I think it might be game designer heresy to say it now, but there are a lot of amazing things in Dungeon World. One of my favorites is the command to “Draw maps, leave blanks.” At first this seemed counter intuitive to me. If I have a map, I want a map. Full stop, no blanks. But usually, I don’t want a map. I don’t want it predetermined what lies to the East because then I cannot serve the needs of the story as it stands whenever the characters head East. I felt that maps are remnants of old school dungeon crawl games where the GM is god and everything is pre-planned according to their desires.
I recently got around to reading The Warren by Marshall Miller. The Warren is a Powered by the Apocalypse game based on rabbit fiction like Watership Down. It has some really elegant design. My very favorite bit – and what inspired this post – is the Compete move. For those who don’t know (and really, you should) when two players compete they both hide a d6 in their hand and simultaneously reveal it. If one has a higher value, that player gets their way and chooses one of the two values as the stress that both players’ characters take. If it’s a tie, they both take stress and no one wins.
I absolutely love how this move uses dice in a non-random way! I posted about this to Google Plus and John Aegard mentioned that Riddle of Steel had a different non-random dice mechanic. Competing players held a red or white die in your hand and revealed it simultaneously with their opponent. A red die is an attack, a white die is a defense and undefended attacks succeed automatically.
This got me thinking. How else could dice be used in a non-random manner?
I have run Epidiah Ravachol‘s sword-and-sorcery masterpiece Swords Without Master dozens of times. Doing so, I’ve developed a very specific way to introduce newcomers to the game. This is how I do it.
There is a class of games that is not “fun” to play in the traditional sense (although I imagine we could argue about what that is), but one still gets something out of playing them. The term may not be precise enough, but I will call those games worthwhile.
These games do not offer the same sense of satisfaction that a game where you play super capable bad-asses would.
The best example I can offer of this type of game is Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog.
There has been talk on the online roleplaying community (i.e. G+) lately about how we signal that games are to be taken seriously. As creators we want our games to be played and to have this happen we need to get them in the hands and brains of their potential audience. How do we tell that audience that our game is worth their time?
I think that all of the factors in signaling the worthiness of a game can be broken down into two components: reputation and effort.
Reputation is the easy one to discuss. If you’ve already made games that have been taken seriously it is more likely that your next game will also be taken seriously. Getting to that point is hard, but its effect is obvious. Some of the benefits of reputation can be gained by associating your game with those who already have reputation, either by getting a pull quote from them, having them post an actual play of the game, or recruiting them to write a chapter, playset, character class, etc. Still, this marker of seriousness is hard to obtain and exploring how to will likely result in some circular reasoning rather quickly (e.g. write good games so people will know your games are good).
Effort is the component that you can actually do something about. It is also the more nebulous component, and in fact, I feel the need to clarify it to visible effort. If I’ve worked on a game for three years I have clearly taken it seriously, but if none of that effort comes across to potential consumers it cannot affect their decision.
Here is my rule of thumb regarding effort (or apparent lack thereof):
Anything that makes it look like you’ve just dumped your game into the world without a thought or plan is hindering it from being taken seriously.
There are five* markers for effort put into a game. If I were to rank these in order of importance it would look like this:
If you’ve read much of what I’ve written, you probably know that Epidiah Ravachol is one of my favorite game designers and overall people. Furthermore, I am a big fan of the misfit space friends genre of fiction. That’s what makes it strange that it took me so very long to play Vast & Starlit, his microgame of miscreants in space that is so short it will take you less time to read the whole game than it would to read my summary of it. In 2016 I have rectified this oversight to the tune of two plays.
And what wonderful stories we came up with! The kind that you look to shoehorn into any discussion of roleplaying you can. “Oh, that reminds me of the time our spaceship got jealous of the android and human interfacing and refused to play anything but jilted lover laments on the stereo…” Rich, exciting stuff that is the space equivalent of what Brendan Conway talks about as the Swords Without Master effect; when you hear an over-the-top, almost too good to believe story of sword and sorcery roleplaying, you can almost always pinpoint it as a Swords story. And the space version of that is what came out of our two Vast & Starlit sessions.
Itras By is one of my favorite roleplaying games in the history of forever. It does the surreal/absurdist genre perfectly, yet always ends up telling a relatable, human story.
I have honed my practice of running Itras By down a fairly concrete set of steps and I thought it would be useful to share it out wide. So… here it is!