Friday, July 29, 2011

Game Chef: Peer Review!

So! Part of Game Chef this year is a peer-review process, which I like. Everyone's assigned four games to read and comment on, and then recommend one of them to advance on to the next stage, which I believe is just straight-up judging, judged by judges.

I'm going to do my peer reviewing here so I can have it all in one place and not worry about being long-winded, in case it goes that way. I'm also going to try to segment my reviews in terms of how well each game addresses the theme (Shakespeare) and makes use of the ingredients (Daughter, Forsworn, Exile, Nature), as well as things I like and things about which I am not sure. Wish me luck in sticking to this plan! There will be many parentheticals, apparently!

A Midsummer Night's Scheme
Nat Barmore (with help from Caitlin Doran, whose idea it was in the first place)

What do I like? I like that this seems to be (or could be) a secondary side play happening concurrently with Midsummer Night's Dream. Nat (perhaps assisted by Caitlin!) gives a good overview of how he (or she -- could be a Natalie) sees faeries in this context, which makes for some useful roleplaying advice for the players. The faerie abilities are distinct from one another and cover just about anything I could think of a faerie doing in this context, which is good. I appreciate how what the players are doing and what the characters are doing are very similar, in that everyone's playing a game with a definite win condition. The stakes are obviously higher for the characters, but whatever -- I like the unity between in-character and out-of-character mindsets.

What am I not sure about? For what we're doing in this game, it seems awfully crunchy. You have your six stats, and Nature, and your mortal connection, which strikes me as a lot for a game about pranking faeries. I'm not sure how much better one faerie is than another in terms of, say, shapechanging should be all that important here. I'd think other factors, ones more relevant to the story or the faeries' personalities or emotions, would be more significant here. The dice mechanics look solid, but again, they seem a little involved for what's going on. And look, I like mechanics more than the next guy. I'm just saying that here, for me it's a bit of a disconnect. This also feels like the kind of game where narrative control should be shared more with the players. Instead of the SG framing every scene and (apparently) completely controlling everything in a rather traditional-GM way, it might be nice to let, say, players frame scenes, at the very least.

Is the theme well-addressed? For sure --  it's all pretty much out of a single play, but that play's also one of the most famous in Shakespeare's catalog.

Are the ingredients well-used? Nature, Forsworn, and Exile are all there. The whole game sorta revolves around your faerie's relationship with Nature (fighting against it or going with it), "forswearing" is a stakes-raising option (albeit one that seems a little easy to exploit), and Exile is the result of losing the Faerie Sovereigns' game.

Overall: I could see playing this. It's a little undefined around the edges, and that forswearing thing needs more attention, but given more than 10 days' work I'm sure these wouldn't be a problem.

Genesis Undone
Jim Ryan

What do I like? I like that picking my Role and Nature makes me think of Doctor Who, like I'm making a Time Lord. "Trust me, I'm the Savant!" It fits the whole epic nature of coming up with the First Race and the First City (which I kinda can't imagine being anything but a city floating in space, for some reason). I like the way players help define each others' characters, and the way character creation mandates some intra-party conflict.

What am I not sure about? I wish more of the character creation process were dealt with in picking a Role and a Nature. There's potential there, but Role and Nature seem to have no mechanical effect. I'm also not sure why revealing one's Nature should matter at all. For one thing, it seems like something I oughtta be roleplaying all along. If I'm the Bully, then I'm going to Bully. It should be fairly obvious what I am. Nowhere in the game does it seem to be a goal for the players to guess one another's Nature, but for some reason when my Nature's revealed (via a mechanic that doesn't seem to interface in any other way with Role or Nature), I'm at a disadvantage? I don't get it. As it is, it feels very tacked-on to me -- the fiction doesn't adequately explain why "whomever sees your Nature knows your weakness." Likewise, whether or not you've chosen to forswear the First Sin -- something that's pretty central to the backstory of the First Race and the First City -- simply doesn't matter, in the grand scheme of things. It reminds me of alignment in 4E D&D, except that it really seems like it ought to be much more significant here. Surely one's stance on the thing that should be as central to one's identity as Role or Nature. If anything, it's your stance on the First Sin that should be the thing you hide. That's your real weakness.

A few things about structure: For a game this short, the set-up strikes me as awfully long. While most of chargen is pretty focused, I think the last step, "Discuss," leaves too much up to chance. I wish "what they mean to each other" were more than backstory and window-dressing. There's a lot of players collectively making important decisions, like what the First Race, Sin, and City are, with little in the way of guidance from the text. Conversely, proscribing what each of the five Acts should contain feels very forced. I'd rather see mechanical incentives to have things proceed in one way or another than just being told what I should be doing. It puts too much in the hands of the players to figure everything out.

