I'm writing this design post mortem after being up all night writing and editing, so it might not be the most coherent thing ever. I am sure it is full of typos.
But I feel like I need to process the labor of the past nine months before I sleep. Or more accurately, walk my dog, feed the animals, and then sleep.
I Feel Proud
That is a weird statement to make about a creative project of mine. I know there's a 100% chance in the future I will see all of the flaws and unfinished work. But right now I feel like this version of the game represents a huge step forward. I feel like the biggest improvements fall into 4 categories:
It says something about the design that for the first time, when someone asks me a question about the design, no matter how obscure, I can explain it off the top of my head.
(There is 1 mechanic I know is a bump in the prettiness—having the three magic souls always use their original approach to magic, requiring some translation of special abilities depending upon approach—but I'm not ready to kill that darling, and I do think it has value in the way magic users aren't penalized by trying different soul disciplines that would force them to use less developed actions otherwise).
But back to the parts I like.
I feel like this version really does put oppression, rebellion, and relationships front and center in the design. From the sell out mechanic to the conformity tracker to the narrative build up of the campaign to the option to come back as an antihero, the core premise permeates the design.
I feel like the idea of team ambitions and team goals helps groups focus in the middle of many moving systems/parts.
I feel like the bonds/grudges system works well, and I like that I've dropped that trapping of using a fixer instead of the team building relationships directly with faction agents; it makes the social dynamics more immediate.
I feel like the disciplines are in a good place and each soul has an interesting angle to play.
I feel like character creation has been changed to allow for more freedom (xp trigger choices, contact choices) while also providing more structure to make it faster (archetype choices). I cannot describe how freeing it was to make xp choices, since the rigid/limited version in most playbooks always bothered me.
Overall, I feel like the different rule systems layer on top of each and feed into each other in a way that makes sense.
I kept holding up the final-final version of 4.0 because I wanted to get some additional GM-supporting content in the game. I am really happy I finished the GM chapter on running the game. I hope it provides enough narrative guidance and pre-generated starting situations it feels less overwhelming to get a campaign off the ground. I'm also happy I (finally) finished the chapter that details what each action does, exactly, with examples. I think it will clarify a lot of the questions GMs get from new players about what action does what.
(Side note: I am actually really happy I have no "hack" action, because it means you have limits on what you hack and have to think about your approach, versus treating that word as the cyberpunk equivalent of "open sesame").
Similarly, I'm happy I finished the personal code examples (GMs often get put on the spot for ideas when players get stuck or lost); happy I added some clarification about how special contracts work; and I'm glad the variety of team ambitions can offer groups more narrative options than "do jobs for corps, repeat." I mean, I enjoy that gameplay (obviously) but I also like the increased room to focus on the campaign threat or community or relationships in your game, if you want.
While the Campaign Creation chapter is a bit choppy in its current state, I am glad I cut some of the more detailed/labor intensive aspects of creating fronts. It just felt like too much work, and being expected to know too many things when you first started playing.
Finally, I'm glad I've already updated the quick reference sheets for rules. And I'll always be glad for Paddy's suggestion to make a name page, to help GMs with quick ideas. I know I use it all the time.
Defining the Visual Aesthetic
I intentionally never really focused on the look of the character sheets before this version. When I still needed to refine and test core game mechanics, it seemed like misplaced energy. I always understood that pretty sheets would attract players, but I had too many other priorities.
That said, I'm happy to be in a place where I can start attending to the visual details. Layout actually matters a great deal to me, and I've been experimenting with possible aesthetics on the side for the entire 2 years. The look of the playbooks, teams, and special contracts all seem cohesive, legible, and have a specific feel to them.
I'm now working on art for the pdf...and less happy. Good art might need to wait for a later edition, or a time I can afford to hire professionals.
Fulfilling Old Promises
I started work on the antihero classes 1.5 years ago. Maybe longer. They've gone through several iterations (this one will need another few revisions, I can already tell), but I'm happy to get them into testing. I don't like to miss deadlines (game design has taught me how bad I am at predicting realistic ones), so it feels good to get these out.
The rulebook has also been missing a description of the standard items on the character sheets. I know. It's such a simple thing. I put it off because it felt tedious and unimportant; it took me ten minutes to get at least something basic down. Similarly, as much as I hate writing and reading (so yeah, it will need edits) the "how to play the game with fictional positioning", it's a relief to get it in there.
