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It damn near killed me...

Started by Paul Czege, January 26, 2009, 04:06:42 PM

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Paul Czege

...but between January 8th and today I completed an indie entry to Jared Sorensen's Indie Game Company Game Design Challenge. System design, playtesting, fixing the broken stuff, art direction for the cover, writing, graphic design and layout. It's called Thy Vernal Chieftains. It's 21 pages long, plus the cover, at a trim size of 3.5" x 8". And if the effort of my experience is at all representative, I'm betting it'll be the only solo project to come in under the gun.

It's now available for purchase for just $1, as mandated by the challenge, through this coming Saturday, January 31st only. At which point we'll all be waiting on Jared's resolution of the challenge winners.

"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton

Adam Dray

OMG awesome.

When did you start designing/writing?
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Adam Dray

Oh, January 8th. Three weeks from start to finish. Impressive! Consider yourself dollared (twice, cuz I want to send my brother a copy).
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Thor Olavsrud

I'm still digging into it myself, but there's some interesting stuff going on in this game!

Paul, while you were working on this, you mentioned to me that part of your goal was to explore narration in GM-less games, specifically the nature of group collaboration in deciding outcomes.

If you don't mind, could you talk a little bit about your thoughts on the subject and how you addressed it in Thy Vernal Chieftain?

Paul Czege

Hey Adam,

So here's what happened. I was hooked on the idea of the Challenge when Jared announced it in December, and started forming a Company. But my idea was for Danielle to be the Developer, and for our friend George to be the Writer, and hopefully for me to be the Artist. Because I've done Game Chef and so I already know I can do system design under a tight time constraint, and because Artist would actually be a stretch opportunity for me, and because I know Danielle would be a great project manager and George would be a great writer. And my plan was for the Company to brainstorm a game concept as a group the way Kevin, John, and Thor came up with The Five.

(I was actually rather surprised to see all the groups forming up by folks who had game ideas they'd never managed to put energy into who wanted to be the Developer. It just seemed obvious to me the right recipe for going the distance was shared enthusiasm for the game itself.)

But it turned out that George was on a very tight deadline for a couple of large grant proposals at work and couldn't do it.

So when Thor Hansen pitched me on his desire for a game about Roman Britain, which he described as a "post apocalyptic" game, because the departure of the Roman legions represented a fundamental collapse of the social structure, I agreed to be the Designer. He assembled Graham Walmsley to be the Writer, and Remi Treuer to be the Artist, and I designed the system in two or three days.

But Graham flaked on the writing.

So then when Jared rolled out the wrinkles on January 8th, I decided to give it a go. Roman Britain was Thor's white whale game, not mine, so I'd had to work to find a personally meaningful concept for a system; but having done that, and developed enthusiasm for it, I was irritated a glorious game hadn't been birthed by the Company.

So Danielle and I playtested the December system. But to my great dudgeon it was broken and not fun. And so I wracked my brain over the problems for the better part of a week. This was not my Game Chef experience at all, in which Bacchanal fairly sprang from me fully formed. This was painful. I'd already promised Ed my firstborn child for a cover illustration and he'd devoted a whole weekend and finished it. But I took a knife to the mechanics and somehow I found a fix. Danielle and I tried it, and it was fun.

But that thrill was fleeting. Because the long dark night of the effort was the writing. (I really need to get to England to kill Graham for putting me through it.) I'm not sure I'd have finished it at all if not for several IM conversations with Thor Olavsrud in which he expressed enthusiasm for my design goals.

And I'm not sure why the writing phase was so hard on me. Maybe it was that I didn't have a powerful inherent affinity for the setting, that I'd already had to work to make the concept meaningful to me (note how it's rather strayed from "post apocalyptic").

Or was it the idea of charging money? If you charge money for something, you're asserting it's worth money. You don't charge money for a Game Chef entry.

I've been reading Alfie Kohn's Punished By Rewards. Is it that working for an extrinsic reward of money, or winner status is inherently dismotivating? I'm still not sure. But it was definitely a harrowing effort for some reason.

Anyway, that's the long story. The short story is that I had the outline of a system from December that I'd designed in two or three days, but between January 8th and yesterday I playtested it, gutted it, redesigned it, playtested it again, did art direction, researched the setting, wrote the text, did graphic design and layout, saw that it was good, and put it up for sale.

"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton

Christoph Boeckle

It kills me that a man born of the human race can write such a nifty game (as far as I can tell from reading) in such a short lapse of time!
I'm intrigued why the Saxons aren't proposed as a playable culture¹. Is that because Saxon culture is what is dominating Anglo-Saxon² culture today? Would it be uninteresting to just confirm where those roots go back to?
I really want to try this game, even though my culture isn't quite Anglo-Saxon, but rather Continental.


