New blog post: What’s the Word?

What’s the Word?: Using Verbs to Make Better Flow Points

Written by Milo Duclayan 5/2024

Imagine you’ve just written your first adventure game. The world is awesome, the characters are unique, the lists are gorgeous, and the flow is… well, the flow is written, to some extent. You know what you want the story to look like and some major plot points, sure, but there’s a problem: the gameplay is just not engaging

Gameplay and story are two very different things. The story is like a bird’s eye view of the entire game: it covers the themes and the aesthetic and the mission statement, as well as the plot at large. The gameplay is on the ground: the things that the players are actually experiencing and doing from moment to moment – the individual flow points. If the story is like looking at a forest, the gameplay is looking at each tree and seeing how it aligns with the rest.

So, your story is good, but your gameplay is struggling. You have your flow structure (see “Flows for Algernon” elsewhere on the blog for more details), but you’re struggling to make the flow points themselves interesting enough. My solution? Verbs.

This article is going to cover two things: what verbs are (in game design) and why they’re a useful framing device for your flow points, and a quick exercise that you can use to practice with verbs and get more creative with your flow.

First, what the heck is a Verb?

The verb of a flow point is the main action that player characters will be engaging with. Every flow point needs a verb, and most flow points already have them, even if you haven’t noticed it. 

Here’s a quick example flow point: The PCs battle through a horde of angry skeletons.

The verb here is actually already in the sentence: “Battle”. “Battle”, “Fight”, and “Kill” (and other verbs along those lines) are some of the most common verbs in adventure games. Other common verbs are things like “Fetch/Collect/Retrieve/Get” or “Talk/Listen/Learn”.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those verbs. They’re common for a reason. But because they’re so common, it’s very easy to end up with a game full of them, and a game full of the same verbs gets repetitive fast.

The Exercise – Verbing your Flow

Here’s the exercise. This won’t give you a perfect flow point, but it’ll really help you kickstart your brain into thinking differently about how they tick in a helpful way. 

Head to google and find yourself a Random Verb Generator. Try not to have any story in mind when you start this exercise, just be open to all possibilities. When you’re ready, roll yourself a random verb.

Now, take no more than 10 minutes, and make a flow point that uses that verb as its core action. I’ll do one alongside you so you can have some reference. Here’s the verb I’ve rolled: “Heat”.

When you roll for random verbs, you will get some very weird ones. At first it might be hard for you to imagine how you could make them into a flow point, but that’s why we’re doing this. The more you find ways to fit weird verbs into flow points in practice, the more unique and engaging your real flows will start to become. The easiest way I’ve found to start building a flow point is to define some or all of its five W’s (and H): Who, What, When, Where, Why (and How).

So, I need to make a flow point around the verb “Heat”. I can start by thinking about what they might be heating – let’s go with a furnace for an engine. Next I need to decide how they go about doing that action – maybe they have to take turns pumping a set of bellows. Lastly, the consequence – why the players are doing this flow point – if they don’t keep heating this engine, their friends inside the building will freeze. I’m missing the Who, When, and Where, but I think this is enough to give myself a solid idea of the flow point.

Done! Alright. Is this a good flow point for a game? Probably not. But it doesn’t have to be. The goal of this exercise isn’t to make perfect flow points – it’s to get you comfortable with using unusual actions, and finding more creative ways for your players to play your game (and also teach you some new verbs! You never know when a verb might come in handy). You can translate this skill into your real games, too.

Making verbs work for your game – Foundations

The reason this is an exercise and not something you can use for every adventure game is that some verbs just aren’t good fits. We write games for our players, so when we come up with the verbs that we’re actually going to use for our game, there are a few extra things we need to consider. These can be broken down into three main categories: empowerment, diversity, and mission. The first two are more foundational so we’ll do those first, and we’ll get to mission a bit later.

Empowerment is something that we often talk about in a vague way, but using verbs to define our flow points can make things much clearer. Empowerment is all about choosing engaging verbs, things that will give our players strong, active emotions. Active is an important word here, because verbs that let the players be active participants will almost always make for stronger flow points than passive verbs. Listen is a much less engaging verb than Talk. This is often the make-or-break for beginning game writers, and it’s one of the first things we look for when picking games to run for the summer. If your game is full of inactive verbs, you are relying on the players to make their own fun – and while they certainly can and will, it’s always better for them to have an engaging game to build on.

In addition to being active, your verbs should also be chosen with intent. While verbs like “Fight” and “Talk” are useful, they’re often used as a backup for when a writer isn’t sure what they want out of a flow point. When you decide what verbs you’re going to use for a scene, try to keep in mind the actual goals of that scene, not just in terms of the story and plot, but in terms of what emotions and challenges you want the players to experience. If that happens to be a fight, great – but choose all of your verbs with intent, and the players will feel it. 

Diversity of verbs is another key thing you need to consider when you’re making the verbs for your game. Diverse games have two main things: wide ranges of verbs across the entire experience, and original verbs to create unique experiences. A diverse game will feel completely different to the players than any other game they’ve played, and will keep them engaged all the way through. 

When considering the diversity of verbs in a game, the top priority is to make sure that your game as a whole has a wide range of verbs. This is another one of those key issues for early writers, but the reasoning is pretty simple: having flow points with different types of verbs available at the same time during your game will give everyone a chance to do something that they’ll enjoy. A game shouldn’t be all fight and fight-related verbs, because some players just don’t like fighting. A lack of diversity of flow points can often be hard to recognize when you’re writing a game without guidance, but being able to condense the experience of each flow point down to a verb makes it much easier to recognize and resolve.

After you’ve built a diverse foundation of verbs across the entire game, there’s the more advanced problem of common verbs. Your PCs have likely played tons of games filled with verbs like “fight”, “get”, or “talk”. It’s fine to have some of these verbs, and it’s often necessary to have some or all of them in some parts of your flow. Once you’ve learned the foundations, though, being able to find creative and unique verbs for your flow points can really help elevate your game to a whole new level. These flow points tend to be the most memorable, the things that people think about long after the game is over. That being said, creativity of verbs can’t come before the player experience. It won’t matter how unique your flow is if your players aren’t feeling empowered and engaged.

Making verbs work for your game – Putting it into Practice

In a game I ran back in 2022 called Tales of Anywhere, I had a series of flow points where the PCs needed to retrieve powerful relics from the gods of the world. While I could’ve just used the verb “Get” for all of those flow points, that would’ve meant having players do a really similar thing three times in a row. Instead, the verbs I used for those scenes were “Trick”, “Sneak”, and “Die”. These are all methods of achieving the same thing, but the core action is entirely different and way more engaging. In the “Trick” scene, the PCs went to a powerful god to get the artifact from them directly. This could have easily just used the verb “talk”, but remember, it’s always better to use active, intentional verbs when possible. Instead of just having a conversation and then giving the players the object, the players needed to actively trick the god into giving it to them, making it a much more empowering scene. Also notice that while the end goal is the same, each of these verbs is very different: “sneak” is more combat-oriented, “trick” is a social challenge, and “die” is a roleplay-heavy scene. Because of this, players have plenty of variety in the experiences they can choose from.

Here’s another one: in Jay Dragon’s 2016 game The Horned King, there were a series of boss battles – it would be really easy to call these “fights”, but again, that would be exhausting to do over and over again. Instead, each boss battle had a different verb that made them feel really unique – Chase, Defend, Survive, Deceive, etc. This made the entire game feel incredibly dynamic, while still getting to keep the ‘boss rush’ style of flow.

The Mission Statement is something that Jay talked about in their article Drawn with Courage, which you can find earlier on the Story Board blog. At its core, the mission statements are like the overarching verbs of the entire game. In that article, referencing The Horned King, Jay uses the mission statements “Participating in the Ritual, Preparing Tactics and Executing Them, Feeling Unsure and Betrayed, and Fearing the Horned King” to describe the game’s core actions. Each of the verbs you choose for your flow points should support one (or better, multiple) of your mission statements. If your game is about glorious combat, choose verbs for your flow points that are powerful and combative. If your game is about dying in the darkness, choose verbs about running, hiding, and sacrificing. This won’t be the thing that makes a game unable to run, but making sure all of your verbs align with your mission can really help push the cohesion of the game to a new level

Connecting verbs to your mission statement is also a great time to make use of unique game systems and mechanics. If you have a verb you plan to use often in your flow but you don’t think there’s a way to do it with the standard Wayfinder magic system, you can make one of your own. In Tales of Anywhere, I wanted “forgetting” to be a core verb of the game. There’s no memory mechanic in the Wayfinder magic system, so I made my own – for each second a certain monster was touching you, you’d forget a year of your life. Then I tied this mechanic into a bunch of my flow points where I wanted “forgetting” to be the verb. Just remember not to make too many new mechanics or you risk diluting your theme, or worse, ending up with a bunch of confused players.

Here’s a little bonus trick to wrap things up: you can do this exercise in reverse, too! Take any set of flow points that you’ve already written, and take a minute to try and break down what the core verbs of those flow points are. This can help you get a better idea of what your own game will actually look and feel like from the ground. It can also help you see where you’re starting to fall into the traps I mentioned above, like if you have a bunch of “fight” flow points in a row, or too few unique verbs, or your verbs just aren’t active enough.

If you look at a flow point and you can’t actually find any core verb for the PCs, that’s something to fix too – chances are you accidentally focused too hard on what’s happening with the SPCs or overall plot, and the actual actions of the players slipped away.


Verbs are an incredibly useful tool to have in your toolbox, and they’re big all over the world of game design for a very good reason. Even if you never end up using the exercise or breaking down your previous flow points, understanding that the core of your game is player action can help you hone in on what will make your game genuinely fun to play. The point of verbs is to remember that the game, at its core, is all about what the players are doing – you can make the most beautiful sets and the best story ever, but at the end of the day, the players will experience what they do above all else. 

For me, there are two key takeaways from these exercises with verbs. First, you need to make sure that your verb foundations are solid before you start getting fancy with it – lock down your active verbs and make sure your game has a wide range of action types before you start messing with anything else. Second, when you are ready to start getting funky with your verbs, have fun with it! Trust your instincts, and let your creativity flow. Believe me, your game will thank you for it. 


