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Author Topic: [Left Coast] How do you write rules that encourage people to play?  (Read 3014 times)

Posts: 568

Steve Hickey

« on: August 10, 2011, 11:03:21 PM »

I playtested Left Coast with Mike Sands on Saturday. It was the first time I've run the new version of the game, and I'm happy with the results. Now I’m getting ready for a second, more extensive playtest, and trying to figure out how to present the rules more effectively, in a way that inspires people to want to play it.

What is Left Coast?

A game where you play semi-famous science fiction authors living in late 1960s / early 1970s California. The game’s inspired by the lives of people like Philip K. Dick and L. Ron Hubbard. As an author, you try to balance your writing with the mundane pressures of your everyday lives, and you struggle to not go nuts under the strain of balancing those two things.

The idea I’m testing in this post-Ronnies version of Left Coast is that each player's author is a character in a novel being written by the author of the player who is your GM. I want to leave the exact details of how that works up to each group of players to decide, but the GM-author introduces a web of weird and unnatural forces into the PC-author’s life (which puts even more pressure on them).

(Ronnies feedback thread, here; initial playtest thread, here; link to the latest version of the game, here)

What happened in the playtest session?

Within about 30 minutes, Mike and I had created our two science fiction authors (J. Oberon Eldritch and Robert M. Curtis) and surrounded them with a cast of characters that very naturally led into two very different types of story:

J. Oberon Eldritch
Oberon’s story was caught in the middle of kitchen-sink realism meets LSD-induced enlightenment. He was simultaneously a bum who was crashing at his brother's house, while also leading a group of occultists and university professors in the consumption of drugs. Oberon was trying to open his mind up to a higher plane of reality and (hopefully) understand what the Psychic Voice in his head was telling him.

For me, the highlight of Oberon’s story was seeing him arguing with his straight-arrow banker brother, trying to scam $5 off him to afford postage to send off his manuscript. The amount of venom and resentment that came out of that simple conversation was pretty amazing.

Robert M. Curtis
Bob Curtis becoming enmeshed in a paranoid noir where his parole officer was blackmailing him for money and Bob's doppleganger seemed to be planning a crime to frame Bob and put him put back behind bars.

We played through three rounds of scenes:

  • Bob meets Patricia Pennington, his new neighbour who seems to be spying on him.
  • Oberon tries to scam five bucks off his brother.
  • Bob’s parole officer, Michael Gleisner, confronts him at the diner where Bob works.
  • Oberon invites his friends and associates around to his brother’s house to take drugs, while his brother invites his boss from the bank home for dinner.
  • Oberon writes a story about the Vietnam war spreading across the planet. The story is set in Southern California, and one of the characters is heavily based on Oberon’s brother
  • Bob and Oberon meet up for a drink at a science-fiction convention, and learn more about each other’s frustrating lives.

In terms of the rules, that was three Widescreen scenes, a Family scene, a Money scene, and an Ensemble scene.

(Mike's take on the session is here.)

So here’s what I thought worked:

What we tested out was probably the lowest level of the reward cycle, the “What are we doing right this minute” level of the game.

The process for making up non-player characters (NPCs) really worked for me. It asks just enough questions to give the NPCs an attitude and an initial spark of life. As a result I found them easy to play in scenes. I’d be interested in how Mike found it.

I also found it really satisfying to get to know the NPCs through conversation. I enjoyed the process of slowly figuring out what they really wanted and what they were willing to resist or insist on.

One of the things that GMs have to do in each scene is gradually introduce ‘Weird’ elements into the game. For me, this was highly successful: Mike would end a scene, and I’d say “I don’t think you’ve introduced anything weird here”, and he’d smile at me enigmatically and reply “I’m pretty sure I have.”

It drove me nuts in a good way, as I racked my brain trying to figure out what had been weird about the scene we’d just played!

The final thing I really enjoyed was just exploring the setting and the characters. Through play, I became interested in the characters who were being talked about but who hadn’t been seen yet. For instance, I started the game being afraid of my parole officer and then realised I absolutely needed to have a scene with him.

I also ended up being really curious about what was going on with all the other NPCs in both stories: Oberon’s father; the university professor using Oberon’s drugs; Bob’s ex-cellmate Kenny; my ex-wife new husband (the insurance investigator).

---   ---   ---

My take on all of this: I think the real-life social and creative rewards for playing Left Coast are working, at the ‘What are we doing right now?’ level of the game.

What needed work?