¹ Why can't we play fucking dark elves!? Best race ever!
² I agree that the name itself already suggests it.

Paul Czege

Hey Thor,

Yeah, so the beam in my eye lately is that wide open collaborative workshopping of scenes has corrupted our group's style of play, and it's not fun play.

Well, one solution is Bacchanal's. The only external pre-narration creative input comes from the dice. And thus, no workshopping.

But duh, there have to be ways for pre-narration cross-player creative input to be fun. There's just something wrong with the way we're doing it.

So Thy Vernal Chieftains is like Bacchanal in that it's an iterative storytelling game more than a roleplaying game. But it steps away from Bacchanal in having actual pre-narration cross-player input to the storytelling. Two forms of input, actually, and neither of which is the kind of wide open input workshop that's increasingly pervasive in story games play.

The two forms of pre-narration creative input in Thy Vernal Chieftains are me experimenting with variables associated with its origination and usage, in an effort to find dynamics that make the creative input fun in play.

The variables are:

If and how a player can reject the input
Is the input created individually or collaboratively
Is it wide open, or constrained somehow in what it can be
Is it wide open, or specific in how it can be used

The two forms of structured pre-narration input in Thy Vernal Chieftains are combinations of those variables that my gut told me would be fun. The trait prices in the game are wide open individual creations that can be rejected, but if not, are quite specific in how they must be used. The special tokens are a pick list, selected collaboratively, and rejectable, but with wide latitude in use.

And for me, in play, they really do bring the fun. I'm really pleased with them.

"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton

Graham W

Huh. Paul threatens murder and doesn't get moderated for it.


Lance D. Allen

It's his forum. Do you expect him to moderate himself?
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Christoph Boeckle

Dah... Jared has bad tastes....

What are your plans concerning the game from now on, Paul?

Paul Czege

Hey Christoph,

Thanks. I've been sort of waiting to see some playtest reports, but I'm also toying with two ideas:

1. The Creating/Destroying/Consuming/Understanding spheres are actually my second conceptualization of the core pools for the game. I moved from my original conceptualization very early on in December, to align the game better with Thor Hansen's vision as the Developer. But now I'm thinking about trying to bring my original spheres and anchor points for traits (which weren't spheres) forward into the current version of the mechanics. The result would be a game that's closer to my own original aesthetic vision. But the challenge is that my original spheres have some conceptual overlap with what some of the special tokens now bring to scenes, and also, that I'm not sure the game would be improved by the original spheres.

2. I think the game would be improved if the "tell how your character's culture changes our modern world" phase at the end of play had a bit more structure to it, perhaps some creative constraints from the events of play, or closed goals or something. But I'm at a loss for how this might work.

What do you think?

"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton

Eero Tuovinen

A random suggestion on the structure issue would be to employ a frame story: at the beginning of play create some simple characters and a simple modern setting with little detail, at the end show how their world differs from ours due to how their past diverged. Think Arabian Nights or such, a framing story can have powerful uses. You might even give the players some mechanical options for recalling the frame story back into play in the middle of the process for some mid-game elaboration before the final touches during the end-game. There could be some dramatic human destinies involved in the frame story, too. Something like whether she gets a job despite being a woman, whether he gets into the military despite being Welsh, that sort of thing.

Another potential form of structure could be some sort of arranged list of issues that is "shot down" by the players according to some scoring conceit at the end. This could even be fixed into a sort of simple choose your own path -type deal. Start with "Is there a Great Britain?", have a player answer that, move accordingly to "Independent Ireland?", "Is there even England as we know it?" and so on. End up with the stuff about gender equality and such, but only allow players to answer those if they followed certain paths in the tree.

Also, now that you're thinking of improvements: I think that I'd get a firmer grip on the game overall if you included some solid setting stuff to point to in play. Maps, say, that show tribal influence, important holy sites and such. A reading list, certainly. Would provide lots of flavour.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Christoph Boeckle

Hi Paul

I'd really love to give the game a go, so if I do, I will indeed post a report.

About point number one, I can't say anything. For your second point, maybe looking at the end-game questions in Breaking the Ice may give some inspiration? I loved how the questions were easy to answer and spot-on, yet wouldn't necessarily have been things I'd have thought of myself.
For example:
Is England a constitutional monarchy? Why or why not?
When did rivalry with Scotland and Ireland start?

Similar to Eero's suggestion, without the fiddly mechanics!