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Author Topic: [The Sword and the Skull] Ronnies feedback  (Read 2363 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: January 13, 2011, 01:51:36 PM »

In Troy Costisick's The Sword and the Skull, Arthur meets Umlaut! However, I was bummed to find that the initial chrome-and-polished-bone imagery faded out pretty quickly from the text as it went along.

Troy, you mentioned in the summary Ronnies results thread that you recognized your work in my reference to Abashed design, and you were absolutely right. It's a classic case of Abashed Narrativist text. I hope to show you exactly how that happened and how it relates to why I think certain features may be well simply abandoned.

The big picture shows the trouble immediately. The knights' vertical arrows are not related or involved with the quest/Skull horizontal arrows. (Ignore the Sword's vertical arrow; it just shows that Sword needs the quests.)

1. The Skull doesn't do anything but provide pushback against quests. It doesn't do anything regarding what are supposed to be the knights' primary thematic decisions. The Skull, as an actor in the saga, is quite boring. Narrativism requires problematic thematic adversity.

1'. The single connection may be found in that a knight's stated Fate is tied to one of the Skull's qualities. So if you lose, lose, lose, then you end up in a scene where your Fate is dramatized. (It's not clear whether you have to do what's stated in the Fate.) This is a glimmer of hope, so I'll return to it.

2. But to continue with the trouble, the text states clearly that unless the quests are met and the Sword gets purified or whatever it's called, the Skull will lay waste to everyone and everything. So there's no imaginable reason why a knight would retire (if he doesn't meet his Fate) or even take the opportunity to meander around and not go ahead aggressively into every Quest. In other words, both voluntary retirement and dilly-dallying on a quest are retarded, and "desire" has no juice, rendering the answer "duty" the only viable thing to do. Narrativism requires opposing options to be theoretically viable, with the in-play question being what circumstances render them unequal.

I submit that this single issue interfered with every other aspect of your design, rendering some of the features incoherent in the sense that you hurl tons of procedural detail into it in the hope of somehow making it fun, and not sure why it seemed off in the first place. I'll go headlong & savage into the list (this approach has a purpose; I'll clarify that soon.)

Character building: the knight should not have an attribute called Loyalty when the whole point is whether he should tilt toward Desire or Duty. My call on that is highlighted, I think by the fact that you state Loyalty conflicts concern the knight's relationship with the Sword, and then you provide no examples or reference to this sort of conflict whatsoever, nor even provide a window of opportunity for them to appear in play.

Resolution suffers from a widespread issue I see in nearly every game whose designer falls all over himself regarding Dogs in the Vineyard dice. The blunt fact, however, is that one-roll Dogs resolution is very nearly the same as Sorcerer resolution with an attenuated narration procedure associated with deploying the "baseline" dice. What makes that work in Dogs is that you have direct and possibly nasty consequences for deploying extra dice, and you can escalate for more baseline dice, except that it usually requires in-fiction problematizing regarding violence.

If all you're doing is getting your dice into play via the little push-and-match fiddliness, then the system instantly devolves into Wushu: being forced to talk in order to include dice, which rapidly loses its superficial appeal after one or two iterations. In this text and many others, it reads to me as a designer's simple refusal to believe that the people he or she plays with can talk, which either means they need new friends to play with or they are probably not letting others talk anyway.

(In your system, if you used plain old Sorcerer resolution, then all dice which are higher than a winning opponent's lowest value would become Advancement / Challenge dice. Easy and fast. I'm not suggesting you use exactly that system, but pointing out that you don't need the fiddly dice-by-dice matching to get what you want.)

As a minor point, depending on the way you read the dice, there's no real reason for the Skull to be rolling dice at all. It would be vastly simpler and just as effective to provide target values for each location and have Challenge Points simply be additions to them.

The Advancement mechanics strike me as grossly unnecessary. There's no earthly reason why knights should get better in the first place. In fact, it seems that doing so undercuts the whole point of the Skull gaining Challenge Points and getting stronger through the course of a quest. The only reward mechanics that matter, as I see it, are the Fate and Destiny ones.

And let's look at the Destiny issue quite closely, with my diagram in mind: note that a knight can declare a conflict to be a Destiny moment at any time, i.e., even while pursuing a quest. This fact renders the primary paragraph in "The Players' Responsibility," but especially these sentences ...

