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Author Topic: [Brick & Mortar: Last of the Independents]  (Read 3583 times)
Dan Maruschak
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« on: April 11, 2011, 05:20:55 PM »

Brick & Mortar: Last of the Independents

I haven't had great luck getting inspired by these “groups of words” design contests, especially in terms of coming up with games of the appropriate scope for the format of the contest, but this round of the Ronnies really worked well for me. From the second I saw the words for this round “amazon” spoke to me in the form of Amazon.com. At first I was thinking of doing something with “amazon queen” where the game would be about interacting with a writer whose book is a top seller at Amazon.com but that was coming across flat to me. Then I looked at the words again and thought of “chain” in the context of chain store, and everything locked into place: independent retailers feel pressure from Amazon.com and chain stores, so I can hit those terms by making the game about a retail store. I added a survival-horror element like a zombie apocalypse since that's a common metaphor for corporate commercialism and could easily mirror how a struggling retailer feels.

To me, the interesting dichotomy with a story about a retail store is that there's a romanticism to owning your own business, but the “big guys” are winning in the marketplace because the customers are usually better off in terms of price and selection when they deal with them rather than dealing with a small independent store – there's an inherent conflict between emotional connection to traditions vs. cold rational economics. I wanted to put the challenges faced by store owners into my mechanics with The Owner's “Where can I get one of those?” move – the owner will rarely have the thing another character needs (doesn't have the right stock for the customer) and will usually only be able to satisfy the need by sending them somewhere else that they may not come back from (in the real world to a competitor or to the internet, in the game because they die or because they choose to save themselves rather than return to the group). The conceptual differences between Amazon.com (they've got essentially everything, and they'll deliver it to you eventually) and a big-box store (they've got a lot of stuff, but it's not always convenient) gave me the difference between items in The Cloud and items in The Supply Chain. Things in The Cloud can show up unexpectedly in the story while things in The Supply Chain encourage people to go get involved in interesting situations when they go to get them.

For the resolution system, I'm not sure it hangs together. I suspect the “every little bit helps” thing will be a bit clunky in play since you'd need to write a lot of cards as currently written, and I'm not sure the “do something important/avoid danger” moves interface with the “planning” moves in a way that makes sense (I also forgot to put the “do something important” and “avoid danger” moves on The Owner's sheet).

Right now, I'm relying pretty strongly on players' sense of story-appropriateness to put themselves in dangerous situations, since I only have rules for injecting “ominous” events and not a lot for escalating to actual danger. I'm guessing that most people will do the “obvious thing” and go investigate the ominous event and introduce adversity when they do, but it might be a stronger design if I tightened that up. Maybe I should give the different characters some “it's getting worse” moves in addition to the “there's a lull” moves I've got now.
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Baxil
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« Reply #1 on: April 12, 2011, 10:42:54 AM »

Dan,

The fact that your game explicitly uses that metaphor is great!  I love how gameplay is set up to be meaningful on multiple levels.  I hope that, as you work with it, you find ways to keep that prominent in the rules and in the gameplay experience.  And I love that I'm still finding new facets here - I had missed the distinction between The Cloud and The Chain.

One thing to consider: in a lot of ways this is a game about The Store Owner.  If it's just about everyone surviving the Zombocalypse (Tentaclysm, Velocirapture, etc), it loses some punch on the metaphorical level.  Maybe it's worth refocusing the game a little, and making the distributed GM duties a little more lopsided, to push that theme more?

- Bax
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: April 14, 2011, 07:46:55 PM »

Dan Maruschak's Brick & Mortar: Last of the Independents reads to me like half a game - the first half, almost entirely together, ready to go, but with no second half.

That doesn't necessarily mean I expect to see a formalized this-many-turns structural ending process (as in Queens of Time and Space). It could have such a thing, but the minimum I'm hoping for is some intrinsic process which changes the circumstances of play, significantly, so that there is some kind of rising action and climax which might emerge. As written, the characters might go here and do this and that and then go there (somewhere else), but as far as I can tell, every scene is effectively, mechanically, the same as the first scene. Intrinsic processes that make things happen can be character-centric, such as the typical advancement mechanics in many RPGs as the most obvious example, but they can be setting-centric too. Whatever it is, without it, I get nothing from playing the game for two hours that I wouldn't get from playing it for ten minutes.

