Saturday, July 29, 2006

How to design a 600 page roleplaying game

Burning Empires is high on the list of games I want to play in the next couple of years. Thor, who was involved in its production, has started a series of blogposts backgrounding how the game was created.

First post is the background - inspiration, legal processes, ethical challenges, and what the game is 'about':

"The first thing we settled upon was that the underlying metaphor for the game would be disease. The Vaylen were a parasitic infestation infecting the bloated, dying body of humanity. Once we had that concept down [we could] explore the ways in which we could extend that metaphor throughout the game ..."
Second post reveals some stuff I hadn't really taken onboard about the Burning Wheel system:

"Luke and I began focusing on Vaylen culture, which we needed to understand before we could create any rules for them. Burning Wheel’s lifepath system, which we had decided to keep for Burning Empires, requires that you thoroughly understand the structure of a society in order to create lifepaths for it."

The process of developing the Vaylen (parasitic worms) and Kerrn (geneered warriors) is pretty fascinating stuff - and obviously these few paragraphs of description boil down hours and hours of intense game-designy conversation. But, parasitic worms as fully playable characters = Wow.

This post also talks about beginning to come up with implementations of the rules - how Firefights have to be 'about' something; how Psychology (a mind control ability) needed to be balanced so that it wouldn't create player vs. player dysfunction.

And there's this great insight into Luke Crane's design process:

The very first step Luke takes when designing a project (before logos, layout, etc.) is to select fonts.

“Fonts are the foundation for the look of a book." [says Luke]. They’ve got to knit together all the other elements. So for BE, I knew I wanted a different look than BW. It had to have a classic look to it, like BW, but also had to be modern.”

Luke went through his font database of several thousand fonts and made a short list of the fonts that suited his needs.

Third (and last, so far) post has a great comment from Iskander that skim-illustrates how to use theory to improve a game for everybody.

It also talks about playtesting the big rules at a macro-level, so you can run through entire campaigns (or, in this game's case, Worlds) quickly, and shows the gruelling yet valuable work of playtesting. There's some great stuff about how the game is designed to force the creation of a story

There are insights into editing, artwork, and project management (in the form of co-ordinating playtesting when rules are being revised, and every group could have a slightly different draft).

And there's this quote, which I think is key:

"One thing that Luke and I and others at the Forge have seen very clearly is that role playing texts in general are pretty poor at teaching players how to use them. Invariably, creators do things when running their games that are essential to making the games function as they should, and yet some of the most important of those things never make it into the text. We do things that are so ingrained that we take it completely for granted that other players, who learned to play in other environments, do them too. Once you release a game, if you interact with your fans, you quickly start to see patterns in the questions they ask. Pretty soon, the conclusion is inescapable: you’re doing something at your table that is not actually in the text. Burning Wheel is no different than other games in that regard.

Luke and I pledged that we would do our best to hard code the way we played into Burning Empires by critically evaluating every nuance of how we played our games, and making sure it made its way into the text.

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The Scott Pilgrim movie

Well, according to AICN, Edgar Wright is going to direct the/a Scott Pilgrim movie. This makes me happy because he'll be really frickin' great/ideal at it. This makes me sad because I want to do one/them/it. Hopefully it'll turn into a Harry Potter franchise and I'll get my shot.
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Friday, July 28, 2006

A fantasy epic in 3 hours (or How I took the Gloves off)

This happened back in January, on the first day of Kapcon, I think. It’s one of my favourite role-playing experiences, for reasons I’ll surely discover as I write this out.

Four players – Ivan, I’d never met before. Margee was a friend from just hanging out with people we both knew. Jon and Nasia I’d only played with for the first time earlier that day. I introduced them to Universalis, a game where you figure out what it’s about as you play it – each person paying Coins to create elements of the world, introducing new characters and create conflict.

Here’s the key to what happened next: if you don’t like what someone else has introduced, you can Challenge it. At first you just talk it out, try and negotiate a solution. If that doesn’t work, you can start a bidding war & other players can support or oppose what’s being challenged as well.

So, the game starts with the Tenet phase, where you go around the group, stating one fact each about what you want the game to be about. I went first and suggested something I like to throw in, just to sound out where everybody’s at, “This game’s set in the Real World.”

Immediate challenge from Ivan. “Screw that,” he says, “I don’t come to cons to play real world stuff.” He took the turn and introduced Black Wolf, a wizard. Basically, he was introducing the world of Ralph Bakshi’s movie, ‘Wizards’. And I was uncomfortable with that – I didn’t want the game to slavishly recreate the plot of an existing fiction.

Straight up, I told him what I was feeling, and said that I was going to mess with it. So that’s the first thing – I’ve never been that overt before, and certainly never taken such an oppositional role.

