#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016 How many friendships have you terminated because they confessed they kind of like to play Fate games sometimes? It’s okay. Fate players have to hear the truth.

None. I can’t even wrap my head around the idea of terminating a friendship because of someone’s taste in games. But some people apparently want all aspects of their lives arranged along a single axis, i.e. their friends are their political allies are their gaming peers are their fellow music fans, etc., so maybe it would make sense to someone like that? I tend to assume that people are complex and multidimensional, and too much “colinearity” in your friend group / circle of acquaintances / society might be unhealthy.

I have a love/hate relationship with Fate. It was the game that got me into actually playing RPGs. Aside from a little bit of MERP in grade school, I had never played a tabletop RPG, but I was a fan of the Baldur’s Gate computer RPG and the other games that used the same engine, so I got curious about the underlying rules. However, the commentary I read at the time was that the advantage of tabletop play over a CRPG was a live GM, who could fudge rolls and pull other tricks to give you a “story”. This seemed really dumb to me — why should I learn rules, make character-build decisions, etc., if they ultimately didn’t matter because the GM was going to handwave everything anyway? That’s not a game. But I kept minimally engaged because the video game series I liked was taking cues from tabletop D&D and I wanted to keep informed.

I forget the exact sequence of events, but I know I eventually stumbled across the Forge and really resonated with the idea that when these games said something was a rule they meant it — the rules weren’t just page-filler so the company would have something to sell to GMs and players who would be doing something only tenuously related to the rules. I also took note of the Ennie (nomination? win?) for Spirit of the Century, which sounded cool to me, so I started doing some research. I found some recordings of SOTC sessions online, and it sounded like a lot of fun (which also sparked my eventual interest in AP podcasts). I bought a handful of indie games, including SOTC, but I wasn’t able to interest any of my local friends / acquaintances in playing, so they mostly sat on my shelf.

Eventually I ran across the Gutterskypes AP podcast (their inaugural game was SOTC), which introduced me to the idea of playing online via Skype. Eventually I was intrigued enough that I posted to a discussion forum and found a few other fans and we started our own group. Spirit of the Century was the first game we played. We did a few series of that, and also a few series of the Dresden Files RPG. So Fate games deserve a lot of credit (blame?) for getting me interested in RPGs and actually playing RPGs. Also, my most immersive RPG experience ever was playing the Dresden Files RPG — my pure mortal “extreme sports monster hunter” character was in a desperate fight for his life with a Black Court vampire and his goons, and it was awesome.

But I have a lot of problems with Fate as a game. The one that aggravates me most is Compels, for this reason: after almost every game of Fate the GM will say something like “that was pretty good, but I should have compelled more”. Hey compel mechanic: when you have friction with every person you run into, maybe you’re the problem. Like a lot of things with Fate, I think the compel mechanic sounds cool when you read it, but in practice it’s much harder to pull off than the rules imply. The vast majority of quality compels I’ve done in the game were things I prepped ahead of time and had ready to go, I don’t think it’s realistic to believe you’re going to come up with a lot of them on the fly. (Also, the game is really ambiguous about how the GM is supposed to decide who to compel — if you target them to people who are low on Fate points isn’t that effectively punishing people who were trying to conserve a valuable resource and probably doubling down on the spotlight time devoted to people who have presumably already been doing a lot of flashy stuff when they spent their Fate points?).

I could go on and on. A few days ago I used the problems with the DFRPG subsystems as an example of disappointing-in-play mechanics. I’ve written blog posts with explicit or implicit critiques of other aspects Fate’s mechanics. But there are elements of the games that seem really good. The character creation tends to create thematically rich characters, I dug the scenario creation guidelines in DFRPG (although I think it kind of falls apart when you need to mechanically stat out bad guys, since it’s pretty arbitrary and difficult to gauge how tough something is), there are elements of the aspect and skill systems I like, and I’ve had a lot of fun sessions playing these games. But my conclusion is that, as with most “hybrid” games, the beating heart of the game is GM showmanship, not the systems the players ostensibly interact with. Part of me really wants to cobble together what I think would be a more functional game from Fate (basically giving the GM guidelines for what to do, kind of like GM moves in AW — “compels” are the “when the players look to you expectantly, make a move” type of move). But nobody really cares about my flavor of Fate, and why would I spend a lot of time and effort trying to develop and playtest a Fate variant when I have games that are 100% mine that still need work?

