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Author Topic: Letter to Seth (very harsh)  (Read 2325 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: April 22, 2002, 06:49:45 AM »

Seth,

I've been going over the Quick-start Alyria rules in some detail, and here are some things you might want to consider. Please brace yourself; in many ways, this post is pretty blunt.

The main thing is this: I think you need to abandon your dream of reams of fiction and atmosphere, at least for a while, because they (and your need to be recognized for them) have sabotaged the other goal - to have a real game exist. I strongly suspect that you were operating, to a large extent, off the romantic notions of being recognized as some sort of amazing game designer - an externally-driven motivation, rather than an internal one. When others' commitment or interest in the game waned (for whatever reasons), so did yours.

This might hurt ... frankly, your fiction is nearly completely irrelevant to the game itself. None of your Dreaming Out Loud articles convey anything interesting or necessary for play. I suggest that you write much of that off as either (1) necessary creative steam that doesn't need to be in the finished work or (2) misplaced energy. Part of this is a taste issue (it strikes me that you might like Samuel R. Delaney's work, whereas I can't stand it), but I would like to focus more on the concrete-goals issue.

I think that Alyria is an excellent potential game. I am dying for fantasy role-playing that is focused, inspiring, and actually about something. I'd like to see its necessary components each be developed to the minimal level needed for play, so that it's one step up from the Quick-Start package. That means, for instance, about exactly as much space as you've devoted to the system, should be devoted to the setting.

Let's run it down. A real game has a system (check), a setting (vague), characters (check, sort of), a situation (none), and color (again, vague at best). So Alyria ain't playable yet.

The system is lovely. Of course, I'd say that - it's a smooth blend of Sorcerer and Hero Wars, although with Fortune-at-the-End. I'm not so sure about that last, and will be paying strict attention to it during playtest, but it might turn out to be just peachy after all. (Sorc is a bit End-y, if it comes to that.)

The setting ain't there. Yes, yes, I know, it wasn't included in the start-up. Fine. However, I am discussing a much larger issue. I am completely uninterested in whatever Alyria material exists in your head that you "just know" could be conveyed if "only you could find the time." Again - that does not interest me. I am interested in whatever you can get down in 3000 words or less that turns me on about playing in Alyria. Minimal requirements are social system, basic geography (the look and feel, NOT a map), the ethnic "look" of the people, and some notion of whatever people are fired-up about at the moment.

Characters are kind of there. The problem is that it all comes down to what you call Good and Evil, and yet you provide nothing in the way of examples. This is the classic Alignment problem - in the D&D rulebooks, we see tons of wordbrush about alignments' meanings, and absolutely no examples of how they might be applied or even "look like" during play itself. As it stands, I make a character in the abstract and then sit there dumbly, waiting for the GM (1) to tell me what the character sees, and (2) to tell me how the character would react to it using his combination of Goodness or Evilness.

[Less importantly, you should know that the character-naming convention is almost verbatim from Everway. You might consider changing that. And confusingly, none of your examples follow this convention but instead use Greek or Latin words.]

The Situation is totally not there. This is crucial. Given characters in a setting, they will be nothing but more setting unless a situation is present. In Sorcerer, that's the Kicker. In Hero Wars, it's the cultural confrontation of Lunars and Heortlings. In Orkworld, it's that huge series of "seeds." Fantasy adventure relies on Situation far more than any other kind of story, and I strongly suggest you embed Situation (either specific or customizable) into either Character or Setting.

Color is exactly the wrong kind: mist ships, glowing green dragon eyes, all nifty, but blah blah. Fine. What I want to know are the following: what does a city look like (monolithic stone blocks, or eery tapering spires)? what do clothes look like (bare breasts and kirtles, or brocade robes)? what kind of social niceties go on (shouts of acclaim, or murmurs of approval)? Do not respond with "Um, any of the above, depending." That is not good enough. I'm talking about what is going into that 3000 words about setting that I mentioned, or goes to liven up character creation, and that needs to be minimal and specific.

Please recognize that I'm talking about what needs to be done next, which is not the same thing as what might be done ever. So it's not "all" of Alyria? Big deal. I just want a playable chunk of it.

Best,
Ron
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #1 on: April 22, 2002, 08:49:17 AM »

Hmm.  Lots of material to discuss here.  So, let's get started.

First, before I begin, though, I'd like to thank you for your honesty.  After I got past the initial "ouch", I did recognize that you are trying to offer honest feedback with the goal of improving the game and not just trying to be mean.  So, I recognize that and appreciate it.

As far as why more work has not gone into Alyria recently, I'll just say that there have been other facets of my life that have hijacked design work (in fact, creative work of almost any kind) that are unrelated to the world of game design at all.  Much of that is beginning to wrap up, though, which is why I am beginning to do more work on the game now.

Now, to deal with specific issues.  I agree that there is more system work to be done.  I think that you will find in playtest that Alyria is very much Fortune-in-the-Middle (or so is the intent).  However, I have been concerned that I need to communicate it better and make certain aspects more concrete.  The best example of this is the Good/Evil dichotomy.  One the one hand, this is central to the concept of the game.  On the other hand, it is defined poorly and the system implementation of it needs to be more concrete, particularly with regards to the gaining and expenditure of Inspiration and Corruption.  I have some ideas on how to do this, but ideas and feedback are welcome.

