There's a phrase in writing: "kill your darlings." Whatever part of your writing you find most precious is also probably the most self-indulgent . . . and needs to be erased.
Right before I released Karma v3.0, I was walking my dog and thinking about all of the possible feedback I would receive from playtesting, discussions, and editing advice. I asked myself, "What is my darling? And what is the one thing I don't want to change?"
There were two:
Here I am, almost one month after I finished v3.0, considering how I can kill both of these.
This is going to be a different type of blog. This is why I play and want to design games.
I work as a trauma therapist and specialize in working with violence. I have worked with victims of violent crimes and perpetrators of violent crimes; survivors of war crimes and perpetrators of war crimes; refugees from war and soldiers from war. My research was on a condition known as perpetration induced traumatic stress, the little discussed reality that perpetrating violence is one of the biggest risk factors for developing PTSD. Even when people believe their cause is just, they remain at high risk for severe symptoms after harming others. Those who deny or avoid those symptoms often have the dysfunction come out in other (destructive) ways.
I have been doing this work for so much of my life I start to forget that what I've seen, listened to, and come to know about humanity is not normal, even for other psychologists. Yesterday I spent the first hour at work debriefing a difficult case with a professional who has specialized in extreme trauma for over 30 years. We started discussing the worst cases we've seen in our careers.
Needless to say, it put me on tilt for the rest of the day. There are some things I don't want to remember, and some things no matter how much time and processing and self-care I do, will always be dark and heavy. There are some things you can't make meaning of or process through, you just learn to carry better.
The current release of Karma in the Dark is more or less stable until I get significant playtesting feedback. I will continue to make small edits for clarity, but no real design changes for a while.
This frees me up to turn my attention to other design projects. I will focus on smaller hacks and micro RPGs for a while. I don't want to tackle another major game release until Karma is done.
Corsairs on the Dark
This will remain a small hack for Blades. It will feature 5 new playbooks, 3 new teams, and 4 ship models. The only rule changes will be simple rules for ship combat and downtime while out to sea. It will include a basic island world map with some quickstart rules to create your own tropical fantasy setting. Everything will be compatible with the Blades main game and require Blades to play. I need to finalize my write-up of the ship rules and setting creation, then I can release it.
Unnamed Mystery RPG:
I want to play around with a micro rpg that is basically the movie Clue but set in a small town or other isolated community. Players will be part of an investigative team trying to solve a crime/string of crimes that has rocked their small, contained community. New mechanics will primarily focus on giving the GM tools to create a compelling mystery and giving players interesting ways to investigate the mystery. I doubt this will use Blades as its base system; I'm more interested in looking at Tales from the Loop and/or Dogs in the Vineyard for inspiration.
This will be a micro hack, likely using Blades as a base system. The game will take place in a space opera sci-fi setting. Players will be part of a military-controlled team of psychics. The focus will be on completing missions while trying to find a way to escape the military's control. Basically scores will be super hero psychic zaniness, and downtime will be Prison Break.
If I drop everything that influenced Karma to this point, I have to rethink what dystopia, awakening, and cyberspace mean. So far I have some ideas about how I want that to go:
(To recap past posts) The Mortal World/Dystopia is defined by: extreme polarization/segregation that causes deadly competition; stagnation; and reduction of people to tools i.e. a means to an end.
Mechanically, these dynamics are reflected in the fact the GM's Karma front cannot really be stopped; the world can only be changed with great effort; and social relevance is a defining source of power. The PCs are hired by factions because they are tools; they are expendable, because more tools can be bought. They are hired not for their anonymity, but for their expendability. (I am writing least about this aspect, because it is pretty well developed in the game already and just needs some honing.)
The Magic World/Awakening is in direct revolt of those tenants. In the awakening: everyone has the same innate access to magic; everything is connected, with the flow of cause-and-effect resulting in constant, sustained changed; and magic is a sentient, self-determined and motivated personality.
Now for the new additions.
When I edit designs, I like to invoke the rule of three. This gives a certain symmetry to design, but it also helps enforce editing. For example, in v3.0, bonds can be used for 5 benefits right now. Once I see what gets used the most by players and what makes the game the most interesting, I will edit those down to 3 benefits.
As I "think aloud" through design, I will also edit it down at different points. When it comes to answering world-building questions, the rule of three has another use: it helps me tap into the core aspects which should be reflected in mechanics.
What do I mean by that?
Criticism 3: What would be your version of a dystopia?
This point came in the context of disconnecting from Shadowrun, but raised perhaps the most compelling questions of all. When I made Karma 1.0, I was intentional about trying to limit my own political views and creative vision. It leaked in some, but I held back. In version 2.0 and now 3.0, I let in slightly more of my personal vision.
This question, and the developing v3.1, has allowed me to drop all restraint and fully embrace what I want to say in this game. And yeah, it's political. To steal Andrew Gillis's phrasing in his Girl by Moonlight playtest document, this is a game about cyberpunk-fantasy, but really it's a game about oppression and violence, and how those two forces can twist our sense of identity.
Criticism two: streamline mechanics
The second criticism hits on something I knew was a problem, but hadn't solved yet. Namely, that while I like the idea of relevance changing your effect in the world, the current implementation is clunky because it adds an extra step to the entire process of determining a roll. You need to factor in relevance, then look at other effect factors, if well...relevant.
One possible suggestion was to make relevance a factor instead of quality, and maybe rethinking scale and potency as factors. The idea of redefining how fictional positioning works in my game opened my mind to a new level of hacking the Forged in the Dark system.
Critiques are the best part about releasing a game for playtesting and public feedback. I was lucky enough to get some criticisms/ suggestions which crystallized some issues I've been turning over in my mind. As I work through those design points, I want to post more here.
Criticism 1: You need to remove all traces of Shadowrun
When I first made Karma in the Dark I never planned to make it a real game. I figured it would be good experience/practice before I focused on my real game, Rootless.
But then as I playtested the game, and worked through design problems, the game became its own thing. Now that I do want to develop it into something real, I need to remove all traces of Shadowrun.
This challenge is amazingly freeing creatively; the first few changes are already exciting me.
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.
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.