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Author Topic: [TOTSG]: Some Hard Lessons Learned  (Read 9699 times)
charles ferguson
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Posts: 74


« on: September 07, 2006, 11:45:43 PM »

Last night we had our 6th & final session of Throne Of The Spider God in it's current form. That form is heavily drifted from the draft I put on the web.

If anyone is interested I can post an overview of AP for those 6 sessions. For now I wanted to share some of the things it's taught me. I'll just say that although the results were mixed in terms of "the game I thought I was designing", actual play was far from unenjoyble, and certainly had some cool moments.

Problems
By the end of the first session, I knew I didn't like the way the damage system handled: Wound dice just weren't working. I'd actually added these literally a day or two before I posted the Draft 1 to the web, after I read TSOY and got all hyperventilated over the cool things Clinton does in it.

This is of my recurring issues in game design: I get so enthused with a new idea that I become convinced the only way forward is to scrap huge slabs of my existing mechanics and put in something totally untested--right NOW. This tendency--to see the design, no matter how far along, as constantly "in flux" & open to dramatic change in any direction--is something I hope I'm at last, slowly and with great pain, learning to rein in. It's the single biggest reason why, after fooling at game design for what, 25 years? I have a single game to show... in alpha playtesting.

The next thing I found is despite everything I'd thought, I really didn't know what my game was about.

I knew what I wanted it to be about: "TOTSG is a game of bloody combat and daring exploits, perilous magic and the wrath of gods. It takes you to exotic worlds where you play a hero who is what others can never be, who does what others would never dare. Its goal: the shared creation of heroic characters and settings through fast, exciting gameplay."

But how would it make those things happen?

I discovered something was missing here when my players created characters exactly the way I told them to. Then they played them with energy and enthusiasm. Somehow I ended each session with a nagging sense of dissapointment: their characters weren't the kind of characters I wanted TOTSG to be about, and they weren't doing the things I wanted TOTSG characters to do (or at least not often enough or strongly enough).

I responded with increasing Narrativist rules Drift. I made the mechanics more and more about things that the characters cared about, in the hope that Stewart & Grant would invest more in their characters, thus making the game more intense.

Only in the last week or two did I realize some things:
  • Stewart & Grant were already invested in their characters, at least up until I disempowered Grant by stonewalling his attempts to have his character act in ways he found interesting, rather than in ways I found interesting.
  • Stewart & Grant were playing Gamist. Although they really enjoyed having a story, and the freedom of direct authorial control (to a point) over plot & setting, they approached situations tactically. When the metal hit the meat, story became just color.
  • The reason they didn't create the kind of chars I considered "real" TOTSG chars was because my chargen rules guide them to create those kind of chars in the first place. Then, when their character actions grew naturally from their char 'as written', I felt dissapointed in those actions.

Conclusions
This, and our previous play sessions, has led me to some conclusions:
  • my one-time grail of having a system where "you can create any character you want, who can do anything they want to" will always, naturally and with great vigor, undermine any attempt to design a game that's "about" something in particular.
  • bolting Nar chargen onto a non-Nar resolution system does not make a Nar game
  • giving players 'equal' authority as the GM over events and content does not automatically create the incredibly liberating and wonderful game experience I dreamed it would.
  • being a game about "bloody combat and daring exploits, perilous magic and the wrath of gods" requires strong and explicit direction at chargen. Just providing the tools isn't enough.
  • requiring players to simultaneously invest in in-depth setting creation and meaningfully address Narrative premise is, as I recently saw Ron suggest, hard. Not only that, its currently beyond me to as either a player, or as a designer. So I'm happy to leave that one for the moment.
  • TOTSG's natural form may well be primarily Gamist with some Nar leavening: the "shared creation of heroic characters & setting" being an adjunct to, & driven by, the "fast, furious gameplay" running off a simple Gamist resolution engine which powers the character's actions (IOW, the game itself).
  • I'm not nearly the player or designer as I thought I was. Theory without experience is not knowledge. I need to play a wider variety of games, and more of them.

These things are hardly news here at the Forge. But I'd read (and I thought, understood) them for years now. So it goes I guess.