“That’s fine,” said Ivan. “That’s what the game’s for.” So he got it.

First thing I did was trash a major component – the city of Montegaria – which shocked the hell out of me, and I wonder if it shocked the other players.

Cool stuff that came out as the game went on:
- Everyone was comfortable with challenges.
- We created a full on fantasy epic in 3 hours. And it was gripping – I went to the toilet at one stage (and ‘cos of the way Uni works, the game kept going without me), and can remember actually running back to the game because I wanted to know what I missed
- The most important components turned out to be a Dead Baby and a Prophecy. Players were wresting control of the Prophecy, trying to get the right to write down what it said.

There was a real creative tension – and each player contributed a different thing. There was the competitiveness between Ivan and me. Margee kept making these amazing, subtle connections between the different characters; Nasia focused on relationships and introducing elements that were epic in scale & usually concerned with religion and the Prophecy.

And Jon … Jon kept blowing my mind, because he’d shift the timeline around so much. First scene – city laid to waste, epic confrontation between the villain and sort-of-hero wizards, a princess fleeing for her life. Jon gets the second scene, and says, “… Three months earlier.” Once we cut back to the ruined city and kicked off a three-way chase across the planet, the real heroes take refuge in Crusk, a safe haven surrounded by force fields that the wizards can’t enter. “… 20 years later,” says Jon.

That’s about it. There was a final conflict, which I wanted to kick off straight away but everyone else felt that that would be too soon – so we manoeuvred components around, introduced traits, set up an eclipse. Not much actually changed, but everybody felt comfortable enough after about 20 minutes to get things started.

After that resolved, we were approaching the end of the session and everybody was getting a bit drained. Epilogues were being narrated for other characters, but we couldn’t figure out what to do with the two wizards who’d kicked the whole game off. “They die,” said Margee, which everyone was satisfied with.

Full disclosure: there was a little bit just at the end of the game I wasn’t happy with. Black Wolf, the wizard-villain, was definitely Ivan’s component, and used all the Coins I’d won in the final conflict to buy-off every one of its traits, effectively killing it. Of course, we were never going to play this game again, but it still felt a little bitter, or like a pissing contest. Maybe I wasn’t used to that level of competition.

Anyway, to mollify myself, I bought a new trait for Black Wolf, that he was lauded as a saint in the future of this fantasy world – which actually seemed consistent with all the crap he’d pulled and carnage he’d committed. It actually had helped bring about a better world.

That’s the key to why I enjoyed this so much: full-on competition without acrimony gave Universalis a *zing* I’d never experienced before, and the whole game was incredibly satisfying as a result. Not just its usual unpredictable self, but tense - and I felt utterly involved in wanting to get an outcome I’d be happy with.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Scanner Darkly (and a thought about scene structure)


Linklater's film has all the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

We didn't get totally inside Bob Arctor's headspace. Only occasionally did I feel what his personality breakdown (due to the drugs and having to surveil himself) must be like - and these peaks of paranoia and disorientation weren't frequent enough to satisfy me (because I pretty much feel they're the point of the story).

However, it has a scene about 20 minutes before the end which is simply incredibly - it totally justifies the use of the (seemingly gimmicky) scramble suits as Keanu's interview with his boss gradually becomes a experience of drawn-out and mounting horror. That was where the film peaked, and then introduced a plot point (that I think is new to Linklater's script) which I believe is a necessary step towards someone someday finally cracking how to tell a kick-arse version of this story.

The film's visually brilliant, and I cried at PKD's dedication to his friends, lost to drugs in the '70s. Go read Jenni's review for another POV.

A lot of the time, I was watching the film going "Where's the conflict in this scene?" And I realise that my recent experiences with Primetime Adventures have been subtly educating me in this screen-writing tool. Creating conflicts and having to decide which ones are meaningful up to 15 times a game is a really effective way of building up your chops.
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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Girlmore Girls news

This script review of the first post-Sherman-Pallindino episode of Gilmore Girls makes me cautiously optimistic. Beware, though - massive spoilers.

And, although I missed 20 minutes in the middle, this Sunday's ep seemed the funniest and sharpest the show has been in a while: Michel's tantie at Rory about messing with his system; Mrs Kim helping write a hit rock song (!); Rory and Lorelai both avoiding the problems in their life. Nice, insightful stuff.

But when Luke directly asked Lor THREE times if she had a problem with the bag, and she said "No", I decided she deserves everything she going to get. This woman is going to have to grow if she's going to win back my sympathy.
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Sunday, July 23, 2006

A rough as guts summary of Phoenix Episode 9

This is very much a reference post for the people who played Phoenix on Saturday. I tried to remember the order of scenes, but by about halfway through my memory failed so I separated them out into each character's strand and put down as much as I can remember. Hopefully it'll serve as a memory jog if we write the stuff up.

