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Author Topic: [Swords of the Skull-Takers] Ronnies feedback  (Read 2066 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: January 15, 2011, 09:34:27 PM »

Joe Prince's Swords of the Skull Takers is a solitaire RPG of unrelenting survival horror, with the outstanding virtue that your character may not in fact survive. It's a card-counting extravaganza using a journal method for the SIS part.

I'm pretty awed by all the design work going into the Solitaire RPGs Challenge right now, and I don't claim to be participating here on that issue. For this thread, I'm taking the solitaire context as a complete given rather than a proposition to critique.

So that brings us to the Ronnies criteria, and the trouble is, in this case, the terms are not very strong. "Skull-takers" is a cool phrase, but I think that the game would benefit greatly from a fixed setting with a lot more specific weight, so that the term can carry a more horrific and evocative meaning (if not explicit necessarily). And "swords" is kind of uninteresting, considering you could make the skull-takers do their thing with claws and teeth, or axes, or even wield guns, with no change to the actual decisions of play.

How it works
I put the game into the "mixing" category because most of what I'm talking about now is pretty fundamental, and changing any of it really alters everything else too.

I don't mind being corrected on this point, but if I'm understanding the cards correctly, the character is on a pretty fast track of either success or failure. As if from a single starting point, one either whips up through a positive exponential curve with b > 1 (the more you get the better you do), or grinds down through a negative one with b < 1 (a slow curving slide down that eventually tanks). Is there any way to change one's approach to managing the cards depending on whether one is doing well or badly? Or do you keep playing the same way all the time and simply see which happens?

Regarding getting the fiction itself established, I think there may be a certain lack of "jump" ... I'm saying that the system says X, and you (sitting there) say X, and we can later read in your journal that X happened. It stays X all the way through. Am I missing something about this? If not, then I repeat my point about a fixed setting. There's gotta be something fun about that middle X, possibly making the third one more reflective or interesting. And yes, I realize this is a Gamist game, but for it to be an RPG there's got to be something about this character in [/i]this[/i] setting to make it engaging while you're actually doing it.

Which kind of directly leads to my concern, obviously subject to playtesting, about death - it looks really freaking deadly. Three strikes every wave? Holy cow! I guess strategizing toward barricades and sacrificial NPCs is the way to go.

Perhaps one more death-option is available, reversing the existing one that lets you wax an NPC to stay alive. Perhaps the primary character can die, and if there's an NPC handy, then the player plays that character as the new main guy. He or she finds the first one's journal, of course.

So, victory. There doesn't seem to be any way to work toward it if I understand correctly, you just say it's over when the three cards end up in your cache. Seems counter-productive to hoard victory cards especially early in play, as it gums up one's cache, and a hand full of halfway-to-victory in even two categories is a ticket to rapid slaughter. So I suppose you wait until a set of three is out there in the Daytime cards (see my question below) and then you go for them.

If that's right, then the differing types of victory seem utterly thematically out of the blue. Since there's no real way to shoot for any vs. the others, differing thematic or moral content across them is irrelevant. Perhaps it would make more sense to narrate one's own take on the content of the victory, based on the events so far?

Minor recommendation

1. A word limit for journal entries. This person does not have lesisure time, and it keeps the composition of deathless prose from becoming divorced from cards and play.

Minor questions so I can playtest it:

1. During Exploration, what does it mean to move a card "up" or down?"

2. At the end of Exploration, all cards not cached are discarded, right?

3. All those Daytime cards drawn which are not tried for stay out there, right? So you can try for them some other day?

Thanks, Joe, for submitting this! It stretched my mind to the extent that I didn't really feel competent to judge, although I tried to provide what I could. Let me know if any of it helps or makes sense.

Best, Ron
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Joe J Prince
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« Reply #1 on: January 18, 2011, 08:05:47 AM »

Hi Ron

Thanks for running such a great games design event, its a pleasure to be back in the Ronnies. The quality of your feedback is in a league of its own!

