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Author Topic: [Veterans] Ronnies feedback  (Read 1037 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: January 09, 2011, 04:27:01 AM »

Rush Wright's Veterans strives toward a long, long-standing ideal in RPG design. I suppose one might call it the Milton Friedman model of story construction: if we're all competing as we contribute to the components and events of a story (its plot), then the harder we compete, the better the story will be as it emerges and when it's finished.

The most frequently-referenced example is a game from Hogshead Publishing, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, as well as another game from that company, Pantheon. Another is a card game from Atlas Games (which at the time overlapped considerably with Hogshead in people and ideas) called Once Upon a Time. Neither ultimately flies, despite much brilliance in each. Although I respect the effort that's gone into this vector of game design, I have become less and less convinced over time that there's any real chance for it to work.

I've written a lot about these games in terms of Creative Agenda, specifically the weird consistent-but-incompatible comparison of Gamist and Narrativist priorities.* At the most basic level, you're playing to win or you're playing to generate a powerful thematic impact. These goals are so similar in many ways that they seem compatible, until material is introduced which is ideal for the one and completely undercuts and obviates the other. And such material has to get introduced, or neither goal gets met.

However, here, I'm talking about something simpler: staying nice and solidly within Gamist priorities, instead of competing for something like leveling-up or who gets the most gold in the context of making/experiencing an enjoyable fictional story, we're competing to make that fictional story. As I mentioned in one of the links in the footnote, it's not competing for stuff in the story, but competing for story control. I guess it'd be like making a cake together with every participant trying hard to make it his cake, in the expectation that synergistically, it will be a totally awesome optimized cake.

What all this has to do with Veterans is, I think it's a valiant effort toward this ideal and does identify a particular variable that is often at fault in the breakdown: the contradiction of interests in being both competitors and assessors. There's an Audience member who stays silent, judging contributions and acting in many ways as speaking-director. Therefore it removes a lot of the bullying for spotlight and marginalizing of one another's contributions through mechanics which characterizes Pantheon, for instance. That brings up a related point: the currency is approval-only; one does not get to use earned currency as "story power," which again, is Pantheon's chief feature and flaw.

A couple of things still hamper the goals, though, or at least I think they do. I tried to put aside my general take on the overall goal (specifically, on the Hogshead games) for purposes of judging, and stay with it as the priority, focusing solely on technique.

Primary play-issues
1. My perception is that if you get off on the wrong foot with the Audience, then you don't have much chance to turn that around. When the others see you losing, they will most likely zip into different directions of delivery and content, putting you well behind even if you do the same when you get the chance later. And even that might not be too bad (although it's not good strategy-game design), except that as far as I can tell, it doesn't look like any fun to lose at all. It looks kind of awful - pretty much a solid face-to-face judgment that "you suck." Maybe I'm being too wimpy in saying this, and the edgy, personal Hard Core Gamist priority does apply here. If so, then in future development, I urge making this clear from the outset.

2. I don't think there's any way to strive to win except to see someone else lose. In other words, you push and push to get the victory tokens, and let's say everyone else is pushing too ... and let's say everyone's pretty good! It seems to me that winning, in that context, isn't worth much. I mean, we could all hug because we were all so good, but as long as we're talking about a competitive game, I'd like to know what I can do, say in the final heat, to jack the competition into a new form which is itself uniquely winnable.

3. I am uncertain as to whether pleasing an audience can be a satisfactory first priority instead of pleasing yourself, creatively speaking. This is a major can of worms in theoretical terms, and although I think it's probably unresolvable in terms of personal motivations, it can be addressed in structural design terms, and assessed through playtesting.

Ronnies issue
The main thing is the terms. It strikes me that any sort of story-telling one-upmanship is possible for the premise. It could any group of people bragging on one another or woe-ing for martyr status about anything. Therefore "old" and "soldier" are weak for Ronnies purposes, being cosmetic rather than core.

All of the above may be giving the wrong message that I am dismissing Veterans - I'm not. Clearly my views of compete-to-story games are subject to debate and design-testing, so I'm interested to see whether playtesting this rather serious attempt bears me out.

Rush, let me know what you think. This is a very solid issue, still under considerable debate, and you've contributed a lot to it in just two pages.

Best, Ron

* For some justification of my flat statement about those games' design in practice, see [Dreamation] Troublesome Munchausen. See also the discussion of Gamist and Narrativist goals at the same time in my essay Gamism: Step On Up; see also the introduction to my essay Narrativism: Story Now which stresses that "making a story," small-caps version if you will, is a perfectly viable feature of role-playing in the context of any Creative Agenda.

edited to fix the link to the game - RE
« Last Edit: January 09, 2011, 08:42:20 PM by Ron Edwards » Logged
Rush Wright
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« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2011, 01:24:55 PM »

Thank you for your tactful constructive criticism. I'm new to RPG design and appreciate your feedback.

Basically the concept behind Veterans was a cross between the "Apples to Apples" party game and the "Mexican Standoff" RPG. There are two layers of mechanics in the game: the dice mechanics and the narration mechanics. Perhaps this was a mistake... I'll have to playtest Veterans to find out.

I'll try to answer all the play issues one by one:

1. My perception is that if you get off on the wrong foot with the Audience, then you don't have much chance to turn that around. When the others see you losing, they will most likely zip into different directions of delivery and content, putting you well behind even if you do the same when you get the chance later.

The solution that immediately comes to mind is to have rules for The Audience to change players during play. Of course, the problem with this is that The Audience could reward and penalize players on a purely tactical basis (i.e. penalize players that are ahead of The Audience token-wise, for example). Solving that issue is probably going to require some thought and playtesting.

And even that might not be too bad (although it's not good strategy-game design), except that as far as I can tell, it doesn't look like any fun to lose at all. It looks kind of awful - pretty much a solid face-to-face judgment that "you suck." Maybe I'm being too wimpy in saying this, and the edgy, personal Hard Core Gamist priority does apply here. If so, then in future development, I urge making this clear from the outset.

Veterans is meant to be a fairly loose and fun RPG, a "Party RPG" of sorts. So you're right... this could be serious game design issue. Perhaps I could maximize the dice layer in the game to dilute the narration layer a little, or even take out the narration layer out of the game completely. However, it's possible that what you pointed out isn't a problem at all, as is the case in Apples to Apples. Only playtesting will tell.

2. I don't think there's any way to strive to win except to see someone else lose. In other words, you push and push to get the victory tokens, and let's say everyone else is pushing too ... and let's say everyone's pretty good! It seems to me that winning, in that context, isn't worth much. I mean, we could all hug because we were all so good, but as long as we're talking about a competitive game, I'd like to know what I can do, say in the final heat, to jack the competition into a new form which is itself uniquely winnable.

I might not be understanding you here, but it seems to me that the dice layer of the game would provide a winner eventually... as I said, Veterans is meant to be a "Party RPG" and not a "Who's the best player here?" RPG. Therefore I don't consider the fact that the winner could be decided by chance a big issue here.

3. I am uncertain as to whether pleasing an audience can be a satisfactory first priority instead of pleasing yourself, creatively speaking. This is a major can of worms in theoretical terms, and although I think it's probably unresolvable in terms of personal motivations, it can be addressed in structural design terms, and assessed through playtesting.

That leads to my question as to whether I should even keep the narration layer of the game.

Altogether I'm going to playtest Veterans considerably in the not-so-far future.

Thanks again!

Rush Wright
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Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons,
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