So, don't expect this to make much sense if you keep reading. It's all pretty rough, and doesn't get to the dramatic juice that powered each scene.

Episode 9 (Season Finale)

Boyd talking to Carl (via radio) outside compound.

Saul talks to Carl on roof - “You'll choose one of us to die.”

Terri decides to take Tom with her into the compound – which puts her in danger of being discovered.

Molly 'tortures' Lacey.

Maybe Saul talks to Alistair came here, and realised he's got to change the Rules. ??

Terri, almost discovered by guards – intimate moment with Tom.

We might have cut to the scene where Lacey's drinking hot chocolate in the kitchen & Saul comes in to speak with her.

Then the scene with the guard moving through the compound, seeing the grill open, Molly's missing, sounding the alarm.

Terri tries to get the medical files.
Saul lets Boyd out of the storage locker.
Terri gets the med-assist to help her / activate Stage 6

Scene outside the compound, the Tactical Team arguing about whether to go in – hearing a gunshot from inside.


Molly talks to the kids
Molly convinces the kids to step in the room.

The compound is breached – this was colour that affected subsequent narration.

Saul lets Boyd out of the storage locker.
Saul and Boyd talk in the corridor.
Boyd talks to Carl.
Boyd rescues Molly.
Boyd at the end.

Terri tries to get the medical files.
Terri gets the med-assist to help her / activate Stage 6
Tom regains consciousness – he's losing himself – he and Terri have a last conversation.
Tom asks Saul to take him to Carl.

Carl makes the decision about who will die.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Superman Returns

My favourite characters, from most to least …

Lois Lane’s boyfriend
Perry White
Lois Lane
Lois’ son
Lex Luthor’s girlfriend
Lex Luthor
Jimmy Olsen
Clark Kent

How could a script get it so wrong? Starting with 20 minutes of stuff that doesn’t advance the story at all (who care if Superman feels like an alien? Who cares how Lex gets his money? These things don’t have any pay-off in the film), and then focusing on – basically – Lois’ story, because she’s the one in interesting dramatic situations and having to make interesting choices.

Let me say this plainly: I have no problem with Superman Returns grounding itself heavily in the drama – Unbreakable is one of my favourite films – but I have a massive problem when the drama Singer chooses to focus on pushes all the attention away from Superman.

Either make a movie about Superman or make a movie where Superman does cool shit every 3 minutes against impossible odds and super-powerful villains. Either way, I’d be more entertained … which is what this movie forgot to do.
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What's it all about?

What's your story about? I need to know this so that when I'm reading the script I can tell whether each scene is adding to the story that I want to see unfold.

'What's your story about?' is not what it's about at a premise level - where, for example The Limit is about Vigilantism vs. The Law, which is more effective & how using each method changes you.

It's what your story is about at an emotional level, about what's grabbing the audience and making them want to watch more. The Limit, in this case, is about 2 dads vying for the love of their son.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Getting More Things Done

I may write about this in more depth later, but I’ve made a pretty radical adjustment to how I’m using the Getting Things Done (GTD) system to plan out my weekly work. The goal was to simplify my life, so that I’m focusing only on the really important stuff.

I’ve created a one page document covered with post-its that represented goals in my life – that’s divided into ‘Personal’ and ‘Creative’. At the bottom are the two MAIN PROJECTS that I’m working on over the next fortnight (example - 'Creating that 1-page document' & 'All my script editing jobs'). Just above that is a second tier of goals – where each category has two more POSSIBLE GOALS in it. These are what I’ll do, either once I finish what I’m currently focused on or things I can swap to if I get bored or blocked with my Main Projects.

Above that are bigger things like all the areas of my life I have to keep track of (you know, like Flatmate, Writer, Employee, and stuff), and the bigger goals that stretch out from 3 years to the rest of my life.

It may sound confusing, but the result is that I’ve now got a Big Picture of my life that I can refresh and review very easily, that I can see entirely on one page, and that means I focus on the important stuff rather than the shit, kipple and cruft that’s been building up around the edges of my calendar over the last six months.
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The next session is on Saturday. We’ll be playing the finale of Season 1, and setting up the premiere of Season 2. More notes (including episode summaries) here.
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Me creative stuff at the moment …

I’ve been script editing, rather than writing. It’s a refreshing change, and the process seems to come naturally, now that I’ve done it about 70 times. I’ve had the privilege of reading:

- an historical drama / true crime story set in NZ

- A western drama/adventure that I’ve recommended become a noir, set in an undefined time in both The West & The East of America.