Epilogue
The upshot was that last night I suggested we bring current play to a conclusion at the end of that session. I suggested 2 choices for the next couple of weeks: either explore a tried & tested Nar game (Heroquest), or play a revised TOTSG with a new, Gamist-focussed engine. It looks like we'll do both, HQ first then TOTSG v2.

cheers, charles
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Clyde L. Rhoer
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Posts: 391


« Reply #1 on: September 08, 2006, 04:37:58 AM »

Hi Charles,

I've had some similar experiences in the game I've been designing for a year or so now. I have very little done because I recently scrapped everything as I figured out what I had been really trying to get at. What I was trying to get was a different game. I'm not suggesting that is what you are going through, as you seem to have a solid idea of the way you want gameplay to go. I just really sympathize with watching your playtesters have fun while you are sitting there with this nagging feeling that things aren't right. It sounds like you've really made some progress though.

I really don't have a lot to add besides the rah-rah tone of this post.
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Valamir
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« Reply #2 on: September 08, 2006, 09:14:23 AM »

Conclusions
This, and our previous play sessions, has led me to some conclusions:
  • my one-time grail of having a system where "you can create any character you want, who can do anything they want to" will always, naturally and with great vigor, undermine any attempt to design a game that's "about" something in particular.
  • bolting Nar chargen onto a non-Nar resolution system does not make a Nar game
  • giving players 'equal' authority as the GM over events and content does not automatically create the incredibly liberating and wonderful game experience I dreamed it would.
  • being a game about "bloody combat and daring exploits, perilous magic and the wrath of gods" requires strong and explicit direction at chargen. Just providing the tools isn't enough.
  • requiring players to simultaneously invest in in-depth setting creation and meaningfully address Narrative premise is, as I recently saw Ron suggest, hard. Not only that, its currently beyond me to as either a player, or as a designer. So I'm happy to leave that one for the moment.

These should be stickied.

The first one especially is my own soap box.  I've said for years that "a game where character creation lets you be anything you can imagine tells me your game is about nothing".  Glad to welcome another convert :-)
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John Harper
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« Reply #3 on: September 08, 2006, 03:35:16 PM »

This is a great post, Charles. Those are some lessons worth learning, however you come to them. The thing about being *done* with a game design-- such that it's complete and not always in flux -- speaks to me A LOT.

As you know, I think TOTSG is a very cool idea, and I hope you're able to put together something you're happy with at some point. But until then, playing lots more games (of all kinds) sounds like a great plan.
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charles ferguson
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Posts: 74


« Reply #4 on: September 09, 2006, 02:26:24 AM »

Hi all

Clyde, thanks for the support man.

The point where it started to shift for me was one day I realized I wasn't working on "The Game" any more, I was working on "a game". I don't know if that sounds like a big thing, but for me it was.

Ralph, I'm with you brother. It seems like a grail that's not uncommon to Sim-obsessed designers. I don't know if it makes any sense in the context of a hardcore Sim game, but regardless, I know now that it has no place in the games I'm currently interested in. It's a design burden I'm happy to leave behind. In my case, it was a conceit (and a dammed expensive one).

John, thanks as always man. BTW the website for Agon is (yet again) a thing of beauty. And I've been folowing Ralph's playtest report with fascination.

I saw this after I decided I to try pushing TOTSG in a Gamist direction, btw, so when I read about Agon I thought it was deliciously ironic (given Agon's Gamist agenda). Here's another one: Hero's Banner by Tim Koppang. (Clinton's AP report is here). Tim, if you're listening, it sounds awesome.

The irony? As last played, TOTSG was decidedly Nar (at least in intent). Each PC ("hero") had attributes whose scores reflected/propelled the hero's journey to their end-game, their 'passage into legend' when they ended their story and left the world (through death, apotheosis, or whatever). How many of these attributes did they have? Three. What had I decided to rename this 'new' version of TOTSG? "The Hero Road".

