A speaker at GDC (unfortunately I can't remember the specific speech) made the argument that we shouldn't aim to please everyone with our games; that tactic often leads to more bland, middle of the road game design. Instead, we should design in a way that sparks conversation and controversy. If a game mechanic is polarized between "loved it vs. hated it", your design is more interesting than "everyone said it was fine."
This speech crystallized some of my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of team advancement. In v3.1 of Karma, team upgrades often follow a similar pattern: get the ability that increases our action skill, get an ability to make training xp more efficient, etc. Even the upgrades that were less optimization focused felt...dull?
So I decided to rework almost all of team advancement around a few principles:
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.
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.
"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.
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.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.