I’ve also been consulting on a small town drama-comedy TV series set in NZ (which means all my close watching of the Gilmore Girls is finally paying off). Contributing to this project has made me aware that I’ve taken something from Universalis – I’m becoming extremely focused on consistent characterisation and making the plot flow out of the ramifications of that.
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I've been Watching

... lots of TV ...

Carnivale (Seasons 1 & 2) – it takes a few eps to get into, but it’s an excellent drama that introduces more and more magic realism and then reveals that it was a full-blown horror all along. Probably cancelled too soon, but I’d love to read a novel that continued the story.

Clone High – pretty damn fun. A few bum eps.

The Prisoner – about half the episodes don’t work for me, but the other half are genius. The finale of this series changed my understanding of how societies work.

Deadwood (Season 1) – love the language, love the acting. I wish it had been given the budget of Rome, in order to really recreate the craziness of frontier South Dakota.

Battlestar Galactica (Season 2) – the first 6 eps are pretty much entertaining soap opera that re-establishes the status quo. Then the season starts focusing on external threats; whereas these were problems of immediate survival in Season 1 (pursuit, finding water, finding fuel), now they’ve transformed into social survival (the black market, free press, abortion, and elections). And towards the end of Season 2, the showrunners perform an act of absolute genius and start showing what life is like in Cylon society. This is becoming an exciting show.

Lost (Season 2) - many more ep reviews are coming, but I can say that as a season it works great - held back by a few too many episodes that focus on character (Kate and her frickin' horse, Charlie's dreams) rather than having a 3-5 ep arc (such as Meeting the Tailies or Dealing with Henry Gale or ... Michael) to hold them together.

Update:For a nearly parallel opinion on Lost, check out this article by DocArzt over at, and then have a wander around

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Game playing fool

I'm back from house-sitting at Gino's - where I clocked 4 video games. It's not that I had a lot of free time, it's that I prioritised my time badly.

Katamari Damarcy - goofy goddamn fun.
We love Katamari - improved level design from the original, but much worse writing and characterisation and pretty much everything else. It made the game a real pain to play.
Ico - a good puzzle solving game in the mould of Tomb Raider but it doesn't fulfill its early promise. I may go into that later.
Fahrenheit - an okay mystery-actioner game that doesn't fulfill its early promise. I may go into that later.
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Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Limit - realising why I stopped

Last weekend, I hit the big rewrite at the end of Act 2 and the wall of "What the hell do I do next?" I thought I'd take some time out - and in the meantime, brainstorm some possible solutions, try to understand the basic problem, and work on some stuff that I've needed to catch up on (including the next draft of The Lucky Joneses RPG).

However, over the last three days, this is what's happened:

1. A lunch-time conversation with Sean where I realised that the scene I was blocked on has to reflect the father-child dynamic that the whole movie's about;

2. A realisation that I'm trying to make this perfect, which leads to procrastination. I should make rough, necessary changes, and complete this draft; and

3. Another realisation, that I've lost track of the big picture - and finishing this script is more important than working on the game.

4. ... Maybe there's some fear of finishing in there, too.

So, I'll be trying to go back into it tonight & definitely be working on it for the remainder of the week.

Ode to Singstar

Much Singstar fun last night. Discussion with Giffy has convinced me that it's a great game. It has a sliding difficulty level - which means that you can make the game less forgiving of bum notes & it encourages practice and study in order to get really good - but it's also completely accessible to novice singers.

Plus the Party Games option is incredible fun. Making it a competive team event and then having everyone gather together for an 8-person singing finale is a celebratory act of smart game design.

I'm looking forward to house-sitting at Gino's. Playing Singstar, Eyetoy games and Dance-Dance Revolution - basically anything that doesn't require me to hold a tiny controller in my hands but instead use my whole body. To me, that feels like the next step in game design - making the room you're playing the game in part of the game. And it's why I'm so exciting by Nintendo's new console.

Also, I got a rating of Singstar on Dido's White Flag, emo'd on The Offspring's Self-Esteem and got to vamp on Alicia Keys' Fallin'. So I'm happy.

RPGPlaytesting and Publishing wisdom from the pros

Just found a couple of useful threads on playtesting. One's at the Forge, the other's at StoryGames. If I have time, I'll post some summary in the comments

Also Jared's rant and Tony's analysis about self-publishing are complete opposed, but still educational. Jared suggests focusing on creating first and publishing second (if at all). Basically, distribute what you create for free - with, I think, the result that work through vastly more interesting ideas rather than fixate on the One Great Game you must be publishing. Tony, instead, has started a discussion of the nuts and bolts of publishing that OGG.