Super quick answers:
1. You move a card up to remind you things are going well or down to indicate the exploration beginning badly.

2. That's right, after Exploration any cards outwith your cache are discarded.

3. Daytime cards that were not tried for were intended to be discarded. However, I like the idea of them staying around more so I'm going to rule that one untried daytime card can be carried over to tomorrow, but it will reduce the number of daytime cards drawn by 1.

I'm going to chat with Gregor about the game tonight, then be back with more detailed analysis and explanation.

Cheers
Joe
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Joe J Prince
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« Reply #2 on: January 19, 2011, 08:42:37 AM »

Thanks again for all the input Ron.

I agree that the thematic use of skull and sword could be stronger. I tried to integrate the terms mechanically Ė the cards you do not want are swords (at night) and the skull-headed death (as a major). I donít think itís necessary for the skull-takers to literally wield swords Ė Gregorís terminator setting proves this pretty well!



I don't mind being corrected on this point, but if I'm understanding the cards correctly, the character is on a pretty fast track of either success or failure. As if from a single starting point, one either whips up through a positive exponential curve with b > 1 (the more you get the better you do), or grinds down through a negative one with b < 1 (a slow curving slide down that eventually tanks). Is there any way to change one's approach to managing the cards depending on whether one is doing well or badly? Or do you keep playing the same way all the time and simply see which happens?

At the moment I think you play pretty much the same way all the time Ė though if things are going better you can take more risks.

I hope there is potential for a character to go through several reversals of fortune Ė not sure how this will pan out.  In my first playtest, listed in the journal I did very well, making it to day 11 with 4 majors.  In Gregorís game, things went downhill very rapidly and he died on day 4 with only a single minor card. More playtesting would be good to see if the death/win spiral is a real problem!

After talking with Gregor,  I am thinking about introducing Interlude scenes. Interludes could be used to relocate, reducing the night time draw by 4 or an Interlude could be used to get a specific minor card into your cache.
The mechanic Iíve got in mind is: discard down to any number of cache cards. If you take another Interlude you must discard down to a higher number of cards left in your cache. Discarding to 0 is not a penalty if you have no cards in your cache. You must have at least 3 days between Interludes. Interludes should help boost players doing badly more than they benefit those doing well.


Quote
Regarding getting the fiction itself established, I think there may be a certain lack of "jump" ... I'm saying that the system says X, and you (sitting there) say X, and we can later read in your journal that X happened. It stays X all the way through. Am I missing something about this? If not, then I repeat my point about a fixed setting. There's gotta be something fun about that middle X, possibly making the third one more reflective or interesting. And yes, I realize this is a Gamist game, but for it to be an RPG there's got to be something about this character in [/i]this[/i] setting to make it engaging while you're actually doing it.


Iím a little confused as to what youíre asking here Ron. The fiction stays the same throughout, but you can change things in your journal Ė after all its only you who knows.
 
A stronger setting, yes indeed, hmm. The one I used was *kaf* rippedoffwarhammer *kaf* . Part of me still thinks that a person creating their own setting gets more engaged and invested in the fiction. But a strong default setting would be cool -with maps! In fact I know what Iím going to use, Iím going to use the night of the orbs from DragosÖ


Quote
...my concern, obviously subject to playtesting, about death - it looks really freaking deadly. Three strikes every wave? Holy cow! I guess strategizing toward barricades and sacrificial NPCs is the way to go.

Perhaps one more death-option is available, reversing the existing one that lets you wax an NPC to stay alive. Perhaps the primary character can die, and if there's an NPC handy, then the player plays that character as the new main guy. He or she finds the first one's journal, of course.

Yeah itís pretty deadly out there!  The journal is supposed to act as a Ďsave pointí.
I think your idea for a NPC to become the new protagonist is a good one Ė I was thinking about playing on as Sarah when Alfredo died.