I plan to play & learn more about Nar games before I take up those ideas again, if I decide to do so. I find I'm still excited about TOTSG the way I originally envisioned it, so I'm staying focussed on that for now. All I got to do is figure out how to get it there. Or at least, as close as I'm able right now :)

BTW, I hope my posts in this thread aren't coming across as bitter and defeated, or maudlin, or self-recriminatory, because I'm not feeling any of those things. It's more like a load coming off. That, and seeing that the real work is still ahead of me. But I feel like I at least have a clearer idea of the direction it lies in. Ron's being saying it, and I've been ignoring it, for years: "Play more games" and "If you don't relate GNS to real, actual incidents of play, at this point you will be left floundering". Actual Play is the horse, theory is the cart that bounces and jolts along behind, and reversing these two has the long-predicted result.

Many thanks, charles
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: September 12, 2006, 05:12:35 AM »

Hi there,

I thought I'd toss in a brief clarifier of one of your points.

Quote
requiring players to simultaneously invest in in-depth setting creation and meaningfully address Narrative premise is, as I recently saw Ron suggest, hard. Not only that, its currently beyond me to as either a player, or as a designer. So I'm happy to leave that one for the moment.

Although I applaud your decision based on the playtesting, I think the concept as you've described it isn't quite right.

What I said in the Frostfolk thread and GNS aggravation is that it's hard to play Narrativist in the presence of initially-in-depth setting and initially-in-depth characters. That's another dream of role-playing best put aside - "wow, if the color and content for everything is maxed out from the start, it'll be so cool!" Well, it's not - at least not for Narrativist play.

You're a long-time supporter of Sorcerer & Sword, so you know that its basic idea is to have rich, driving characters and to let the world/setting begin only with the most basic notions, to be developed only through play and later prep. It seems to me that you've tried to jump ahead and do the setting-first approach, but retaining the strong, driving characters. (All this is aside from the disconnect between the actual character-creation and your ideal of it, which is another issue.) You're not alone in wanting that, but you're also not alone in watching it freeze into a mass of "done" stuff. Why should the players engage with Premise? If it's been accounted for already by all the pre-game learning and prep, then there's nothing left except some other CA if they can find one.

It is not hard to play Narrativist with a strong, rich setting to start. But to do so, it's necessary to have simple, familiar, perhaps even flat player-characters at the outset, who will gain their depth only through play and later prep (reversing Sorcerer & Sword, you see). In a game of this sort, Sorcerer-style or Riddle of Steel-style character intensity is only going to cause trouble.

Best, Ron
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brainwipe
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« Reply #6 on: September 14, 2006, 06:36:45 AM »

Thanks for  a very honest post. The most heart-warming part is that you're not giving up. You're rebranding, rethinking and moving on.

Quote
This is of my recurring issues in game design: I get so enthused with a new idea that I become convinced the only way forward is to scrap huge slabs of my existing mechanics and put in something totally untested--right NOW.

I feel for you there. However, even after playing the same game for 16 years, I feel utterly trapped by the rules I have created. As much as people tell me "It's the setting that counts", I can't believe that as any large change in the rules is scrutinized to Spanish Inquisition levels.

  • I'm not nearly the player or designer as I thought I was. Theory without experience is not knowledge. I need to play a wider variety of games, and more of them.

I think this comment is true for all of us, no matter how much we play or how much we write. You'll never get away from it.
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TonyLB
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« Reply #7 on: September 14, 2006, 06:49:23 AM »

  • I'm not nearly the player or designer as I thought I was. Theory without experience is not knowledge. I need to play a wider variety of games, and more of them.

I'd disagree with this, on the face of the evidence:  You've apparently designed a damn fine Gamist system.  That makes you a damn fine designer.

'course, I refuse to call pockets when I'm playing pool too.  I figure if I hit a ball and it banks five times before dropping into a pocket I should get credit for that whether it was my original intent or not.
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charles ferguson
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Posts: 74


« Reply #8 on: September 18, 2006, 07:30:27 PM »

Heya Ron,


What I said in the Frostfolk thread and GNS aggravation is that it's hard to play Narrativist in the presence of initially-in-depth setting and initially-in-depth characters.

I just went and re-read that post, where you say just that. If I'm not mistaken you've mentioned it previously also. However, that's not what I'm talking about here (although I'm certainly not disputing it).