Quote
The quest puts at tension the Knights' individual ambitions and the Sword's commands. .... If the Knights choose to pursue their Destinies instead of the mission, that is perfectly acceptable. ...
(emphasis mine)

... into complete gibberish. If you can pursue Destiny while questing, then what's the big tension? And if one's Destiny is tied to a Sword-type virtue anyway, it's not necessarily thematically opposed to Duty. And furthermore, as I mentioned previously, not blazing forth on the quest is absurd, considering the Skull is going to lay waste to everything unless the quests succeed.

The third endgame section seems to me to be a kind of last-ditch, tack-on attempt to find a thematic climax when you can tell already that no such climax will be forthcoming from the existing features.

I am not at all surprised that your designer's notes frequently express doubt about the exact sections I'm criticizing most heavily. Your instincts are spot-on - these are not working.

All of which brings me back to Color. Go back to Skull and Sword. Make them so fucking metal and over-the-top that you can hardly stand it, and get some desire hitched up to the Skull as an operant, active feature of the Skull in play itself. And get rid of the Manichean quality that makes the Skull's victory totally undesirable. Then you'll see whether for some characters, at some times, Mordred's tale seems like the right thing to do.

So I'm sayin' the setting crisis should be operatic, the conflicts should be headlong and frenetic (like this whole post, see what I mean now?), and the personal crises should be genuinely tearing in two viable directions.

Finally, I think that there is a lot of timid-virgin talk regarding the practices of play and dialogue, but we can talk about that later; it's a writing issue rather than a design issue.

So, uh, Troy, still with me? I'm hoping the tone of this post serves as an example for the kind of thrash fantasy that your design idea really could become, if you want it to.

Best, Ron
edited to add link to the diagram - RE
« Last Edit: January 13, 2011, 01:56:12 PM by Ron Edwards » Logged
Troy_Costisick
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« Reply #1 on: January 14, 2011, 08:06:36 AM »

The big picture shows the trouble immediately. The knights' vertical arrows are not related or involved with the quest/Skull horizontal arrows. (Ignore the Sword's vertical arrow; it just shows that Sword needs the quests.)

1. The Skull doesn't do anything but provide pushback against quests. It doesn't do anything regarding what are supposed to be the knights' primary thematic decisions. The Skull, as an actor in the saga, is quite boring. Narrativism requires problematic thematic adversity.

After I submitted the game, I thought to myself, ďYou know, the Skull needs to be more active, have an agenda, something other than just being a static evil.  He just sits there in this game.Ē

Mechanically speaking, perhaps Skull needs to accumulate X number of Challenge Points to win.  Thus, it gives Knights reason to stay in a fight even though they might lose.  Giving the Skull a motivation may take me a long while to solve.

The big problem seems to be the idea that the Skull is going to destroy everything if the Sword is not purified.  Youíre right, over and over, it forces the players into just obeying the Sword.  A stalemate is probably better.  Perhaps even a temporary truce of some kind.  Also, it looks like I need to put some tension between the Knights and the Sword so that way saying, ďScrew you, Iím going my own wayĒ is more plausible.  They may not like the truce, for instance.  This also means that retirement after achieving a Destiny or Fate has to be forced, not an option.  The Destiny/Fate becomes an escape route from the central conflict.  Sort of like saying, ďKiss-offĒ to your boss then starting your own company.  Do you think that would be satisfying enough?

1'. The single connection may be found in that a knight's stated Fate is tied to one of the Skull's qualities. So if you lose, lose, lose, then you end up in a scene where your Fate is dramatized. (It's not clear whether you have to do what's stated in the Fate.) This is a glimmer of hope, so I'll return to it.

I thought the text was pretty clear that the Knightís Fate was narrated as soon as possible after the Knight racked up enough Fate points.  I should have been more explicit.  I do have a question, though, should the GM be the one to narrate the Fate?  The Fate is supposed to be something undesirable for the player, so making him narrate would seem kind of dissatisfying to me.  What about you?

The Advancement mechanics strike me as grossly unnecessary. There's no earthly reason why knights should get better in the first place. In fact, it seems that doing so undercuts the whole point of the Skull gaining Challenge Points and getting stronger through the course of a quest. The only reward mechanics that matter, as I see it, are the Fate and Destiny ones.