Quote
So, victory. There doesn't seem to be any way to work toward it if I understand correctly, you just say it's over when the three cards end up in your cache. Seems counter-productive to hoard victory cards especially early in play, as it gums up one's cache, and a hand full of halfway-to-victory in even two categories is a ticket to rapid slaughter. So I suppose you wait until a set of three is out there in the Daytime cards (see my question below) and then you go for them.

If that's right, then the differing types of victory seem utterly thematically out of the blue. Since there's no real way to shoot for any vs. the others, differing thematic or moral content across them is irrelevant. Perhaps it would make more sense to narrate one's own take on the content of the victory, based on the events so far?


I'm not sure what you mean, there wonít ever be a set of victory cards Ďoutí. All the victory cards are from the majors deck and are drawn randomly.
The different types of victory are primarily thematic suggestions, but itís still all down to the player to come up with a victory that suits his narrative.

That said I do like the restraints on some of them Ė only a cosmic victory can truly drive the skull-takers back for example. I think choices come in when you pull someone like the devil Ė do you keep him around looking for a diabolic victory or do you ensure the evil one dies because itís more in character?

As to a word limit on journal entries, I see your concern but maybe something less formal?  I guess I would recommend a paragraph per entry. That said itís a solo game, youíre writing for yourself so record whatever feels right.

I'll put together a new version to hopefully clarify some of the ambiguities and provide more play advice.
All feedback welcome!

cheers
Joe
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: January 19, 2011, 10:08:39 AM »

Yeah, I mixed up the majors/minors while I was typing. Given that you can't keep victory cards around without limiting the short-term effectiveness of your cache, it seems pretty tough to win. Which may be all to the good, but again, as you say too, the concern becomes whether the game provides two fast tracks and that's it.

The skulls and swords are strictly a Ronnies criterion, which may be become a non-issue for future development. Ben jettisoned a central Pain mechanic in The Drifter's Escape (Fight and Pain) as he continued to refine and eventually publish it, for instance. I think the "skull-taker" concept is extremely evocative and lends itself to all manner of productive interpretations, but certainly "swords" is arbitrary in comparison.

I'll try to clarify the narrational issues although it may be impossible through on-line dialogue. I realize that the game is for an audience of one; my reference to someone else reading the journal muddied my point. The sequence should be:

1. Systemically-dictated content

2. The experience and imagination of coping with that situation

3. Writing it up as a journal entry

4. It's presence in the journal as a fixed item

I'm saying that if the content makes it from #1 to #4 with no consequential changes or additional content, then the "role-playing" becomes hat-and-funny-accent accompaniment to a (perhaps fine) game of solitaire. The same also applies in the effects of a prior #1-4 sequence upon the decisions of the next one - yes, systemically-dictated content will influence one's later card-play decisions, but what about #2-4 content: does it, or how does it, put things into play which are relevant to the entire #1-4 sequence coming up next?

Best, Ron
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Joe J Prince
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Putting the fun into dysfunction!


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« Reply #4 on: January 24, 2011, 04:52:22 AM »

Hi Ron

Yeah I want the game to be really tough to win, ideally I'm thinking you will probably have to find another journal or two before you get a victory. But it should be possible in a single life.

I believe that the fictional buy in does influence later card play. Though Iím not sure if thatís exactly what youíre getting at. It does seem complicated to try and explain over the internet. Depending on what had come up the previous day it became easier to generate interpretations of the Exploration cards - that made sense and led on from things in the fiction. Also the attachments you can make to NPCs or boons may mean that you choose to play to protect them. I could have sacrificed Sarah to survive as Alfredo but there was no-way I wanted that to happen!

Anyway, thereís a new playtest version on my website (www.princeofdarknessgames.com), in which I have tidied up some of the ambiguities and added a (simpler) interlude mechanic.

Iím going to play through a few more times soon Ė thatís the benefit of a solo game!

Cheers
Joe
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