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Author Topic: Breaking the Ice: one gamers thoughts and memories when reading the game (long)  (Read 2525 times)
MatrixGamer
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« on: September 05, 2005, 01:15:17 PM »

BREAKING THE ICE

Observations from a Matrix Gamer.

I traded games with Emily at Gen Con and have gotten to reading it over the Labor Day weekend.

First off – envy that you’re getting more buzz than Matrix Games are.

Second – interesting topic. I may try playing it with my wife (out first date was 18 years ago so I don’t think I’ll mess things up by too many self revelations). I will also pass it on to my colleagues who do relationship groups with college students.

Thirdly – When I was a young man this game would have scared the piss out of me. It is self disclosure to the max. Now I’m fine with this kind of role reversal. My favorite role playing experiences were running teenage girl characters. I bounced the idea off other people I know and they were all uncomfortable with the topic as well. These were all college educated Hoosiers so you could just blame that on the “Red State” mentality (though I think we were all Democrats) but if this reaction is general then the game may not be played much. In a therapy group it might be – because people are more open to talking about such subjects.

Fourthly – This really showed me how different and similar what I do is from Forge ideas. I would have said that Matrix Games were narrativist but now I have to say they are definitely gamist and “task resolution” based.

So thanks for the insights into Forge ideas.

Now for specifics and the thoughts and memories they raised.

CHOOSING A SETTING

As a given everything in this game seems to be about negotiation and consensus. The players are getting together and effectively world building. I’ve done Matrix Games like this over the years. I’ve never felt they completely. We seemed to ramble on and never come to a story. BTI has a story set so this will not happen. I’ve found giving players a few arguments at the beginning of Call of Cthulhu games to describe what weird things happened worked well. The events suggested the story that the players investigated. They had input into the story at the start of each game session but I then told it as the game master. BTI does not have a central power.

The need for a central authority is one of those things that divide players up. Some people are perfectly at home with sharing power. Others feel it isn’t a game if there isn’t an authoritative set of rules or strong GM.

Dr. Paddy Griffin (retired professor from Sandhurst) ran “Mugger Games” in the early 1960’s in which the players were presented with a tactical situation and then talked their way through it – much like what happens in BTI. Paddy called it a Mugger game because regular gamers walked away feeling mugged. “That wasn’t a real game!” They did the same kind of thing in Tactical Exercises Without Troops (TEWTs) by walking a battle field, describing set ups and then talking their way through the actions. A good officer training tool but again not a “game” as it was thought of in 1965.

I don’t mind lack of central control but I do like the move/roll diceness of “games”. Matrix Games share power between players and a referee but still retain that game feel.  This is personal preference though and maybe others like more openness.

CHARACTER CREATION

When I looked at character creation I immediately thought “Writing the natural way” by Gabrielle Rico PhD 1976. That describes the clustering technique used here. This is the book that got me through college. I used the technique to write all my papers and more than a few games, an excellent brainstorming tool.

In 1986 I used a combination of this creative writing tool and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in what I know see as the proto Matrix Game. I called it a Cognitive Pyramid game. Players brain stormed answers to the needs of Maslow’s pyramid. They then pulled various “thoughts” and organized them into a smaller pyramid (1 self actualization need, 2 work needs, 3 basic need needs). As we played they could reshuffle their mindsets one idea at a time and I would look at their pyramid to see the matrix of their brain. I would then rule on their actions in a way that seemed to fit the situation. Players were able to change their list of “thoughts” over the campaign so they became better soldiers (it was a WWII game). Then the war ended and I could see why Vietnam Vets came home troubled. The mind set they needed to survive there was not at all functional back State Side.

I took this matrix of words idea and moved towards searching for structure. Words rather than numbers stored the information of the game. I wanted a central authority just not a numerically based one. BTI goes off in a completely different direction. Character creation here is the game application of what Doctor Rico described. This leads into narration, conflict rather than task resolution, and not authority.


