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Core Resolution and Emotional Dynamics

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How To Design Games the Robin Laws Way

(Part Six of Several; see part one for introduction and disclaimer)

With the core book outlined, it’s time to tackle the question of the game’s core resolution system.

(The reality isn’t so linear; thoughts about the book’s structure generally arise in parallel to ideas about the resolution system.)

If you’re designing a new game based on an existing core rules set, the choice is simple—let’s use that one. It might be dictated to you by the publisher, or a decision that you make as a designer. In the latter case, you'll obviously be constrained to the core rules sets available to you. Most likely, you’re working with a rules set by the same publisher. Or you might be using one available through a license, open or limited. We’ve already talked about the process of fitting a new game to an existing rules set; you’re presumably doing the Game X take on Y genre/setting.

If, however, I’m working from scratch, I want to design a core resolution system that creates the emotional dynamic implied by the core goal. Dying Earth, with its rolls and rerolls, evokes the comical back-and-forth of the source material. DramaSystem emulates the basic construction of dramatic scenes and otherwise gets out of the way. HeroQuest zooms out to a broader emulation of story construction, including the pass/fail cycle I later refined in Hamlet's Hit Points. GUMSHOE asks why it feels cool when heroes gather information in a mystery story, and brings that to the gaming table.

I never start out with a novel or abstractly intriguing mechanical idea and then try to build a game around that chassis. It starts with feeling. The mathematical construct is secondary; what the players are feeling when they use it is everything.

Recently I had the experience of switching from one core system owned by my publisher to the other. Before digging into the research for The Gaean Reach, I figured it would be Skulduggery-based, with bits of GUMSHOE sorted in. After reacquainting myself with Jack Vance’s delightful source material, I saw how the structure of its stories differed from the superficially similar Dying Earth tales the core rules were originally designed for. The SF novels played were more about investigation with the occasional setback than the constant picaresque reversals undergone by the likes of Cugel and Rhialto. So I shifted gears, to a GUMSHOE core with appropriate Skulduggery elements grafted on. Again this was a matter of creating the right feel, whether or not the crossover between the two systems introduces brand confusion.

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Disorienting Exposition

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In fiction set in unfamiliar times and places, it often falls to the author to explain details of the world well-known to the characters but not to the reader. How straightforwardly to lay this out is a matter of style, and therefore taste. I tend to want to deliver it in a compact way and get on to the story it’s supporting. Some readers prefer obscured approaches that take longer but don’t necessarily signal themselves as expository—world detail through dialogue being a key technique.

A more complex technique presents expository detail about the world as if addressing a reader already familiar with it. Most often you'll see this in SF novels. The narrator rattles off terms and describes situations without full explanatory context.

According to the beat analysis system found in Hamlet's Hit Points, these mystifying references serve as question beats. They arouse our anxiety and our curiosity, impelling us to read on, in search of clarification. As we figure out the world through additional context, we feel counterpointing up beats, when those questions are answered.

This might be seen as the SF version of a common literary fiction gambit, where details of the story being retold are teased but not fully laid out. In both cases these can substitute for the basic building blocks of most fiction, dramatic and procedural scenes.

How much one digs this is another matter of taste. Personally, I prefer to be invested in a character, to hope for her success and fear for her failure, before I’m asked to puzzle through an alien future. Other readers might be perfectly happy with pure world extrapolation, without all that pesky story and character always rearing its head.

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Flames Rising Interview

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As part of Flames Rising’s ongoing interview series with the authors of Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line, Jeremy L. C. Jones puts the questions to me regarding The Worldwound Gambit, novel development, and the essence of a compelling protagonist. Along the way I drop a hint or two surrounding my unannounced next Pathfinder novel, talk up Hamlet’s Hit Points as  a plotting aid, and provide aspiring writers with either encouraging discouragement or discouraging encouragement. Check it out.

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With DramaSystem now out for playtest and wending its way toward crowdfunding, I’m kicking off a new occasional feature. In Scene Study, we look at dramatic scenes from other narrative forms, see how they tick, and look for lessons we can apply when playing Hillfolk, or roleplaying games in general.

The new David Milch / Michael Mann HBO series Luck follows an ensemble cast of race track habitues, from trainers to jockeys to owners to degenerate gamblers in pursuit of diverse agendas, all of which depend on the titular quality.

In episode two, freshly paroled gangland figure Chester Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and his right-hand man Gus (Dennis Farina), recap events of the recent past while on a car ride. Gus drives, with Chester in the back. In Hamlet's Hit Points terms, the scene acts as a reveal. It tells us what both men already know about the events that led Chester to prison, and which motivate the revenge he’s now plotting against Mike, the confederate who let him take the rap for him.

