As I wait for the Blades in the Dark SRD to release, so I can release Karma in the Dark 3.0, I decided to work on a quick side project. It started with one thought: What if you could take the perfect teen-angst hero simulator of Masks and put it in a fantasy setting?
"It's a very, very dark world you describe. . . but there are surprising moments of light."
The concept of this game started out very simple: I want to play Shadowrun with the mechanics of Blades in the Dark. That took a sidestep when I decided I wanted to play Shadowrun 1E (my childhood experience) with Blades mechanics. As I began to re-read the first edition rules, then all of the associated sourcebooks, the world design grabbed me in a way newer versions of the game never could.
Shadowrun was about being a SINless, someone who legally cannot participate in society.
Shadowrun was about surviving based on who you knew. . . not your money or gear.
Shadowrun was a mix of being a mercenary and an idealist, outside the system.
Very little of that flavor text translated into game mechanics in Shadowrun, so that became my new challenge: make mechanics that create an experience like the actual world design.
The first version of Karma was the hybrid child of Blades and Shadowrun. The second version started to play with a new idea: making your ideals vs. corruption matter. This third version is intended to be a much stronger step into using specific mechanics to create a specific experience.
This week I finally found myself able to define what that feel is:
You will never be forced by the mechanics . . . only tempted and punished by them.
I am currently working on the third version of Karma in the Dark:
One of my core editing goals at this point is to create a cohesive, streamlined system for the rules. The rules will have some crunch to them, but I want it to all fit together tightly and make both mechanical and conceptual sense.
This is probably the hardest part of the design process for me. Before games, I studied architecture. My process was predictable: get a design problem, come up with some off-the-wall radical twist, create the super complicated version of my design . . . then spend 90% of my time editing: refining, streamlining, simplifying. Creative ideas are easy; elegant execution requires blood, sweat, tears, and many sleep-deprived work sessions.
Here's a classic example:
Me, the obstacles should be X or Y, but in this case, the obstacle would be Z.
Testing team: why not obstacle A?
Me: ... Okay, the obstacle is A, but when narratively relevant, it requires the same test that any skill requires in the game.
Testing team: that works!
I am currently GMing Torchbearer for the first time, and that experience is teaching me a ton about game design. I like Torchbearer. I like games that focus on creating a specific experience, and using their mechanics to insure that experience. Here's my problem with the rules, though: they require you to memorize multiple different mechanical systems, most of which have exceptions or twists.
Memorize how helps works, wises work, traits work, and don't forget persona/fate. Advancement is different for skills/abilities, leveling up, wises, traits. You roll on different random tables for camping and town. Recovery rolls are different for each condition. Also--help is different if you are using a skill, instinct, nature, or beginner's luck. And is different again when you engage the conflict system. And on and on.
All of the different systems play nice with each other, fit together, and support the intended experience...but you still need to memorize each of them, with their specific nuances. It reminds me of Shadowrun, which uses a different mechanical system for magic, rigging, decking, combat, etc.
I don't want that kind of complexity in Karma. I want there to be strategy in how you advance your team, how you use your karma, how you position yourself for you effect level, how you leverage your social connections, how you balance ideals vs. gaining more power , , , but I want that complexity and strategy to come from having to make difficult gambles, choices, or narrative positioning...not from needing to memorize excessive amounts of rules.
Here are my KISS design rules:
1) One core system. If all else fails, you can always fail back on the core system.
2) Any "special exceptions" are captured in special abilities, and can be explained concisely enough to fit in the 1-sentence space on the character sheet
3) No more than 2 parallel systems at the same time. For example, there are two forms of team advancement. They have separate nuances, but you never need to know more than "here are the two types of advancement." Similar to special abilities, the rules should be naturally reflected in the team sheet and need minimal explanation.
3) If the rules cannot be explained by straight-forward mind map, clean them up (e.g. no complex web or crossing lines)
4) Player rules can all be summarized on one cheat-sheet; GM rules can all be summarized on one cheat-sheet.
5) When in doubt, ask, "How does this rule place the players into a position to make a tough decision? How does it reinforce the two game challenges of maintaining ideals/integrity and building social currency?"
6) The rules act like scaffolding for the experience: the support a specific type of experience, but all of the details will be filled in by the narrative during play.
I am officially at the KISS design phase for Karma version 3. The rules/systems are all in place, now I need to streamline, simplify, and write the result in rulebook form. It's both a relief to declutter my rules, and the biggest challenge of the entire process.
Watching Adam Koebel's recent Office Hours episode reminded me of Jared Sorensen's 3 questions of game design:
Which might point to why my work on Rootless has become so relationship-focused.