So it's pretty clear so far that people have appreciated the interesting use of the two terms, which I also like. But their very cleverness illustrates what I'm talking about, actually. Sure, we start with a retail store which has fallen prey to modern business strategies and especially to Amazon - that's fine. Same goes for a mechanic being called a chain, in accordance with the fact that it's called a chain in real life too. But I'm not seeing how play feeds back upon these precise features of the game, or how play is moved forwards by such feedback. Once you see how the two terms are involved, that's all they do, and we move on from there to play this survival/horror situation.

Dan, what do you think? Let's take your example of play and move it forward a substantial amount of time during the session we're playing in. What's different? What has changed? What's going on? Is play different now from when we started? Does either the whole Amazon connection or the Supply Chain mechanic operate differently or more consequentially now than it did at the start?

Best, Ron
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Dan Maruschak
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« Reply #3 on: April 15, 2011, 09:49:20 AM »

It's my hope that the accumulation of important items and plans will gradually change the nature of play, both because of the mechanics and because of human nature to want to engage with ideas that have been proposed rather than keep coming up with new ones. When items go to The Supply Chain, it encourages expeditions to go get them, which will tend to either split up the group or expose the entire group to danger. When bad stuff happens in that scenario, it will likely increase tension between whoever proposed the plan and the rest of the group. Items in The Cloud will get reincorporated at inopportune times, bringing up the possibility of reconsidering abandoned plans, creating tension with people who are invested in different plans. So I think that causes change, but doesn't necessarily build to a climax. I'll need to think about that. The Regular or The Hipster scuttling plans by running off with important items can change the situation, too, but that won't change over time.

I might think about borrowing the idea from Zombie Cinema of having the first person "out" take on the role of playing the threat, or maybe another character, like a rescued victim.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: April 19, 2011, 12:24:52 PM »

I think I might be missing the point of play, in the most casual and ordinary use of that term. Is it to get my character out of harm's way, which effectively means "run off screen"? Is it to work together as a group toward some end? Is it to pump up social strife as much as possible?

I guess I'm seeing a lot of talk about running off away from the situation, both in the game itself and here in the thread. Is that a secondary feature of play or is it a central feature?

Thinking about one or more sessions of play, how do you envision the fictional events ceasing merely to re-arrange and change, but actually reaching an irreversible crux point?

Best, Ron
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Dan Maruschak
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« Reply #5 on: April 19, 2011, 02:00:16 PM »

I'm not sure what kind of answer you're looking for in the "what's the point" question. I think this is a single-session game. The Owner officially has a win condition ("if everybody survives, you win") and The Survivor officially has a losing condition ("if you die, you lose"). The others are a bit ambiguous, somewhat intentionally. The Hipster and The Regular have opportunities to "save themselves" and can pursue those opportunities if they want to, but aren't compelled to. I imagine that the game will tend to come to a conclusion in one of three ways: everybody dies, everybody comes together and decides that staying in the store is untenable and puts together an elaborate plan to escape to permanent safety, or The Hipster and The Regular run off or die and whoever's left among The Owner and The Survivor hunker down in the store for the long haul and you close on a somewhat ambiguous ending. While you have either The Hipster or The Regular around, the mechanics tell them to inject more problems into the fiction whenever things slow down so there can't be any resolution of the situation until those characters get resolution.

There's a lot of talk about safety and running off because that's something that characters in a survival horror situation care about. I'm not sure how to characterize that as "primary" or "secondary". It's a tool that's in there for the players to say things about their characters and/or the situation if the players want to use it. I feel like I'm missing the point of your questions.
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stefoid
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« Reply #6 on: April 19, 2011, 05:36:34 PM »

There is a board game called Dune (well theres heaps of games like it, but its the iconic one)  where you play factions, each of which have different winning conditions and each of which have some power unique to their faction.

