[Queen of Thorns] Ronnies feedback

Started by Ron Edwards, April 17, 2011, 10:49:42 PM

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Ron Edwards

Eric Boyd's Queen of Thorns is probably the best entry for me to explain what I mean by a design that needs some fermentation. Both the Ronnies terms and the whole of the imagined situation are rock solid, but looking at the play procedures and thinking about what it would be like, it ... well, it stops, right at the point that it looks good enough to start.

The setup is full of atmosphere accomplished with very little specific description. Character creation is full of characterization, and I quite like that no player-character can be described as a generic "man at arms" or "warrior." The tracks provide a perfectly reasonable framework for play, and resolution is simple and solid. It reminds me of Elfs, actually.

The real issue is lack of depth, no applied characterization or emergent theme (at least not referenced in any way). I'm hearing a loud sizzle and looking for the steak. I suppose one way to say this is, so what? She's captured. The scary queen will kill her. We seek to save her. ... And that's it. I was thinking about whether this entry should go into the "make a Eurogame" category, but given what is there, and that it's good and fun-looking in terms of what it might do, I stuck with "RPG" in my mind.

It's a little jarring because there's a hell of a lot of detailed prep per character, and then not much to do with him or her after that. Where is all that distinction among the characters supposed to go? Is there conflict among them, potentially? Or if not that extreme, content of any kind besides being able to depict it?

As a non-crucial but I hope interesting point, that also ties into whether the game's listed range in player number matters. If inter-party strife or at least drama is important, then Twosie play needs something to replace it; if it's not supposed to be important, then all that required diversity in player-character  concept and motivation becomes a bit mysterious.

I hope this clarifies what I mean by this "ferment" category - I mean that given the great starting content, play looks flat. It looks to me as if the system will pop out a story, or at least a causal narrative, for us, no matter what we say or do or depict via our characters and their actions. It needs bubbles.

What I'm suspecting is that play as envisioned by you does indeed feature all manner of emergent role-playing and activity, which may well feed right back into play in system terms. If so, can you help me see it?

Other stuff
In character creation, it seems to me that everyone should pick one of #4-7. So one guy feels guilty whereas another doesn't, et cetera.

How the budgeting works is the big mechanics issue, which I know through painful experience is a pure playtest issue. One variable that seems especially important to scrutinize is whether unchecking and adding traits at the third Doom step is necessary.

I'm not convinced Doom wouldn't always smack down. But maybe I'm missing an important point: does play end with the confrontation with the Queen, regardless of whether the kidnapped woman is sacrificed or not? Because if so, that's pretty awesome. And it means saving her should definitely not be especially easy. And it sets up for some good drama among the characters if the choices of play put a better eventual chance against the Queen up against the immediate survival of the the kidnapped woman.

Best, Ron

Eric J. Boyd


Thank you for the useful feedback. You are correct in noting that the climactic event of the game is the confrontation with the Queen regardless of whether the maiden survives. If she doesn't, then the characters may be seeking vengeance on the Queen or merely trying to escape with their lives. That said, I may consider lengthening the Doom Track a bit if playtesting shows it to be too difficult to save the maiden.

You're hitting the nail on the head about the absence of guidance or insight into how the game proceeds for the players. My intended result is to create play that highlights three things. To properly hit on some of them in an effective way may require tweaks/additions to the mechanics.

First, I want to push hard on the idea of "non-heroic" characters embarking on a harrowing quest and being changed by it - embracing heroism and sacrifice perhaps despite themselves. Supporting this idea of change and sacrifice is what the new trait gained from the Doom Track, special conditions, and sacrificing injury levels for "+"s is trying to accomplish. Maybe spreading the current character creation out over the course of the game (adding a piece to the characters after key events) would better realize this goal.

Second, there are the existing relationships between the characters and the stress placed upon them by their quest. I'd love players to grab onto the dynamics implied by their different familial and other relationships and run with them. The risk and reward of helping is intended to convey some of this mechanically. Squabbling and conflict between the characters is definitely intended to be a possibility, though I haven't provided any mechanical support for it in the alpha draft. You also rightfully point out that twosie play will lack this dimension, so some modifications are necessary to help preserve it (perhaps via sidekicks or allies that can be recruited along the way).

Third, there are the individual connections between the maiden and the various characters, and the different sources of guilt each carries. My hope is that the players will have their characters grapple with their guilt during play, potentially giving rise to differing levels of commitment to save her as the cost of doing so rises.

So that's what I'm shooting for, and I'm all ears on ideas for other approaches and how to better achieve these play goals.

Ron Edwards

Hi Eric,

I think you have already achieved an excellent focus on the non-heroic characters on a harrowing quest - or perhaps the better term would be ordinary human characters, faced with heroic-level demands. Your suggestion about extending parts of character creation play seems like a good idea to me.

I am less enchanted with the idea of a bunch of squabbling whiners and finger-pointers working out their guilt and frustration upon one another. I do agree that the helping rules are very well-placed to bring forward dissenting views among them, which is great (similar to The Mountain Witch). However, the game is definitely tracked toward confronting the queen, period, which to me, means that the characters are in this together, for the long haul, and any acting as if this is not the case would be an annoying false denial of the system we're playing.

Regarding your comment about guilt, I'm homing in on your phrasing about differing levels of commitment to save her. Can you talk about that more in system terms, especially regarding individually playing characters? One thing I'm very unsure about is whether and how different players' differing views on how to allocate the dice get expressed in play.