#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  
Day 21: What was the last OSR game you tried to play, but quit because you realized there’s literally no mechanical support for a storyline at all?

Tragically, it was Stars Without Number. I just noticed that my super-excited “we’re getting ready to play!” thread is still on the first page of story dash games dot com, which is wild.

Jeez, right? So I love all the sandbox stuff Crawford put into SWN. I generated sectors, oh lord so many sectors. I obsessively clicked on the sector generator tool at http://swn.emichron.com/ until I’ve got way more content than I can use. Lots of lonely fun prep time. I figure I’ve got this! The very first RPG I ever personally owned was Traveller, I’ve got so many years of running this kind of game.

And then I can’t make it work. I cannot get the thing up and running to my satisfaction. My players are antsy, I’m frustrated, folks are looking for something to grab onto. And I can’t get it together in a way that is appealing to me and them. Entirely, 100% my fault.

At some point, I lost not only my ability to run a sandbox but my desire to do so. Mind you, I’ve run sandbox-y stuff. But tastes change, some skills sharpen while others rust. Same with my players: they’ve come to prefer a clear fictional arc, and trusting that the things they do define the arc going forward. My local crowd, consciously or otherwise, calibrates everything we ever play against Burning Wheel.

I tried! I really did.

That said, James Stuart recommended Godbound last week, another Sine Nomine jam, and it looks like so much fun. I think Crawford’s just getting better and better, and I’m really liking what looks like his solution to the player-centered sandbox. I mean, power-level-wise, you’re playing Exalted demigods, so that really demands the world revolve around them. Then you’ve also got this thing where you stake out a goal, because demigods don’t just sit around smoking dope and watching Twitch videos. You can’t advance your character without investing your divine energy into your efforts, and one assumes those efforts are directed at your goals. It’s a good looking reward cycle and it’s got all the sandbox tools.

Will it generate stooooory? It will after the fact, of course. Having had some really good luck with “sandplot” (thanks Mark Delsing!) games like The One Ring and Mutant: Year Zero, this might be my sweet spot. Fingers crossed.

#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  
Day 20: What’s your best story about falling all over yourself trying to rescue a bunch of awesome fiction that just got invalidated after making a fortune-at-the-end roll like some commoner?

My favorite part of the explosion of indie game design has been the awesome proliferation of new ways to do this thing we do. Absolute favorite.

There’s not a single sacred cow that hasn’t gotten gored at some point: the role of the GM, character monogamy, agency, social contract, incentives, subject matter, session structure, conflict, theme, everything. I don’t know about you, but the more of these variations and experiments I try, the better I understand the style I play the most: GM runs the world and adjudicates, players own their characters.

One of my favorite experiments in this experimental space has been poking at just how to move a scene forward. Who gets to say what, and when? Where’s the uncertainty? What even is “a scene?” Are there stakes? Is there even really conflict? Does it need to be resolved?

Fascinating stuff! Sometimes I don’t really treat it more than a thought experiment. But more often than not, even the thought experiments show me something new about my preferred mode of play, or gives me new tools or models or ways of thinking.

A lot of indie games come from the “here’s my solution to this problem I have” school of design. That’s a good place to start! I think it’s a not-uncommon thing for folks to have run into the whole “I swing across the chasm on a rope, crash into two kobolds knocking them to the ground, and behead King Kobold! ::roll, fail:: Uhh…nuts” situation. Mostly and practically we just kind of wallpaper over that, laugh it off, figure it out after the roll.

Experiments to move that stuff around — adding aspects, assigning dice, explicating intent, whatever! — may or may not “solve” the “problem,” right? What’s really exciting to me is when a designer stumbles into something that may have been meant to solve a problem, but turns out to be a whole different way to do things. It has a purpose greater than fixing something.

What I don’t get — or maybe I get all too well — is the reflexive hostility I’ve seen when something is called “a problem.” I also (don’t) get the triumphant fist-pumping we have a better solution and you just don’t get it behavior of the new thing’s fans.

Is game design technology or fad? Based on doing our thing a very, very long time, I have to say it’s both. I’ve said, in the past, that game design is unequivocally technology: it gets objectively better, and old stuff is objectively worse. I was wrong and I was stupid to say that. Obviously, obviously there are billions of person-hours of play that say otherwise. Might not be play that I’d enjoy. Might even seem “obviously” dysfunctional! But it’s make-believe and entertainment and I’m not gonna point and laugh at anyone’s joy in this life where joy is often in short supply.