Written by Milo Duclayan 5/2024

Steering Made Clear

Steering Made Clear:

Play Style and its Theory

IMG_0914We play Adventure Games because we want a specific experience. We want to cry, we want to laugh, we want to look cool, we want to hit stuff with foam sticks. From filling out a character survey to the final moments of game, you as a player are tailoring your character and your portrayal of them to achieve these ends. This tailoring is often called steering- you steer your character’s actions to suit what you want to get out of the game. Steering is pretty intuitive to most players, it’s more defined terminology to say that you, the player, are in control of your character. (This is the sort of revolutionary idea you come across reading larp theory.) What’s helpful about recognizing that steering exists is that it makes you more likely to use it to your advantage, and better optimize your character’s actions to get what you want. Recently we’ve been talking about making out-of-game goals alongside character creation. Steering is the tool you use to achieve those goals.

0K6A2527One particular type of steering I find interesting is playing to lose, which is also conveniently exactly what it sounds like. I’ve had a lot of great scenes come out of playing to lose, like two rounds of the Oldest Game that I played in Brennan Lee Mulligan’s Grad School, run during Winter Game 2017. Allowing my character, Puck, to lose the first game led to a quest to seek revenge and win– only to lose another round of the Oldest Game in an even more epic and disgraceful fashion. Books and movies are no fun if everything goes right for the protagonist. Playing to lose gives your character those speed-bumps an author would normally give to their characters, and often makes for a more interesting, cathartic story. Playing to lose can also be a great way to make your scene partner look good, which is one of the key rules of improv and always a good way to make a great scene.

0K6A8402Steering is ultimately about achieving goals in game, and the Three Way model is one way to categorize how people achieve these goals. The Three Way model (a larp-specific adaptation of the Threefold model, which is used in general RPG theory) proposes that all play-styles fall loosely into three categories: gamist, dramatist, and immersionist. Gamist players play to win; they want to solve a riddle, they want to outsmart the villain, they want to stab the Big Bad even after it’s dead. Dramatist players are playing to tell a cool story, and often control their actions to fit into a traditional narrative with a nice satisfying ending. Immersionist players play because they want to be as true to the experience of their character and the world they’re playing in as possible- if their character would sit in a corner and cry, goddamnit they’re going to sit in that corner for as long as their character would.

KKP_3055 (2)Of course these three play styles, like gender and dark chocolate, exist on a spectrum, and the boundaries can often be blurry. I myself fall somewhere between dramatism and immersionism. This is something I think shows in Puck’s actions; playing to lose both was definitely dramatist, but the desire to seek revenge was a result of deep immersion. Overlap is normal, and blending these different styles can often be unintentional. Someone accustomed to winning cool battles and finding loopholes in the magic system (typically a gamist perspective) when confronted with no fighting or magic can quickly become an adept narrative player, since the way to “win” that sort of scenario is to tell the coolest story. In a similar vein, playing for immersion can also get competitive, with some players bragging about bleed and overflowing emotions. These different type of players also often use the same mechanics. For example, steering can be used for both gamist and dramatist purposes, though is often frowned upon in cultures that put a high value on immersion. These elements can also easily co-exist in the same game, depending on whether there’s a tavern scene or a big battle or a mass ritual. It’s best to think of the distinctions of the Three Way model as ideas to play with rather than strict rules to follow. As the creator of the model, Petter Bøckmen, admitted, “Shoehorning everything into this model may lead to some really funny results.”

Playing style is ultimately up to the individual player, but some games are more suited towards one end of the spectrum than another, and game writers should consider these different styles when writing. The most obvious distinction is that Wayfinder intro games lean more towards gamism, while our advanced games are more conducive to immersionism, though this is certainly not exclusive, and any play-style could be implemented in any game. The Three Way model can be useful for a game writer in helping to define what they want out of their game and what the audience of the game is. Recognizing that they want players to win leads to creating very different scenes than wanting their players to feel immersed, and oftentimes these games attract different types of players.

Unison_0340Whether you were aware of all this theoretical jibber-jabber before or not, you have already used your intuition as a player to tailor your play style to different scenarios. You wouldn’t play a comedy game with the high dramatic style you might use in a fantasy game, and you probably wouldn’t put on a Texan accent in a fae court. The ideas behind steering and the Three Way Model are all similar ways to change how you play. They’re not set in stone, and one is certainly not better than the other, just different. What my hope is, with this knowledge in hand, you will try something new in the next game you play, and maybe learn more about yourself and this delightful artform we all create together.

The original proposal of the Three Way Model by Petter Bøckman, from the 2003 Knudepunkt book, As Larp Grows Up.

An article from the 2018 Knutpunkt book, Playing the Cards, about some further dramatist concepts and how to incorporate them into large-scale larps.

The Manifesto of the Turku School, which contributed to the overwhelming prevalence of immersionism in Nordic larp. While it does have some flaws and make some polemic statements (most hysterically in reference to sacrificing designer’s work “to the unholy altar of social relations”), it’s essential in understanding the history of larp.

Written by Julian Schauffler


Three Ways to Cut Cake

Three Ways to Cut a Cake:

Game Mechanics Part 1

0K6A7002Game Mechanics are one of the most complicated aspects of writing an Adventure Game, and it’s not because of the difficulty. Every single game has mechanical elements, with different degrees of prominence within a particular game. These mechanics develop together into systems – relationships of mechanics that inform each other. For example, each different spell a wizard can know is a mechanic, together they form a system. As someone who is involved heavily in the Tabletop Roleplaying Game world, a world where systems are far more prominent when discussing game design, I find myself thinking a lot about how to use mechanics and systems to develop the emotional reactions I would like in a game. In this article, I’m not going to talk about how to use game mechanics for your game. Not yet. Instead, I’m going to introduce a vocabulary for talking about game mechanics, taking them apart, and examining them critically. None of these systems of mechanical discussion are perfect for every game mechanic. Instead, you should mix and match these different divisions of game mechanics to gain a deeper understanding of how game mechanics work.

What is a “Game Mechanic”?
At its most basic level, a game mechanic is a rule about how the world of your adventure game functions. Technically, every single aspect of how we interact with an adventure game is a game mechanic. We just take the majority of these “mechanics” for granted. For example, a core game mechanic that is true in 99% of all Adventure Games is how a sword operates. This is, in many ways, the heart of the greater Wayfinder system – the core that everything else is rooted in. On a more abstract level, something like “talking” is technically a game mechanic. When I speak out loud, it’s understood that my character is speaking out loud and saying the same words that I’m saying normally. However, we can appreciate this as a mechanic when we notice when this isn’t true. If I cross my fingers before I talk, this indicates at Wayfinder that I’m speaking out-of-character, and that my character isn’t actually saying the words that I’m saying at the moment. Similarly, words can indicate mechanical importance. If I point at you and yell “Knockdown!”, then it is left unclear whether my character is actually saying these words. Instead, it is understood that I am casting a spell or using psionic abilities to repel you and shove you onto the ground.

Game mechanics develop into a System. A System is a series of interconnected mechanics. The classic example is the Wayfinder Magic System. It is composed entirely of different moving parts, that intersect to form a cohesive whole. Systems make assumptions about how play is supposed to operate. By including swords in your game, you are probably assuming at least the following things:

  • 1. Swords will exist in the game and at least the threat of sword use will appear.
  • 2. That when a player sees the out-of-game object we refer to as a sword, they will understand that that object represents a large hunk of metal (they will imagine it is a sword).
  • 3. That injury or death is possible within the game, and there are additional game mechanics to handle that.

0K6A2026That last point is the most important. Game mechanics naturally beget other game mechanics, as part of developing a system. We possess a death system, in which players understand what is to happen mechanically when they are killed as a result of actions in game. That is a game mechanic. As an extension of that, there must be game mechanics in place to facilitate what happens ways to die. Do I die if someone points at me and says “Death!”. Do I die if someone hits me with a sword or shoots me with a NERF bullet? Do I die if someone shines a red light on me? What if something weird happens, like I set off a tripwire? These are all game mechanics that combine with the mechanism of RE to create a game system.

Cues and You
New Game Mechanics can be challenging. An improperly implemented game mechanic can be at best confusing, or at worst actively destructive to the game. The key to creating a game mechanic which successfully adds to the game is ease of remembrance. The easiest way to do that is to build it into Wayfinder’s pre-existing system that is assumed in games. For example, the majority of spells at Wayfinder are communicated via pointing at someone and yelling one or two words that correspond to what the effect is for the player being pointed at. This is a fairly intuitive system – the receiving player is literally being instructed in how to react. If I want a new mechanic that represents the evil villain’s ability to rot away at people’s skin, the easiest way to do that and ensure people will remember it is by attaching a verbal cue – perhaps the villain points at its victim and yells “Wither!”. Wayfinder most often uses verbal cues in its game mechanics (although somatic cues – cues that are communicated via unusual physical action – aren’t uncommon, especially in the Sci-Fi system and its derivatives) However, that’s not always the appropriate solution. What if I want the withering effect to be constant?

0K6A1701In that scenario, a common solution is to tie the withering to a visual cue. I might, before game, inform everyone that if they see Jud Packard, that means their skin begins to rot off. Sometimes, this works! However, visual cues don’t often work passively. It’s easy to forget that there’s something special associated with Jud Packard, in the heat of the moment. The best way to ensure players remember visual cues is by making the visual cue impossible to miss and to really, really drill it into their heads. Silence Blooming, a game ran in 2017 by myself and Jeremy Gleick, made heavy use of visual cues for game mechanics. The one that really stuck in people’s heads was “Everyone follow the Whale Monster!” which is to say, that when people see a giant monster composed of multiple moving people, they have to follow it. We turned this into a callback to ensure that people would remember it, and it worked effectively in game. We also made strong use of colored lights for verbal cues. I was wrapped entirely in glowing string lights for game, and if you had a particular disease, you had to follow me. This only mattered to people with the disease, so people were already aware of something to look out for. Also, string lights are very visible at night.

Another tool you have at your disposal disconnects mechanics from active players. Object cues and written cues are both ways of allowing mechanics to exist in the world without having a player enforcing them. An object cue is a particular object with a mechanical effect when you interact with it – a sword hurts you when you’re hit by it, or a red LED light melts your skin off when it’s held up to you. Written cues instruct the player in how to proceed. A common one is “sickness papers”, when you have a small piece of paper that explains to you the symptom of a disease you possess. Sometimes, these cues blend together. An object might have a written cue on it, to instruct you as to what happens when you pick it up, and a piece of paper might represent an object – like a piece of tape with TRAP written on it.