Best, Ron

Eric J. Boyd


I totally agree that a bunch of whiners would be annoying. To clarify, my vision of play is that the characters start out with these existing opinions of each other, many of which may not be positive. So some inter-character drama could result. But as the quest progresses, the group must come together and depend upon one another in confronting the Queen, making it likely that their relationships will change as a result. I guess that points to a need to capture that transformation in the relationships somehow.

As to differing levels of commitment, players are not taking explicit turns having spotlight scenes, but instead calling out their actions in a scene and then rolling dice. So by taking a risk to your character's well-being, you also ensure that you get to determine the dice allocation. Others may help you, but they do not get any say in what you do with your +'s (although they could make suggestions). It occurs to me that maybe part of helping should be getting to allocate the + on your helping die if it comes up.

As your character resources decrease, you might decide to hang back and rely more on your companions to take action. On the other hand, if you really want to guarantee that dice get allocated to certain things, you need to take that action yourself.

I'm struggling with understanding what you mean by those bubbles in play that you referenced above. In other designs, I've had a tendency to over-design to the point of creating a parlor narration game without any choice or open spaces. With this game, the time constraints seemed to work in my favor by leaving me with a more open, and I hoped fruitful, experience. Can you give me a better sense of what you mean by those bubbles to improve flat play?

Ron Edwards

Hi Eric,

I think you're already on the right track with the mechanics section as written. What matters is avoiding a couple of possible traps - which I personally think characterize most of the games whose authors call them Story Games - which your design might slide toward.

1. Given that the confrontation with the queen must happen ... well, that, or the party dies out there flailing around in the wilderness, ... then what I'm saying is that it's not really viable or fun for the characters to have so much tension among them that they can't get their shit together and stall. At least not in an overtly tracked game like this one. Either they do and manage to get at least to the queen and possibly to save the girl, or they don't, and the latter path tracks fast to the kill - either they all die out there or the Alarm Track brings in the queen quite fast.

2. Lack of functional individuality among the characters aside from a lot of posturing. I really agree with you that this is where a lot of the fun of the game will lie, and as I see it, it should really matter where we all assign our plusses. OOH! I just realized what would do it for me. More in a minute.

The game to use for reference is, I think, The Mountain Witch. It generates some short-term, predictable tension among characters with the Zodiac, and in the long-term, in unpredictable ways, with the Dark Secrets.

I also think that it's deliberately more wide open than what I think would work for Queen of Thorns, and the design question is, artificially positing a starting point like The Mountain Witch, what you want to tighten up without turning the game into a clockwork toy.

For instance, in that game, it's possible for all the characters to come to grief without ever meeting the Witch, and conceivably, for one or more of them to turn back. And it also leaves what the Witch is like, and what he may offer to the characters, incredibly wide open for the individual GM or group to develop. The encounter with the Witch may not even be a fight, after all, or if it is, he might be easy to kill, or amazingly, he might be more of a positive figure than anyone thought.

If I'm reading Queen of Thorns right, then the party can indeed die out there flailing around in the wilderness if they don't get their shit together - and it seems to me, this might get locked down for real in this game, more so than in The Mountain Witch. And it also seems to me that in this game the Queen isn't going to turn out to be possibly nice after all, or a victim in her own right, or anything else along those lines. I mean, maybe it'd be cool for the GM to work out ways for her to be more interesting than Sauron's ex-wife or a total rip-off of Narnia's White Witch, but she's bad news no matter what.

And now for the characters. My OOH above was typed right when I realized when and how the existing mechanics create a "bubbly" effect as I envision play. It would be: don't reveal the rolls as they are made, and have each player allocate BEFORE they are revealed. In other words, no group level committee meeting on how to allocate the dice - we just find out how it's done, this time, period.

I hope you like that idea. For what it's worth, that makes me really eager to play.

Best, Ron

Tim C Koppang

For what it's worth, I've found this thread both personally useful and intriguing (meaning I now want to try out the game!).  I think it raises a lot of good points about the tension between tracked and untracked play; and how much a game trusts the players to create functional and rewarding experiences.  In my experience, there has to be a certain freedom to succeed or fail, even if that freedom is within the context of a tracked story arc.  If the balance tips too far away from the players towards a fixed outcome, then, while there may be the appearance of tension and drama, the experience ultimately ends up repetitive or empty.

Eric J. Boyd

Tim, I'm glad the discussion has proved useful to you. I'd be very interested in hearing any war stories you have from designing Mars Colony with respect to balancing to provide sufficient freedom to get fruitful play while still sticking with a core arc. That may need to be in a different thread or via PM, though.

Ron, we're on the same page with respect to intra-party tension; it's been very helpful to think that issue through in this thread.

Your dice allocation tweak sounds very promising. Just to make sure I understand what you're suggesting: Players would need to decide if they're going to take action in a scene or sit on the sidelines (maybe helping one of the acting characters). Then, everyone who's taking action rolls their dice without revealing the result, secretly allocates their +'s, and only then reveals what they've decided to the rest of the players. That way we avoid any dice allocation by committee or group pressure to allocate in a particular manner. If you want a say in things, then take action and roll dice. Is that right?

To help enhance individuality, I also think I'll adopt your suggestion to have each character get only some of the items that currently constitute character creation. Then, I'll likely expand on the changes that happen to the characters during play as a result of their quest, maybe tying the changes directly to things the character has done during play. 

Ron Edwards

Hi Eric,

Cool - although I don't claim my suggestions are the makers-or-breakers for the game, they're the best I've got for the issues I've brought up, or tried to.

We didn't discuss the limitation on choosing items for characters, so I'll put my reasoning here for the record: that if everyone feels guilty about the woman getting kidnapped, then I think the distinct impact of guilt (and here choose any of those items) is diluted.

You understood my suggestion about the dice allocation exactly.

Best, Ron