Overall, this version of the game feels close to complete. There is nothing you need to go find in Blades in order to play this game; it's its own, complete item. That feels really good.
This is obviously not a critical post mortem for v4.0, but after more than 2 years of working away, it's pretty cool to feel like the game is in a good place.
Next steps include one more copyediting pass, official layout with InDesign, some time spent indexing the book because I freaking love indexed rulebooks, and then I'll take a break. And let my brain get some distance, before I come back for another round.
Addendum: I like the game's title more now that the reference isn't so obvious. I'm still hoping to come up with a better idea (names are hard) ...but it also sorta works better with this version.
I realized I needed a mental break from Karma when the very mention of anything cyberpunk made me recoil. It's probably a decent idea to step away for a week or two so I can come back with fresh perspective.
That break has let me return to my slap-together pirate hack Corsairs. It was a pleasant surprise to go back to something I made months ago and have my first reaction be, "Wow, I want to play this," rather than my usual editor-brain critique fest.
I intended to put together a world creation system similar to Karma, but my mind went blank every time I sat to write down some world creation prompts. Next I turned to my old favorite system of random-generator charts, to see if I could hack a Star Without Number like system together for world generation.
As my mind remained unhelpfully empty, I started to mull over the problems of creating my own setting for Corsairs. The technology is based on the Age of Sail time period, but there is a heavy mystical influence that feels closer to a more ancient sea odyssey setting.
Whatever I chose, I would want to draw influence from historical groups and politics...but even cursory reading hit me with a challenge: did I want to include slavery? It's pretty hard to research any historical period without facing that question, but slavery and sea travel have been closely linked throughout most of human history. Just like colonialism and sea travel is often linked.
These questions morphed into inspiration. I wanted to create a setting that brings to life maritime commerce and conflict, but without recreating slavery and colonialism. Particularly, I wanted to try and avoid treating any of the main cultures as "the other."
And that's how I spent a solid week studying the history of the Mediterranean basin. And by the history of the Mediterranean basin, really I mean just the history of the Seleucid Empire, Etruscans, and Numidia, because I wanted to try and pull inspiration from different continents and different eras. It's been interesting but also frustrating how much of our understanding, even today, is heavily shaped by the Romans.
The setting I'm creating is inspired by but not directly based on that reading. I've identified three primary powers and created 9 initial ports. I still need to finish layout, but overall I like where it's heading.
(And yes, I am shamelessly borrowing the design aesthetic of Blades. Since this is still intended to be a "quick hack" I'm trying to minimize labor time.)
It's important to note that:
What is gaming addiction? Is this a psychiatric diagnosis now?
The ICD, the International Classification of Disorders, is a universal coding guide for medical conditions. This allows people to report medical statistics and conduct research using an internationally understood system. If you hear world-wide stats about a medical condition, that is likely based on aggregate data reported using ICD codes.
In June 2018 the latest revision of the ICD released with a new subsection under "Disorders due to substance use or addictive behavior"; this subsection is called "Disorders due to addictive behaviors" and includes gambling disorder, gaming disorder, and other specified disorders due to addictive behaviors (the "miscellaneous" category of diagnostic evaluation).
If you read the description in the ICD it seems very broad and ill defined; set next to the description for alcohol use disorder, however, it's comparable to the standard ICD level of detail and therefore our understanding of other addictive disorders can probably be used to interpret the intent of this classification.
In the United States, mental health providers primarily use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which provides significantly more detail for diagnosing mental health conditions, including cultural considerations, environmental contributors, other disorders that should be ruled out as they often share symptomns, and what a typical course of the mental illness looks like. In this manual we can start to see what exactly "addictive disorders" can mean.
That understanding starts by looking at another non-substance based addictive disorder: gambling disorder. First introduced as an "impulse control disorder" in 1994, gambling disorder was reclassified with addictive disorders in the 2013 revision of the DSM 5th edition. The rationale for that decision is telling:
"The rationale for this change is that the growing scientific literature [on gambling disorder] reveals common elements with substance use disorders. Many scientists and clinicians have long believed that problem gamblers closely resemble alcoholics and drug addicts, not only from the external consequences of problem finances and destruction of relationships, but, increasingly, on the inside as well.According to Dr. Charles O’Brien, chair of the Substance-Related Disorders Work Group for DSM-5, brain imaging studies and neurochemical tests have made a 'strong case that [gambling] activates the reward system in much the same way that a drug does.' Pathological gamblers report cravings and highs in response to their stimulus of choice; it also runs in families, often alongside other addictions. Neuroscience and genetics research has played a key role in these determinations.