I think there’s lots of stuff I need to tweak and lots of procedures I need to simplify or cull, but the game's basic structure seems sound, and I’m ready to go into the next playtest without making major changes.

Here are some of the problematic spots Mike and I noticed, and some of the tweaks I’m considering:

I’m still trying to figure out the optimal number of players, so that playing the game flows smoothly and quickly but also has enough sources of imaginative input to be exciting, funny, and unpredictable. I suspect that 3 players might be the sweet spot; this playtest had two players, and the next one will have four (so I’ll be able to get a sense of how the game feels).

At the moment, each scene needs to contain three ‘mandatory elements’:

  • introduce a fact about the relationship between the author and the NPC
  • discuss a character who’s not in the scene
  • introduce the tiniest hint possible of the Weird forces invading the author’s life.

In play, this felt like too many things to introduce. It certainly wasn’t intuitive to keep all of them in mind and use them. In the next playtest I’m considering the following fixes:

  • eliminate the ‘Introduce backstory between NPC and author’ element
  • say you only need to do two out of three of the mandatory elements
  • wait and see which ones people remember to do?

There seemed to be a tendency to avoid conflicts (we had two conflicts in our game). Certainly there didn’t feel like there was enough currency flowing through the game, and the Story rating was hardly advanced.

One thing that slowed things down was the 'intent' phase of the conflict, where both participants in the conflict give a monologue about why it’s a conflict for them. I’m going to seriously consider removing this: the process for initiating a conflict seems fine, and (perhaps as a result) the intent usually felt obvious.
Another thing that the intent phase brought up is that it often feels odd to have psychological access to the NPC's motivations. In most cases it gives a little too much away, revealing their secrets or what’s up with the Weird.

One thing I’ll try, if Intent is unclear, is to give the GM permission to ask what's going on in the player-author's head and go deeper into what’s driving them.

I need to simplify the review that happens at the end of scenes. That was another thing that slowed the game down. There’s probably only two or three ‘questions / additions to the setting chart’ that really add value to this.

The Next Scenes list quickly filled up with many many characters who Mike and I wanted our authors to run into next. I’ll need to keep an eye on whether the Next Scenes list gets too unwieldy.

My objectives for the next playtest and next draft

Mike, Simon and Sophie are keen to help me do some more playtesting. What I want to do is test the next level of the reward cycle – What do we do tonight – by playing through one or two chapters. During this I’d like our group to:

  • hit 7 on the Story rating a couple of times
  • go through all the types of reset scenes
  • get into lots and lots of conflicts so that we can see what the currency’s like when there’s lots of it firing around.

I also want to see quite a few ‘Designated’ scenes come into play (these happen when NPCs start developing agency and act on goals of their own). These are an important indicator that the game is hitting its stride.

I’ll make adjustments and edits to the rules in between sessions of that playtest, with the idea of producing a next draft that massively simplified. It’ll be a tighter version of the game that’s more focused on the bare-bones of the procedures you need to play. (At the moment, there’s lots of editorial direction, and I’ve tried to cram EVERYTHING in the rules.)

I want to collapse a whole bunch of the ‘how the game is supposed to feel’ into one section that I can hand to new players as an ‘orientation’ text. I also want to add in more colour (quotes from authors and relevant SF novels)

I’ll probably need to simplify the Principles: the only one I can really remember using was ‘circle around the answer’ / ‘don’t rush to come up with an answer’. The idea that, creatively, the game relies on authentic insights seems to be key to what I’m doing with Left Coast.

Possibly, I’ll need to adjust Money scenes and Family scenes. Money scenes (where the author writes a story) really work when characters are based on or reflect an aspect of people in the author’s life – so that’s going in as a rule. I also need to consider whether to give the GM power to throw in plot twists, and whether these scenes need to provide an ending or closure on the story (or if they just hard-cut out of them). Family scenes need 'something' added to their set-up. At the moment, they give the author nothing to do except react to someone complain about them. Mike suggested that the author may need a motivation of their own (something orthogonal rather than oppositional, perhaps). I’ll examine this.

How can I make the text inspire people to play it?

I was thinking about S/Lay w/me and Spione (which I just recently bought). They made me want to organize games of them immediately, but I’m not sure how they did that.

If Left Coast is something you’re interested in but not something you’ve been inspired to organize a game of, I welcome your thoughts about why. How can I make the text more approachable and something that encourages people to play it?

And, of course, if you've got any comments about anything else in this post, go for it!


Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg

Posts: 568

Steve Hickey

« Reply #1 on: August 10, 2011, 11:04:53 PM »

Oops! The link to the game is here: Left Coast


Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg
Per Fischer

Posts: 212

« Reply #2 on: August 11, 2011, 06:41:46 AM »

I like your thoughts about trimming some of Left Coast's  procedures. Sadly I haven't playtested Left Coast yet, but I will, because the game text grabbed me just as much as S/lay and Spione did. Similar to you, I wanted to play these two games RIGHT HERE RIGHT now, and I have to say that I felt the same about Left Coast.

The thing is, these three game texts grabbed me for different reasons, and it wasn't just the way they were written. This is just to say that I don't think there's a straighforward answer to you question about how to wrote rules that make people want to play.

One thing they all have in common, though, is that I particularly like the fiction and/or cultural references for each of them. In terms of S/Lay I read Conan comics when I was a young teenager (preferable Barry Smith's art, which I think is the perfect match for the genre). For Spione it was even closer - I love Le Carre, post-war east-west politics, cold war, the seventies etc. Same goes for Left Coast - Dick still blows my mind.

So, I think this familiarity with the source material and/or genre is an important way into a game.

S/Lay pretty much is a stripped bare straightforward instruction how to play the game. Short, sweet, you can learn and play the game while reading through the book. It works.

Spione is a combo of source material for (certain) post-WW2 spy fiction and a game activity drawing on this fiction. It is decidedly written for non-gamers, and gamers weren't even the target audience for it. It's much like reading a non-fiction book about spies and spying, which I like.

Left Coast very effectively drags in the reader - what's this, how's does it work, why are we doing it etc. and then goes on to describe game procedures, and it's this latter part that is a bit tougher going - since I haven't played it yet, I'm unsure whether it's actually as complicated to play as reading though the book gives you an impression of. I think it sounds complicated, with a lot of procedures and scene types, terminology and so on to juggle.

Sorry, at work, so this post has been bungled together during the day, hope it's not too fragmented.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Posts: 25

« Reply #3 on: August 12, 2011, 08:43:38 AM »

I have to admit I really like the imagery invoked by Left Coast. I haven't had a chance to look at Spione or S/Lay w/me much, but I think you've done a great job so far in capturing my interest.

To assist with your question, one thing I know that gets me excited when I start reading about a game is when the text provides cool and interesting keywords or phrases that invoke mental images and emotions. I particularly liked the section you had during character creation where you list out "Types of Authors" and "Significant Elements of Domestic Life". Those two lists provide idea hooks, kickstarter concepts that plant a seed in my brain that can then blossum into my own interpretation of that concept.

Posts: 568

Steve Hickey

« Reply #4 on: August 12, 2011, 02:19:51 PM »

Hi Per,

That all made sense to me! I'm glad to hear the rules make it clear about 'why' you'd want to play the game. One thing I've been really focused on with this is ruthlessly targeting at it towards people who like the time period, source material and genre, or who are into the lives of actual SF writers.

It sounds like focusing on de-complicating the procedures is going to be an important next step in making the game more accessible. (I do have a tendency to throw lots of stuff into my rules and see what sticks, I've found.) If you've got any questions when it comes time to prep for a playtest, let me know and I'll do my best to answer them.

Hi Zachary,

Great to hear that the game catches your interest. The 'Types of Authors' and 'Significant Elements of Domestic Life' were written in about 20 or 30 minutes, and have remained in that first draft version ever since.

You've reminded me that one thing I noticed when making up characters with Mike is that that section could probably benefit from taking a second look at it - to make sure they're all doing the best job possible at creating those hooks and seeds you're talking about. (I noticed that the 'Radical' and the 'Danger to Society' had a little bit of unclear overlap, for instance.)


Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg

Posts: 568

Steve Hickey

« Reply #5 on: August 12, 2011, 08:34:02 PM »

Zachary, another thought occurred to me: were there any other areas in the text where you thought I was missing opportunities to create those provocative hooks and seeds?


Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg

Posts: 25

« Reply #6 on: August 17, 2011, 10:51:48 AM »

I haven't had a chance to look at the document deep enough to be able to suggest places to add interesting plot lists, but perhaps some kind of list for stories that the players might write? I only suggest that because it seems like the stories that the PC's write are a big part of the game. While the PC's themselves are supposed to be sci-fi writers, the players may not have any writing skills so maybe a nice list of catchy 60's and 70's style book titles?
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