This post is completely a thinking-by-journaling piece, so even more than normal I'm developing my thoughts as I go.
I've been listening to GDC presentations during my commute the past 2 weeks. Today I listened to the newest release, a 2018 presentation by Zach Gage called "Building Games that Can Be Understood at a Glance." He introduces the idea of a game that is "subway legible", i.e. if you play this game on your phone while taking the subway, the person next to you can glance over, see the game, and get enough visual information to grab their interest and communicate the core mechanics/point of the game. He teaches people how to create these types of games through the idea of the "3 reads".
Using the example of a concert poster, he explains that the first read is what people can see from a distance and immediately grabs their attention (e.g. the band's name in big text); the second read is when that person moves closer to the poster, seeking more details (e.g. the day, time, venue); and the third read is when people look at those much smaller details that provide the information you only need if you're going to act on the poster or especially interested (e.g. the organizer of the concert's name).
His talk is relatively brief and gives some great examples of how this applies to visual design in games, user interfaces, tutorials, advertisement, etc.
As I watched, I started thinking that this applies really well to tabletop rpgs as well.
The core question of Karma in the Dark is archetypical: what are you willing to do for power? How much will you let the pursuit for power corrupt you?
In the fantasy genre, this is presented as a pretty black and white concept. There is the Big Bad who is Evil, and the Good Guys who fight for what is Right no matter the cost. This paradigm assumes a certain black and white morality.
In cyberpunk, it is more common for compromised, imperfect antiheroes to push back against an even more corrupt system . . . or to push back against people who are doing "the right thing" but in horrific ways that undercut its rightness. This is the gray vs. grey trope of the genre. While it doesn't offer the same stark morality as fantasy, there is still this play of morally right, wrong, what falls in between, and what really determines one from the other.
In Karma, I'm not as interested in right and wrong. From a design standpoint, I don't want to enforce my morales on the player, both on principle and on an engagement level; it's hard to be engaged in a moral struggle if you don't genuinely feel invested in the moral issues.
This is part of why I want players to pick their virtues, rebellion, and team ideal. You pick your morales, and then the world holds those as true.
But I'm also more interested in exploring how these moral choices impact a sense of identity.
Two recent events made me think about the ways we react to feedback and how I was trained some 15+ years ago.
My first experience with feedback on creative projects was in an online, international poetry workshop. The workshop required you to read some basic rules about effective writing, required you to maintain a critiques-given to critiques-received ratio, tempered that with explicit guidelines on how to give effective feedback, and had guidelines about how to receive and incorporate critiques effectively.
One of the main rules was encapsulated in a FAQ question:
Q: What if the critique doesn't appreciate the art of my work and it hurt my feelings?
A: Thank them. Always.
(I am paraphrasing).
I learned the art of giving and receiving critique in that environment, and it permanently shaped how I respond to feedback. I am extremely grateful for that fact. It gave me the tools to navigate accepting criticism in all parts of my life.
(This post assumes familiarity with the Forged in the Dark game system, i.e. Blades in the Dark).
I've been taking a mental break from cyberpunk to play around in the world of community-crime. This game focuses on mysteries set in a specific, close-knit community, and is inspired by everything from the TV show Shots Fired to the Stillhouse Lake books, and my own time working in a rural police department.
The game starts with a murder; the PCs are part of an investigative team brought in to determine the truth of what happened. Similar to Criminal Minds or Mindhunter or Shots Fired, the PCs aren't a local group. They have to overcome the secrets and suspicion of the locals to make any progress in their case.
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.
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.