I thought I'd read something slightly different in another Forge post of yours, Ron, where you said something to the effect that it's difficult for players to energetically invest in both addressing Premise and heavy world-building at the same time. That's what I was referring to here. I havn't found the post yet though. I may have misinterpreted.


You're a long-time supporter of Sorcerer & Sword, so you know that its basic idea is to have rich, driving characters and to let the world/setting begin only with the most basic notions, to be developed only through play and later prep. It seems to me that you've tried to jump ahead and do the setting-first approach, but retaining the strong, driving characters.


What I was trying for was

* driving characters
* a setting that existed only in broad outline.

Having said that, I was began play with a number of strong, group-chosen setting elements (essentially Color, if I'm grasping the term correctly) already in place, as a means of :

a) giving some creative inspiration to ease the job of shared setting creation
b) putting everyone on the same creative page to give the SIS some initial cohesiveness
c) increase buy-in, such that its not just the GM's world
d) get people realizing from the get-go that shared creation of setting is one of the game's primary goals

I don't know, does this seem like setting-first design of the type you're referring to? If it is, it's not really clear to me how, & it's the opposite of what I was aiming for. Can you explain further?

many thanks, charles
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charles ferguson
Member

Posts: 74


« Reply #9 on: September 18, 2006, 08:52:12 PM »

Hey Tony

'course, I refuse to call pockets when I'm playing pool too.  I figure if I hit a ball and it banks five times before dropping into a pocket I should get credit for that whether it was my original intent or not.

that's a very useful philosophy (in my books, useful is the highest accolade a philosophy can attain). I'm definitely going to do my damnedest to apply that to my game design efforts. Thanks man!
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: September 19, 2006, 05:28:37 AM »

Hi Charles,

I think for me to speculate about what I did or didn't mean in a "can't find it" thread isn't going to get us anywhere. If there's one thing I've learned from all these years, it's that people are eager to extract some kind of Grand Principle from a tailored point made to a specific person in a specific context. I'm not saying you did this, but it's possible/likely enough that I think we ought to find another way to talk about the current issue.

If your intention is to have driving, situation-rich characters with an initially sketchy setting, then you're right on track with the basic Sorcerer & Sword model and there's nothing else to be said about it. My impression from your account was that setting had received more attention in your game-experience, but I could simply be mistaken. The whole thing about Premise and heavy-setting and all that stuff threatens to become an "I thought you said" morass that could trap us forever, and apparently it's irrelevant.

Let's start over. I'm going back to your first post in the thread.


1. Generic point about playtesting

I have found that it's extremely confusing to alter the rules as one proceeds through a playtesting experience. Sometimes it seems necessary - when, for example, I found that the "During" rules in It Was a Mutual Decision trapped the imaginary couple far too well, and we could never get out. In such circumstances, though, it's better simply to make a note to change it and move on to the next thing. We merely skipped to the After phase instead of me frantically trying to revise the rules then and there.

Sometimes, inspiration can apparently strike right in the middle too, and that poses a difficult question - do you adopt the new rule as inspired, or do you keep on with the old one? It can go either way, but it's important actually to write the change down, right then. Why? Because otherwise memory will fool you, and not only will you play the next part of the game with a half-and-half neither-rule way, but you won't be able to remember what the new rule really was supposed to be. It sounds crazy, but that's what happens.

And there's one other problem - the tendency for people to want to see their ideas in your game. Someone poses a great idea, and maybe it's perfect for your game, but maybe instead it's perfect for some other game. But the person really wants it now, and getting it into your game will make it real for them, so they push hard for it.

What I'm really saying is - do not author your game as you playtest it. Sure, maybe tweak things, or even change something big, but take notes so that you know what you did and can relate specific rules to specific events/sessions of play. But keep it all provisional in your mind, and get back to authoring when the whole experience is over.

2. Another generic point about playtesting

Other people's games are your best friend and your worst enemy. How can you tell the difference? By looking at your behavior, not at the games. In your case, you performed an alarm-bell behavior ... you had your game, with its mechanics, all set to go, and then right before playtesting it, you lost your mind and pumped into a bucketload of The Shadow of Yesterday into it. Without having played The Shadow of Yesterday. See what I mean? If you'd played a ton of TSOY a year ago, and mused about how it might or might not fit into your own thinking about Spider Temple, that would be one thing. But this kind of snap-read-omigod-incorporate is almost always an alarm bell.