Often, it’s possible for a single game mechanic to possess multiple cues attached to it at a single time. While a sword kills you if it hits you, it requires a somatic component (being swung at you) to actually have an impact – we have an understanding that a sword just sitting there won’t injure you. Spells like Repulsion also possess a somatic component – outstretched arms – and an object cue and a visual cue are closely interlinked. The important part for a mechanic within a system is that the mechanic is easy to remember and consistent with other mechanics, both within the game and in a larger context at Wayfinder. For example, it is commonly accepted that when you hear someone blow a vuvuzela, that means they are freezing time. This is such an ingrained reaction for many of us that even when told the vuvuzela blast means something else, we’ll often react by freezing. It often goes without saying, but you also want to have consistency within the world of the game – if red LED lights cause your skin to melt off, make sure Sets & Props isn’t using any for any scene if that’s not your desired effect!

Naturalistic vs. Symbolic
0K6A4550In Art History (my personal discipline) there is a continuum that exists, between naturalism (that is, art that perfectly resembles the real world) and symbolic (art that has no visual connection to the natural world). We can also construct this line for game mechanics. This section of this article draws on the work of Lauri Lukka in “6 Levels of Substitution: The Behavioral Substitution Model”, published in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book. (An aside: if you ever have a free night or two, hunt down all the Knutpunkt/Knudepunkt/Solmukohta articles you can find, and check them out. There are some real gems!)

On one end of the spectrum, (no substitution, in Lukka’s language) is a game mechanic which is perfectly naturalistic. What the game mechanic represents as a symbol is exactly what happens in real life. An obvious example of this is that in the majority of game, “walking” as an in-game action is represented by performing the physical action “walking”, which is to say, when you want to walk around, you walk around. Another, significantly more dangerous example would be a game in which people actually stab each other with swords to represent a swordfight. Sometimes, a perfectly naturalistic game mechanic makes sense – we don’t need to abstract walking (the majority of the time). However, for other mechanics, it’s sometimes dangerous – there’s a reason we have foam swords.

The other end of that continuum is a perfectly symbolic (or abstract) game mechanic. This is when the symbol of the concept completely replaces any real interaction with the world. This could be a spirit journey where someone describes to you what’s going on, or where you read information off of a piece of paper on the ground. These are mechanics you’d expect to find in a tabletop game, or perhaps in play-by-post. Your physical body doesn’t matter, as it’s been completely substituted.

IMG_0905In the middle are game mechanics which either depend more heavily on naturalistic behavior, or on symbolic information. Our system for sword combat, where we have abstracted it to the point where we’re not using literal swords, and we treat the swords differently than how they are as actual objects, but we strive for realism in how the swords operate, is a mostly-naturalistic mechanic. A system in which, instead of fighting with swords, you engage in a dance party, is heavily abstracted but in an interesting way. It’s still satisfying the same physical mechanisms as a sword fight does, but the swords have been abstracted out of the combat. Even further abstracted would be a system where sword fights are represented through a game of poker. Gone is the physical association, and instead is a mental association. One could say that a game of Texas Hold’em is a lot like a Mexican Standoff in terms of the tenseness and cultural associations, making a symbolic switch like that appealing.

Lukka posits that this is connected to a “Dual Processing Model” and proposes a Grotesque Zone where the naturalistic and symbolic clash (an idea I disagree with for subtle reasons but is still a useful mechanism for discussion). I would argue that game mechanics anywhere along the line can be failing, but the advantage of the continuum is that it gives you the ability to understand how you want your mechanics to be realized, and when they fall apart, why they fall apart. It’s possible for a game mechanic to be more abstracted than it needs to be, by involving layers of thought that replace one’s ability to intuit how the mechanic works. Conversely, it’s possible for a game mechanic to be more naturalistic than it needs to be, either by endangering people or forcing you to conform to your weaknesses as a physical person. An example of how this can be contentious is the Hide mechanic used in the current Magic System. One camp of people argues that the mechanic is too abstracted, making people worse at hiding because it gets in the way of how to “actually” hide as a Rogue. The other camp argues that the mechanic is perfectly fine because it abstracts the act of hiding into something anyone is capable of doing and something they’re guaranteed to succeed at physically.

Game Mechanics as Improv Prompts
IMG_1008A third and valuable way of subdividing game mechanics is by how players engage with them. There are four such categories in this sense – Active Mechanics, Passive Mechanics, Reactive Mechanics, and Collaborative Mechanics.

Active mechanics are ones that are forced upon a player by another player or their environment. If I hit you with a sword, I have now caused you to experience a scene against your will. You didn’t choose to be hit by a sword (maybe), but you are now given the improvisational prompt “you’re wounded!”. Similarly, if I point at you and yell, “Fear!”, I’m directly giving you a prompt to change how you’re roleplaying. Sometimes, Active mechanics will require me to change my own behavior – a spell might physically exhaust me, for instance – but I’m the one making the choice to invoke the convention.

Passive mechanics are internal ones. They’re truths about one’s character that define how that character operates. Often, no one knows a particular passive mechanic exists, or it folds effortlessly into pre-existing systems. A curse that’s built into my character from the start of game is an example of a passive mechanic – if I do something, I must change my roleplaying, but no one needs to know about that but me. Another passive mechanic is the ability to hide, or the entire mechanic for reincarnation and death. Passive mechanics aren’t put upon you, except by either the gamewriter or yourself.

Reactive mechanics occur reflexively when another player does something, but otherwise have no effect. The best example of a reactive mechanic is Protection. Reactive mechanics tend to be very similar to passive mechanics, as you’re the only person who needs to keep track of them, but you tend to need to inform another player that they’re occuring. Personally, I’m not a big fan of reactive mechanics whose only function is to protect you from having to react to magic. The entire function of the system is to give people the chance to be affected by cool magic, and while it can be empowering to not have to react, it clashes against the interesting scene made by having to react.

Finally, collaborative mechanics are ones which two or more people opt into together, taking on the improv prompt as a group. The only example of this that I can think of in the traditional magic system is Sanctuary, where multiple people can be guarded by a single ringing bell, but it’s possible to create others. I believe collaborative mechanics are especially valuable in games when you want to foster a sense of community and team-building. In a sense, all rituals are collaborative mechanics, as they’re a group of people working together to execute the mechanic. Often, collaborative mechanics have someone orchestrating them, but the players are all joining into it to build the scene.

Examples of Evaluating Mechanics
KKP_2962 (2)For the final portion of this article, we’re going to take a few game mechanics, and you must identify the cues of the mechanic, whether the mechanic is more naturalistic or symbolic, and whether the mechanic is active, passive, reactive, or collaborative. In addition, each mechanic has a different flaw with it that will cause problems during game, and I’d like you to identify how this appears. This isn’t a test – I don’t expect you to guess them perfectly. Instead, I want you to start using these different division systems as a way of talking about mechanics, and understand how they can be applied, and how they can be useful. If you disagree with me on any of these mechanics, you’re welcome to hunt me down on the internet and passionately explain to me why I’m wrong.

  • 1. The Sword of Angrathnar. If a glowing red sword would kill you, you become a ghost that follows the wielder of the blade around, invisible to everyone. The wielder can issue commands to you, which you must obey.
  • 2. Rosie Ring. If two Spore Disciples hold hands together and start dancing while singing a terrifying nursery rhyme, they begin a ritual that transforms them into the host of an arcane disease that warps reality. They must dance for five minutes straight, at which point they may become horrible monstrosities, and change into monster costumes.
  • 3. Misty Step. If a spell would be cast on a Wizard who is capable of casting the spell themselves, they may instead ignore the spell and wave their arms around, putting on their spirit costume. They may then run up to 30 feet and reappear somewhere else.
  • 4. The Mark of Kaine. Those who carry the mark of Kaine, a black rune on one’s forehead, cannot be harmed by any wound, and instead any wound that would harm them appears on those who tried to harm them.

Answer Key
KKP_30371. The Sword of Angrathnar. This is a visual object cue (the sword is an object, and it’s glowing red, which reminds you visually). This is not especially symbolic or naturalistic, as it abstracts a non-natural experience, but I could hear arguments leaning either way. It is an active game mechanic, as the wielder of the weapon inflicts it onto other players with the blade itself. The flaw that I would articulate is that the mechanic is too active – it takes control and limits the victim’s games in a way that isn’t fun (they now have to be ghosts forever, and don’t get to make their own choices while being invisible to everyone).

2. Rosie Ring. This is a somatic cue (dancing), accompanied by a verbal cue (singing). It is fairly naturalistic, as even though it represents a non-natural process, the process is very literal. You’re dancing and singing, which is what you’re doing in the fiction. At the end, there’s a split into abstraction as they have to stop and change into monster costumes. Finally, the mechanic is collaborative – it’s engaged willingly by two people, and alters their behavior without directly impacting anyone else. The flaw of this mechanic is that naturalism and symbolism are clashing. Having to stop the immersive scene at the end of it to change into costumes kills the mood, and ruins whatever the writer was trying to go with with the creepy transformation sequence.

3. Misty Step. This mechanic features a visual object cue (the spirit costume), and hypothetically a somatic cue (the waving-around arms). It is neither especially naturalistic or symbolic, to the point where it’s unclear what’s going on from either perspective. Finally, it is a reactive mechanic, which only allows you to do something if someone’s cast a spell on you. There’s two main problems with the spell: first, the somatic cue is unnecessary and confusing. The other problem is that it’s too reactive. You have to jump through too many hoops in order to use it, and there’s a good chance someone is let down by their spell randomly happening to fail.

4. The Mark of Kaine. This is a visual cue (the forehead symbol). It’s neither especially naturalistic or symbolic, beyond how our own weapon system is abstracted. Finally, the kind of prompt this is is tricky. On one hand, it’s active – you’re changing your roleplay behavior because of something the person with the mark is doing. On the other hand, it’s reactive – your own actions are causing something to happen to you. Perhaps from the person with the mark’s perspective, it’s passive. They don’t have to do a single thing. The problem with this mechanic is this lack of clarity in how the cues operate. When we use this mechanic normally in Wayfinder games (often called “Thorns”), we accompany it with a verbal cue (yelling “Thorns!” when the person with the mark is injured). This reminds the person engaging in the injuring how the mechanic works, and turns it into a reactive mechanic that causes an active mechanic to occur.