Your game seems like that.  Maybe as a roleplaying game, you dont need winning conditions, simply overriding goals that the archetype player should pursue.  Obviously everybody individually wants to live and escape, take that as a given, so most goals should be about something other than that. 

The aim is that fun, interesting and dramatic things happen, right?  So your goals and powers should should be set up to encourage that, especially in ways that force the players to choose.  Like, often in these situations, there is the constant tension between helping yourself and contributing to the common good.  If you make one characters powers only help their own goals, and not the common good, then they always have the choice of whether to invoke them to get closer to their own goal, or not invoke them and help stave off the inevitable for a bit longer.  Another thing that often happens is a struggle for leadership.   Base some goals and powers around that.

So the hipster could have the goal - avoid risk.  Every situation they avoid risk, they get a point.  But if the hipster always avoids risk, the situation could become terminal through failing to help.  If everyone dies, nobody wins.

The survivor could have the goal:  Take charge.  every time someone follows their order, they get a point.  so they are going to be bossing people around a lot.  Something the hipster really doesnt like if it involves risk.  So there is automatic tension there.


These are only examples - the important thing is they create tension for the characters themselves - will I or wont I? and also between characters because their (and I just realized this is sounding like IAWA) their best interests are at odds.
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Dan Maruschak
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« Reply #7 on: April 20, 2011, 09:42:29 AM »

There is a board game called Dune (well theres heaps of games like it, but its the iconic one)  where you play factions, each of which have different winning conditions and each of which have some power unique to their faction.

Your game seems like that.  Maybe as a roleplaying game, you dont need winning conditions, simply overriding goals that the archetype player should pursue.  Obviously everybody individually wants to live and escape, take that as a given, so most goals should be about something other than that.
Maybe I'm being too subtle: I am telling The Owner that he needs to take care of everybody, and making it nearly impossible for him to give them what they need, unless he sends them away with no guarantee that they'll return. I am giving The Survivor tools that can save everybody if they cooperate, and telling him that he needs to watch his own ass. It is beneficial for the group if The Hipster hangs around being a snarky, complaining asshole, but it is unclear to The Hipster what he gets out of the relationship. I am telling The Regular that the store is his home, but giving him mechanics that will make him seem to everyone else like a panicky idiot who's not contributing anything. I think these asymmetries inject a lot of dramatic potential into the situation, and the mechanics will keep transforming the situation until it gets resolved. In play, the players will make interesting (organic) choices in their characterization. (I haven't playtested so I can't guarantee that it all works, and The Regular is probably the weakest in this regard). Giving other explicit "goals" for the players or overtly mechanizing these types of decisions seems like it would be bad for this design. The game puts into question whether a character survives or not because that's the tension that drives situations in the survival horror genre. Does that make the game "about" survival? It depends on what you mean by "about", I guess.


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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: April 20, 2011, 10:50:16 AM »

Hi Dan,

Envisioning several people including myself playing, I try to see what happens in the fiction and what happens among us that looks like a lot of fun. The trouble is, when I do this, I'm not finding it.

1. I don't see much strategic challenge, if any, so I can't see the game as playing to win or to avoid losing. The winning and losing conditions look like words on paper to me, but not like something I can genuinely work towards or against, respectively, as a player. I suppose if I were the Owner I could talk a lot about "we all have to stick together," but it's not like that's actually true.

2. I'm not seeing why I'd shoot for any kind of resolution for either the Hipster and or the Regular beyond exiting from the story, and I'm seeing that the Owner and the Survivor may well desire them to do so as quickly as possible. (Or failing that, killing them, dismembering them, and throwing the pieces to the attacking thingies, but maybe I'm getting too much into my cranky store-owning persona.) It doesn't seem very compelling to me to play a character whose best tactic is to cease to be played.

So my hope is that when you look at the game as it's played in your head, you can tell me what you see there which looks like a lot of fun.

Best, Ron
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Dan Maruschak
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« Reply #9 on: April 20, 2011, 12:47:07 PM »

I don't see much strategic challenge, if any, so I can't see the game as playing to win or to avoid losing. The winning and losing conditions look like words on paper to me, but not like something I can genuinely work towards or against, respectively, as a player.
There isn't a strategic challenge. Yes, they are "words on paper", like setting material or tone-establishing fiction. They are there to inform the player's roleplaying of the character. I think many rules in many games serve similar functions.