3. My suggestions

We've been corresponding a lonnnnnng time (see the credits for Sorcerer & Sword, folks), so I'm going to get abstract on you. You're rightly focusing on character generation rather than resolution ... but that's not far enough. You should be thinking about rewards.

a) What are the rewards of play? I'm going to say, catharsis, just as in Sorcerer & Sword. Massive catharsis, begun with a certain amount of self-indulgence in making up a character, realized through high-consequence impact with a situation, reinforced by adding material to the setting as we go ...

... and then what? See, I'm not seeing the payoff at this point. Where's the money shot, if you'll forgive the expression, and most importantly, what do we do during the immediately-afterward afterglow?

In Sorcerer & Sword, you can find it in four ways: i) the potential improvement of a score, which is the minor bit; ii) the rewriting of any and all descriptors, which is huge; iii) the opportunity to write a new Kicker or to retire the character; and iv) the opportunity to change locale, including a-chronologically, which affects (i-iii) in a way which isn't in the core rules.

What is it for your game?

b) Character generation is not a "thing" unto itself. It is the first step, or ignition-point, of the reward system. You were absolutely right to realize that your existing character generation is not doing what you want, but that's not a detail or a single-tweaky thing that can be reversed by on-the-spot drift. From the end of your first or second session on, you really weren't playtesting any more. You were playing catch-up, trying to go backwards correctively and forwards having fun at the same time.

So your immediate task, it seems to me, is to get back to basics. What was your game about prior to this playtest?

Your colorful statement about "bloody combat and daring exploits, perilous magic and the wrath of gods. It takes you to exotic worlds where you play a hero who is what others can never be, who does what others would never dare" - great Color, but no reward. Your next bit about "shared creation of heroic characters and settings through fast, exciting gameplay" falls down on the job, because this is right where the reward ought to be stated. Instead, what you're doing is answering the question, "Where are we driving?" with "It's got wheels!!"

Looking at it in terms of intended reward is the same thing as asking yourself, "Why am I writing a new sword-and-sorcery game?" That's not meant to be a beatdown - the point is that I think you have an answer for that question, and your job is to clear your mind of TSOY and this last playtest, in order to remember what it was.

Then re-write character creation as the initial step in bringing that answer into an experiential phenomenon for play itself. It may be short-term, long-term, whatever ... but no single technique (X from TSOY! Y From Sorcerer & Sword! Z from HeroQuest!) will do it.

And then, playtest again, from the ground up, making up the characters and actually putting yourself and the other people through the paces without revising immediately as you go along.

Does any of this seem reasonable, make sense, or whatever? Please feel free to ask questions if it seems interesting but isn't clear in any way.

Best, Ron



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charles ferguson
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Posts: 74


« Reply #11 on: September 19, 2006, 06:22:39 PM »

Hey Ron

Yep, that all makes perfect sense. Each point has nailed it. Thanks especially for the practical advice on playtesting & where to go from here.

much appreciated, charles
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Reithan
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« Reply #12 on: October 09, 2006, 06:45:27 AM »

a) What are the rewards of play? I'm going to say, catharsis, just as in Sorcerer & Sword. Massive catharsis, begun with a certain amount of self-indulgence in making up a character, realized through high-consequence impact with a situation, reinforced by adding material to the setting as we go ...

...

So your immediate task, it seems to me, is to get back to basics. What was your game about prior to this playtest?

Your colorful statement about "bloody combat and daring exploits, perilous magic and the wrath of gods. It takes you to exotic worlds where you play a hero who is what others can never be, who does what others would never dare" - great Color, but no reward. Your next bit about "shared creation of heroic characters and settings through fast, exciting gameplay" falls down on the job, because this is right where the reward ought to be stated. Instead, what you're doing is answering the question, "Where are we driving?" with "It's got wheels!!"

Do you have any good examples for this? A lot of times when you're talking about rewards, what >I< thought the reward was...isn't. And something I didn't even think about, was. So, do you perhaps have any cover/jacket text from a game that would well illustrate a good example of this?
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