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Author Topic: [The Eye in the Pyramid] Ronnies feedback  (Read 4252 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: January 15, 2011, 08:51:43 PM »

David Berg's The Eye in the Pyramid: pure reveling in conspiracy theory nuttiness. It's not even talking about stuff that coooooould be true in a kind of naughty sense, nor about isolating a given fantasy to develop all its nuances. It's about people going berserk with their proposed insights, inferences, connections, explanations, and investigations. Sure, one of the proposed conspiracies (there's one per player) will turn out to be true, but there's no actual evidence for that until the final card gets flipped over at the end. No possibilities get narrowed down through the investigations. No logic is involved beyond that of schizophrenic "it must be connected" creativity, and although one of the conspirators will indeed be correct about which conspiracy is true, that's determined by raw luck. I find that actually to be the most engaging feature of the system. The fun lies in the journey as all the conspiracy theorists, agreeing only upon the claim that something is "doing it all" out there, hypothesize (I use this term loosely) a mile a minute as they investigate lead after lead.

David, I can certainly see why you asked me about the terms use. You have in fact extrapolated too far (much like the player-characters). My take is that although you started your brainstorming with old and skull, and the brainstorming list is cool to read, then you left them behind. Still, I did give you permission to go wild, so I'll stay with it and include the game as a valid entry. I'll probably use it as a case study for exceeding the hard limit in future Ronnies, though.

Now, about the system and why I think "needs mixing" is a useful way to look at its current design state. I do quite like the overall organization of the thing, especially the economy of the number of players and the way all the rules-numbers work. But an important basic principle is out of whack: there is a mis-match among creating secret materials for use during play, writing common-use materials, selecting those materials, talking about them, and having characters do stuff. It's not a detail you can iron out or write a rule or two to correct. It exists at a fairly deep level which I'll try to describe in a minute, but the most obvious symptom appears in the form of talking, specifically, narration of what happens.

I'll try to be less vague. There is way too much front-loading of materials to be used in play, relative to actually stating what is happening in play. A ton of stuff gets scribbled and put out for use, leaving narration no real substance except to hold up a piece of paper and say "and then this." And then, for contrast's sake but also important, at one crucial point, the single moment of actual truth occurs during play, dramatically juxtaposed with the life-or-death of the single character who was on the right track ... and narration is saddled with task of not only describing what happens, but how it got to this point at all.

I hope that's clear: through much of play, narration (speaking, "saying what happens") has too little to do, and then at the end, it has too much to do. My call is that instead of trying to repair this at the momentary-use level, we need to dive down to the bedrock of how made-up stuff is organized for this game.

Materials of play
So, it's fun to consider any game's prep, including but not limited to character creation, as a combination of several modes of creative input. I'm talking about anything that goes down on the sheet, or into the procedures of play, whether verbal or quantitative, whether given a rules-label or not. I'll use two games for examples.

1. Totally fixed. If you play this game, this is what's known, it applies to everyone, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you're a Dog, end of story. Less explicit applications are found in "adventuring party" assumptions whether in the gaming-fantasy sense, or slight justifications such as the team of mercs.

2. Taken off a list. I don't care if you choose, spend or get points, or arrive at it randomly; if the items (or numerical values) are established and you get one or more of them in some way, that's what this is. Character classes, races, attribute scores, alignments, advantages and disadvantages, a whole ton of stuff we know about in a ton of games.

3. Made-up, but filling a designated slot toward that end. Most descriptor rules fit this bill, sometimes more extremely such as the names of the scores in Over the Edge and Traits in many independent games. A demon's Need in Sorcerer is a perfect example.

4. Totally made-up, not particularly constructed or required, but often given explicit example by the rules or so obviously important to do that people do it consistently.

Just so no one gets their panties in a twist (ha! faint hope), there are a zillion ways to design a game concerning these variables, and no one way is especially superior or excellent ... but the blunt fact is, it can be done poorly. The usual problem is evident in considering what actually gives rise to playable situations in play. And because I like to give Vampire: The Masquerade a few swift kicks whenever it occurs to me, I'll peg it as one of the most detailed-prep games in RPG history with the least fucking actual emergent situation from a specific group's prep.*

But another way one can discover issues at this level of design is to examine fictional stuff once we know it and can use it during play, vs. how long we knew it before that. There's no single golden rule for all such stuff; instead, I'm claiming that one can arrive at the right mix of known-before vs. known-now across a bunch of different kinds of information, for a given game.