1UNIGame Mechanics are, on a fundamental level, how we interface with the fiction that is the Adventure Game. Every single thing you do in an adventure game is technically a game mechanic, and even something as simple as talking to someone else can have multiple meanings or purposes. Don’t treat your game mechanics like something extra, to toss on top of your game when you need some garnish. They’re the tools you use to immerse your players and build your narrative. Take command of your mechanics, and sculpt your world with them. In the future, I’ll be talking about how mechanics combine, and how that builds a system.

Written by Jay Dragon
March 30, 2018.

You Win Or You Die

You Win Or You Die:

Political Games and You

0K6A1717I’ll be completely honest – in my opinion, Game of Thrones is not a very good TV show. That doesn’t stop me from watching it (doing my best to avoid the constant misogyny and racism). The only actually enjoyable part of Game of Thrones is the political intrigue and power plays. Because boy are those a lot of fun! Watching people scheme against one another and forge (and break) powerful alliances in the name of their aspirations and deep-set character desires is great! Getting to be a mover and shaker in a situation like that one is an amazing example of meaningful choice – your actions have direct consequences for the entire world. Sometimes at Wayfinder we try to capture the experience of that situation in what we call “Political Games”. We’re not the only people to try that out – obviously other LARPs enjoy political settings, and you could easily argue that Model UN and Model Congress are perfect examples of political games (just without the roleplay). But, in my experience, it’s incredibly hard to write a good political game. In order to understand why, and how we can do better, we should take a look at what exactly a political game is and what it needs.

Tell me about it!
When I visualize a political game, I imagine something like the third game of Legendary Camp 2011. In it, representatives from across the known world gathered to petition the representatives of the gods in order to achieve their agendas and manipulate their future. There was a huge map with soldiers on it, political intrigue, assassination attempts, and drama. It determined the very fate of the world (which was the shared setting for the rest of the camp and for the Finale of that year). A small group of bureaucrats became dictators through careful use of council legislation, and silkworm farmers from the far north helped save the world. Now, a visualization is nice and all, but we can’t go around categorizing a game as political or not without some kind of definition. For the purposes of this article, I will define a political game as the following:

0K6A1853A game in which individuals or small groups have very direct goals (free your people from slavery, shut down your enemy’s factories, get your plan to save the world approved by the UN)
These goals cannot be achieved by action and quest-taking – they require social interaction, negotiation, and scheming. (You can’t save your people from the slavers without the permission of the Emperor)

There is no external enemy interrupting the negotiation process. People are free to argue in peace, and while there might be pressure from outside (negotiators hide in a bunker, etc.) ultimately, this doesn’t stop the arguments.

That’s cool, and simple too! However, you might be able to see some flaws in this structure. First and foremost, not everyone enjoys arguing. A lot of our players are here to fight with swords, have emotional moments, or, y’know, do things. If a game is purely political, with no room for anything else, it’s going to miss the mark for almost everyone. That’s a big problem. Also, another issue is that most people either lack the personal initiative or the in-character ability to make a ton of meaningful change. Anyone can swing a sword or cast a spell, but not everyone feels comfortable with public speaking or backroom deals. In any political game, there will be people with more status and charisma than others. If you lack both of those things, you’re not going to get much done. The final issue, which isn’t universally true but is overwhelmingly common, is that nothing actually means anything. In Game of Thrones, the characters care about the fate of Westeros because they’re the fools living there. In a political game, once the game is over, none of it mattered. There’s no rewards for becoming king (besides bragging rights) and no one is going to be blown away that you shut down your competitor’s factory. It’s really hard to become invested in something when it doesn’t really matter to you (even if it matters to your character).

Yikes! Those are some pretty tough hurdles to overcome. However, I love political games so much, that I want to find some solutions. So first off, I’m going to talk about what’s needed to make a good political game. Then, I’m going to talk about what you need for a great political game, that will get everyone involved.

What’s good?
0K6A2553The fundamentally most necessary thing for a political game is stuff. Information, secrets, rumors, factoids, legal documents, the whole nine yards. This creates an immersive environment, as people now have tools they can fall back on to prove their points and engage in intrigue. In most games, we enjoy being able to make things up as we go along (improv!) but in political games, it’s good to have a framework that gives people a solid benchmark for reality. It’s best if this stuff can have a physical form in game – people can’t hold all the information they need in their heads at once. Writing all of this stuff is a lot of work, however. If you’re comfortable with that (like me) you’ll do strong, but if you’re not, you’re going to need another solution. That’s okay! I bet you can come up with a lot of creative solutions that will all accomplish the same thing – giving people tools in game that they can use to feel like the setting around them is real and that their actions will have meaningful impact.

Another good tool is to have a mediator, someone who can help keep game flowing smoothly. In most games, this role is filled by PC leaders. But in political games, PC leaders often have their own goals and intentions that run counter to being a good PC leader. For example, a PC leader in a political game wants their faction to win, for their own goals to succeed, and for their enemies to be crushed. This means that they can’t step in and encourage someone on the enemy team to speak up, and if they’re the best at debating on their team, why wouldn’t they just take center stage at all times? A mediator fulfills the functions of a PC leader – facilitating player empowerment, ensuring the game goes according to plan – while also keeping the playing field level and ensuring that the mechanics of the game still work. This mediator can be anyone – an emperor, the executor of a will, the commander of the military guiding the figures on the map – but in my opinion is an essential figure.

Another option is to build into the very mechanics of the game ways for every player to be involved. This could be how the political mechanisms work – there’s a senate who vote on issues and events cannot transpire without majority approval, for example – or it could be based on classes and magic. If every team has a unique way of approaching a problem, then they can feel special and involved even though they’re all doing similar things. I remember in one Frontier, I was the leader of a team of aliens who were covered in eyes. We had the special power that we could communicate with one another without other people hearing, and we’d do that constantly, discussing our plans and coming to a consensus together, which helped us feel like the agrarian populists we were. You should tailor the magic system of your game to fit with what a political game needs (something that is very, very different from what a normal adventure game requires!)

0K6A5506The fourth part of a good political game is very challenging, but solves one of the biggest problems a political game faces – having things to do in the game that isn’t just politicking. There’s a lot of ways to do this. You can give the characters intense emotional connections that move past the politics, or you could disrupt the politics with monsters, forcing the players to stand up and defend themselves. You could also have a game be non-political with political elements, where there’s a small group of people flowed to argue about politics in a room while everyone else runs around and plays a normal game. I don’t really know of a way to do this that both keeps the political game feeling secure without feeling a little ham-fisted, but finding a solution to how to do this will help the political game function.

These are vital and cool things for a political game to have, and I would consider them baseline pieces of advice. Having all of these things will help ensure your game goes as smoothly as possible and are tried-and-true methods for keeping your game involved. However, all of these notes, while important, don’t actually solve the problems inherent in a political game. I’m going to propose some of my solutions, and touch on the question brought up by the previous paragraph – how do you make politics play nice with the rest of a game?

Consequences and “Mafioso Politics”
The first and biggest thing you can add to your political games to make them meaningful is consequences. This is especially easy in serial games – the actions of one game directly influence the outcome of the next game, and that means your choices really matter! You want to protect your people, because you know that if you don’t, they could be wiped off the face of the world. This is harder in a game that’s on its own, but there are solutions. One way I could imagine is that anyone who fails at becoming emperor are executed – you want to be emperor so you don’t die! Another way could be as simple as having a map in-game, and when places are wiped off the map, they are physically erased. Giving something as simple as a physical or event-based indicator of your choices doing things helps ground them in reality, and make it feel meaningful.

Another solution, which is honestly it’s own kind of game entirely, is what I call “Mafioso Politics”. In a mafioso political game, small groups have distinct goals which can mainly be achieved by negotiation, but! They all have knives. Something simple like that suddenly adds a new tone to the politics. You want to work together, because otherwise you’ll be stabbed! And vice versa, you have a sudden and powerful tool to get what you want if you need to, by stabbing your enemy. I’ve run two mafioso political games, both at Frontiers (although I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I run one at an Advanced camp), Partition City and Monsoon City, it’s spiritual successor. Both games were, at their core, political games, but they were also set at a market with plenty of other things happening, and disagreements were settled with knives and violence in addition to words and subtle discussions. Perhaps the strongest thing Partition City did to pull its weight as a political game was the use of rumors. Everyone had 3-5 rumors about their character as their character sheet, and they had full liberty to choose which rumors were true and by how much. Other characters could buy rumors as part of the point-buy system, and then use those rumors in-game. A couple of players spent the whole game trying to collect as many rumors as possible, and use them against people. This was a cool way for politics to be relevant and play a role, without feeling like people had to sit around a table and argue.

These are obviously just a couple of solutions to the political game problem. If you’re going to write a political game, you need to seriously think about the problems I’ve outlined, but once you think you’ve conquered them, your game is going to be amazing. Now that we’ve gone over what a political game is, some of the problems with a political game, and some of the solutions, we can talk about something which a number of people requested – flow! How do you write the flow for a political game?

The Flow of Politics
0K6A5612Even though political games tend to have very loose flow, understanding how that flow fits together will make your political games shine. If your game only has minor political elements, it should still make use of this simple structure to make sure things stay interesting for the political aspects. This flow has a simple structure, and it’s easy to add other parts to it in order to make it function better. I’m not quite sure what diamond flow would look like for a political game, but integrating those two structures could work really well! I could also imagine including a “final battle” or something similar.

The political game begins with Act 1: the Introduction. In the introduction, everyone meets each other, hands are shaken, and the basic structure of the game is established. It’s always important to have time for this, so people can understand how the game ticks and get comfortable with the structure. If you imagine playing a political game to be like playing a board game, you’re going to want people to be familiar with the rules and be used to it before the exciting things happen!