NARRATION

When I read BTI it seemed to me like it was all the discussion people would have before the game started rather than being the game itself. They talk their way through situations rather than one player play acting one role and the other play acting the other. I personally like the improvisation part of role playing so this missed the mark on my preferences (I don’t know if that is a simulationist preference.) I remember hearing early rap music in around 1982 and thinking “When will the song start?”  My “game” thinking seems to want steps, actions, tasks that build up to something.

BTI leaves these conventions to the wind. One player makes up a scene and the other player awards conflict resolution dice but can say it doesn’t happen (unless the die roll is not made I guess). I’m a little fuzzy on the actual resolution process – I’ll need to read it more closely for that. Anyway my gamey mind goes “Matrix Games are nothing like this.” But then I stop…

Each turn I have players make up what happens next in the game. The referee makes up how strong the argument is. Other players can make arguments that build on or contradict the first player’s argument. Dice are rolled and it happens or it doesn’t.

Very similar mechanisms.

The feel of play though is very different. BTI focuses on telling the story. Matrix Games reflect my mechanical thinking about the world. I’m as much interested in the little steps to get to the end of the scene as I am in the outcome of the scene. Matrix Gamers are competing as well as cooperating about the story. At the end of the day the war game foundations of MGs show through. BTI is in the line with Mugger Games and TEWTs neither of which are well know. Paddy says that Matrix Games are just a variation on Mugger Games (which would have been true if I had heard of them prior to making MGs!)

The flow of play of narration gives great freedom and great responsibility. Players have to make the story happen. It will not unfold before them as a computer RPG does or even as a D+D dungeon crawl does. I’ve found that people like a lot more structure in their games so MGs have gone in that direction. What the long term development of narrativist play will be I can not tell. Clearly it has traction to something will evolve.

ROLLING – THE GAMIST BITS


As I said above I don’t quite get this. From what I’ve gathered reading about various other narrativist games (and reading My Life with Master – which I would not feel funny playing but which doesn’t have immediate therapy applications because most college freshmen are not living with evil scientists – evil roommates yes – while BTI first dates is just where they are.) What I’ve gathered is that one person describes a scene leading up to a dramatic conflict. Dice are rolled and it they win they finish narrating their success. If they fail they narrate their ignominious defeat. I assume that is what happens here.

Successes change the “matrix” of the game by adding compatibilities that in turn affect the chance of success of actions in later dates.

There is no competitive element to BTI. If both characters were killed by a falling asteroid we might be said but no one will have lost.

I’m of two minds on competition. On the one hand I don’t need to prove my manhood by winning games. I know some kick ass martial artists with whom I concede all physical fights. I’m an old guy in my 40’s and I don’t have to be cool. Then again I like having a solid conclusion to games. Having a winner feels satisfying. “And they lived happily ever after” only goes so far toward satisfaction.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

If I were just meeting a woman it would be better to actually go on dates rather than role play dating. If I play with my wife, it might be fun. If I was playing with a woman I wasn’t dating, it might be awkward. Dating sexualizes situations. Even just talking about it does this. I don’t really want to go there with my female friends. If I was playing with a group of guys I would expect many awkward silences and much discomfort (if they were taking it seriously) or silly teenage garbage if they weren’t. BTI might well sell but will it be played? I honestly don’t know. If it is played then the world has gotten a lot more liberal and comfortable with itself than I think it has.

Back to envy. BTI is a little 40 page booket that sells for $12.95. It does one game and the system does not generalize to other settings (without writing your own game.) Yet it has buzz and I heard one person on the Ogre Cave Pod cast saying he would like to have it in his store. Envy – hardback, glossy covered, color map interior books with six games per book, expandable with only the smallest amount of player writing – and not near as much buzz. Envy, envy, envy…

If you are on the Forge and read this and think “He just doesn’t get it!” you may be right – but please refrain from giving me that feedback. I’ve written this for Emily to give her feedback on what I thought and remembered when reading BTI. If you want to comment on it why not address my observations about people being uncomfortable opening up this much, what makes people like narrativism rather than gamist play or any comments or questions that you have about Matrix Games. I can answer those. If I’m not “getting” narrativism, conflict resolution or other Forge ideas then I can’t answer your complaints. I’d put it down to coming at games from different sides of the mountain. I have to be honest with myself, I’m a war gamer with all the limitation that go with that.