On paper, you’re never supposed to write a scene in which two characters reveal information they already know. On screen, this plays as a transcendent acting duet, with the music of Milch’s stylized dialogue perfectly executed by two great actors.

It’s also a dramatic scene, in which Gus, the petitioner, seeks for something other than the facts. They are the pretext for something deeper. He’s drawing out the account of why Chester let himself take the fall to answer a question for himself. What he really wants from Chester is reassurance, a staple dramatic goal that often arises in Hillfolk games. He wants to know that they’re doing the right thing, that he shouldn't have killed the other guy, as Gus was willing to do.

Chester grants Gus his petition. By conceding that Mike would never have done the same for him if their positions were reversed, Chester shows Gus that he understands the situation. Reassured, Gus accepts the matter as closed. In a DramaSystem game, Chester’s player would earn a game currency called a drama token as reward for having satisfied the petitioner’s emotional need.

The scene shows that low-key interactions can be just as memorable as the higher-stakes confrontations that appear around them. No great heat passes between the two men. They remain cordial throughout, and Chester winds up giving Gus what he wants. The moment affirms the tightness of their friendship. A compelling scene needn’t turn on heated conflict. Here the answering of an audience question supplies all the interest we need to care about their exchange, to enjoy hearing these two guys talk.

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Headlines as Story Beats

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Hamlet's Hit Points identifies three basic story beats relating to the presentation of information. The pipe beat hides info for later, and as such is strictly a creature of fiction. The other two beats, the question and the reveal, are central to any narrative communication that seeks to attract and hold audience interest. Questions cause emotional friction or longing; reveals relieve these feelings. The first is a down beat, the second an up beat.

New stories can be broken down with beat analysis, too. The shoehorning of information into a storyline with emotional ups and downs becomes most apparent on television news. However, it’s present in print reporting as well.

However arranged, a newspaper or magazine headline poses a question. As much as it may seem to lay out the basics of a story, it’s really working to excite your imagination and formulate questions about its further details. The body of the story then proposes to answer that question, along with the core journalistic five Ws: what? Who? Where? When? Why? (And the red-headed stepchild, How?)

If you’re using social media to spread awareness, you can garner more clicks by hooking into the beat structure of headline and story. When you write a blurb on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or whatever to a post you want people to read, compose it so that it poses a question, in the reader’s mind if not directly. Reference to one of the 5Ws never hurts.

The hidden dynamic of the headline, and how to harness it.

Why ghouls are the next vampires.

Who are the players of the future?

When to eject dysfunctional gamers.

Of the 5Ws, the most clickable is the H. People want to know how to do things.

Other classic headline tricks attract clicks. Citing a number poses an implicit question. If your headline reads “Ten Mistakes GMs Make”, I’m immediately wondering which items you’ve chosen.

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2 GMs, 1 Mic On Hamlet's Hit Points

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In episode 20 of their 2 GMs, I Mic podcast, the irrepressible Joe Wolz and Nicky Helmkamp tackle the issue of pacing in roleplaying games. In the process, they give Hamlet's Hit Points a thorough and gratifying examination. Those of you already familiar with the book may be most interested in the examples they give of applying its lessons to actual play.

Joe tells a funny story on himself in which, when talking to me at Gen Con, his comments on the book led me to look at him like he was a “total douchebag.” While it is true that he led with a wee faux pas, I would, and will, characterize the moment somewhat differently. But before I turn the anecdote into a remake of Rashomon set at the Pelgrane booth, I'll give you time to listen to the Wolz-Helmkamp version.

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A Look Back at Korad I: The Process

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Since June 2010 this blog has hosted the Korad experiment, an exercise in group world-building. The final fact we learned about Korad concerns its nominal future. We selected the three candidates for a future ideology which will one day supersede the empire's dominant worldview. As determined by you, they are:

Candlism, a stoic blend of religion and philosophy.

Satirism: a working-class magical movement subverting official opposition to frivolity

Symbotomism: a movement determined to eradicate Aesigil influence, at the cost of also destroying written language

My original intention was to use the world creation as a prelude to another play-by-blog exercise, along the lines of Angels and Operators. As you may guess from the opening clause of the previous sentence, I’ve reconsidered and will no longer be going ahead with that.

It used to be that an ongoing feature, like Korad or Angels and Operators, offered me an acceptable trade-off on the time versus inspiration scale. They took more time to write than the average blog post, but they reliably provided a guaranteed topic for one slot a week. The Hamlet analysis proved even more fruitful, leading as it did to a gratifyingly successful book, Hamlet’s Hit Points, and acting as inspiration for my upcoming new game engine, DramaSystem.