"Internet addiction was considered for this category, but work group members decided there was insufficient research data for it to be included. Another so-called behavioral addiction, 'sex addiction,' also was not included because the work group found no scientific evidence that 'reward circuitry is operative in the same way as in addictive areas.'"
What does this mean, exactly? And how does it relates to games? Let's take a brief psychology detour.
Driven by basic psychological needs
Decades ago researchers had a theory, more or less based on watching mice learn to push levers for food. That theory was essentially: rewarding people for a certain action will cause them to do that action more. Through these rewards, we can actually train/shape how people act.
This idea was interesting to corporate America because businesses are always looking for ways to make their employees as effective (and compliant) as possible.
So some researchers did a study. They had a group of people rate their enjoyment on a task after engaging in it. Then, they had people do the same task but with a new twist: they would get paid for their work. They expected people to rate the task as more enjoyable when they were paid for it. Instead, they found the opposite. The introduction of an external reward actually decreased their enjoyment rating.
This was baffling. After all, if you like a thing, why wouldn't you like it more when you also get money for it?
Exploring this question led the researchers into the field of intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards which was eventually summarized in Self-Determination Theory. They found that people, even when researching many different cultures around the world, share three universal psychological needs: the need for relatednessness, competency, and autonomy (i.e. a sense of volition). Basically, they found that all people, at an intrinsic, innate level desire to feel connected and known, feel like they can cope with the challenges they face, and have a sense of purpose in life.
When we can't get these needs met, we turn to substitute needs which are similar but ultimately unfulfilling. For example, many people cope with feeling incompetent by becoming either over-controlling or overly-passive, neither of which is the same as feeling capable, but gives the illusion of "everything is under control". Others cope with a lack of purpose by latching onto dogmatic or extremist views...political views, religious views, fandom views...whatever gives that sense of meaning.
I'm not going to try and summarize 50 years of research except to say this: the research consistently revealed innate desires in people to fill these basic psychological needs. These drives are intrinsic to the human experience, and are not motivated by external "rewards."
What does this have to do with video games?
When we have those psychological needs filled, we feel a rush of satisfaction and positivity. This makes sense: our brain is hardwired to reward us for doing the healthy thing of getting our needs met.
And video game designers? They know all about Self Determination Theory and basic psychological needs. There's at least one GDC talk about it every year. There are consultants and groups who research how to keep players engaged in their games, and most (if not all) can talk about design strategies that tap into our desire to have these needs met.
So we know people are driven to fulfill these needs, feel strong satisfaction when these needs are met, and many designers are programming their games to appeal to these drives.
But is it addictive?
With advances in brain imaging, we can actually see which parts of the brain are being used in real-time. We know which parts of the brain are part of our reward system (that's the human chemical equivalent of a dog being given a treat for doing the "right" thing). The current state of research clearly shows that addictive substances activate that specific reward center in our brain.
The newer research shows that gambling activates the same reward center as alcohol or meth. Conversely, current research does not show pornography triggering the same parts of the brain. As of right now, that difference in brain activity defines the definition of addiction in the United States, as opposed to other excessive or harmful--but not "addictive"--behaviors.
So what about gaming?
Right now there isn't enough research to show if it's closer to gambling or pornography in how our brain processes it and why it becomes a repetitive pattern.
The issue is likely complicated by the huge variety of gaming mechanics which seem to hook people. Many games have introduced gambling-like elements with loot boxes. It's not a leap to predict that those mechanics trigger similar reward pathways as traditional gambling.
Many MMOs (World of Warcraft is a classic example) obviously tap a sense of accomplishment, which is a substitute for our basic psychological need for competence. Leveling in WoW may not translate to feeling capable in daily life, but it forms a close enough substitute to hook into that basic need and keep us coming back. Do those mechanics also trigger the addiction-reward pattern in the brain, or something else entirely?
My initial hypothesis
When the ICD released their new gaming disorder code, I sat down to talk about it with a coworker who runs our medical center's substance abuse treatment program. As we talked I realized that I've evaluated many people with substance abuse problems who do not meet criteria for any other mental health disorder; I cannot think of anyone I've met with excessive and harmful gaming habits who didn't also meet criteria for another mental illness.