Chris Engle
Hamster Press=Engle Matrix Games
http://www.io.con/~hamster
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Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
http://HamsterPress.net
Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #1 on: September 05, 2005, 02:21:07 PM »

Hey Chris,

I'm not sure the gamist appelation is correct for BtI.  In my experience, the play is very collaborative, and you are really gunning for a shared positive outcome.  There isn't any PvP competition per se.  The dice add a random element but don't amp up any sense of competition, particularly since your partner/co-player is arbiter of what's cool and worth dice in many cases. 

Some of your other comments make me think you've misread the game. As far as setting, it's perfectly servicable in any time or place where people gain romantic attachments, which is pretty much everywhere.  I'd be very hesitant to use it on an actual date or try to use it as a therapeutic tool; that clearly isn't what BtI is for.  But you're right that it can be scary and uncomfortable at first.  It was for me!

I think it is a really good game and deserves whatever buzz it is getting.

--Jason
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MatrixGamer
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« Reply #2 on: September 06, 2005, 05:33:25 AM »


I'm not sure the gamist appelation is correct for BtI.  In my experience, the play is very collaborative

I agree, it isn't gamist. I find though that I like a little gaminess - thus Matrix Games have more competition and dice rolls used to build up tension. That's a personal preference though not a negative statement.

Some of your other comments make me think you've misread the game.

I knew someone would say this. These were just the thoughts I had after reading the game once. I thought Emily might like to hear those reactions by way of feedback. As a game designer I know I seldom get this kind of feedback and when I've gotten it it has really helped me to learn how my rules writing and presentation are coming across. I claim no expertise on BTI.

I'd be very hesitant to use it on an actual date or try to use it as a therapeutic tool

God no don't use it on a date! Unless you want to drive off a prospective mate! First dates are polite and awkward enough as is.

As to it being a potential therapy tool - here I put on my psychotherapist hat (19 years in the field.) They type of discussion the game calls for has theraputic merit. It gets people talking about a topic that is important to college age students (I work in a college counseling center). Talking exposes them to the uncomfortable emotions of dating without actually being on a date (so less chance of rejection) allows them to mentally plan for it, and has them practice open communication that can be VERY useful when they are out on the date. The game doesn't play like D+D so it is not going to have any RPG nerd stigma attached to it. So I think it could be useful.

I think it is a really good game and deserves whatever buzz it is getting.

I'm not denying  that. I'm just envious. When I published my first Matrix Game in 1992 (with similar production qualities - saddle stapled booklet) I didn't get buzz. ENVY! I still don't get it even though my books are now very well made. Production qualities in the end are not what get you notice - it is some other quality, an elusive quality.

Chris Engle
Hamster Press=Engle Matrix Games
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Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
http://HamsterPress.net
ejh
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #3 on: September 06, 2005, 06:42:26 AM »

Chris -- I'm still very curious about Matrix Games.  A last minute funding shortage kept me from buying some, though I had planned to this GenCon.  :(   Matrix Games are interesting to me because they are both very similar to and very different from the games I know from the Forge.  Parallel evolution with fascinatingly different paths taken.  I need to remember to pick one up.

One thing that you should know about actual play of Breaking the Ice is that something about it -- perhaps the character generation system -- is very good at establishing a really good distance/closeness between players and characters.  The fact that the characters were generated as a result of a communal brainstorming session, and the presence of the "switch," gives a real feeling of objective, independent existence to the characters.  You play them, but the distance keeps it from seeming overly personal.  I urge you to give the game a try and see how it affects your ideas about how it would work just from reading it.