Even more so than a year ago, a blog designed to attract an audience thrives on one-time clicks from social media platforms. Ongoing features did well back when LiveJournal was still a growing concern, and users reloaded their friends page on a habitual basis. Readership for LJ has been slowly deflating over the past year, in part prompting my exodus to the new blog. In the social-click driven environment, which I can now measure with a reasonable degree of accuracy, repeat features lose attention after a while. Those with a play-by-blog format suffer doubly, from what might be called the Babylon 5 effect. They require a high degree of investment and are hard to catch up with if you don’t jump on board from the outset. Given the challenges of LJ’s decline and timing of the move to the new blog, we still had great participation on the world-building end. However, in the new environment or paradigm or whatever it is, I don’t see a play-by-blog series as the best use of my limited outreach time in future.

What I was going to do was have commenters play, to whatever extent they wanted, influential members of the chosen ideology. I’m betting the collective would have chosen Satirism, with few participants rooting to play either stoics or destroyers of literacy. Each play session would present a turning point, where the group would have to decide how to handle a crisis affecting the movement from within and without. Each turn would jump forward in time, allowing for multi-generational play as the ideology adapted itself to changing historical circumstances.

If I had the time to do this, which I’m sure I don’t, I might attempt to do the play over on Google+. It’s new and shiny; its circle feature and discussion orientation might prove more amenable to play-by-blog than a standard comments arrangement.

I’ll do one more blog post, looking at what we’ve learned about world-building from this collective process. In the meantime, though, it’s time to throw Korad’s fate open to you. My final version of the resulting world bible, has now been uploaded to Scribd. The document and its underlying intellectual property are, as always, public domain. You are free to do what you want with it. Peruse it. Change it. Use it as a setting for fiction, your home game, or a published RPG. If you do choose to do something with it, be sure to check in with a report.

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At Gen Con, brave questioners heard details on up to three unannounced projects. Over the last weeks, I’ve been making those revelations here.

The first: New Tales of the Yellow Sign

The second: Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff

Now the third and final reveal: my new rules engine, DramaSystem, as expressed by its first game iteration, Hillfolk. The tagline for the project is: If Hamlet's Hit Points is the theory, DramaSystem is the practice.

Specifically, it picks up on the HHP observation that the core scenes of any narrative can be broken down into two categories: procedural and drama, and that RPGs have traditionally excelled at the former and given short shrift to the latter. You know those magical sessions where the rules melt away and you just find yourself freely interacting for four hours? And next week you can’t recapture whatever lightning found its way into the bottle? DramaSystem makes that happen all the time. It changes the roleplaying dynamic, allowing you to create ongoing collaborative stories that unfold like serialized drama shows (“The Sopranos”, “Six Feet Under”, “Shameless.”) I’ve been in-house testing this for most of the year and am beyond excited by the results.

The first game is Hillfolk, in which you play the core members of a clan of uplands raiders at the dawn of the iron age. Their personal stories play out in a crucible of competing civilizations. Do their histories change the world forever?

Pelgrane will be publishing; I’ll be talking about in stages in the weeks and months ahead. For the moment, here’s a peek at the character sheet. This is my playtest rough and has yet to undergo graphic design beautification. But you get the idea.

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Chris Farrell applies the Hamlet's Hit Points method to board game analysis. See if you can spot the line that is exactly what I'd hoped a reviewer would say about the book.

Dissertation by Doctor of Roleplaying Michelle Nephew now available in affordable e-form.

The West Memphis 3 are to be released today, thanks in large part to a series of documentaries about their clearly unjust murder conviction. The third installment is due to play the Toronto International Film Festival in a few weeks; the directors are now rushing to add an updated ending. Among the celebrities helping their cause, it turns out that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh provided funding for the forensic tests that finally forced prosecutors to act. The three were released under something called an Alford plea, which stops short of an exoneration, leaves some charges on their records, but does not (contra early reports) require them to admit guilt.

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Ashen Stars on The Game’s the Thing

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Episode 90 of Ron and Veronica Blessing’s The Game’s the Thing podcast focuses on Ashen Stars, with yours truly as the guest. Join us as we talk about the game’s premise, genesis, development process and additions to the GUMSHOE toolkit. Also up for discussion are Hamlet's Hit Points, why players only think they want their characters to be irresponsible, and teasers for two of the three reveals of Gen Con. Put it in your ears!

Site link.  / iTunes link.

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