When you say "best tactic", in whose judgment and by whose criteria? The game isn't meant to be played by a gestalt or a committee. What looks like the "best tactic" to The Owner may not look like the "best tactic" to The Hipster. The Hipster's goals are ambiguous and potentially unknowable, especially to The Owner. The game isn't telling you that you have to be a cranky, customer-hating store owner -- it's letting you make that choice if that's the one you want to make when you roleplay that character (although it is telling you that wanting to kill all of your customers isn't the way to win as a struggling retailer -- It sounds to me like you're saying that having curmudgeonly integrity is more important than winning, which is a perfectly valid statement for you to make but isn't necessarily the statement someone else would make).

Quote
So my hope is that when you look at the game as it's played in your head, you can tell me what you see there which looks like a lot of fun.
I don't think I can deconstruct it in the way you want things to be deconstructed -- it's not the way my mind works. I think these parts interact to create a dynamic system that some people will have fun experiencing as they move through fictional situations until they get to a resolution. I can't really point to "the fun part", or tell you why you don't see what I see.
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stefoid
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« Reply #10 on: April 20, 2011, 03:50:19 PM »

There is a board game called Dune (well theres heaps of games like it, but its the iconic one)  where you play factions, each of which have different winning conditions and each of which have some power unique to their faction.

Your game seems like that.  Maybe as a roleplaying game, you dont need winning conditions, simply overriding goals that the archetype player should pursue.  Obviously everybody individually wants to live and escape, take that as a given, so most goals should be about something other than that.
Maybe I'm being too subtle: I am telling The Owner that he needs to take care of everybody, and making it nearly impossible for him to give them what they need, unless he sends them away with no guarantee that they'll return. I am giving The Survivor tools that can save everybody if they cooperate, and telling him that he needs to watch his own ass. It is beneficial for the group if The Hipster hangs around being a snarky, complaining asshole, but it is unclear to The Hipster what he gets out of the relationship. I am telling The Regular that the store is his home, but giving him mechanics that will make him seem to everyone else like a panicky idiot who's not contributing anything. I think these asymmetries inject a lot of dramatic potential into the situation, and the mechanics will keep transforming the situation until it gets resolved. In play, the players will make interesting (organic) choices in their characterization. (I haven't playtested so I can't guarantee that it all works, and The Regular is probably the weakest in this regard). Giving other explicit "goals" for the players or overtly mechanizing these types of decisions seems like it would be bad for this design. The game puts into question whether a character survives or not because that's the tension that drives situations in the survival horror genre. Does that make the game "about" survival? It depends on what you mean by "about", I guess.

You definitely have elements there, which is why it reminded me of that game.  Maybe it will turn out well in playtest, but if it doesn't, you might need to aim the archetypes a bit more squarely at each other and themselves to generate conflict.  You could also have more achetypes as well - the authoritai figure, the mom with the kid (who gets into trouble), the criminal, etc...

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happysmellyfish
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« Reply #11 on: April 20, 2011, 04:03:43 PM »

Would an Actual Play report help here?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: April 20, 2011, 04:15:51 PM »

Hiya,

I'm not trying to argue against the game as it's envisioned, but I am having trouble envisioning it myself. And in trying to elicit that, I think I'm prompting responses that are either defensive or being read by me as defensive.

So I think the best move would indeed be playtesting - myself as well as anyone else,* because there's stuff here I do quite like and want to try out.

Best, Ron

* to be discussed in Game Development, not Actual Play. AP is for published games, not games in the design process.
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Dan Maruschak
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« Reply #13 on: May 03, 2011, 08:17:23 PM »

I was able to playtest the game a few times yesterday. I posted the audio to my podcast and started a discussion thread with some of my observations in the Game Development forum.

(By the way, sorry for any defensiveness anybody was picking up earlier in the thread. I think I was letting my frustration with not understanding what Ron was trying to say infect the tone of my posts.)
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