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.
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.
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.
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 in my academic career, 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.
In 2011 I moved across the country. 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 school 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 interest in psychology. 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.
March 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 sent 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 a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.