It seems like a good exercise to answer these three questions about Rootless in its current form. I'll be interested to see how these answers transform over the development process.
I plan for Rootless to have two different game phases: the exploration phase and the bonfire phase.
The exploration phase is inspired by the hexcrawl type of adventure. The Alexandrian provides a design overview of hexcrawls while Run a Game provides an introduction to the game style. The game takes the form of a sandbox-discovery game. The GM creates a landscape or world populated with points of interest for players to discover and tinker with. Rather than focus on a set narrative or even a defined goal, these points of interest act as prompts for adventures. I’ll admit this plays to my preferences as a GM—I like tossing out intriguing things for players and seeing them run with it—and as a player, because it allows for open-ended play that adapts well to different group preferences and moods.
The West Marches game run by Steven Lumpkin on Rollplay is a great example of this type of game, which you can find on the Rollplay youtube here.
Steven also incorporated “fronts” into his West Marches game, which basically means the world had different entities that are pursuing goals, so when the PCs return to an area they will find it changed from their previous adventure. These changes reflect the PCs previous actions and the separate goals of the entities in the area. I think fronts add a necessary component to a hexcrawl game, because otherwise spaces are really only interesting the first time you explore them, which seems like a waste of potential. He was starting to develop a faction system for entities like Stars Without Number as well, which adds another cool layer of dynamic interactions, but I’m going to leave aside that mechanic simply because it increases GM-prep time and I want this system to be relatively simple to maintain as a GM.
A hexcrawl landscape can be a carefully constructed, fully detailed piece by a GM, and certainly GMs can do that with Rootless, but I think it can also be really helpful to have random tables to act as inspiration for the world and help cut down on GM prep. In the final version of Rootless I want to provide a pre-crafted terrain as an example and for quick play, but the bulk of the work will go into creating a system for inspiring GMs to create their own terrains in a relatively fast and fun manner. (In my dreams, I could build onto this system with supplemental genres/worlds, so people could translate the basic premise of Rootless from modern apocalypse to sci-fi, high fantasy, Western etc).
I’m excited to unleash my nature-nerd on these random tables. They will be inspired by a lifetime of studying wildlife, watching documentaries like Planet Earth, and interest in survival skills, (for a childhood throwback, think the book “My Side of the Mountain” or “Julie of the Wolves”). The first terrain set will probably be based on the Pacific Northwest in the U.S., but I’d like to also add tables for different terrain like the desert, plains, and tundra. The landscape will be a combination of wildlife and broken down urban remains, so players can explore both the Wild, abandoned towns/cities, and interact with the creatures that flourish in these liminal spaces. (I haven’t decided yet if the game is going to have a magic system or more blatant supernatural elements).
The basic premise of Rootless supports this sandbox play: as a Chronicle you are sent out to “challenge” the Wild and given a rough map based on the exploration of other Chronicles, but once you get away from the city who is really going to supervise you? You can do whatever you want. Some players may want to discover how to destroy the Wild, some may want to explore mysterious places or collect loot, while others may want to set themselves up as the rulers over their patch of wilderness. Once I’m further in development I might see if having team types —similar to crews in Blades in the Dark—is helpful, but in some ways I want to leave the game as an open sandbox.
The second phase of the game, the bonfire phase, is inspired by a combination of the reworked inspiration mechanic in West Marches and the GMless game The Fall of Magic. I’ll describe its basic structure and use in my next post.
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has studied the basics of human motivation for over 50 years. It all started with one experiment. The research team had people engage in a task and rate their intrinsic enjoyment of the task in the beginning. Then they created three groups: one received money for completing tasks, one received money unrelated to the task, and one group received positive encouragement. The groups rated their intrinsic enjoyment of the task after receiving their different rewards.
Who would say they enjoyed the task most? Surely the people who received money for their work.
Nope. The group that received money for the tasks had their intrinsic enjoyment decrease after their reward. The group who received money unrelated to their work had their intrinsic enjoyment remain the same. But the group that received positive encouragement? Their intrinsic enjoyment actually went up by the end.
This finding has been replicated over and over and over.
From this experiment, the researchers continued to explore motivation, rewards, punishments, and intrinsic enjoyment. They found that all humans have two essential tendencies: one, to engage in activities simply for the sake of intrinsic enjoyment; and two, the ability to take non-intrinsic tasks and integrate them into their identity so they actually become intrinsically enjoyable. This helps with society, because I think few of as kids found cleaning or other chores intrinsically enjoyable.