OK, so let's look at The Eye in the Pyramid this way. I don't think it's done poorly. I do think a couple things ought to be switched around #1-4 categories listed above. I'm not going to run through every feature of the game to assign it to them as currently written, because I am getting really tired, but it's not that hard.

My advice along these lines is intended primarily as food for thought.

1. Shave down a lot of the stuff in "flesh out conspiracies," saving the most proactive, immediate stuff for play given other information, specifically the patterns.

2. There's a slight mis-match between the example of character creation and the rules which is similar: Susan Greenwood hasn't lost anything, and more to the point, the "men in black" business has nothing to do with the Knights Templar and puts an unnecessary burden on the creator of the conspiracy; it's effectively an element sneaked in there.

3. Remove the secondary kicker (step 7) for every character. Characters are already juiced into action and already teamed up. There's no purpose to front-load yet more "reason to be there." Especially since any and all such information is delivered in step 9 anyway.

4. I think you're gonna hate this - get rid of step 6, the creation of elements prior to play. I really think this should be an in-play thing. As written, the element use is integrated pretty deeply into the processes of play, so this change means re-baking a lot.

(You'll notice there's a hell of a lot less paper on the table at the start of play, this way. That's part of my point.)

5. So step 10 means making up four elements from scratch, by the controller. Basically this is saying get rid of step 6 and let step 10 be step 6 instead.

6. Ease up on character death during all but the final investigation. From a player's perspective in this game, maimed is great, but death is a bummer. Perhaps it would make more sense if you can only die at the end, which also might make the "will the key guy survive" at the end a little more finely honed. Oh, and clearly, that makes more sense with the alternate rule about character death, that we don't know who the "key" character is until after we learn which conspiracy was the real or crucial one.

Man, I do not know if any of this is making sense to a reader. I am trying to get to the page about narrating connections, accepting connections, understanding connections, and tokens. See, my problem is this: I don't know what understanding connections is supposed to mean. And it's huge; without that, the game doesn't work at all. That's the linchpin. I don't want to re-design the game to answer that question; that's not my place in this process. I submit that some attention to the issue I've tried to raise in this thread will lead you to finding the right answer for you.

Goals of play
David, here's a GNS thought because I know you like that stuff. If I were still making up cute-ass names for Big Model jargon, I'd call this nervous nelly Simulationism, the equivalent of timid virgin Narrativism. The details are different - instead of constantly running back to Mama GM to approve all this player-decision "freedom," this text keeps reminding everyone to mind the tone, careful of the tone, oh noes, don't break the tone, oh subject it to the tone-approval committee, all the damn time. 

I'm merely making a writing style point, but a designer attitude point. My take is that one does best to design for people who already get it or who can get it, when "it" is not only CA, but this particular CA, in this setting-character context, with this specific Color, and addressed with these exact procedures. We've spent a lot of time talking RPGs as instruction manuals, but I think they're more than that - they set the example for how the procedures described are to be applied. And I don't mean "Mary Joe rolls 3d8, and hits! Joe Bob rolls 2d8 + DEX bonus ... and fails!" I mean setting an example of phrasing, attitude, approach to source material, and the highlights of creative input, throughout the whole thing.

So my advice is to set the one tone that you want to play this game in/with, stick to it without any regard for what someone "could" do, and trust that the people who can get it, will. And of those latter, if some of them want to tweak the tone, why, they can do that by themselves. If you have the CA stuff down without hassle or ambiguity, which I think you do, then all runs well from there.

Best, Ron

* Been a while since I put the boot in like that. Feels good.
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David Berg
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« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2011, 11:18:15 PM »

Hi Ron,

Thanks for the terms-use flexibility* and the thorough critique.  It was a really weird read: I feel like we're on the same page about pretty much all of this... and at the same time, I have no idea how you came up with the specific suggestions that you did.  I like them!  I just wouldn't have thought of most of them.

The "nervous nelly" attitude you see in the text wasn't at all what was going through my head when I wrote it.  I wasn't worried about people failing to get it and needing shepherding; rather, I was just trying to keep the focus on where the fun's at.  My approach was to ask "what do I want to reward people for?" and then "what minimum ingredients do people need before they can do that?" plus, finally, "what's a simple structure for doing it over and over and then finding a good stopping point?"

I wonder whether that's a stupid way to approach a game design, or whether I just didn't execute it well.  I would love to have a conversation about that if you're up for it and think this game would make a good case study. 

I'm also happy to go point by point through your suggestions, and detail why I did what I did in each case, to search for bad practices, if you think that'd be more fun/productive/doable.

Or I could save these kinds of questions for some time when you aren't processing 16 games.