That said, for anyone’s interior model of ideal play, there’s never been a better time to be a gamer. Frustrated at what feels like unfair one-sided creative authority? Look at all these gmless/gmful games, holy wow. Love the shit out of procedurally generated sandbox challenge? Tons of options. Love your explicit flags and incentivizing economies? Same.

It’s not a zero-sum hobby. We’re better than this.

#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  
“What kind of shit-fit did you throw the last time someone tried to schedule your convention game in a ballroom like you’re playing fucking Pathfinder or something?”

Ha!

I’m not sure I’ve ever not played a con event in a big, open room. Even times when we were the only game, we were in some big, echo-y space that made understanding other people nigh-impossible for me.

I think, unfortunately, “convention locale” and “ideal roleplaying environment” are inherently at odds with each other. If someone has a counter-example, I’d love to hear about it.

I’m also sure that Paul Beakley will post an answer to this that reveals the true nature of what he’s getting at, which may be about expected levels of intimacy, or the difference between tournament play and something else. /sits and waits

The List: https://plus.google.com/+PaulBeakley/posts/SCyvyFEEbsv

#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  
Day 18: What’s your best story about a precious snowflake character some trad player brought to the table because it was “clever?” How did you call them out?

So, a thing I’ve seen in a lot in indiegames, and particularly story-focused games, is less emphasis on the build and more emphasis on the portrayals of the characters. Maybe the game isn’t really tactical, so the build isn’t so important for carving out spotlight and success. Maybe the game is meant to be set up and played in a very short time, and builds are just not practical.

As a GM, it’s enormously easier for me to not have to think about and carefully balance, you know, math. That quarter-drow warforged whatever, that amazing bespoke combination of tactical assets that might actually be mechanically broken or at least exploiting synergies…I just can’t.

Or jeez, how about the 10 page backstories? It’s so much work for the players, some are much better at it than others, and then trying to fit it all together and live up to whatever awesomeness is already living in the players’ heads? I don’t know of a single system out there that actually delivers on the promise the player makes to himself and then implicates the GM in when they deliver their novella pre-game.

That’s all on me. All credit to the hardworking GMs who deliver good challenges and fit the backstories together, awesome. I used to! I don’t have the patience, time, or frankly bandwidth to do it any more. My prep time is smaller than it used to be.

So all this leads to what I feel like is one of the Hard Problems of players who are curious about small-press games that aren’t designed for this kind of play. I’ve seen it so so much, particularly at conventions but also at my own table, when someone has come from a siloed play tradition. I want my Night Witch to be psychic! My Ark mutant is the seventh son of a seventh son, destined to rule the Zone when he finds Eden. My round table knight has an ancient fae mecha hidden away inside a rock ring on an island off the shore of Cornwall. I am the only female minotaur in the Degringolade.

I’m sure billions of pixels have been spilled talking about this. And I love the player impulse this comes from! Sometimes! I love it a lot less when I’ve got a player who’s convinced she’s found the critical path through Teh Roolz to Beat The GM.

I don’t “call out” trad players, gross. Does anyone actually do that? This was maybe my cruelest indie joke but I’m totally just playing on outsider fears here. What I have done is take, say, the really gonzo backstories and tried to reframe them: like…it might not actually be true, you know, this thing about being the seventh son of the seventh son. Mecha hidden off Cornwall, eh? Maybe that’s something you’ve heard about but haven’t seen?

I really love the solution in 13th Age that lets you just outright state a true thing about yourself: maybe the best-in-class solution in the tactical trad game space. The Three Facts bit in Godbound looks like it placates the precious-snowflake urge, too, while building up backstory in a guided way. That’s great. (Great recommendation on Godbound, by the way, James Stuart​​.)

Now, personally, I’m mostly in a creative space where I’m way more interested in interesting portrayals than interesting builds. The past is the past; 99% of anything a player cooks up will never make it to the table, although it may exist for their own pleasure. When I’m a player I’ll pick something vanilla, even given the chance at a snowflake build. When I’m the GM, more interesting portrayals definitely make my job easier.

EDIT: oh oh! I wanted to include a link to the Plinkett Test, which is a great little guideline I’ve used at our table: http://www.pcgamer.com/sort-characters-from-cut-outs-with-the-plinkett-test/

I know it’s a link to a video game page but there’s an explanation of the test and a nice graphic.