This integrative process—the ability to take an external requirement and actually make it intrinsically enjoyable—is supported by three basic needs. If these needs are adequately met, we will be naturally motivated and able to find enjoyment in a range of activities, learning to even enjoy things we started out disliking. But it these needs are not met, or actively thwarted, then that natural process becomes distorted. This can lead to decreased motivation, feeling “drained”, rebellious behavior, and just general dysregulation of our emotions/actions.
The SDT team identified these three essential needs, then tested them across the world in many different cultural settings, and found they held true across diverse groups. Those needs are: competence, the ability to (and sense of confidence that we can) overcome appropriate challenges; relatedness, the ability to feel known by others and connected with them; and autonomy, having a sense of volition and that our actions—even when follow the orders of others—align with our sense of self, e.g. personal values.
As I continue to play around with developing an RPG character sheet that revolves around the concept of identity, I have been experimenting with ways to use this structure of motivation and basic needs.
I like the idea of responding to challenges with our manager parts, firefighters, and exiled parts. It occurred to me that this taps into the idea of our need for competence: when we face a challenge, can we overcome/resist it? And how do we do that?
That left the basic needs of autonomy and relatedness. These needs do not fundamentally conflict with each other, but people often assume they do, especially it seems in the Western world (i.e. I need to be selfish OR I need to take care of others). This conflict reminded me another personality theory: the pattern system, which looks at different ways we can navigate interpersonal dynamics.
As shown in the diagram, this system places interpersonal dynamics on a spectrum, from completely other-focused (sacrificing autonomy for relatedness) to completely self-focused (sacrificing relatedness for autonomy).
This triggered the thought: what if Rootless is fundamentally about relationships? How the team relates to each other, but also how humanity relates to the Wild? I’ve known from the beginning that I want to treat the Wild like a person, with its own needs/drives/emotions. If people surrender to the Wild too much, they lose their own identity and become consumed by it; if they fight against the Wild, they will stir up progressively more dangerous conflict and likely end up dead.
This trait system also places a magnifying glass on interpersonal choices, rather than traditional skills.
I began tinkering with the different traits and turned them into seven different actions. When PCs engage in these actions, they received a bonus if they act in a way that matches their personality. If they act the same way too often, they might become progressively more “stuck” in their ways.
I decided to track these traits similar to the way Masks: the New Generation uses labels: they describe the character’s general traits/personality, but they can be changed through play. (In Masks, this is a cool way the game brings to life the idea that you’re a teenager, trying to figure out who you are, with a fluid identity as you experiment and develop).
Masks also uses the idea of “conditions” (e.g. afraid, angry) which create certain penalties, and are cleared by engaging in a specific action (e.g. clear the angry trait by breaking something). This lined up well with my idea of having tendencies to be more other vs. self-focused, with penalties incurred if you fall to far on one side of the spectrum or the other.
So now I have the core of the player character sheet:
You resist consequences/overcome challenges with either your manager / firefighter / exile part, which influences whether the consequences are short or long term in nature.
You engage in the world with seven interpersonally-grounded actions.
You have a tendency within each action to be either more other-focused or self-focused. The further you skew, the greater the bonus when you act in line with that tendency, but you can become too extreme in your bias, and incur a penalty that can only be dismissed by taking countering that trait.
In the example prototype below, this PC has 2 action dots in assess, 0 in fortify, and 1 in illuminate; these illustrate the base of their dice pool for each action. Each action has a trait assigned to it, which describes how they engage in the action. You can gain a bonus by performing the action in line with the trait, but each time you do it moves you further down the spectrum. Once you hit the end of the spectrum, you gain a "condition" which can only be cleared during the Bonfire phase of the game (similar to downtime in other games).
This character has taken a bonus to assess in an appreciate/strength based fashion one, and taken a bonus to fortify the group through leadership twice, which means they have gained the "tyrant" condition. During the bonfire phase, they will have to reveal something about themselves that counteracts the tyrant condition in order to regain balance and clear the associated penalty.
A friend and I were talking about family memory. She asked, “But what if you don’t know anything about your family history? What if no one remembers?”
Her question years ago started my ideas about nomads within the Rootless world: they would be people who could travel throughout the Wild, relatively unharmed, despite not having memory of the land they moved in because they had self-knowledge, a memory of themselves, where they came from—not in the genealogical/historical sense, but in the “these things have shaped me sense.”
When I started designing character mechanics for the TTRPG, I became intrigued by this idea of character stats not based on skills i.e. “things we do”, but on self-identity or “who we are.” The better a player character knew themselves, the more defense they would have against the Wild and its assault. But I needed to turn this abstract idea into concrete stats and mechanics for the game. Luckily, I studied a lot of personality theories while working on my doctorate, and I mentally started flipping through them. I needed a theory that could be summarized quickly, turned into concrete mechanics, and be both relatable and easy to comprehend—which immediately eliminated most theories.