Regardless, I will definitely plug in your suggestions, see how the resulting whole looks, and then probably swap around some solutions to see which ones support fun connection-forging best.  Sadly, my playtesting opportunities are extremely few and far between, so most of this will just happen in my head and notes.

Ps,
-Dave

P.S.  I think I spotted a typo; either that, or I'll have to ask for clarification.
I'm merely making a writing style point, but a designer attitude point. My take is that one does best to design for people who already get it . . .
I assume you meant "I'm not merely making a writing style point".  Correct?

*When you mentioned your eagerness to see how the two terms were combined, I figured my combination "old + skull = hidden ancient knowledge = conspiracies" was all I needed.  But looking at it now, the fact there there's no actual interesting treatment of "old" and "skull" from that point onward does seem kinda weak.  Anyway, I think that reading your critiques of all the entries has given me a solid handle for next time.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: January 17, 2011, 07:31:24 PM »

Hi David,

A little bit out of order for purposes of organizing from little to big ...

You spotted the typo correctly - that sentence should have the "not" in there.

You wrote,
Quote
I'm also happy to go point by point through your suggestions, and detail why I did what I did in each case, to search for bad practices, if you think that'd be more fun/productive/doable.

I'd rather stick a fork in my eye! I think it's far better for you to remain in the driver's seat and use whatever I suggested which seems good, and discard what doesn't with no need to explain a damn thing to me. This is about you designing your game, and I have little to say about what is or isn't bad practice. The designer-attitude point was about it. Your plan to swap in whatever seems right and playtest it is exactly the way to go.

Here's the logic behind my suggestions: spreading out the "information of play" across the different ways to establish such information. A hell of a lot of it was pre-play lists, then choosing from those lists, as well as certain redundant points. I simply cleared out some redundancy and moved some of the pre-play information into immediate situational prep and during-session improv.

Quote
My approach was to ask "what do I want to reward people for?" and then "what minimum ingredients do people need before they can do that?" plus, finally, "what's a simple structure for doing it over and over and then finding a good stopping point?"

I wonder whether that's a stupid way to approach a game design, or whether I just didn't execute it well.  I would love to have a conversation about that if you're up for it and think this game would make a good case study.

I think it's a fine way to approach a game design, one in a rather broad range of also-fine approaches. I also think you executed it pretty well.

Best, Ron
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David Berg
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« Reply #3 on: January 17, 2011, 09:29:10 PM »

Hi Ron,

Heh.  Fair enough.  The main reason I asked is because whenever I work on RPG design, I have this sense of floundering for process.  I figured maybe this'd be an opportunity to tease out some general tips.  Like, y'know, right after I've formed a vision for how I want play to go, before I start brainstorming and appropriating techniques, is there some sequence of steps that's generally a good idea to go through? 

Alas, my time to ponder stuff dwarfs my opportunity to playtest by a pretty absurd factor.

Here's the logic behind my suggestions: spreading out the "information of play" across the different ways to establish such information. A hell of a lot of it was pre-play lists, then choosing from those lists, as well as certain redundant points. I simply cleared out some redundancy and moved some of the pre-play information into immediate situational prep and during-session improv.
Gotcha.  Yeah, narrating tons of pre-made stuff and doing things twice sucks.  I'm open to the possibility that that might apply here, and I'll look over things with an eye toward that.

Thanks!
-Dave
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Joe J Prince
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« Reply #4 on: January 18, 2011, 07:47:42 AM »

Not much to add, but just wanted to say that The Eye in the Pyramid was my favourite entry this round. Due in no small part to my love for Foucault's Pendulum.

I hope you move hell and high water to playtest it David!

Cheers
Joe
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David Berg
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« Reply #5 on: January 20, 2011, 05:08:24 PM »

Thanks, Joe.  I am slowly working on revisions.  If you have any interest and opportunity to playtest it, please let me know, and I'll pick up the pace!
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David Berg
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« Reply #6 on: January 24, 2011, 02:06:38 AM »

Crazy.  On Saturday I called John and said, "Wanna hang out and maybe roleplay on Sunday?"  He said sure, and invited Ryan and Mendez to come play Sign in Stranger or Dirty Secrets.  Then once we were all there, I mentioned I'd brought Eye in the Pyramid, and everyone offered to give it a try, including John's wife Terry.  We all spent the next 5 hours playing it and refining the rules!  It was awesome.  I've started a Game Development thread about it.
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happysmellyfish
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« Reply #7 on: January 25, 2011, 07:05:32 AM »

This game got me super excited.