#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  
Day 17: Do you buy your legal-sized paper by the ream or by the case? Do you ever try to reuse your playbooks or just start fresh every time?

Kind of a filler question; hope you’re having an awesome weekend so far!

I didn’t love legal paper until Apocalypse World came out and then I learned to loooove legal paper. Just a smidge more information and you can print it yourself, yay. My Game Chef finalist entry from last year is a legal-sized thing.

I think it was Rob Brennan who pointed out that the indiegame legal paper fetishism is total bullshit if you’re not American, because they just don’t have an equivalent paper size? I guess? I thought they had something called A5? B5 maybe? I guess it’s not easy to get and isn’t really the same size, so you still end up printing your PDFs in some squished way. Anyway, I guess it’s a thing?

Heard that Apocalypse World 2E dropped the legal-sized playbooks, so just watch the rest of the #pbtamonoculture follow suit. I think if Vincent Baker had declared for 11×17″, we’d see an uptick in oversized printer sales and Kinko’s jobs. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  
Day 16: GMs: abusers, control freaks or both? Best story explaining why this is so.

Easy one today. Both.

I’ve learned a lot since I started in 1980. Thirty-six years of make-believe mostly within an asymmetrical social structure? What could possibly go wrong.

Not that it’s been one long Stanford Prison Experiment, but hoo boy when I was younger? Younger as in “into my mid-30s”. Gaslighting individual players (immersion!), capricious and inconsistent rulings (not rules, ptui, those just take away my creative authority!), trying to fix interpersonal problems diegetically (!!!)…it’s a long list.

GMs are both.

Sometimes.

I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve learned that I can trust my players more than I used to.

I’ve learned that I can make mistakes at the table, say so, and be forgiven.

I’ve learned that I do my best work when I’m at the bottom of the hierarchy, not the top.

I’ve learned that everything the GM handles can be handled by someone else, at least some of the time, if they want to.

I’ve learned that radical transparency and honesty doesn’t mean the end to discovery and surprises.

I’ve learned that I’ve spent years in codependent relationships with some players, to the detriment of both of us.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to say no, to shut down the game, to do whatever it takes to generate my own enthusiasm to facilitate. Because it sure looks like I’m in it for the long haul.

I’ve learned that there’s still so much to learn.

#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  
Day 15: When was the last time you unironically used the word “diegetic?”

Halfway point check-in!

Every day of our hashtag game I love to read the posts and comments our thing is generating, even when I stridently disagree with something someone says. That’s awesome, diversity of opinion is great. With the exception of the folks who are totally unequipped to laugh a little at this indie thing of ours now and again (and treat self-reflective laughter as an existential threat), it’s been more than two weeks of solid love letters. Amazingly positive. I’m changing nothing.

But also every day, there’s a tiny bit of me that wonders, is this going to be the day that it falls apart? It didn’t happen on the political day (9), it didn’t happen on the class warfare day (13), it very nearly happened on “let’s talk about talking about rules about rules” day (11).

I don’t want that day to be today, either.

Look. Diegetic? It’s jargon. It’s unfamiliar jargon, especially if you haven’t rubbed up against the freeform/nordic bleeding edge. I welcome the haters to consider other unfamiliar words, like thaco, or rollplaying, or crunch vs fluff, or “toon.” Ye gods, toon. How I hate toon. Aw crap, I set myself off with that one.

What is it about jargon that sets us off? It has to be all the implied baggage that comes along with it, yeah? Diegetic sounds academic and oh lord here come the gamesplainers. Toon is straight out of World of Warcraft and oh lord here come the munchkins. (Oh, add “munchkin” to the jargon list.)

As cultural signifiers, jargon is awesome. I say thaco and you know what it means? Meaningful nods, cool, we’re on the same page. I’ve just invoked basements, middle school hazing, Mountain Dew bottles and tiny painted figures. High five, I can safely talk D&D with you. I say diegetic and you don’t know what it means? Fear, uncertainty, doubt. Do we really share play goals? Do you think I’m dumb? Fuck you man, you don’t know me, I’m not dumb!