If Knights donít advance, then it would seem that the threat power canít either.  Or, perhaps, the Knights way overmatch their opponents in the early going, but toward the end it gets really hard.  Dicey, one might say.  Your timid virgin stuff is right.  To me, a dicey situation smacks of the Gamble in Gamist play.  Does this work for Narrativist too?  Because the Skull getting too bad-ass to beat is a real chance, here if the Knights stay the same.

It does make sense for Knights not to advance, tho.  You can tell from my consternation with the advancement table that I was trying to work in both positive and negative aspects simultaneously to keep things balanced.  Thereís no good way to do that in this instance.  It should have tipped me off right away that static values were just fine.  My only real concern is the fairness of the endgame.

I think I may have solved the problem you cite with resolution systems like mine and strengthened the Skull vs. Knights interaction as well.  I re-read the resolution chapter in Sorcerer.  Adapting that method looks like itíll work fine for me. 

The third endgame section seems to me to be a kind of last-ditch, tack-on attempt to find a thematic climax when you can tell already that no such climax will be forthcoming from the existing features.

The funny thing is, the third endgame is where my design started.  It wasnít last minute at all.  When I saw Sword as one of the terms, Excalibur jumped straight into my mind.  Honestly, Iím a little surprised to see no other overt Arthurian references.  Itís more timid virgin stuff, though.  Itís me not trusting the players to be satisfied with the ending they created.  Itís a Plan B, retry, or do-over, so to speak.  The thing is, I kind of like it.  I view the sword (the actual weapon) as something like the mead horn from the cheesy performance-capture Beowulf from 2007.  Itís an amazing item, but carries a terrible curse from owner to owner if itís not destroyed.  I donít think I set it up that way, though.  Iíve also always been intrigued by what would have happened if Sir Bedivere had not thrown the sword into the lake.  Would he have become king?  Would Arthur have died on the battlefield?  What would I have done?

I am not at all surprised that your designer's notes frequently express doubt about the exact sections I'm criticizing most heavily. Your instincts are spot-on - these are not working.

All of which brings me back to Color. Go back to Skull and Sword. Make them so fucking metal and over-the-top that you can hardly stand it, and get some desire hitched up to the Skull as an operant, active feature of the Skull in play itself. And get rid of the Manichean quality that makes the Skull's victory totally undesirable. Then you'll see whether for some characters, at some times, Mordred's tale seems like the right thing to do.

So I'm sayin' the setting crisis should be operatic, the conflicts should be headlong and frenetic (like this whole post, see what I mean now?), and the personal crises should be genuinely tearing in two viable directions.

Finally, I think that there is a lot of timid-virgin talk regarding the practices of play and dialogue, but we can talk about that later; it's a writing issue rather than a design issue.

So, uh, Troy, still with me? I'm hoping the tone of this post serves as an example for the kind of thrash fantasy that your design idea really could become, if you want it to.

Best, Ron

Regarding color for the Skull and Sword, I think I really fell down in describing how those guys got those items.  This is mainly due to the 24 time frame, and honestly, more like an 18 hour for me since I didnít even begin really brainstorming until the ninth entry had already been submitted.  A better storyline would go a long way. 

I do have some questions for you, though. 

First, were the character sheets helpful in communicating the game?  What/Which parts of them could have been improved?

Second, regarding the dice values for the sword and the skull (the actual items)- are these useful? Or are they so over-powered that they just wouldnít be interesting to use during play?

Third, I included a lot of allusions to Aurthur and Numerology hoping to evoke a more spiritual or mystical sense with the game.  Did that come through or were those references too subtle?  Or did it just suck?

I can tell that with these Ronnies things, Iím still aiming too big.  Iím still including lot of unnecessary junk instead of focusing my designs more.  Your advice is really helpful.

Peace,

-Troy
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: January 18, 2011, 07:57:38 AM »

Hi Troy,

You're kinda jumpin' all over the place like a bug, in post-design frenzy. I'll provide what I can, but some of what you're talking about is probably best left for you to stew in. Especially all your direct questions to me in that post. Only you can answer those.

---

The sole problem with the Skull is this idea that it will destroy everything if the Sword falls. Take that away and find some other reason for the Skull's adverse position, and much of the existing structure of play can remain without the deal-breaking no-upside for abandoning the Sword. Think of the Skull offering another way of life which is anathema to the values of the Sword, but perhaps which a knight might come to side with, depending on the circumstances. But I do not think you need some elaborate back-story for the Skull and its wielder (if there is one), or some special tension between the Sword and the knights. Just get rid of that one thing about the Skull.