Can we really call something a mental illness if it never occurs in isolation? Or is it just a symptom at that point?
And that is what several treating providers argue in the U.S.: gaming is a form of coping with other problems like depression and anxiety. Dysfunctional gaming is a visible symptom, but not the root disorder. Alternatively, we have plenty of science to show that substance abuse can occur as its own, discrete disorder. People can have no other "mental illness," but thanks to changes in the reward pathway in their brain, they still engage in addictive substances to a dysfunctional and harmful degree.
We can actually see something similar to this root cause vs. visible symptom focus with obsessive-compulsive disorder. When people hear "OCD", they often think of people who check things obsessively, or organize things in a specific fashion, or are fixated on cleaning things over and over; all of these actions are called "compulsions". What the average person doesn't know is the obsession (unwanted, upsetting, uncontrollable thoughts) is actually the root cause; the visible compulsive behavior is an attempt to manage the anxiety generated by that obsession.
For example, if someone has an obsessive thought "I'm not safe", they will check their locks and appliances over and over and over to try and banish or prove wrong their obsessive thought. Or if someone has the obsessive thought "I'm dirty," they will wash themselves over and over and over to calm the anxious obsession. What we see--the compulsive, repetitive behavior--is their way of managing the obsessive thought.
So my hypothesis (limited as it is by the current state of science)?
The gray zone? Game designers are targeting our basic psychological needs to keep us intentionally hooked on their games. So I can absolutely see a future where we discover actually, yeah, dysfunctional gaming is addictive separate from gambling or symptoms of other problems.
When I listen to designers talk about basic psychological needs with more fluency and nuanced understanding than most doctoral level psychologists, a part of me feels uneasy...and just a little bit like I'm living in a cyberpunk future.
Labelling something an "illness"
Total transparency: the fact games can meet some basic psychological needs can be helpful for short-term coping. I've given some patients the homework of playing video games. (Obivously after an exploration of what they need and how they can get those needs met). If someone is so depressed they can't get dressed or shower or eat or look at their phone etc., feeling a sense of accomplishment from mastering a game mechanic can give them that hit of pleasure missing from the rest of their life.
I've met people who literally got past suicidal thoughts by playing games. Sometimes we don't have very much control over our environment, and if that environment doesn't fill our basic psychological needs, gaming can be a viable stand-in until people are able to change their overall environment or situation.
Gaming, I explain to some patients, can be a little bit like treading water. It doesn't get us to shore, but it can keep us afloat until help arrives or we're able to get our bearings and figure out which direction we need to swim. Or in some cases, gaming can actually help us develop the mental muscles and skills to finally swim to shore, (as seen in numerous accounts of people who formed social communities in games, then turned that into genuine social support and positive action).
And that's perhaps why I hope we examine the idea of gaming disorder as a mental illness with a holistic and nuanced approach. Not many people can say alcohol* or gambling was the key to avoiding suicide during a difficult time in their life; I've met countless people who can say that about gaming.
*In all fairness, I have had some people say they thought about killing themselves and chose getting drunk to silence those thoughts. Those are the same people I see make a lot of headway in their alcohol abuse when they get treatment for the untreated depression, anxiety, and/or trauma. I've seen many, many more people addicted to alcohol who had it push them closer to suicide rather than save them from it.
One of the silver linings of being bed-ridden 70-80% of weekends for the past 5 months is being able to play video games guilt free. When you don't have the mental focus to do anything productive, and don't have the physical ability to do much of anything period, working your way through your Steam backlog feels like a solid option.
During this mass-play of games, two games lodged in my designer-mind for similar reasons: The Witness and Vampyr. While these two games are very different from each other, they share a common design flaw: design choices that distract from the game's core elements.
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:
Safe house upgrades should:
Now, every safe house upgrade is effectively a special ability that attempts to embody those principles. These abiliities focus on the team's neighborhood, relationships with contacts, and downtime/free play time.
As it turns out, trying to write the equivalent of 32 new special abilities--with a flavor that clearly differs from team or playbook special abilities, are somewhat balanced, and seem compelling--took a lot of time.
These safe house upgrades lean into the idea of abilities that offer advantages, but come at a cost. The hope is when players choose to pay the cost, it adds interesting twists or threats to the narrative. It also helps balance the overall game that safe house upgrades aren't 100% positive; I don't want players or teams to get OP to the point there is no challenge left in the game.
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 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.