When I wrote the question, I was laughing at this totally throwaway moment from Dreamation this year, which was the first time I met Brand Robins. After many years of on and off sparring we had a lot of catching up to do. So we’re talking after hours, maybe a beer or something into one of those stand-around-and-bullshit nights. I can’t even remember what we were talking about! But at some point Brand is all “mumble mumble something diegetically resolveddiegetic means within the fiction by the way…” And I had two reactions: One, I immediately jumped in with “sigh, yes, I know what diegetic means,” i.e. my stop-patronizing-me reflex! Two, we had just done the little psychic high-five that said “yup, good, we both take game design and thinking seriously in this particular and academic way.”

There’s been some level of resistance to academic treatment of roleplaying since forever. I’m 100% sure the impulse to treat it as a subject of serious academic interrogation is well-intentioned: you can go really deep in the weeds on the subject, there are university programs for it, and you can travel the world to conferences. I’d also speculate there’s a little insecurity there too: if I treat this subject with enough seriousness, if I can show my work, then maybe it’s okay that I keep playing make-believe well into my adulthood. I speculate that because I know that’s in my brain more than I’d like it to be. My adulthood western work ethic is why there’s an Indie Game Reading Club.

The resistance to the academic treatment is totally understandable as well. It may all be bullshit: the experience is just too subjective and diverse for there to be meaningful research. It might make this fun escapist thing 99.9999% of us do seem like work. It’s draining the magic out of the experience. The all-in lifestyle heavy ludic thinkers might make us feel inadequate (cue my favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quote here).

So is all that heavy academic lifting actually producing better design? That was always the question at the Forge, yeah? If we can just dig deep enough, can we put that knowledge to use? I think the answer has to be yes. But yes relies on an assumption that freeform/larp is a game design technology incubator for games just-gamers will actually play someday. I think it’s readily apparent that it is (no, not the only one). And that’s where a lot of the most academic, serious thinking is taking place these days.

Tl;dr gamers have secret handshakes. NBD.

In one of Paul Beakley’s #INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  posts, Dan Maruschak made a comment in which he said:

I have no idea is this is true or just me projecting, but I think that while Kickstarter has been good at lubricating financial transactions it means that the hype cycle doesn’t reach crescendo when the games are in an actual playable state so the games get less play than they would have with a more conventional publishing model.

This has been rattling around my head since I read it, as it feels true to me — though I have no data to draw on except my own experiences. I definitely feel the most fired up when a project I care about is launching, and ebbs only a tiny bit as it closes on funding and/or stretch goals are hit.

But after that? When the product finally delivers — possibly years later? I’m pretty much all: “Oh, hey, I remember that.”

It could simply be that I’m too conditioned to Western consumerism, and thus I enjoy the purchasing more than that actual owning. It also could be that I just get so little time to play that most games I back just sit on a shelf, waiting to be read.

Still, I think there’s something to Dan’s observation.

#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  
“What’s the most play-disruptive discovery you’ve made when you insist on playing by the actual printed rules?”

Honestly? That people I’d gamed with for years thought playing by the actual printed rules was a totally crazy idea and not How RPGs Work™. No joke, this was one of the disagreements that broke my old Saturday D&D group.

That group was pretty large — nine people at its height — and those full-attendance games were excruciating. Not just because 3e is a slog with that big a party, but also because no one was on the same page about why we were playing. Thus, everything took forever, and half of the group would be making optimal, mission-focused choices, and the other half would be ACTING! and thus derailing the efforts of the first half.

Yet, there was a subset of us who were pretty clear on just playing 3e as-is — a tactical combat RPG — who had a great time when we were the majority on lower-attendance nights.

So, obviously the group as a whole was pretty incoherent. When I’d ask about this — “Why do we play 3e if the rules don’t really jibe with what you guys want?” — the essential answer I would get was: brand loyalty. They needed to play a game called “D&D” in order to have fun. And since they were “role players, not roll players”, the rules didn’t matter (because rules don’t matter, according to them); what mattered was that they were buying the latest and greatest product and it had beholders and Tiamat and all the D&D stuff.

Years later, one of the minority tactical guys — still a good friend of mine — was talking about his Pathfinder group, and how he’s getting tired of tactical play. I asked him why they play PF then. “You don’t need to use all the rules. You pick and choose what you want, and make up the rest.”

And, again, I’m baffled. I’m fine with the idea of a toolkit RPG, but I still don’t get why people play games where they ignore most of the content they pay for. And how, when I express this option, they look at me like I’m a scientologist or something.

The INDIEGAMEaDAY2016 list: https://plus.google.com/+PaulBeakley/posts/SCyvyFEEbsv