Is the theme well-addressed? Apart from the Acts and Soliloquies, I don't get much of a Shakespearean vibe off of this.

Are the ingredients well-used? Nature, Forsworn, and Exile are used to varying degrees. Nature is most important, "forswearing" the First Sin is pure color, and Exile is something that's happened before the game begins. 

Overall: There are a lot of interesting ideas here, but I think it needs more work before it'd feel playable.

The Lost Years
Matthew Nielsen

What do I like? There's a lot. I love the premise, especially how it lampshades time-travel concerns by providing a good reason for keeping the PCs in the dark. Faeries as far-future time-traveling humans is bizarre, but Matthew manages to make it seem strangely logical. Making use of Shakespeare's "apocrypha" is a great idea, too. Turning Comedy, Tragedy, and History into character stats is a stroke of genius. The dice mechanic is familiar, but it's also simple and intuitive, so I have no objections. Being able to spend style points to edit minor details (anything that hasn't been nailed down) and then act in character to regain those points is a great idea. 

What am I not sure about? I feel like the role of the antagonists, including who they are and what they do, is much more obvious to the author than it is to me. There's advice in the last page or so, but I'm not immediately filled with ideas. Even a few examples of possible plots against Shakespeare would help a lot, or some examples of "events that could change Shakespeare's perspective on the world." 

Is the theme well-addressed? You're obscure or non-existent or alternate-universe Shakespeare characters in Elizabethan England trying to save your creator's life at the behest of a bunch of faeries. Yeah, there's a lot of Shakespeare in there.

Are the ingredients well-used? Nothing's explicit, but I can pick them out. The faeries hang out in natural environments like forests. The PCs are all exiled from their native plays, and forsworn to protect Shakespeare. They're all well-integrated.

Overall: Given a group of players, I'd give this a shot just as soon as I thought of a decent plot against Shakespeare. Great job.

An Improbable Fiction
Ashley Griffiths, John Keyworth, & Barbara Croker

What do I like? I like the incorporation of the sonnets. Of the games I've read that directly invoke Shakespeare, this is the only one that doesn't rely solely on the plays. The Dramatic Elements and cards are a great way to get the story going and get everyone on the same page without a lot of kibitzing among the players. I like putting a token into each other player's bag, thus influencing their temperament down the line. 

What am I not sure about? I'll be honest: Much of this game is either confusing or awkward to me. The process of picking a sonnet for your character is nice and flavorful, but it also seems like it might take forever. There are portions that could definitely be edited for clarity. For example, each player has his own bag of 10 tokens, but the wording in the paragraph explaining how to determine one's starting temperament seems to imply that everyone's drawing tokens out of the same bag. (Not that it really matters, if the tokens are to be replenished between each draw -- although I think it'd be more interesting if they weren't.) When I put a token into someone else's bag, does it come from my own bag or from somewhere else? And I've read the section on Acts a few times now, but I'm still not sure how it's supposed to work. All I know is that it feels too confining to me, especially when it says that I "should be playing towards a grand ending" in the last act. It seems to me that this could be tied in better with the Dramatic Elements cards somehow.

Is the theme well-addressed? Oh yeah. Your character is a sonnet, for God's sake.

Are the ingredients well-used? All four ingredients appear as Dramatic Elements, although if you don't draw them, they won't feature in your game. Arguably, your sonnet could be your "nature," if you choose to see it that way.

Overall: I don't entirely get it, but I also recognize that I'm not the target demographic. It'd hang together well for gamers of a more theatrical bent.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Game Chef: Yeah, Finished.

All right. For those who want to check out Globe Records, it's available online.

Oh -- I want to stress again that I am not a graphic artist. Please excuse the... graphic art.

Game Chef: Finished?

Thanks to an hour or so of downtime in the Sails Pavilion at Comic-Con yesterday, I was able to finish Globe Records this morning. I think. I'm not going to post it just yet. The Game Chef deadline isn't until tomorrow morning, so I'm going to let it sit for the day and take a look at it sometime tonight. We'll see if it still seems "finished" then.

I'm pretty pleased with it, though, plus I have about 500 words to spare, so that's pretty good. I guess I can consider that buffer to be filled by the words on the character sheets, though, just to be fair. Somehow, I managed to make those 2,500 words 15 pages long.

Incidentally, I wrote this game using LibreOffice, which is by no means a viable replacement for Microsoft Word. LibreOffice isn't so much a word processor as a word platformer. Just about everything I did in it felt like a challenge. Boo.

Anyway. Back to Comic-Con for one last day!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Game Chef: Gettin' There

Seriously, this is the worst game-designing time of the year. Even with nothing else hanging over my head, Comic-Con always takes it out of me. Then there's FATE Kerberos demanding my attention, along with a few other non-game-related commitments. Look, I realize these are first-world geek problems, but still. Bear with me.

