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Author Topic: [S/Lay w/Me] The back-story and earliest playtesting  (Read 2305 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: July 02, 2009, 10:50:51 AM »

Hello,

Beginnings

It started with Sean (Calithena) asking me to contribute to the magazine Fight On!, which I definitely wanted to do but kept getting screwed on time. Certain events concerning the game supplement (or retro-supplement) Carcosa and dialogue with its author Geof McKinney got me off my butt to write a very fiery essay called "Naked Went the Gamer," which will appear in Fight On! #6 and will also be available at GenCon (and on-line thereafter). Simultaneously with, and arguably itself integrated with the essay, I wrote S/Lay w/Me.

Another piece of the puzzle is the game Ghost/Echo by John Harper. I understand there is some buzz about this game elsewhere, which I haven't read; I first saw it being played at Forge Midwest and followed up from there. It got me going for my game design. I'll quote from what I've written elsewhere:

Quote
The decisions John made about what goes onto the page in G/E, and what is and is not in the game rules themselves, and what is and is not established as SIS right off the bat, are considered very deeply.

1. Ghost/Echo establishes a situation, with extremely defined basic features: a team, a mission, a betrayal, and a chase. Some terms are given to use for loot and foes. The literal jumping-off point is known in substance.

2. Nothing demands that the characters be individualized except for the fact that they have distinct code-names. This is an example of so many design considerations at once: (a) deep psychological, tactical, and ethical differences among characters; (b) the absence of establishing whatever those differences are through lists like the typical advantages/disadvantages method; (c) no distinction among capabilities among characters. The net effect, and I maintain this would fall straight into the category of "this is how you play this and have fun," is the overwhelming expectation for players to display and thereby fill in those differences, based on what each character does decide to do in light of being able to do any of the options, in a consequential way as play proceeds.

3. The GM has a brutally clear and necessary task: do something with the Others and Places list. How does he or she contribute? By providing imagery and substance to those terms, as well as choosing which ones are most interesting (on a purely personal basis) in the first place. Notice how powerfully this engages the GM not as entertainer, not as simple plot-manager, but as fellow creative participant, again, as a human reacting personally to imaginative suggestions.

4. The rules are tremendously abstract. (a) Goals; (b) two-dice results no matter how many dice are rolled; (c) Danger, Harm, situational consequence (capture, bad position). And that's it. Absolutely it. There is only one single setting-based option, which is manipulating the ghost field. All else is abstractly applicable to any imaginable situation.

As I see it, and here I'm not talking about John's train of thought but rather my take on games and game texts, the phrase "This game is incomplete" is a gross lie, but a productive one. It's very similar to the same lie that serves as the promotional device for Lacuna. There is nothing incomplete about this text. It is ready to play, in the sense that every single task necessary to play is explicitly present. Saying it's incomplete (and believing it) is like saying a cooking recipe is incomplete because it doesn't come with a partly- or fully-prepared plate of food. The productive quality of this lie for purposes of Ghost/Echo is that it's making clear to the reader that he or she must now do the fucking cooking in order to enjoy the food.

One of my first attempts at design a while ago, I called "BSL," meaning bullshit-less, and I set up some stuff for dark fantasy with it. A friend read it and came back both impressed and baffled - "I tried to make up a character," he said, "but you can't do it without everyone getting together to play." Right, I told him. I was tired of buying what I thought were recipes and finding instead facsimiles of someone else's prepared and half-eaten food.

On my first page of notes, I came up with a dice device, which Tim has already called gimmicky.* Players accumulate one, two, or no dice during a 'go,' or turn. Let's say you get a die. You roll it, then place the rolled value not upwards, but toward the other player. When you get another die or dice, do the same and stack it or them on top of the first. So you basically build little dice towers.

Do you jhave to do this? Not really. You could align them in a row with the values pointing upwards, I suppose. But there's a way for one (and only one; it's pre-set) player to nullify the other player's accumulated score, specifically, to topple the tower. This means the second player has to re-roll those dice for a new total. Could this merely be something like "knock on the table to force me to re-roll?" Sure, I guess. I like the stacking and toppling, and so far, it's worked. When you come down to it, if it works, it's not a gimmick.

The first round of playtesting wasn't really testing play at all, so much as simply looking at whether the fundamentals of dialogue I'd envisioned functioned in the first place. I had one page of notes and we didn't even use real dice, just pretended as in "what if I got ..."

