechanically it cements the lack of choice that dawdlers get; if you don’t make it to the inn on time, you run a very real risk of getting nothing for it, missing out on an easy six victory points. So that’s one aspect.

It also forces everyone to adjust their pace… nobody wants to be the last to the inn, so the worst dawdler is inclined to move faster to get there. It’s hard not to envision the slow, moseying old man who sees the inn in the distance and suddenly realizes “dang, I AM hungry,” and leaps past everyone in his way to get there.

It ALSO gives early players the ability to screw over slower ones. When you arrive at the inn late, and there are two cards remaining, you can see what the other player who has yet to arrive has eaten, and if you’re lucky and kind of a jackass, you can contrive to saddle him with a plate of tofu he’s had before, or a plate of fugu you know he can’t afford. And that’s delightful, in a game where the only real interaction is blocking places you know other folks want to go.

Finally, it’s a tacit encouragement to broaden your gustatory horizons, something I can totally get behind, and which has a wonderful thematic synergy with the game as a whole. Experience everything you can as well as you can, says Tokaido. Experience everything you can as well as you can, says the meals deck within Tokaido, a minigame microcosm of the game as a whole. Keen, that.

GMotW: Gone Home. Look Closer.

Game Mechanic of the… week?

Man, did I really do this every week, back in the day? I really did. What happened?

Oh right, I missed a day, and then collapsed under the pressure of having to create a GMotW that was epic enough in scope to justify having missed a day. This is the same reason my brother’s birthday gift is about two months late at this point (but coming, Bert, I swear!).

But if I actually start posting on the regular again, some of the pressure will come off. And THAT, I can get behind. So speaking of taking the pressure off, let’s talk not about Synanthropes and those pressures, but about the best game I’ve played this year. It’s a video game, an it’s called Gone Home.

And if you haven’t played Gone Home, well… do? I guess, I mean, I could sit here recommending it all day but I’m not going to do that, I’ll just politely point out that it’s the only video game I’ve purchased on launch week in the last… five years, I think, and I have absolutely no regrets about it. Maybe you’ll disagree! I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to wait for the price to drop to $10 or so. But it’s not one to miss altogether.

ANYWAY. For those unaware, Gone Home puts you in the shoes of a young woman who has returned from a year abroad to the house her family moved into while she was away, finding it mysteriously vacated. No parents, no sister, just the detritus they have left behind and the stories you piece together from it.

(Fans of Synanthropes may surmise that “piecing together stories from trash” has a particular resonance for me).

In terms of mechanics, it plays things pretty simple: you can walk, you can crouch, you have an “interact” button which opens doors and picks things up, and that about covers everything except the metaludic stuff… maps and journals and inventory and game menu.

And you can look closer. Indeed, at the beginning of the game, a tooltip pops up to inform you:

“Hold right mouse or left shift to look closer.”

I love this. I love this for a lot of reasons.

Gone Home is, at its core, a game about looking. Obviously, the list of video games that aren’t, to some degree, about looking at things is small indeed, but most of the games that feature looking are really games about A) moving to the goal or B) killing the dudes in your way, where the ability to visually conceive of the world around you is simply a way to ensure that you are moving in the right direction and killing the right sorts of dudes. But Gone Home doesn’t have dudes to kill, and while it does have motion, that is the secondary concern; there is, yes, an end point, beyond which the house is deemed to be “Explored” and the game ends, but the player is not meant to jump straight to that point. The player is meant to LOOK.

This is a fact missed by many, like the folks on this page, who are proving that the game can be beaten in less than a minute. Spoilers, obviously, if you wander over there, but the bigger concern is folks missing the point. Yeah, you can get to the end point in a minute if you feel like it, but you know what that doesn’t afford time for? Looking closer.

It’s a theme that pops up over and over and over; you look closer, zooming in on the screen to see it more clearly. Pick up an object and you can look closer, seeing it from all angles. You are presented with a house that seems empty, but you can look closer, discovering all the secrets it contains. You think you know about your family, but you know what? You have to look closer. At some point we’ve left the realm of what you can do with the right mouse button, but the transition was so smooth you didn’t even notice.

What makes this so mechanically interesting for me isn’t just the zooming, which is useful, but the presentation of the mechanic: we’re not zooming in. You zoom in with your sniper scope or what the flip ever. You look closer when you’re on an exploration.

But most importantly this: the player is informed about how to use WASD and the mouse before the game actually begins. That’s all well and good and essential.

The first tool tip to actually pop up while you’re playing? Before checking your inventory, before crouching, before the map: how to look closer.

It’s almost like “Look Closer” is the fundamental action underlying the protagonist’s journey through the house both on a strictly literal and deeply metaphorical level, or something. Or something!


Oh man, PAX. Oh daaaaaaang you guuuuuuuuys, I did a lot of PAXing in the past few days. I ran through four quiet years, each less quiet than the last. I wandered around an expo hall, frightened by all the loud noises and blinking lights. I saw a really cool Tom Servo puppet, and other cosplay that didn’t include puppets so whatever. I met some interesting folks, I ate a delicious salad, I hung out with a friend, and I Networked like a business-minded mercenary.

(On the other hand, what with all the preparations and stuff, I completely fell off track with regard to editing the novel. That’s okay, I only have like twenty manuscript pages left on this particular draft, and I will get to them tomorrow. It’s my Big Plan for tomorrow.)

Perhaps most importantly, though I wasn’t able to run through the full version of Synanthropes (due, mostly, to folks being more interested in Quiet Year, and that being a game which is playable by only two), I did get four runs of Synanthropes Lite in, teaching me a few important lessons:

  1. Synanthropes Lite works! It is fun and interesting and folks had a good time. VICTORY.
  2. Synanthropes Lite drags, just a bit. Just a bit. Maybe instead of fifteen solid minutes of argument, I make it ten minutes, which means that the entire game (including the brief introductions and wrap-up questions) becomes a fifteen-minute affair. And of course, that time is as adjustable as you want to make it. Also, I should make a note that if the conversation about the Artifact ebbs on its own, that’s as good a call as any to fade to black a minute early, just to keep us from needing to harp when we’ve discussed something to death.
  3. A fifteen-minute con game is a great idea. Like, totally. There were several situations when my game ended with an hour or so before the next sets of games began, There were lots of people who thought an idea was good but didn’t want to spend two hours when there’s so much PAX to do. There were people who I wanted to do stuff with who had other commitments but a few hangout minutes to spare. There were people waiting for games to start, or waiting for another person to sign up for a game, with a little time to kill. There were people who had never played story games before, and would balk at a two hour commitment. ALL of these were events which occurred, and ALL of them were treated with a direct application of Synanthropes Lite, and (at least from my end) all of those games went really well and ended with happy people leaving the table having enjoyed themselves. And of course, happy people leaving the table having enjoyed themselves is basically what gaming is all about for me. (Maybe you disagree. Maybe you’re all about messages and learning and feeling and growing as a person and whatever. That’s fine too. That’s not how I tend to play, though).
  4. Synanthropes Lite works! Worth mentioning again, because it was a last-second sort of project but managed to hang together into something interesting, so… yes. Super happy.