Anyway, one good thing about Comic-Con colliding with Game Chef is that standing in line for panels gives me a chance to take notes (by hand, with a pencil, on paper -- barbaric!) on this here game of mine. I'm pretty confident I can get it put together tomorrow and sent out Sunday night sometime. The mechanics have been tightened up, streamlined, and re-focused on creating good stories. In my early enthusiasm for a game in progress, I find I often have a hard time separating "fun and meaningful mechanics" from just "fun and random mechanics," but today the distinctions became clearer, and I think it shows in the design. Maybe there's something about being surrounded by people dressed in Venture Brothers costumes -- I can't say.

So I thought I'd post a little something to prove that, yes, progress is being made. Keeping in mind that I'm not a graphic designer-type person at all, here's the game's '90s-looking logo:

And here's the character sheet for Richard III Rick Rose, CEO of Globe Records, who may or may not have inherited the position from his brother under, uh, "questionable circumstances."

Some new things there, if you've been reading my last couple posts. A big circle! Only one Nature! A card suit! What could it all mean? Well, I think it's pretty easy to work out, but that's what the game's text is for. So far I have a solid... 293 words, give or take. Even after I start copy-pasting stuff in from my notes, I'm pretty confident that I won't come especially close to 3,000 words. It's a pretty straightforward game.

(But that's what everyone thinks of their games, right?)

Oh, weird thing to mention: Today (Saturday the 23rd) at noon, I'm going to be on a panel on game design -- at least, I hope it's on game design, or something else I can easily fake my way through -- at Gam3r-Con, a small but ambitious game convention that's running parallel to Comic-Con. If you're around, come check it out. Let's discover what I might have to say together, shall we?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Game Chef: Hmm... Needs More People

Hey, I think I might actually finish this thing. It's essentially done: All the characters have all their bits (with, like, one or two exceptions), the un-playtested rules look solid and fun, I have 12 soap-opera storylines broken down into their three stages of development... it's surprising how far it's come.

But one thing I've noticed is that even with six characters, it feels a little sparsely populated for a soap. These are all primary cast; they need some supporting cast, too. So each character now has three Supporting Cast. One's already filled in, but the other two are left blank for the player to define during play. You don't even have to fill them both in if you don't want to.

I'm not entirely sure what mechanical purpose they'd serve, but I'm inclined to treat them just like Vows, Natures, and Modes. Each starts rated at 1, and etc. Instead of picking one Vow, one Nature, and one Mode, you'd pick one entry from each category. Sometimes that Supporting Cast will be relevant; often they won't.

For example, Dane Prince's initial Supporting Cast is his band, Sea of Troubles (comprised of Simon Catling, Hugh Rebeck, and James Soundpost, three musicians from Romeo and Juliet). When they're helping the situation -- say, if they're trying to impress a producer at a gig -- Dane's player can use them to draw a card. When they're a problem -- say, if he's trying to impress a producer at an industry party, and they're being idiots -- his player can choose to fail the contest in exchange for increasing their rating by one.

Which reminds me: There needs to be a good way to get those ratings down. I'm thinking you can burn points to draw additional cards at a 1:1 ratio. But none of these things (whatever they're called) can be lowered below one. That all seems reasonable. You'll burn them when you're desperate. And then maybe you can regain one point in one of them during a commercial break. Sure, let's do that.

See, this is what my game-design notes look like -- me talking to myself.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Game Chef: Globe Records

So! My idea for this year's Game Chef is a bunch of characters from Shakespeare's plays thrown together in the milieu of a hip record label (Globe Records) in the early '90s. Here are some of my notes (posted earlier on The Forge, in case you saw them there).

We have:
  • Rick, head of the label: A schemer to the core, Rick didn’t get where he is today without pissing a few people off. His office is at the top of the label’s towering office building in LA. He has a wife (name pending), but is having an affair with Lady MC, the label’s biggest recording artist and Othello’s sister.
  • Lady MC, talent: A hip-hop star having an affair with Rick and, by extension, manipulating Globe Records. Specifically, she’s trying to ensure that she isn’t shown up by Juliet. But she doesn’t want the label to drop her altogether -- as long as she’s with Globe, Lady can control her career.
  • Juliet, talent: A rising star on her second marriage. She married her first husband (Othello’s brother Romeo) when she was just a teenager, and his death shortly thereafter sent her into a tailspin. Othello was there to catch her. At first she was grateful; these days, she can’t help feeling like being with him might be holding her back.
  • Othello, recording engineer: Handsome, kind, strong -- that guy. Afraid his wife Juliet is cheating on him. Talented singer-songwriter, but he’s seen what being in the spotlight has done to her and doesn’t want any part of that. He’s plays acoustic guitar at coffee houses to sparse but appreciative patrons.
  • Portia, record producer: Woman trying to make it in a man’s world. Power suit, shoulder pads, the whole nine yards. Nursing a crush on Othello, and trying to convince him to sign with her as a recording artist. Also, she’s Rick’s daughter, though he doesn’t show her favoritism. They... don’t have a great relationship.
  • Dane Prince, talent: Moody lead singer of Sea of Troubles, a grunge band signed with Globe. Attracted to Juliet, but has a bad history where relationships are concerned. Othello’s best friend.
Everyone has Vows, Natures, and Modes. Vows are motivations -- things you’re forsworn to do. Natures are beliefs and personality traits -- things that make you you. Modes are how you feel at any given time; everyone has three to choose from (unique to the character). Natures and Modes are pre-set for each character; each character’s Vows are defined before play by the player.

