I am terrified of the game I'm currently designing:
It is a game about cultural disconnection, the harm family members do to each other, and children growing up and needing to decide their place in those dynamics.
It is a game that could be made very, very wrong.
It's also a game I haven't been able to get out of my mind for over a month.
Developing a chronic illness in 2018 fundamentally changed how I play games, which also changed which games I can play. This past spring I've started to take what I learned as a player to modify my design approach so I am creating games people like me can actually play.
This is not, to be clear, "how to design games while coping with a chronic illness," but more about how I have changed my own views on "good" game design as a result.
A little over a week ago I wrote a post about decolonizing games which generated some questions on Twitter about how this applies to video games and the role of design methdologies (e.g. using gameplay loops as a design tool) relate to decolonization.
Question 1: Can these [cultural] explorations happen in video games given the binary nature of computers?
My first reponse is on Twitter, but today I want to expand on the topic some more.
All game design—tabletop, video games, road trip time-wasters—happens within a cultural context. Or more accurately, within multiple contexts (context of the designer, context of the genre, the market, the individual players, etc.) but I want to focus for now on the context of the designer.
Before we dig deep into the discussion, I want to introduce some tools for examining culture. Culture, especially if you belong to the dominant culture of your area, can be like the water surrounding a fish: it is easy not to actively notice its existence or implications. In fact, as anthropologist Ralph Linton once famously said, "Water would be the last thing a fish would notice."
To step back and start noticing our own water, it can be helpful to start recognizing that our entire world and perception of it is interpreted. There are several lenses that affect this interpretation; today I want to focus on the idea of epistemology. Put simply, espitemology is the study of knowledge: what methods do we use to know something, how do we determine if something is valid, and what is the scope (or limits) of our knowledge?
In really practical terms, our ways of knowing shape how we understand and interact with our environment; it also strongly shapes what we would see as "valid" interpretations, and act as a filter for our expectation for the "default" way of understanding and reacting.
Conversation about accessible rulebooks often raises the question: why aren't more tabletop roleplaying games in epub and mobi format?
Diversifying the formats offered would allow more control over layout for those who need it. MOBI allows you to tap into all of the Kindle app's features like color of text and background, column size, text size, font, etc. EPUB allows control over font size, and also offers an easy to use text-to-speech feature.
I'm pretty sure that Jason Pitre was the one I first heard suggest a workflow involving markdown to allow easy adaption of your game text into ebook formats. Based on this idea, I decided to try and create a workflow that would allow me to publish games in 3 formats with the least amount of extra work: interactive PDF, EPUB, and MOBI.
So how did it go?
Since getting horribly sick last night means I couldn't finish my next blog on design theory, I want to focus instead on an important practice for my own development: seeking out new perspectives and lessons on design. I try to either read or listen to new content every week. It sharpens my skills, and also keeps me inspired by hearing the insights of others.
For today's post I want to point at a few of the resources I've found helpful for shaping my own thoughts about design.
Note: This post is very U.S. centric in nature.
Note the Second: I make broad statements in this piece; any discussion of culture is extremely complex and open to nuance and one blog post cannot do that justice
The folklore game jam has helped me realize what bothers me with a lot of the conversation around decolonizing games.
I didn’t plan on making a folklore game; then I ended up making two. One is based on a Cherokee story; the other was inspired by a Scottish story. As I worked on the games I found myself revisiting the stories I grew up on. Looking at Cherokee and Scottish stories at the same time made one thing very clear: folklore reveals a lot about culture. It captures the values we want to pass on from one generation to the next.
This statement may seem a little “no duh” for anyone who has considered folklore before. But it feels revolutionary in this moment to me because folklore takes the unspoken values and make them blatant. It takes the cultural assumptions and teaches them outright. I’ve returned to a number of stories I grew up on with a new eye, and feel like I’m crystalizing in my mind the unspoken, transmitted values that surrounded me throughout my life.
How does this relate to decolonizing games?
