Archive for February, 2010

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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

February 27, 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has two fascinating premises: Enslaved gods being used as the foundation for an empire, and a young woman, Yeine, thrust into a battle for the throne in a nest of hateful political intrigue.

Instead of the typical “Fantasy quest” format, 100K Kingdoms chooses to follow more along the lines of brutal detective fiction – it’s all about secrets, betrayals, forbidden affairs and revenge, revenge, revenge. And this is what makes it work – the story stays strong in the characters and the situation, not falling into fantasy element fanboyism. The characters are all multilayered, with interesting motivations, even the secondary characters.

As I read this book, I could only think more and more to the detective genre, especially as Yeine just finds each answer providing more questions, and the pressure being turned up, each step of the way. Yeine’s portrayal skillfully manages to stay in the space of an intelligent and determined protagonist, yet inexperienced and under extreme pressure – her mistakes are understandable and human.

Bonus: People of color! Gay characters! In fantasy! And it doesn’t have to be “special interest”!

Overall: I highly recommend it! It’s a fun read, has fantastic characters, scary magic, and shady, shady drama.

If I wanted to do this in an RPG

Sorcerer. 100K Kingdoms goes straight for the kind of brutal relationship-map drama out of the Sorcerer’s Soul, the Gods work just like unhappy demons who are tired of being bound, and Humanity is basic human empathy towards others – something in short supply in the book.

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Rules & Fiction Part 2

February 19, 2010

Rules & Fiction Part 1

Design vs. Play

Rules that declare are the ones people most consciously throw on the chopping block. Often for one of the following reasons:

1) Violates the group’s sense of the fiction (“We ‘randomly encounter’ a wyvern in the town? No way!”)
2) Goes against the group’s goals for the game (“Dying at 0 hitpoints means everyone is dying all the time… we’re changing it to -10″)
3) Simply has no purpose for the group and their goals for the game (Basically, Vincent’s Don’t use it? You’ll lose it” thing)

Of course, all the above also get changed or chopped via GM Fiat and fudging, without anyone noticing or thinking anything about it. (In which case, maybe instead of group’s goals, you can substitute GM’s goals, in more problematic instances of play).

Rules that delegate usually get altered, ignored or removed in a different way.

The classic method is the game group trying out a new game and simply ignoring the delegative rules and instituting an end-run around them to reproduce the sort of play they always do. This is usually unconscious – they’re so used to playing a particular way that it never even occurs to them that they’re skipping or going directly against rules in the book.

This also applies in cases of Illusionism, railroading and GM Fiat- many games and roleplaying advice have normalized the idea of running roughshod over delegative rules about who controls characters that it’s rare for many gamers to even recognize that rules actually matter in this regard.

Rules and Responsibility

So, when we’re talking about this, we’re really just talking about where the fiction is created, right? Either the rules added something or someone at the table did.

That kind of responsibility rolls two ways for both designers and game groups.

Declarative rules are a great way to assign the responsibility to no player in particular – it removes the issues of the social weight of adding to the fiction by leaving it a mechanical aspect- “When should a character die?”, “What kind of bizarre antics should my character engage in while possessed by a Sumerian Age Cthonian Roach God?”

Delegative rules, on the other hand, are a great way to let players know exactly what their responsibility in play is: “Decide if the scene was Trust building or Intimacy building”, “Withhold dice when someone has broken their promise!” etc.

Declarative rules free players to a degree- you can be frustrated at the situation, or the events in the fiction, but you understand it’s like getting dealt a bad hand- it’s not a judgment or choice made by any other player – you don’t have to look at anyone and consider their motives or choices in it.

And, that lets the players focus on where they are responsible- where delegative rules ask them to input into the fiction and take responsibility for those choices. If you know your character is doomed at the end of the game, then there is no space to feel as if you “failed” or “lost” when that happens – the goalposts of successful play, of meaningful input, shift.

Vs. Zilchplay

So first, a word on Zilchplay. I see Zilchplay happen mostly because a group gets together and, basically cannot agree on an actual direction of play AND also is afraid to deal with it. So everyone does nothing and hopes direction will magically “appear”.

With that in mind, Zilchplay requires the group to cut down both types of rules left and right; any declarative rules that might push play in a direction or force players to make choices must be cut out or fudged into impotency; all declarative rules get subsumed into the overall play requirement to not “unbalance” the game by pushing things in an actual direction.

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System Dodging

February 17, 2010

45 minutes in the Pt. 2 Walking Eye interview of Ron Edwards has a really valid issue.

I remember playing Dogs in the Vineyard with some folks and someone going into mini-fit mode because conflicts actually held consequences and they couldn’t simply backslide or “try again”. And then watching in play, as they attempted to avoid going into conflicts at every opportunity.

This, after the person had read the book, and was excited about it. I should have realized at the time they were excited by the concept, and were still thinking “system doesn’t matter” the whole way.

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Rules & Fiction

February 16, 2010

There’s two ways rules interact with the fiction you imagine when you sit down to roleplay:

- Rules that declare
- Rules that delegate

Rules that declare, add something directly into the fiction. This ranges from setting up (“All the characters are wizards”) to in play (“Each turn, roll a die, if you get a 1, roll an appropriate Wandering Monster”).

Rules that delegate, determine who at the table gets say over what- who gets to input into the fiction and how. This can be permanent (“Each player gets to control their character”) to changing (“The player with the highest ranked card in the conflict narrates what happens”).

Rules that declare are designed to shape the fiction and produce momentum and direction in play- these often become the focusing lens for play. Because of this, they are often unambiguous and mostly reliant on cues in order to prevent the group from slipping out of the point of the game and losing focus. For example, D&D combat is shaped around the basic concept of “Run out of hitpoints and you die.” – that simple constraint then expands the whole issue of fighting monsters and dungeon delving throughout all versions of D&D.

Rules that delegate are necessary for anyone playing to actually play- how can you input into the fiction? What are the limitations of what you can input? How do we mesh things when different people want to input conflicting things? Etc.

Aside from this basic responsibility, rules that delegate sometimes apply an extra twist- requiring a specific addition or constraint to whatever someone narrates- “Narrate how you win the argument, but you must include Betrayal as part of the narration”. This also serves to focus play, and often forces players to use their input and play as a means of statement – making a judgment, putting an interpretation on something, etc.

Next: How this shows up in design vs. play, clear rules = responsibility, vs. zilchplay

ETA: Through the magic of synchronicity, Vincent has a post that makes a good sibling to this.

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Betrayal Games

February 14, 2010

I just ran across this neat article on Werewolf.

While I appreciate the game design, I avoid those types of games. The basic premise bothers me- even the article uses exactly the terms that let you know what it’s about – witch hunts and lynchings.

And unlike many boardgames or cardgames that play on similar ideas, you don’t have much or any cushions in play – it falls solely on social interaction and manipulation. You’re not pushing forward more chips or holding a hand of cards- you’re straight up pleading or accusing folks.

Tie that into games that typically go for many, many hours and people frying out- basically, putting yourself in the similar states that interrogators use on folks… yeah, not my cup of tea.

For comparison, I used to play a lot of Tenjo- a boardgame about warring states Japan. Like Werewolf, you knew it would come down to every person for their own, but you had ways of succeeding even without alliances- and when alliances broke, you might be backed up with extra troops or special cards. In other words, you could say, “Damn, she had better cards/more troops than I thought” but it didn’t come down to, “Damn, of all those folks, no one believed me.”

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