You say that the setting ain't there.  I have to agree with you in part.  The Dreaming Out Loud columns are enough to get an idea of the setting, but they do not have the necessary detail that needs to be included for a final game.  They are sketches at best.  You have named certain concrete details that need to be filled in ("social system, basic geography (the look and feel, NOT a map), the ethnic "look" of the people, and some notion of whatever people are fired-up about at the moment").  I completely agree.  My goal has been to return to each setting element and nail down the details.  Additionally, my intent for a final version of the game has been to include a quick summary for each basic locale (the Citadel, the Ark, etc.) with precisely the information that you are requesting.  Instant GM handout!  So, while I would say that the setting does exist in sketch form, there are many details that need to be filled in before the game is fit for general consumption.

Your comments on Situation are appropriate.  Some of the details that I need to record are the innate conflicts in the world.  So, for instance, there is the ongoing cold war between the Citadel and the Ark, the struggle against the dragons and the dragon cultists, internal strife within the Ark between the Numbered and the Named, and more.  Obviously not all of these conflicts will figure in a given story, but they are all potential hooks.

Part of the problem could easily be that there are certain assumptions on my part.  Some of the details that you crave are in my head, and as such, when I run Alyria, I do not see the lack of them.  Others have not risen to the level of importance for me yet.  Still others I may leave vague or undefined intentionally.  (Ethnicity may fall into this category, for instance.)  There could be some priority differences here as well.  After all, I have had enough folks tell me that the setting really fired them up.  Perhaps you are looking for different details then they?  I really don't know.

Does more work need to be done on Alyria?  Certainly.  You have pointed out a number of areas that need to be covered before it is ready for prime-time.  However, the rules system is (mostly) functional, and until such time as more precise information is forthcoming, I am perfectly willing to plug any setting holes that may exist, assuming that I didn't leave them there on purpose.  Be expecting an answer to your other thread by the end of the day.

And again, thank you for the feedback.  I want to make this game the best that I can, and honest feedback will help me achieve this goal.

(Aside:  I've only read a couple of Samuel Delaney's stories, as I recall, and they must not have grabbed me much, since I don't remember them.)
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: April 22, 2002, 09:06:02 AM »

Seth,

I understand that you are using Fortune-in-the-middle in terms of description. State goal, roll, then describe actions from start to finish. That's fine.

However, the key ingredient of a true Fortune-in-the-middle system (which is why Sorcerer doesn't quite qualify either) is the ability to affect the numerical outcome following the roll. Hero Wars is very extreme in this regard. It permits you to "bump" degrees of success and failure using Hero Points, following a roll. It also permits characters to donate Action Points at any point during an Extended Contest, i.e., if someone goes to -10, that would ordinarily defeat them, but I just say, "I give him 20," and he's fine.

Anyway, I think Alyria is pretty good in this regard, at least as much or better than Sorcerer. So no problem there.

Your comments on inherent conflicts in the setting continue to frustrate me, however. I really, honestly do not care that you "have" innate conflicts in your setting. What matters to me is whether I have them. Just pick one, this is me, begging you, just one of them - let's say the dragon one.

What's up with the dragons? Who are the cultists? What's the big deal? And how does it translate into small/local conflicts in terms that non-involved people understand?

Answer in 500 words. It should be that easy; if not, then you don't "have" that conflict at all. (Also, I really hope you reply, 'cause that's what I need for tomorrow's session.)

Best,
Ron
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #3 on: April 22, 2002, 01:05:58 PM »

Regarding Fortune-in-the-Middle.

The light bulb has just turned on.  I understand your point now.

Regarding the dragons and the dragon cultists.

I'll append this to the response that I'm going to post for you in the other thread.  I'm leaving work right now, so I can't type it this second.  I will do that tonight, though.  I don't want to leave you stranded for tomorrow.

Seth
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: April 24, 2002, 09:01:05 AM »

Hi Seth,

Now that I've played a teeny bit, and definitely now that I plan to play more (these two players will kill me otherwise), I want to follow up on this "harsh" thread. My point arises directly out of how I asked you for setting information, how you provided it (very speedily, and thank you!), and how well it worked during play.

In other words: Seth, you must write an intro-entry setting section for Alyria. It needs to be just as lean, just as clear, and just as evocative as the material in the recent two threads here; it must match the Quick-start rules in terms of their clear approach to the system and scenario preparation. It cannot be "complete," as any effort to make it so will kill it. It cannot be "deep" or re-create for people the experience of playing with you, as any effort to make it so will kill it. Your material that you provided for me, here and now, was what I needed, in the absence of you being there. You can't be in the Alyria book; it will never and can never convey what it's like to learn the Alyria setting via playing with you. You have to provide us with the material to play it for ourselves - that must be materials for play, not the effects of playing with you.

What I'm saying is that, right now, your love of the setting and your ability to convey it through play is actually hampering you as a game designer and author. You want the reader to "get it" just like your players get it through their interaction with you. You know what? They won't. Instead, give them, not what would be so cool, but rather, the essentials that they need. You have the words for this! You just demonstrated that you do!

I suggest that the Quick-Start plus this setting-section could be professionally illustrated for no more than $100, and that you could sell the combo as a PDF for $6-10. When that happens, or when the material is publicly available to any playable extent at all, I will review it.

I want Alyria to happen. It drives me crazy that it's so damn close, in practical terms, and I have a very strong impression that you are stalled on the setting/content stuff because it's so easy to convey during play for you. Get over that hump, and provide something short and sharp and practical instead.

Best,
Ron
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #5 on: April 24, 2002, 04:31:42 PM »

Ron,

Your suggestion seems wise.  Having concrete setting information in place for folks who don't know me makes a lot of sense.  I'm going to huddle with my wife (probably this evening), who will ask me a lot of questions to draw out the details that I may or may not have communicated in writing.  I will then begin the task of committing useful descriptions to paper.  Now that school has wrapped up, I plan to dedicate a couple of hours every other evening to writing.  I'll keep everyone informed as to my progress.
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
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