The next act is Act 2: the Twist(s)! Even though I compared playing a political game to being like playing a board game earlier, the reality is that you don’t want to be “just” playing a game – you want excitement! Intrigue! Everything fun! In light of that, something really weird should happen about halfway through game. Maybe the king dies, or one of the leading political figures reveals themself to be an alien, or maybe a barbarian horde invades – whatever it is, it should change the landscape of the politics without putting an end to the politics themselves. One twist can often be enough for a smaller game, but a bigger game can always benefit from more and more complex twists. Just make sure they’re staggered carefully – having too many twists at once will lead to information overload.

The final act is Act 3: the Conclusion. Players should be aware that the end of the game is fast approaching, and be able to act with that knowledge. The new king is crowned, the UN implements a plan, the space constitution is written. Game reaches a satisfactory ending, and people are able to understand whether their schemes have failed or succeeded. It is vital that, despite all the conflict and disagreement over the course of the game that has occurred, there is still something that wraps it up. People need and want a satisfying conclusion, and it’s important that your political game is able to provide that.

There are two forces acting within a political game, defining the tension of the flow. On one hand, you want your political game to be like a board game (as established in act 1), with consistent rules that people can understand and take advantage of in order to “win”. On the other hand, you want the game to have room for change and excitement, and not to become dull and repetitive. Striking this balance is one of the most fun parts of writing a political game, as you establish how people can have fun as characters but also as players. The fact that we call them adventure “games” underlines how important it is for the game to have fun built into the mechanics of the game. In political games, this is more important than in any other form of game. Gives you something to think about!

And Now the Rains Weep O’er his Hall
0K6A4874Well that’s it everyone! I hope this article was able to inspire you with your next big endeavor, and even if you’re not writing a political game, that it was able to teach you a fair bit about what games need to be functional and fun for everyone. Political games are my favorite kind of game to be a PC in, and it’s a real shame that we’ve stopped writing them as often as we used to. I hope this article can inspire you to find the Tyrion Lannister inside of you, and get ready to play the most dangerous game.

Written by Jay Dragon

Posted on 1/23/18

Environmental Storytelling

Environmental Storytelling

It’s tough to judge games. So much of it can be determined by where in the game you are, who you interact with, and what happens to you. Even if you don’t have fun, the staff involved in it are skilled at making it an enjoyable experience for the majority of people. Generally, you can feel whether a game went well or not (especially as you become a staff member), but if you asked me what the best five games I’d ever played was, I wouldn’t have a concrete answer. Game writing is a cumulative process which I’ve learned from playing games, reading articles on the Story Board tumblr about games, and talking about games (a lot!), and every single game contributes to that process. However! There are two games I’ve played over the past 6 years that I believe have introduced a completely new method of storytelling to Wayfinder Adventure Games, and have deeply and profoundly impacted my view on what can be done in an Adventure Game. These two games are A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes by Zach and Penny Weber, and Out of the Frost by Kate Muste.

A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes

A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes is a very strange game. While perhaps it’s similar to games run in Wayfinder’s history (a subject I’m not an expert on), it is vastly different from what we think of in modern terms of gamewriting. It’s set in a small village on a small island (very similar to Edo-period Japan), where a group of British-inspired sailors have washed on shore and caused all sorts of mayhem. The bear they brought with them killed the guardian of the forest and ate its heart, transforming into the new guardian spirit and driving the spirit world of the island into disarray. Horrible diseases (including red string, black eyes, and smallpox) were ravaging the population, and only the spirit doctors could help the people of the village return harmony to nature. It was a game about community, interpersonal support, the magic of nature, and the feeling of something absolutely unknowable happening to you. Production made more than 30 tiny puppets and statues which represented the various minor spirits of the forest, and lit them up with glowsticks and LED lights, creating the illusion that the forest is full of teeming, glowing magic. The sound of tinkling chimes and rushing water played across the entire campus, creating the illusion of strange forces at work. And the flow and game mechanics were unlike anything we’ve done since.

An important game convention was the use of disease. Everyone had a metal water bottle with them that contained about a dozen small slips of paper, rolled up into balls. Whenever the bell in the main space would toll, everyone would pull a slip of paper out of their bottle, and gain the new symptom of the disease. This might mean drawing eyes on your knuckles, tracing a new red line across your skin, or acting like you’re slowly going blind. This was the main antagonistic conflict of the game, as players feared and were tortured by the strange magics that consumed them. While the spirit doctors could help, their resources were limited. It created an atmosphere of terror and desperation as everyone’s health slowly decayed.

The flow of the game was also strange. When we traditionally talk about flow, we talk about it temporally – that is, events which unfold through time. A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, although presented temporally within the game submission, is more accurately talked about spatially – how groups of people travel to locations, what they seek to accomplish by being there, and then how they travel back. The flow structure in the game submission breaks it down into 4 hour-segments, and describes how locations and the characters in those locations change over time. In A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, a spirit doctor (a PC, mind you) would take a few willing villagers to go hunting for a particular spirit in order to accomplish a particular piece of magic. Larger objectives, that carried the fate of the game’s inhabitants, were hunted out by larger groups of people. At one point, players had to lead the Box Spirit (a mindless being that was the only creature that could carry the seed of flame) up a very large hill by shouting and distracting it, creating lures that could trick it along. This flow wasn’t concerned about whether or not this would happen, or how long it would take. It was one possible path for the PCs to engage in, and if they failed to complete it before the end of game, oh well! Such are the trials and tribulations of life.

If I was running this game, I’d be terrified over the ending. The danger of a spatially-oriented game is that there’s no actual way to conclude it without just interrupting a bunch of people. But, in true Wayfinder fashion, everything turned out amazingly. There were two endings in two locations across the land, both of them super exciting and beautiful, and it started raining at the end to boot! Which added a beautiful, mystic quality to the emotion of the ending that left everyone exhilarated and filled with hope. Playing in that game truly felt magical. One participant sat on the bridge by the lake the entire game and just watched the world go by, and for him that was more than enough. The game wasn’t about creating a narrative which players moved through over time, it was more interested in a series of interactive locations which together, built a narrative.

Out of the Frost
Out of the Frost was the third Frontier ever run, at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School in February 2015. For those of you unfamiliar, Wayfinder Frontier Events are a series of off-season one-day events that are focused on a small production budget, low cost of admission, and character-based storytelling. When I want to tell people about what Frontier games are like, Out of the Frost is my premier example. Unlike A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, the production for this game was practically nonexistent. If I wanted to, I’m confident I could run it again in my own house, with the random scary masks I have lying around. The premise of the game is simple – a research base has been abandoned, and you’re the rescue party. A freak snowstorm has trapped all of you in the base, and things are about to start going seriously wrong. In another beautiful (albeit frustrating) instance of Wayfinder weather, a freak snowstorm forced the event to end early, and the game was started several hours in advance.

The flow of the game was very simple. Horrific spirits called Hazard Ghosts slowly began appearing, tormenting the players and passing them notes which indicated the madness setting in. If you died (generally from suicide, or another player turning on you), you became a ghost, who needed to work with the few living humans in order to cure the diseases tormenting them. Ghosts could speak with humans, but couldn’t talk about or acknowledge the Hazard Ghosts. The only flow points in the entire game were three points where three main SPCs (the mayor, the head of the CSIS, and the head doctor) were flowed to die. These players would then come back at the very end (when things seemed most bleak) and rescue the surviving players, bringing them home.

This game is far less complicated, both mechanically and flow-wise, than A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes. However, in its simplicity a valuable lesson can be learned. This is a horror game about fear, about the ways people react when put in horrible conditions. As the game went on, the lab complex became a nightmarish parody of survival. Small clumps of people were clinging together, holding hands and communing with the dead. Hazard Ghosts were shrieking and mocking human speech, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and despair. People were wandering the halls aimlessly, lost and broken, looking for hope. The sun set through the white clouds of the incoming blizzard, lighting the main room with an eerie blue glow. Under these conditions, the game became about genuine, earth-shattering terror, caused by being pushed to a breaking point. It was, and I mean this in the absolute best way, a circle of hell brought to earth.

But what’s the connection (besides the use of small pieces of paper to communicate horrific mind-melting disease)?

The Connections
Both of these games featured an entirely new Threat, something which none of the participants had ever encountered before. In the vast, vast majority of games we run at Wayfinder, the focus is on interpersonal conflict. The bad guys show up, with claws and axes, and the good guys (with swords and spell bolts) must use violence to take down this evil. This is a very good storytelling structure, and it feels good for the players. It’s nice to know that darkness can be stopped with the swing of your sword! In the games we write this way, violence is central to our narratives. The only way to defeat the Big Bad is with a swirling storm of swords, the only way to hold off the monsters is with magic and talented tactics. When non-violence is presented, it’s as an exception to violence, it’s the idea that instead of hurting our enemies, we choose something else. In both of the games I’ve discussed above, we instead discover what I’d like to call False Violence, contained within a game that’s all about environmental conflict and storytelling.

These games are deeply, profoundly rooted in atmosphere. You can have a lot of fun if you just wander around and look at what’s going on. Everything in game feeds into this atmosphere, and the enjoyment of the game is rooted in becoming immersed in the texture and sensation of the world. In addition, the conflict experienced in these games are themselves environmental. The monsters aren’t something you can overcome with weapons, they’re woven into the very fabric and conventions of the world. The Hazard Ghosts of Out of the Frost are immune to literally anything you could do to them. They exist as part of the environment, and like a blizzard or an avalanche you have no hope of stopping or controlling them, and must deal with the consequences. The spirits of A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes blur the line between playing character and prop. What’s the difference between having a scene with a spirit made from a few bent branches and a scene with someone pretending to be a spirit made from a few bent branches? The game was fundamentally about environmental storytelling, where the process of discovery and adventure is provided by the world around you. In addition, the diseases are an example of environmental conflict. They’re an evil force working against you and making your life harder, but just like the Hazard Ghosts, you cannot fight against them.

Both of these games also contain False Violence. While in a traditional Adventure Game, violence is the tool you use to solve your problems, in both of these games violence doesn’t actually help accomplish any of your goals. Violence is used to hurt people and to try and defend yourselves, certainly, but it doesn’t actually keep you any safer from the monsters that are hunting you or the diseases that are eating away at you. Violence becomes an activity performed, instead of a tool applied. This is fascinating to me! In a game about environmental conflict (man vs. nature), players seek to develop new tools to solve their problems. In A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, the players can call upon their environment, and the spirits that live in that environment, in order to help them solve their problems. While there is a primary antagonist of the game (the Head Priest, who believes the disease is a beauty and should be encouraged), stopping him isn’t going to solve anyone’s problems. In Out of the Frost, a far darker game, there’s no hope to be found until the absolute last possible second.