I hit the designer’s version of writer’s block for the first time this winter. I wasn’t sure how to deal with it, so I decided to avoid the issue by throwing myself into playing a lot more games. And reading even more.
Turns out, that’s exactly what I needed.
Every time I read or play a game two things happen:
I won’t dive into every game I’ve played or read, but I want to focus on one specifically: Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined by Riley Hopkins a.k.a. The Kingdom Hearts roleplaying game.
I had no idea what to expect when I agree to play this game. I’ve never played more than 30 minutes of Kingdom Hearts. I’ve never played a game where I roleplay an existing character. And I’d never actually heard of the game until someone suggested we play it. The game is made with the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system, and at this point I’d had lukewarm experiences with PbtA games.
So it’s probably fair to say my reaction going into this game was, “Meh.”
My reaction coming out was, “I love this game. I have so much to learn from this game. When can I play again?”
If you want to hear me talk about the game as a player, you can keep an eye on the Voices at play podcast, where I was part of a roundtable discussion about the game. That episode will be coming out in the next month.
Here I want to focus on the game as a designer.
Revisiting the concept of a play pyramid for game design recently helped me focus my editing process for game mechanics.
Crossing Worlds is going to be a new game based on mechanics developed for Karma in the Dark. But just hacking Blades for a Shadowrun inspired setting (Karma) required mechanical adjustments; taking Karma into a game world about Cherokee futurism in a off world sci-fi setting would definitely require mechanical adjustments. I also learned a lot in my three years of designing Karma, so many of my mechanic choices now seem...questionable.
I've been grappling with this pretty massive revision project, and not well. My direction for tackling the revision drifted over the past few months as I struggled to find a good way to making editing decisions.
Then I watched Cory Barlog's GDC presentation on reinventing God of War. As he described the process of moving from the original franchise to pitching a new game to actually developing that new game, one image stood out: the play pyramid for the new game.
Thinking about pilars of gameplay isn't revolutionary (I've even looked at it before for Karma in the Dark) but this image struck me for two reasons:
This dynamic appealed to me because Karma (and by extention, the first draft of CW) had begun to feel unwieldly. There were too many ideas, too many systems, too many rules to learn. I wanted something more streamlined.
I stepped back and asked myself what the play pyramid would look like for Crossing Worlds.
As I've been revising the foundational rules of Karma in the Dark for my first full release of Crossing Worlds, I've been reconsidering the utility, theme, and synergy of every mechanic. I found myself stuck on what to do with Harm for weeks. In the basic Forged in the Dark engine, harm is one of five possible consequences from a roll that doesn't get a 6 result. If you take harm, you write a short description in the box. Level 1 means you have decreased effect, level 2 means you have -1d, and level 3 means you need to push yourself or get assistance for actions.
Harm as it stands achieves three main purposes: narratively, it captures more long-standing injury; during scores, it creates a penalty for failure; and during downtime, it acts as a time/money sink because it requires downtime actions to recover.
Examining each purpose through the lens of Crossing Worlds, it didn't seem to fit.
Creating multiple games based on the same rule foundation (Forged in the Dark a.k.a. FitD) has caused me to think hard about the way specific mechanics affect gameplay—and how I might want to manipulate those effects for different results. Today’s post I’m going to review some design choices I made with core roll mechanic for the pirate adventure Tides of Gold versus the cyberpunk rebellion Karma in the Dark.
The Action Roll
Actions rolls are probably the most frequent roll you will make in a game. In the FitD system, action rolls generally play out like this: you face an obstacle, you describe how you overcome it, and you roll a dice pool based on the action you want to use. The outcome of your roll is influenced by three traits: the highest die you roll (e.g. 1-6); the position of your action (how dangerous it is, which affects the severity of consequences); and your effect (how much your roll achieves against the obstacle). In the core FitD system your position can be controlled, risky, or desperate, and your effect can be limited, standard, or great. Additionally, your effect is based on effect factors like your quality/tier, scale, and potency.
Both of my games alter these core mechanics in different ways.
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.