We didn't have the order of who makes up what yet, so we hopped into play as if we were in the middle. I did have a list of possible hero-starter phrases ready, and Julie chose the "scorned outlaw" one (a bit of a favorite, apparently). I made up "forest of flowers" as the location, which made it into the final list later, and a Lover who was also the Monster, basically a sexy satyr type. We only did a couple of rounds and scribbled more stuff on the page of notes, specifically, the crucial notions of what each player actually gets dice for. The hero player gets a die for doing things toward his or her Goal, and a die for doing things with (or definitely choosing not to with) the Lover; the latter are limited in number. The other player only ever gets a single die for having the Monster do stuff to the hero. I wanted certain things to be possible and often desirable without dice being involved, and I also wanted the Goal to be brought into play without any hassle.

The most important thing I learned was that a turn needed to concern events and outcomes, not mere statements of actions. To get a die for the Lover, you should fully indicate that a rebuff or an embrace was given and received and reacted to. I found that people had to get into a Sweet Agatha mode rather than play-my-guy mode. Another thing was that designing the Monster and Lover need some orienting, otherwise, their, his, her, or its behavior just bombs around randomly and is too subject to "starting over" in the middle.

The first round of playtesting anything like alpha rules was between me and Tim Koppang. I had the early versions of the lists, the order of who makes what, the concept of the Match, and the good dice and the post-Match choices. I was also toying with the possible ranges of the Monster dice and the Lover dice. We ran two full adventures that went really, really well. Tim's knightly hero dealt with the Clockwork Wars and I really enjoyed my clockwork knights and clockwork lover, as well as the poor peasants that scurried around underfoot. My scholarly hero fought freezing mists and had a lot of sex at the Lunar Citadel.

This time, I was happy with the basics of play and learned a lot about what had to be made clear in the text. But mechanically, and crucially, I learned that I was over-valuing the Good Dice. Both of our heroes had tons of currency to choose from the conditions after the Match, and mine in particularly pretty much got everything he wanted. No! This must not be. I halved the Good Dice' efficacy; from now on, you were only able to buy stuff you wanted for the final phase of play with two full Good Dice per item. That turned out really well.

All that brought me to beta very fast! I mailed the draft out to some folks and kept taking notes as the feedback drifted back.

The next round of playtesting was between me and Tod Olson. The hero was another outlaw and I made up the swamp spider woman, a combined Lover and Monster, set in "the fetid but lovely Jewelled Swamps." One thing I love about this game is that I never pre-conceive what any of my pre-written location-phrases might be; I wait until someone chooses one and then kick in every bit of inspiration and color I can muster. This session worked really well, including a very brutal choice at the end. It also showed me that shifting scenes (i.e. locations and time, with implied transitional time) was perfectly all right and could be handled independently of 'goes.' We ran into tied dice, and I roiled about ties much in the same sense that Rob did in Tied motifs? After waffling around, I finally decided to take the same (i.e. my own) advice I'd given him in that thread.

It's pretty cool to look at that first page of notes now.

Best, Ron

* This, from a man who's told me he gets actually angry when imagining anyone using dice and counters that aren't red when playing Mars Colony.

edited to add the links I forgot - RE
« Last Edit: July 02, 2009, 10:53:04 AM by Ron Edwards » Logged
Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #1 on: July 08, 2009, 08:21:32 AM »

Ahem... I believe it was Paul who said the dice towers were "gimmicky."  That's said, the mechanic is gimmicky, but in a good way.  Let's face it, who wouldn't get visceral satisfaction from toppling the Monster's carefully stacked and intimidating tower of dice?

And I stand by my Mars Colony "red dice" requirements wholeheartedly.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: July 08, 2009, 08:29:37 AM »

I'll follow up with a description of a late-stage playtest, just last weekend. In a dubious attempt to keep this thread from being merely talking to myself, here's a link to a brief mention in Estoteric Murmurs which I'll treat as an intermediate post here. Plus Tim's post too, after all.