Great, great, that’s cool. How do we use this to improve our games?

green-trioWhat We Can Practice
So, frankly, I’m not sure how to mimic the atmospheric and visceral power of these games, although I’ve certainly been trying. I’m going to identify what aspects of these games led to the scenarios described above, and some tips and tricks I’ve picked up while aping these games that creates for enjoyable experiences.

Firstly, I want you to read my article about Part 1 to Intro Gamewriting, and apply the concept of a Premise very, very heavily to this game. Firstly, both games had extremely powerful theses. Zach and Penny describe the themes of A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes as “This is a story about whether or not humanity deserves to live. It’s also a story about the terror of dying when there’s nothing to fight, the weariness of being surrounded by death. It’s a story about tragic love, about shipwreck and disease and the cruel but arbitrary patterns of nature. About the line between Us and Other, and how we cling to the superiority of civilization, no matter how baseless it might be. It’s also a story about a ghost bear.” In Muste’s own words, “The game [Out of the Frost] was very much meant to push people to their breaking points in a cabin fever-y kind of way.” The game also carried strong themes of madness, frustration, isolation, and eldritch horror.

Secondly, I want you to imagine the sensual experience of playing this game. If you wander into the game, what does it look like? What do you see? Are there any smells or sounds that linger with you? Work into your production lists things that can contribute to this atmosphere. Having colored gel lights or black lights can add a unique vibe to the game, as can ambient music or even cooking food. One cool aspect of A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes is that orange lights and candles were used for locations associated with humans, while cool-colored and black lights were used for spirits. This created a natural association between the mundane, soft beauty of the human world and the exciting, alien world of spirits. If you intend on running a game that is so heavily dependent upon mood and aesthetic, be ready to work with Production an absolutely huge amount. When I’m running a game like this, I reach out to Production months in advance, and see what’s feasible, what’s not, and what ideas they have of their own to contribute. As an SIT working with Zach on running A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, I remember extensive production meetings between him and the Sets & Props heads, which was vital for making the game as beautiful as it turned out to be.

Thirdly, I want you to be thinking about Mission statements. While one of your Mission statements can definitely be “soaking in the aesthetic”, the players should have lots and lots of other things to do in order to make the game enjoyable. In A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, each team has objectives and desires which propel them from scene to scene. Across the entire campus there were interesting and engaging spirits to interact with, and when in doubt, they always had the symptoms of their diseases. Out of the Frost had the madness spread by the Hazard Ghosts, the struggle of trying to find a way out of there and communicate with the outside world, and the mystery of trying to figure out what exactly happened here before the base was abandoned. A few people had weapons, and those weapons were used extensively against each other in fits of rage and delusion, requiring other people to heal them. In both games there was also a heavy, heavy focus on inter-character relationships. Love, spurned love, friendship, family, and mentorship were all common throughout both games.

These games also require something which can be a huge challenge for newer gamewriters – immersive mechanics. In both games, small slips of paper were used to create the illusion that some external source was influencing your existence, and added uncertainty and mysteriousness to what the future would hold. Other examples of environmental mechanics that lead to immersive storytelling are having an area covered in traps for rogues to deal with, and having the air outside the main space be toxic and require limitations on how you interact with it. All of these mechanics impact play on one level or another, and change how you engage with the world. The reason why both of these games make heavy use of the spirit realm is because spirit costumes are already an important mechanic in our systems, and exploring that is very intuitive for the games we run. It’s not necessary for a game heavily rooted in environmental storytelling to make use of game conventions, but including ones that are immersive and change the tone of play really allows for some deeply profound gameplay.

Finally, think about the spaces of your game, and how they interact. Out of the Frost was able to work so well because we had about half a dozen different rooms in the property we were using, which made everything feel isolated and claustrophobic. You could never tell what was going on everywhere at the same time, which allowed information and madness to travel slowly. The game would end much faster and feel much less dynamic in a space with only one large room. A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes had many, many locations, spread out across campus, along with the paths between those locations being decorated and marked. While a game like a Tavern scene really only needs one location, an environmental game needs a diverse environment.

Now, this isn’t really a new or unique way for games to be written. I’m sure that what I’m describing would seem entirely natural to a gamewriter from 15 years ago, for instance, and I’ve heard of (and written) games since that connect thematically to this style. What I’m hoping for this article to do is shine a spotlight on a very unique game structure and nature, and how that can help us create better games on our own. My hope for this previous summer is that Silence Blooming, the game I ran with Jeremy Gleick, continues this tradition and provides a new step to the nature of environmental gamewriting.

Written by Jay Dragon
Posted 1/16/18

Spooky Scary

Spooky Scary:

How Horror Games Tick

1236127_977047307527_1347265927_nLate at night, JJ Muste and myself were staying up late after a Living Legend event I ran, and we were talking about horror games, and what makes them fun. We were bemoaning the lack of structure for how to write a horror game. JJ compared it to “a cake we keep making even though we don’t have a recipe. We just keep throwing eggs in and hoping it works!” While we’ve produced a number of really good horror games over the years, we’ve failed to come up with a common pattern between the games besides the fact that they’re scary, and I’ve played in one or two games that just failed to do anything for me. This article hopes to lay out a coherent structure for writing the flow of a horror game, and how to make that interesting for the players while keeping things scary. But first, before we can discuss that, we need to figure out what exactly a horror game is..

What’s a Horror Game?
A horror game is a game where players are put up against the unknown, and feel scared about it. Most adventure games have conflict against the unknown – every time people run away from a monster, they’re playing their own little horror game. What makes a horror game different is that the tools the PCs have to fight the horror just aren’t good enough. Often, the PCs don’t have weapons at all, like in Perfectly Normal Game by Thomas Gordanier, or The Secret Light by Roy Graham and Deanna Abrams. In other horror games or games with more horror elements, the weapons the PCs have do absolutely nothing against the monsters, like in Silence Blooming by Jay Dragon and Jeremy Gleick or Slow Nova by Mike Phillips.

In addition, the game is scary. There’s probably monsters, who look and act in especially uncanny or spooky ways. There’s possibly torture, strange and haunting sets, and occasionally gruesome special effects.The best horror games offer a variety of different terrors for the players’ amusement. In The Secret Light, there were monsters in the woods, torturing blood mages, a room of magical scrolls that forced you to do terrible things to yourself, and a disgusting “truth eel” made of jello, which participants had to eat. This combines textural, visual, visceral, and physical horror together to create tableaus of terror. The “horror” of a horror game is the meat and potatoes of the adventure. I encourage you to check out scary stories, watch some spooky videos, and really think about what is it that you want to be so scary. Put a lot of work and thought into your Sets & Props and Costuming lists, and be sure to communicate with those staff members carefully, in order to capture the tone of the game.

But what do you do, now that you’ve got those scary concepts? How do you string together the terror in such a way that the PCs can maintain a healthy level of fear throughout the game, without burning out or getting overwhelmed? The answer to that, I believe, can be found in the following 5 Act Structure.

1234983_10152232032248712_714176025_nThe Five Act Structure
There are 5 acts to a horror game, 5 sections which guide the flow of play. All horror games have these acts, and the trick to making a successful game is balancing them and giving them all room to breathe. I’ve played good horror games where the first act was 5 minutes, and I’ve played good horror games where the 4th act got lost in the shuffle. However, knowing that these acts exist will help make the game work well.

Act 1: Setting the Stage
Horror games need a feeling of something normal, before things get crazy. Maybe the campers are sitting around a fire singing songs, or the scientists are hard at work in the lab. Giving players time to sit around and act through what their lives are like without the horror helps them appreciate the chaos and terror of the future. People during this act are uneasy, knowing that something is coming, but having no clue as to what. It’s generally a good idea to give this act time to breathe, and let people really get into the normal parts of the world.

Act 2: Building Anticipation
During this act, things start getting a little weird. The scientists bring in the alien egg from outside, or you can hear laughter and howling in the woods and people want to go investigating. This act builds anticipation for the horror to come, and gets people ready to be scared, without overloading them too quickly. The PCs don’t get to see the horror yet, they just get to know that something bad is coming. This doesn’t have to be a long act, and there’s been plenty of good horror games where this act barely exists. However, I think it’s a valuable part of the game.

Act 3: Pandemonium
The horror has arrived everyone, in full force! The campers are running around being chased by killer clowns, or the aliens have burst through the airlock and are terrorizing the scientists. Often, during this part of game people have no clue what’s going on. This is a chance to really buckle down and enjoy the horror of the game. Get chased by monsters, get tortured by wizards, wander through grisly tableaux! This is a chance for players to really revel in their fear and discomfort, and this act of the game is where the biggest and flashiest horror lies. While it’s easy to make this the vast majority of game, people will eventually get bored of running around screaming and will want some way to improve their situation in life.

1185055_10152232034268712_1357840756_nAct 4: Looking for Help
The horror doesn’t ratchet down. Things keep being just as scary as they were in act 3, but circumstances have changed. One way or another, the players feel like they have a way out of this mess. Perhaps they’ve learned about an exit from the clown dimension, or they intend on detonating the spaceship’s reactor, killing all the aliens before they can reach Earth. The players have the capacity to improve their situation. This doesn’t mean defeating the horror, by any means (although it can), it just means that the PCs feel like they have some agency, some ability to influence the world around them. The solution they seek shouldn’t be easy – it should be painful and potentially unlikely.
This is a great time for some Terrible Choices. Do you stab your friend because the clown told you to, or do you try to run away and get tortured yourself? Do you abandon your friends to escape the spaceship, or do you help them onto the pod at the expense of your life? PCs don’t have a lot of agency in horror games – often the most they can do in a situation is scream and run away. The Terrible Choice gives them the chance to impact things without losing the sensation of fear. Terrible Choices are good throughout the game, but they can add a scary touch to even a traditional flow diamond.

Act 5: Trying the Solution
In the final act, the players have the chance to implement the solution they’ve been working on. This will be some of the players booking it for the woods, frantically intoning the magic ritual, or finally making contact with the outside world and radioing in a nuclear strike. This solution doesn’t have to work. Maybe the clowns catch them when they run, or the aliens rip them to shreds before they reach the detonator. Regardless, this sets the stage for game to be called. It allows the players to feel like they’ve done their best, and that all that scariness was worth it.