I don't know what's going on with you and the Arthur references. It seems to be tense or problematic for you somehow, every time you mention it. I don't see why. It's an Arthurian game. There have been dozens from a variety of perspectives, just as there have been hundreds of novels, operas, comics, and whatnot. It's there to be done and it works. What's the big deal?

As for actually playing the Fates right there at the table, no, the text is totally not clear. All you say is that a knight "faces his Fate." What does that mean? Is it a scene with a conflict resolved by ordinary dice rolls? Is it a simple declarative sentence laying down precisely the Fate as stated as a feature of the fiction?

And no matter what the answer to that is, it also has the problem that I've spotted across several of the Ronnies entries: over before it's begun. Wham - mechanical signal - oooh, time for a climax - gotta state how we came to this, why it's so trenchant to character in internal terms, what is happening in the immediate fiction, what the character does, and how it turns out - all at once! It's like rat sex; wander around, scurry-scurry, squeak, occasional jump-on intromissions lasting a second at a time, and then one includes an ejaculation kind of out of the blue. All very well for the rats I'm sure, but in human terms, no build or character-specific causality that we can feel as we go.

Gamism and Narrativism are kissing cousins. Much of the logic of adversity is identical. So yes, a dicey (dangerous, problematic, provocative, risky) situation is powerful for Narrativism, even necessary.

---

Quote
First, were the character sheets helpful in communicating the game?  What/Which parts of them could have been improved?

Second, regarding the dice values for the sword and the skull (the actual items)- are these useful? Or are they so over-powered that they just wouldnít be interesting to use during play?

Third, I included a lot of allusions to Aurthur and Numerology hoping to evoke a more spiritual or mystical sense with the game.  Did that come through or were those references too subtle?  Or did it just suck?

1. The character sheets struck me as sufficient for play in terms of numbers to track. I didn't find them particularly evocative or inspiring regarding playing my Sword Knight.

2. I think the whole idea of the Sword and Skull as usable items should be shelved for later development. It clearly distracts you from addressing fundamentals of resolution and reward.

3. It's pretty clear I got the Arthur stuff based on my post. As for numerology, I either didn't spot it or I deliberately blocked it out because that stuff gets on my nerves.

---

You know what I think you need right now? I'll rip off some text from another thread:

Quote
Let's start with Color. I mean, nothing but Color, just the fun and image-rich description of some topic or genre or whatever that you'd like to play. In fact, try to forget anything you ever knew about what role-playing games are about. Never mind dungeons, vampires, or anything of the kind. Never mind any sort of subculture you share with others and the way you may dress or talk when you're with them. Think instead about books, movies, comics, history, biography, sex, politics, music, humor, cartoons, advertising ... anything you like to experience as media. What's a topic that turns you on? Or for that matter, pisses you off to the extent that you'd like to do something about it?

I ask this because role-playing begins with Color, and it is effective only insofar as the content deep within the Color - a highly personal thing - finds expression through the processes of play. The essence of Exploration, or if we talk in terms of process, Shared Imagined Space, is giving the primal and initial Color some kind of weight among as a group of people who are talking and listening to one another.

Consider that and most especially, visually, what it looks like. Then consider all aspects of game design and play which get that under way. (The thread is Reduced enjoinment playing RPG; it might be worth a view too.)

Best, Ron
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Troy_Costisick
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« Reply #3 on: January 29, 2011, 06:05:37 AM »

Heya,

Got a playtest of this thing in last night.  It didn't go as well as I had hoped.  The resolution system was tiresome, as you suggested, Ron.  We switched to Sorcerer style resolution (which was my intent) half-way through, but it wasn't quite right either.  I enjoyed it, but the others didn't. 

The thing everyone liked the best was the Moments of Destiny.  That really hit their interests, so I think I'm going to strip that out of this game and use it in another.  The problem with it was the climax.  After accumulating all your points it was like, "Okay!  You're there! now what....?"  It was really anti-climactic.  So, the climax of the Destinies needs to have mechanical support too- or at least more than just telling the players to narrate it.  That's just too weak and unsatisfying.

Anyway, thanks for your help with this game, Ron.  It got me through a couple design hurrdles that were hanging me up.  If I choose to revisit it, I think I'll toss off the facade and treat it as a straight up Arthur game.  No need to dance around it.

Peace,

-Troy
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