These things have ratings, starting at 1. When you do something, you pick a Vow, Nature, and Mode appropriate to the situation. Combine their ratings, and draw that many cards, less any cards already in hand (so if you have a card in hand and the total of your ratings is three, you only draw two cards). Each player in a conflict (usually only two) plays a single card. High card wins narration rights. The players swap the cards they played. The swapped card you receive stays in your hand; discard the rest.

Vows, Natures, and Modes are potentially problematic. Every time you make one of those create a problem for you -- something like an automatic “I lose, because I’m so Angry” -- instead of playing a card, increase the rating of the Vow, Nature, or Mode by 1. You don’t get the other player’s card; it’s discarded instead.

I’d like for the suit to matter somehow, but I’m not sure how just yet. Maybe assign a suit to each Mode, and if the suit of the card you play matches your Mode you trump? Sure, why not.

Take a standard deck of playing cards and remove the face cards (Jacks, Queens, Kings). The remaining cards -- A through 9 in four suits -- are used by the players during play for all that card-drawing jazz. The face cards are used to randomly determine the storylines for the episode. Each episode has three storylines, each in one of three different stages of resolution when play begins. The further along the storyline, the more people it involves. A new storyline involves only two characters, an ongoing storyline involves three, and a concluding storyline involves four. (There can be overlap between these groups.) The first player draws a face card to determine the new storyline for their character, then picks one other player to be involved. That player decides how the two characters are involved in the storyline, then draws a card for their ongoing storyline and picks two other players. Each of those players decides how one of the other three characters is involved. A player who hasn’t drawn a storyline card does so for their concluding storyline, and chooses three other players to share it with them, and each of those players decides how one other character is involved.

Every player writes down a Vow for each storyline they have. This must be a statement using the phrase “I must” or “I can’t” that relates to the storyline and includes one other character in it. For example, Othello’s player draws Amnesia for his new storyline, and chooses to involve Dane in it. Dane’s player decides that Othello  partially lost his memory as a result of a car accident, but right before that he caught Dane with Juliet. Now, he doesn’t remember it. Dane’s helping him cover and recover out of guilt. Othello’s player writes down “I must regain my memory.” Dane’s player writes “I can’t let Othello know about Juliet and me.”

An episode has four commercial breaks. In between these, each player takes a turn framing a scene relevant to one of their storylines. After one commercial break, a new storyline becomes ongoing. After three commercial breaks, an ongoing storyline becomes concluding. After two commercial breaks, a concluding storyline ends; draw a new storyline and dovetail it into that one. So each of the 12 storylines needs a breakdown of where they are at each stage. That should be... okay. Manageable, anyway.

The game ends when the episode ends.


I may need to rework the pacing of the storylines and the three stages of development, but other than that I really think the mechanical end of things is pretty solid. It's partially inspired by an idea I had a while ago for escalating aspects in FATE.

I've started to do the storyline breakdowns (about halfway done there -- I need a few more ideas for soap opera tropes) and the characters. Three of each trait -- Vow, Nature, and Mode -- seems about right. I mean, it's possible that a character may not be involved in three storylines, in which case they'd only have two Vows, but I'm going to set Natures and Modes at three each. The Natures are turning out to be statements or beliefs more than personality traits, which really makes each character distinctive. I like that. And the Modes look like they'll be fun to come up with. Othello's, for example, are Protective, Compassionate, and Shirtless.

Having the specifics of the storylines determined by a mix of random card-drawing and the players themselves should help keep the word count low. If I can just find the time to do this thing over the next week (questionable), I think I'll have something pretty fun and workable on my hands.

Not married to that name, but... it's good enough for now. If anyone has any suggestions, I'm all ears.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Game Chef 2011: A Game Designer Is You!

Game Chef 2011 starts July 15th! Stay alert! Trust no one! Keep your dice handy!

The timing on this is awesome, because it ends the Monday after Comic-Con. So there'll be a good chance I won't finish on time, but at least it'll give me something to talk about at Gam3rCon.