Maura and I played, and she was the adventurer first, choosing the scholar phrase and coloring it further to make a kind of stringy-haired, proud character. She chose the location phrase I'm most fond of: "The last place of worship of the first god." I should stress that I do not have any pre-set notions about any of the location phrases; I wrote them, and then I wait until someone chooses one before thinking further of what it might be. She also named her character's Goal as seeking, basically, the fantasy equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. The whole adventure had a specific visual and semi-historical quality to me, as if a Levantine-Byzantine scholar were to seek the site of Moses' conversation with God. We didn't use those terms or historical contexts at all, but it sort of "felt" that way. There were no weapons beyond a machete-type thing for cutting brush, for instance.

The Lover was a curiously talented yet entirely innocent young man (I described him as having the kind of hippy hair which surfer-dudes tried to duplicate in the 80s by getting perms) who just hung around the old ruins, and the Monster was a pair of golden serpents whose bites bequeathed knowledge. Ultimately, the scholar's search for and use of the Stone actually sucked away her knowledge, potentially to reduce her to nothing. Well, she tried to get the young man away from the area, as he wanted to see the world and live a real life, but as it turned out, through a series of brutally confrontational scenes, she ended up becoming the new Hierarch-ess (and explicitly sexual lover) of the Reborn God, having bound the serpents to be her puppets and having nothing left of her self except for her indomitable ambition. This was the first session I've done in which the adventurer chose to stay with the Lover in the location, which is one of the end-stages of overall play. Or rather, it means that player can no longer play adventurers in this "campaign."

Let's see; technically, Maura's scholar did get her Goal, did not recover from the serpents' bites, did permanently imprison the Monster, and did choose to stay with the Lover (and embrace him). As she put it, her choices made the hero into a Monster of her own. It's actually especially grim (and cool) because the pre-God reborn God was actually a pretty nice young man, and we just know that the nascent Church is going to be a thing of terror.

In my round as adventure, I chose the fierce young warrior whose hair is grey, "the battlefield a few days afterward," with the Goal of retrieving my brother's body. Maura threw in some interesting spins. First, she made up a Lover with whom my character had back-story, rather than a newly-met character. As story, it was great because a lot of the content was expressed as glances, choices to be silent, terse phrases that referenced past history, and most especially the bit where my character helped to wrap and carry her dead husband, i.e., his former rival. Second, and this is actually a bit off-the-rules, the Lover was visiting the location to, i.e., not wedded to it in some way as the rules say. This made the final choices a little bit off-book in terms of their possible combinations.

Anyway, this adventure combined two aesthetic modes. First, as I mentioned afterwards, it was clearly directed and shot by Polish filmmakers, being visually both beautiful and horrifically bleak. Second, the fantasy itself was in more edgy-D&D territory, with my character being part of something called the Order of the Basilisk, and the Monster being a classic Monster-Manual hydra. Tweaked a bit; it was a carrion-eating hydra, but yeah, this canonical illustration shows exactly what was going on.

The battlefield was brutal and grim, with still-smoking encampments and bodies around, with lots of bereaved peasants and looters, and a few still-pissed-off combatants in small groups. Fighting the hydra was a bitch, and the most important element was that I found it very hard to work Goal-seeking statements into my Goes, such that I was only able to accumulate a few dice before the Match was over. My numerical results were entirely fucked: not only did I not get the Goal for free, I was only able to buy one thing from the Climax list. Given certain nuances of the rules, basically I had to choose (i) living, but without the Goal, leaving the woman to die, leaving the hydra alive; (ii) with the Goal, being terribly wounded, leaving the woman to die, leaving the hydra alive; (iii) dying, without the Goal, but saving the woman, leaving the hydra alive; or (iv), dying, without the Goal, leaving the woman to die, killing the hydra. (There were other combinations, but these were the ones that seemed valid to me given the fiction so far.)

I chose (iii), which carried the frustration of not being able to kill the hydra even though my hero did stab it with a red-hot sword to knock it out of the picture for a while. The story ended with Raina, the woman, saved from the hydra but faced with the bodies of both her lovers (the "abandoned to a grim fate" option). The rules for having your adventurer die are that you either choose to end playing adventurers, as staying with a Lover mandates, or to make up a new adventurer and continue as normal. I'd like to do the latter, which means Maura and I keep playing with only me playing an adventurer, until either that one dies too and I say "stop," or until I choose to have that one stay with a Lover.

This was a great playtest because it let me see how some of the potential finalizing choices could be reached. Maura said some kind stuff afterwards too, along the lines that this wasn't just fantasy role-playing, it delivered what she wanted from fantasy role-playing, specifically what she wanted to do.

Best, Ron
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