Internal Family Systems theory met all of those criteria. IFS is based on the established tradition of family systems theory, which says that families are like other biological systems: they want to establish and maintain homeostasis. In order to do this, each family member adopts a “role” within the family that helps keep the system moving smoothly, i.e. unchanging. If something might disrupt the system, every family member jumps into their role and prevents the disruption from having any lasting change or impact.
This model is applied a lot of time to families with abuse or addiction dynamics. Let’s say parent 1 is an alcoholic. Parent 1 drinks so much they lose their job. That could cause a lot of chaos and potential change in the system. Instead, every family member takes on their usual role.
Frequently, one family role is to play the scapegoat: no matter what happens, everyone will focus on the scapegoat as the problem. So Parent 1 might have just lost their job, but the family is going to yell at the Scapegoat for cutting class or not finishing their chores or whatever other “problem” can be identified. On the flip side, another family member might play the hero role: this person must be responsible and perfect at all times. That way the family can see all the good things the Hero does and ask, “Well, how messed up could our family really be? Look at how good they are. We’re fine.” There are other roles (the Mascot breaks up tension, often with humor; the Lost Child is the quiet one who never adds to the conflict or makes any demands), but every role exists to keep the family stable.
Internal Family Systems took this idea of a family system, with set roles, and applied it to individual people. It starts with the idea that all people are made up of different parts with different primary drives/reactions, e.g. part of us wants to yell at people who cross us, part of us wants everyone to be happy and calm, part of us wants to achieve and work hard, part of us wants to rebel, etc. These different parts of our personality are able to function together because they form an internal system similar to a family system; each part takes on a different role in the system, to help maintain homeostasis.
These different parts can adopt one of three primary roles: the managers, who try to keep everything “together” and going “correctly”; the exiles, the unacceptable/shameful/“bad” parts of ourself we try to hide/ignore/change; and the firefighters, who jump into action anytime an exiled part surfaces, e.g. when part of us feels shame, the firefighters might encourage us to avoid or push away those shameful feelings through behaviors like over-eating, risky behavior, angry outbursts, addictions, zoning out, really any strategy that hides that exile away.
This outline provided a starting place for character stats: the manager, the firefighter, and the exile. In a game sense, the firefighters sounded really similar to the “vice” mechanic from Blades in the Dark: you can tolerate so much stress, then you have to give into your vice to burn it all away. This got me thinking about these three parts of self as different ways of resisting stress and overcoming challenges in life.
I love games that make us balance risk vs. reward and short term consequences vs. long term consequences. What if each form of resistance had its own benefit and detriment? Like using the manager-self to resist consequences worked in the short run, but it burned you out in the long term? Using a firefighter came with immediate reward and immediate destruction. The exile would come with immediate cost but long term reward. After all, while letting a shameful part out might hurt in the short term, it can lead to better self-knowledge and self-acceptance.
This 3-part self mechanic seemed interesting, like it could force some risk-reward choices, but it didn’t seem like something that could replace stats.
That’s when I found the game Masks: the New Generation. Next post I’ll talk about how I took a little personality theory to the stats from Masks to develop the basis of “skills” for Rootless.
In 2011 I moved from New Hampshire back to Oregon to start a doctoral program in clinical psychology. I drove the entire way with a good friend and we camped our way across the country, staying in a combination of a beautiful national/state parks and really cheap RV stops. We spent most of a week camping in the plains, mountains, badlands, by lakes and rivers. I noticed a sense of peace and beauty in my life that had faded during my time in school. Back then, I wrote novels as my main hobby, and I began to sketch some notes about a world where the nature I saw in these parks became the dominate force in the world, and cities became the oddity. (Wish fulfillment for my rural-loving heart).
Around the same time in my life, both of my grandmothers were struggling with dementia and one in particular was having a hard time adjusting, often getting angry, suspicious, confused. Her new condition stood in bitter contrast to my recent memories of sitting outside with her, talking about her time growing up in Oklahoma, stories about her parents and grandparents, jokes they shared, challenges they overcame. Before the dementia, she carried family memories stretching back before the Cherokee, her tribe, were even considered citizens in the United States.
These two experiences came together to spark the idea for a novel: a family that lived in the Wild needed to make the trek to the city, because their matriarch was developing Alzheimer's, so she was no longer protected from the Wild by her memories of their family land.