I recently played a game with my wife.  She was honestly rather skeptical about "a game about going on dates, for gamers," and approached it almost as a joke at first...  that didn't survive character generation.  By the time we had our characters made we were both having fun and taking it seriously.  Suspending disbelief and honestly interested in the date between Alex the rock climber and Jordan the tech geek, who found common ground in geocaching....

I had the good fortune to demo it with Emily, so I got an idea of the actual play experience up front.  It's far less "weird" than you would think.
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Emily Care
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« Reply #4 on: September 06, 2005, 08:10:51 AM »

Hi Chris, Jason, Ed (right?),

Thank you so much for reading the game, Chris, & for sharing your thoughts.  If you get a chance to play, some of the oddness may make more sense in context.  I think it's hard to "get" most games until you see them in action. 

As far as the "gamism", there are different ways to look at it: you do have a clear objective that the players are striving toward, and resources that you can utilize for maximum effectiveness.  Yet it is very cooperative.  Several people have described their experience of the game as the players united against the system to try and bring the characters together.  Cooperation & competition are not mutually exclusive, and this may be a case in point.  However, the objectives are there to point the players to what really matters:  the quirks of the aspiring lovers, the challenges they face & how, or if, they overcome them & how it affects them as people.  I don't know if we can look at the rules per se & say what kind of play people are going to have of this game.  I think it really depends on how they approach it.  Here's a f'rinstance:

A demo I did during GenCon was with a couple who came up to play (Josh & Carrie, are you out there? That is, not Newman & Bernstein, but others I met at the con.)  It was great, they made up their characters together, then started giving each other challenging traits to deal with.  They ended up assigning each other's conflicts: belches in public and something else I can't recall now.  They took the Guide position very seriously and made each other work hard for each die.  So, although you are working for the same goal, there is flexibility in how you go about it.

Quote from: Chris
As to it being a potential therapy tool - here I put on my psychotherapist hat (19 years in the field.) They type of discussion the game calls for has theraputic merit. It gets people talking about a topic that is important to college age students (I work in a college counseling center). Talking exposes them to the uncomfortable emotions of dating without actually being on a date (so less chance of rejection) allows them to mentally plan for it, and has them practice open communication that can be VERY useful when they are out on the date. The game doesn't play like D+D so it is not going to have any RPG nerd stigma attached to it. So I think it could be useful.

Cool. I hope it is.  This could be a nice little side benefit for more than just teens too.  Nothing more stressful than the first date.  It's kind of cathartic to have to make things go wrong, puts the black grot stuck between your teeth or the joke that goes wrong kind of into context. 

best,
Emily
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Black & Green Games
MatrixGamer
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« Reply #5 on: September 06, 2005, 09:07:10 AM »

Nothing more stressful than the first date.  It's kind of cathartic to have to make things go wrong, puts the black grot stuck between your teeth or the joke that goes wrong kind of into context. 


Exactly! It's like how I taught my wife to drive a stick shift. The first lesson was how to kill the engine. After a few minutes of this she knew just how far she could go before it died. Of course you "accidentally" go into gear. She was doing great after one twenty minute lesson.

Gamey probably shouldn't be confused with gamist. I was thinking about stereotype thinking about what a game is. So playing checkers is a game to little boys but playing tea party with dolls isn't. They of course are both games. I know that my game think somehow goes back to Avalon Hill boardgames (King Maker) and D+D (as it was played in 1976). God! I'm coming up on 30 years as a gamer...

BTI is different from those. I suspect that wargamers will balk at it (lord knows they've balked at playing Matrix Games). German Spiel type gamers are a different mater.

Good luck on it all. My fall is going to be taken up getting my first round of games ready for distribution. My fingers are crossed but my mind remains realistic.

Chris Engle
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Chris Engle
Hamster Press = Engle Matrix Games
http://HamsterPress.net
Emily Care
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« Reply #6 on: September 06, 2005, 10:01:35 AM »

Good luck on it all. My fall is going to be taken up getting my first round of games ready for distribution. My fingers are crossed but my mind remains realistic.

Same to you, Chris!  Good luck with your cool new format for the Matrix games.  All the best!

yours,
Emily
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