Other Flow Structures
Silence Blooming, an Advanced Game run this summer by myself and Jeremy Gleick, made use of an unconventional flow structure that went against the three act structure. In Silence Blooming, players were unable to talk, and there was an active pressure that made the players unable to work together to develop a solution. This meant Act 4 and Act 5 impossible to occur. Instead, we developed an event which would allow for the game to come to a satisfying conclusion, and cut the game off once we felt it had run for a sufficient amount of time. However, even though there was no organized Act 4 and 5, we built in the capacity to escape the game, which allowed for individual players to achieve their own personal Act 4 and 5. In this way, the emotional satisfaction of the 5 act structure is more important than strict structure. Players want anticipation, revelry, and the chance to escape.

Hopefully, you’ve learned a fair amount about what makes horror fun, and how to implement it. Horror games aren’t easy! But if you have plenty of faith in your staff, an active imagination for the spooky, and an understanding of how to allocate and budget out the fear, you’ll be able to put together a great horror game in no time. Now get out there and get writing!

Additional Resources, a great comprehensive review of what horror is, examples of horror from throughout time, and a discussion on the demographics of a horror audience

Held With Hope!

Held With Hope!:

An Intro Game’s Flow

0K6A1733When I was younger, I was terrified of flow. When I’d write games, I’d desperately try to avoid thinking about flow. I’d build everything that I could first, and then awkwardly stitch together some scenes in a linear order in order to create a flow. I knew about the concept of Diamond Flow, certainly, but I didn’t really understand how to apply that to make a coherent story. And I know I’m not the only person who felt that way. When we’re in High School Lit, we read about the Hero’s Journey. The hero is chilling at home, when all of a sudden they are called to action, and must embark on an epic voyage, which leads them through much pain and trouble. At the end, they fulfill the call (or fail miserably trying) and try to return home, but things have changed, and nothing can quite be the same. While not all stories follow this structure, it’s true that there is a certain group of stories which adhere to this narrative style (especially in modern Western literature). Intro Games, in addition to the visual and setting similarities, also follow the same narrative structure. But story narratives are different from character narratives – in the Hero’s Journey there’s only one protagonist, but in an Intro Game there are fifty! How do we make this work?

The Players’ Journey
We’re going to take the players on a journey. This journey won’t be individual, as players will be given plenty of chances to make their own stories and discover their own adventures. This journey won’t be paced the same every time – each Adventure Game would like the journey to focus more on different sections of the path. Not every game follows this journey – there are plenty of reasons as to why you’d want to change things up and mix it around. But this is a journey where every step follows the one before it very comfortably, and if you follow it, I promise you your game will at the very least make coherent sense and allow the players a sense of satisfaction.
So often we talk about Diamond Flow in Intro Games. In fact, that article I just linked to is required reading, in order to understand the rest of this article. It describes perfectly how to use Diamond Flow and how to use it well. However, it is a popular misconception that Diamond Flow is the core of an Intro Game. In fact, Diamond Flow is merely a tool you can use in order to make your narrative make sense. While it’s not the only tool available to a gamewriter (Jeremy Gleick and I used the “final battle” tool over and over again in The Horned King to great success), it is certainly the most reliable one for generating games that are the proper length of time and maximally empower players without spreading staff resources too thin.
You take your diamonds and you apply them to the journey, generally with some padding in between. You want two diamonds per game segment, generally, and an Intro Game at a day camp has two game segments. Diamonds fit into and augment the journey, helping to break it up into manageable pieces and helping it to feel less like a big mob of people walking from one location to another. Done smoothly, players will never even notice the journey is there. But what is the journey, and where does it begin?

The Beginning
Ah, the beginning. The PCs set up camp, explore the main space that Sets & Props has so lovingly built, and interact with each other in-character for the very first time. The Beginning is vital for making everyone feel at home in the world. They don’t know what craziness they have to look forward to until they know what it’s like to be normal. The Beginning doesn’t need to be long, just long enough that the players get to meet one another and establish some basic dynamics. The Beginning concludes with the players engaging in some kind of ritual or activity. The classic example is a wedding – the four teams from the four kingdoms arrive, shake hands, smile to one another, thank the gods that the evil necromancer isn’t here to spoil their fun, and commence with the wedding festivities under the watchful gaze of Grandmother Oak Tree.

Enter the Threat
0K6A1744Oh no! It’s the evil necromancer, with an army of Zooombies! The Big Bad and their monsters arrive on the scene, and disrupt whatever activity the players are engaged in. They chase the players away to a location which can be fortified against the monsters (the main space). This is how it looks when the Threat is being Active. When the Threat is more passive (for example, monsters devouring townsfolk near the wedding), then the players will come upon the Threat engaging in evil (hearing the screams and running to investigate), at which point the players will return to the main space of their free will (how do we fight off the monsters?). Either way, this introduces players to the Threat and sets the tone for their interactions with the Threat. A diamond can be inserted here by having the Threat be in multiple locations, and players have to split up to go deal with it.

The Messy Middle
So this is the part where you get to have fun. The general trajectory for this portion of the journey is that players will push back against the Threat, learn how to defeat the Threat, and acquire tools to defeat the Threat (be it internal or external). These three sub-parts, Pushing Back, Receiving Guidance, and Acquiring Tools can happen in any order, and some can happen multiple times throughout the middle. In some form, every step of flow in the middle of the game can be described as one of these three elements.
This is an excellent time to draw upon your Mission statements mentioned in the last article (you read the first part of this article, right?). What do the players do to accomplish Pushing Back? Well, perhaps they plan tactics, or cast cool spells, or one of your other Mission statements.

Seek Guidance
The players now must turn to some other force, in order to receive wisdom about how exactly to defeat this new Threat. Perhaps they call upon the spirit of Grandmother Oak Tree, or they consult the Book of Ancient Lore, or they discuss amongst themselves the best solution. This is intended to guide the PCs on what their next course of action is, and help them understand what exactly is going on. This is a good time to provide the PCs with an explanation, or prepare them for what’s coming next. A diamond can be inserted here by having each team seek advice from a different individual or source, and come back together to combine that information.

Obtain Tools
0K6A1971We’re not strong enough to defeat the Threat on our own. If we were, we would’ve defeated it the moment it arrived, way back in Part 2. The players are going to need to craft artifacts, prepare spells, or go forth and acquire relics in order to muster the strength to actually defeat the Threat. To do this, the players will need Tools and probably seek more Guidance. These tools are magical enchantments on their blades that let them kill the monsters, or a ritual which remotely disables the Emperor’s arcane shields. They are objects or actions which allow the players to actually be able to defeat the monsters, not just fight them. The guidance of this part is the instruction on how to use and apply these tools. A diamond can be included here by having the players acquire tools from multiple locations, or have to work together by combining discrete objects in separate rituals (The soldiers enchant their blades, the healers study under their god, the wizards learn a new spell, and the thieves sneak in and steal the necromancer’s phylactery).

Push Back
The Players, having gained wisdom in order to fight against the Threat, now finally have the ability to stand up against it. This doesn’t mean they win, definitely not, but it means they have the chance to stand up for themselves and gain some ground. Sometimes this is literal, where the players literally push back the monsters, and sometimes it’s more metaphorical, where they win over neutral parties or take back sacred relics. A diamond can be included here by pushing the monsters back on several fronts, or for multiple confrontations.

Confront the Threat
Finally, the players are on an equal footing with the Threat. They can strike against evil, and defeat the darkness. Generally, this is the conclusion of the game, as the players march into the final battle, weapons drawn, and fight mano-a-mano with the monsters of nightmares. Once the Threat has been defeated (most often in a flurry of swords, although they can also be stopped with a ritual or the detonation of a bomb, for example), then the players get to celebrate and enjoy their freedom from evil. There’s already an excellent article on ending games written by Books, which can be found here. But wait! Is this truly the ending?

False Starts
This narrative journey is good in a long, sweeping fashion, and in vague terms if you follow it you’ll get a good game (which might lean a little on the short side). However, the real funkiness begins once you introduce hiccups in the plan. False Starts can occur at any point along this journey, as just when the PCs think they know what’s going on, an even bigger Threat appears! This Threat makes the previous Threat look totally unimportant, and now the PCs have to start all over in order to defeat it. The classic Intro Game with two game segments works with this – the players think they’re fighting the evil necromancer, when suddenly their goddess turns out to be trying to destroy them, and they have to spend the second half of game dealing with that. You can also use False Starts when the guidance fails to work, the tools don’t do as expected, or the PCs accidentally give the current Threat new powers. If there’s a plot twist in an Adventure game, generally that’s a False Start, and generally, False Starts are plot twists.

Tasks and Garnishes
As mentioned, you position Diamonds at various points throughout the Flow. Often, a common challenge in gamewriting is what exactly to have at all those diamond points. If you have three PC teams, and four diamonds, that’s twelve unique plot points you have to come up with! Don’t worry though, there’s a lot of tools available to you in order to adorn your Diamonds and make scenes interesting.
The first place to look when coming up with Tasks is to consult your Mission statements. Are there any that apply to making cool Tasks? If one of your Mission statements is “performing rituals”, perhaps squeeze some interesting different rituals in to accomplish tasks. This is the advantage of your Mission statements – they give you a way to identify what you want your flow points to be, and create a cohesive experience.
We also have a huge variety of “generic” tasks you can insert into your Flow, that we have used countless times over the years and can create cool and empowering scenes. Some of the classics include performing a ritual, solving a riddle, defeating a champion, performing a distraction, stealing an artifact, convincing a nobleperson, or fixing a device. An entire article could easily be written about all of these options and choices, so I’m not going to get into the details here. What you can do, is think about what tasks connect to your Mission statements, perhaps in unconventional ways. These tasks should involve a PC or multiple PCs performing a “verb” (fighting, solving, performing, building, etc) in a scene, with the support of an SPC (either a PC leader or a unique character). The Introduction to Flow article mentioned earlier goes into more detail regarding the purpose of these Flow points, and how to apply them within the narrative.