I started my doctorate program and never got further than a chapter with the novel, but the idea refused to leave me alone.
As I began working with TTRPG design, the idea returned to me: what if you regained hit points in a game by revealing something about your character and their backstory? What if the game combined the discovery of a classic hexcrawl, exploration-adventure game with opportunities for GMless narrative like the awesome Fall of Magic game?
With that idea, I began work on Rootless. The game is undeniably reflective of my experiences growing up camping in the Pacific Northwest and my training as a psychologist. Character stats are built by making choices about your character's personality. You can gain an edge on rolls by acting against your identity, but then you make yourself vulnerable to the Wild as you deny part of your nature. The game will be about balancing risks and rewards as you battle the Wild, deciding who suffers--you or your friends--and when the cost will be paid.
Or maybe you can embrace the granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing ways of my home state, and unlock the secrets of how you relate to the Wild, rather than fight it.
wMarch 6, 2015: John Harper's Kickstarter project for Blades in the Dark went live. I don't think I'd ever heard of John before then; I'm pretty sure a tweet from Adam Koebel send me over to the page. I read the description and immediately thought, "This guy read my mind, and decided to fix every complaint I have about playing Shadowrun."
Defined crew types, a flashback mechanic to prevent too much time spent on planning versus doing, an emphasis on team work, high-paced gameplay, factions that react to the PCs, leading to actual consequences for actions...I loved it at first read.
But I have a personal rule, that I never back a project the first time I hear about it. I let myself follow a project, and then when the 48-hours until ending notice pops up, I look back at a project and make a final decision. I've broken this rule twice: my first Kickstarter, the Veronica Mars movie, and for Blades in the Dark. I couldn't stop thinking about the game the next few days. I even tried watching the actual play video, but the use of Google hangouts and generally low production turned me off (itmejp's really spoiled me when it comes to AP production value).
Still... the game kept coming to mind. I loved Dishonored; I loved the Wire; I loved the potential to adapt this game to Shadowrun. I backed Blades three days after its launch.
Six months went by, and in SEP 2015 I decided to start tinkering with a Shadowrun adaption of the game. Some family members were interested in potentially playing a Shadowrun game, but there was no way 5 extremely busy people were going to devote the time to learn 5e. After a month of casual development I had a set of Shadowrun specific playbooks, but I hit a wall: how to adapt factions to Shadowrun? Factions as they stood made little sense to me in the Shadowrun world, because why would big factions like the megacorps know who the PCs are, but if we used only street-level factions, didn't that eliminate the you-against-the-overwhelmingly-powerful-corrupt-corps feeling of the Sixth World?
Work intensified at my day job, and I set the project aside.
I kept thinking about picking it back up, but John Harper mentioned off hand that he might create some unofficial playbooks for Shadowrun and was working on rules for magic. I decided I'd just wait for his version. Months more passed and Catalyst Games announced Shadowrun: Anarchy. I decided to wait for their rules-lite Shadowrun. With either John or CG making something, why should I bother?
Two things changed. First, over the year, I played a lot of Shadowrun 5e. The amount you never mention to coworkers because there's being "the geeky one" and being "do you live in your parent's basement?" pariah level of geeky. As I played, I found myself dually frustrated by the 5e rules systems and the way Shadowrun lore seemed so far away from my 1e/2e memories as a kid. Shadowrun, as one person put it, left the cyberpunk genre for something more transhumanist. I missed the game with a definite political statement about the world and how we treat businesses over people. I missed the focus on empowering indigenous and oppressed groups to fight back. I missed Nerps.
Second, GenCon came around, and with it, the prototype rules for Shadowrun: Anarchy. Once I got a copy, I realized the game did none of what I wanted from an alternative ruleset. This is not to say SR:A is fundamentally a bad game, it just wasn't a game I wanted to play. I listened to interviews and read comments by people in development, and realized that the influence of people like Adam Koebel, Steven Lumpkin, and John Harper on my ideas about game development had moved me in a direction very far away from the SR:A team; we had fundamental conflicts about basic design principles.
In my frustration with SR: A, I decided, "Fine, I'm going to make the game I want to play."
Hundreds of hours later, that game became Karma in the Dark.
This blog is where I "think aloud" about the games I'm designing, with occasional pieces analyzing other games or game mechanics. Currently, the focus is on talking through my own design process rather than presenting a polished piece on game design.
I'm known for going on tangents. The only consistent thing in my life is that I spend most of it creating things: novels, games, graphics. I love taking apart how art and games work, then reconstructing my own version from the pieces. I'm also enough of a layout perfectionist to adore eraser shields.