It reminded me of something I've wanted to do for the last few years: stay up a whole weekend, downing coffee after coffee, obsessing over newspaper after newspaper, and concocting the ultimate mind-bending uber conspiracy. Heck yeah.

Sort of riffing off that image, and by way of the only feedback I can think of - have you thought of a visual aid to gameplay?

I don't mean a flow chart to aid process, I mean the players have a whiteboard or a whole bunch of paper taped together. When you add something, you write it down. From there on, groups, people, and objects are connected via a handful of different relationships - each with its own visual shorthand.

So a straight arrow from group A to item B means A controls B. However, a jagged arrow from individual C to group A means C is at war with A.

If you've seen much of The Simpsons, think of the episode in Bart's tree house...

Bart: So finally, we're all in agreement about what's going on with the adults. Milhouse?
Milhouse: Ahem. OK, here's what we've got: the Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people --
Bart: Thank you.
Milhouse: under the supervision of the reverse vampires --
Lisa: [sighs]
Milhouse: are forcing our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner. We're through the looking glass, here, people..

Not sure what direction you're taking TEitP in, but that could be cool.
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David Berg
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« Reply #8 on: January 25, 2011, 11:30:35 AM »

Obsessing over newspapers indeed!  Terry spent a few minutes reading internet news headlines before play, and then phrased all her Elements as headlines.  I loved that part.

As for props and visuals, we all agreed that the ultimate would be to have a map, red string, and thumbtacks, to attach facts to a giant corkboard.  But, of course, this is impractical.  Your idea with the different arrows is probably much more feasible, but I still worry about interrupting the flow of zany narration to arrange papers and draw arrows.

The payoff would be great, though: the ability to look at this crazy conspiracy chart for inspiration when concocting a new scene or theory.  So it's definitely worth a try.  I'll just need the right spatial arrangement, so that the Element at top left can be connected to the Element at bottom right without cutting through all the Elements in between and making a big mess of things.  Ugh.  Any thoughts on that?
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David Berg
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« Reply #9 on: January 26, 2011, 08:22:08 PM »

I've uploaded a 2nd draft of the rules here, reflecting the system we used for the playtest session.
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David Berg
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« Reply #10 on: January 26, 2011, 08:25:16 PM »

Changes from the first draft:
Connections are explained in greater detail.
The system of endangering the characters has been removed.
Choosing the next (and ultimate) conspiracy is now based on tokens rather than luck.
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happysmellyfish
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« Reply #11 on: January 27, 2011, 10:15:23 PM »

Quote
I'll just need the right spatial arrangement, so that the Element at top left can be connected to the Element at bottom right without cutting through all the Elements in between and making a big mess of things.  Ugh.  Any thoughts on that?

I guess there are two options with something like that.

The first is to ignore the problem entirely. Sure, the crazy maps look crazy and hardly anybody can understand just what's going on, but isn't that sort of the point? Maybe really unhinge the narrative even furth, and decide there is NO correct way of interpreting the "map". Anyone can look at it and run sort of relationships they can find. It's a rorshach test (sp?). 

The second is to incorporate the problem. If it's not possible for the group at the top left to directly connect with the group at the bottom right, you just need an intermediary. This would look nice and be thematically appropriate to the genre. So maybe you want the Bank of America to control the Israeli Airforce - but Hollywood is in the way. No problem, the Bank control Hollywood, which in turn controls the Israeli Airforce.

The second option is what I'd shoot for, particularly if you want to build a little more coherence into the stories. It also builds a hierarchy into the groups, where stuff at the centre must be higher up in the conspiracy. Man, that would be great.

Of course, this is really just a roleplaying version of Illuminati: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?action=post;topic=30958.0;num_replies=10

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happysmellyfish
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« Reply #12 on: January 27, 2011, 10:16:44 PM »

Damn! Copied the wrong link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminati_%28game%29
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David Berg
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« Reply #13 on: January 28, 2011, 01:54:18 AM »

Whoa!  The Illuminati boxed game and CCG both sound super fun.  I'm now sad that I'd never heard of those and don't know anyone who plays them.

Your idea of "connect intermediates" fights with my desire to have the connections stem solely from the characters' theories and experiences in play.  "Make a big mess," on the other hand, may not be half bad!  Once I nail down the chip mechanics, I should give that a shot.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #14 on: January 28, 2011, 03:52:47 AM »

I quite like the "make a big mess" option as far as sticky notes and connections are concerned. My impression is that that is, indeed, part of the point.

Best, Ron
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