An Example
story blogHere is a chart explaining the flow of Marathon Wakes (which can be found here, with flow under the document “Marathon Wakes”). This graph shows the entire flow, mapped out, with different colors indicating the six different parts of flow, and little explosions to mark major points of conflict. I encourage you to go along with the flow document and compare it to the notes I took.

This is both one of the most straightforward and also one of the best Intro Game flows I’ve ever seen, and critically examining it has only made me more confident in that. The only deviation from what I’ve outlined above is the use of only one diamond in the first segment, however this is cleverly intentional. You’ll notice that there’s four significant points of conflict in the first game segment – this allows the game to continue and make sense time-wise without creating unnecessary distractions before Jeriko (the Big Bad) arrives. There’s also a cool scene at the beginning where each team has to present someone who is worthy, which creates drama and empowerment without violence or diamonds.
What’s also important to note about this game, is the lack of False Starts. While False Starts are useful in creating a twist halfway through the game, Marathon Wakes succeeds in making the plot stretch out by devoting a ton of time to the Beginning and a full two scenes to the Threat’s entrance. By dragging out the entrance, the players are given time to become very scared of Jeriko, and once Jeriko takes away the figure they thought was going to be the Big Good (Torrus), the players are shaken and totally disoriented.
0K6A5580Once the action starts, it’s really, really going, and the remaining four parts of game are all pushed through in the second game segment. However, nothing feels rushed – each part has its own space to breathe and is clearly marked out. The discovery of hope, that they do in fact have some way to kill Jeriko and that they can The first game segment is a slow burn, and while it ends on an “uplifting” note, that’s directly counter to the desolation the players have suffered. Meanwhile, the second game segment ends in a frenzied chaos, followed by a moment of pure celebration. The kids love it when one of them gets to become something special.

The End of the Journey
So, that’s a very unexpected way to talk about flow. It’s certainly not conventional, and it’s also not applicable for every game! This isn’t intended to provide a comprehensive way to talk about all games, this is specifically intended for Intro Games and making Diamond Flow into a narrative arc, not just a tool for making flow longer. Thanks for coming with me on this journey, and I hope you learned a lot about how to tackle one of the most exciting parts of writing an Adventure Game.

By Jay Dragon
Jan. 2nd 2018

Drawn With Courage

Drawn With Courage…:

Starting an Intro Game

20107611_1583308535026109_35165713_oIntro games are, far and away, the most common form of game we run at Wayfinder. Of our 14 unique games run in 2017, 9 of them were intro games, and 8 of them were held at day camps. If you want to get a game run, especially if you’ve never written a game before, the most surefire way statistically is to write an intro game for a day camp. They’re also the perfect way to get started writing games – they follow a comfortable formula and have a dedicated group of staff who spend an entire week, minimum, helping ensure your game runs well. So, knowing this, why is it that people don’t write more intro games?

There’s a stigma within the Wayfinder community, especially among older campers and some staff, that Intro Games are somehow “lesser” than advanced games. Because the audience is younger, there’s less time spent at camp, and people tend to get less invested, there’s an idea that Intro Games aren’t “good” unless they’re run at an overnight camp. When Jeremy Gleick and I ran The Horned King in 2016, many staff came up to us afterwards and told us they were excited to see it played in the future at an overnight camp. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the game was written for Woodstock Day School, and that the work and preparation we put into the game was intended for the audience we had.

There’s also the popular misconception that, because the audience is younger, they won’t care as much. That’s absolutely not true. After every intro game I’ve ever run, the kids completely lose their minds. They can’t wait to tell you about all the amazing fun they had, playing in the world you’ve built and fighting the threats you’ve created. Putting work into Intro Games absolutely pays off, and you really can change participants’ lives.

Finally, there’s the idea that Intro Games have to have lower production expectations, or don’t get as much production work. As anyone who has played in a game Colin O’Brien has worked can attest, this is absolutely not the case. Having a full week to develop and work on scenes, props, costumes and weapons gives production the incredible ability to really build amazing things. I’ve seen a heart that exploded and covered a kid with fake blood, a tree with a radio built inside of it indoors, a giant alien space-shrimp with huge claws, stilts, and a massive head, and a full set of matching silver blades inscribed with powerful runes and with leather-wrapped grips. Intro games can really look amazing, and there’s a lot you can do with them.

Okay, I hope by now I’ve talked you into writing some fun intro games. But, you might ask, how do I do that? Where do I even begin?

The Premise
Unison_0340The core of any Intro Game (well, really any game at all), at least in my perspective, is the Premise. This is the beating heart of the game, the source from which you draw your power. Whenever you’re in doubt, whenever you feel unsure about where to go next, consult your premise and remember your roots. A premise is composed of multiple parts, which I’ll break down. Not all of these parts need to be clearly articulated – I know many gamewriters who don’t really care about all aspects of the premise, and in fact wouldn’t dream of writing any of this down. But, if you’re just beginning, it’s a good exercise to familiarize yourself with what you should be thinking about. Plus, this gives you a good time to get your creative juices stirring! The Premise is made up of four pieces – the Thesis, the Aesthetic, the Mission, and the Elevator Pitch. As you’re working on your game, every time you’re not sure where to go, you can always check back in on your Premise, and have that guide your choices. These shouldn’t dominate how you write your game – if you decide halfway through that your Thesis should be totally different, that’s great! This is your dream-baby. I just want to give you the tools to help guide your dream-baby, when you’re lost and don’t know where to go.

The Thesis
This is such an important topic in talking about a Wayfinder game, that Dylan Scott has already written an article about it! If you haven’t read it already, I definitely would here, before you go any further. That’s a perfect breakdown of what your Theme and Thesis actually is, and how to apply it in a game.
The Thesis is the message of your game. What are you trying to communicate? Often in intro games this is something simple – “love defeats hate”, “magic is dying” or “we are strongest when united”. Just because a message is simple, doesn’t mean it’s not resonant. In my game Debts Collected, the thesis is “There must always be criticism of power”, and this manifests within the game in multiple ways. The Big Good is a force of revolution and change, but in turn must be overthrown and revolted against.

The best implementations of Theses are those that don’t have a clear cut answer, or ones that can be explored in multiple ways. If the Thesis of your game is a question, like “What does it mean to be a family?” You can approach that from multiple directions. Perhaps the Big Bad is a cruel and nasty parent-god to the people of this world. Maybe there’s a team made up of orphans, who have created their own family, or there’s another team made up of a genuine blood-related family who all love each other very much. There’s no solution to the question, but players are invited to meditate upon different meanings of family, and come to their own conclusions in the world.

Sometimes, you’ll find it hard to state your Thesis. That doesn’t mean it’s muddled or confused (which is something you should be careful about!) but it does mean you should look at what you’ve already got, and see what you can develop. I’m still not sure what the Thesis of The Horned King was. There’s themes about a last, desperate stand against evil, about hope against the darkness, and the way you must sacrifice everything in order to triumph. There’s no clear way to boil that down’ to a catchy phrase (and we certainly didn’t try while we were writing the game) but it permeated everything we did and worked on. Some could even argue that the Thesis of The Horned King isn’t a moral at all, but was instead a mechanical experiment in the nature of “boss fights” and escalating conflict within a game.
Don’t view the Thesis as a law you have to abide by. View it as an inspiration, or a starting point to grow off of.

The Aesthetic
20472548_10155506512753698_962635690_oIn addition to establishing the Thesis of your game, you also want to develop a cohesive aesthetic. An aesthetic is “the set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist”. This refers to both the artistic vibes of your game, and the general mood of the adventure. When you talk about aesthetic in a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, you’re talking about the color palette (oranges and blues), the appearance of the world (ramshackle cars, cobbled-together outfits, flamethrower guitars), and the landscape (bleak, inhospitable, without hope). In an adventure game, these things are reflected in the production lists and the world and group backgrounds

Often in Intro Games, people will say that the aesthetic is “High Fantasy”. This is a loaded and complicated term. It generally means Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer-style European cultures with bright colors and armor, and a culture based around a feudal society with a noble caste. This is all fine and good, but you’re going to get much deeper if you really poke at and specify what kind of fantasy you’re really talking about.

For example, The Horned King, while very traditionally fantasy, had a distinctly Northern European and Low Fantasy vibe. There were British sailors, German witches, and a Prussian military. The titular Big Bad, the Horned King, was inspired by the Chronicles of Prydain and Germanic Folklore, with a large man with horns and a demonic appearance. In general, there weren’t any wizards in magic robes or noble knights, favoring instead soldiers, witches, thieves, and sailors. Even though there wasn’t a distinct aesthetic, there was a cohesive visual language that was connected throughout the production expectations and the world background.

In Luminites of Uliark by Jack Warren, the aesthetic is wildly different. It’s all about one word – Superheroes – and on every level it seeks to emulate that, within a fantastical setting. There’s magic crystals giving powers to teams of heroes who each guard a particular part of the world, there’s villagers in game who exist only to be protected and saved, and the major antagonists are all classic superhero nemeses. Participants built their own masks before game, and also each team brainstormed an arch-enemy – who costuming quickly built and worked into game. While it made use of the bright colors we expect from an Intro Game, it did so on purpose – everyone’s brightly colored because they’re all superheroes.

Even if your game is set in Generic Fantasyland, think about what kind of fantasy you’re trying to weave. Is it a Conan the Barbarian sort of world, with ancient liches and covered in crumbling ruins? Is it like the Dark Suns setting in D&D, where powerful wizards rule empires of sand, and psychic spellcasters struggle to survive? Or is it like He-Man, full of dramatic heroes and skull-faced villains? You can also draw inspiration from real-life cultures (respectfully!) – maybe your world of artifice and invention draws about Indian culture and appearance, your tiny duchy is based on 1700s German kingdoms, or your game about warring empires draws mythology from traditional Japanese Shinto faith. If you do, remember to be respectful! It is inappropriate to use religious symbols (like bindis or war bonnets) from still-living religions, and including gross stereotypes is never okay.

The Mission
20170713_182051The next part of your Premise is the Mission of your game. This isn’t really something I’ve discussed with others before, and I think many people wouldn’t consider this even a part of game creation. However, I’ve found this is an essential part of designing other nerd activities, like Tabletop RPGs and video games.
The Mission is what you want your players to be doing in your game. This is how you want your players to feel, what you want the stakes to be like, and what you want them to accomplish. It is easiest to express your Mission through your flow and your game conventions. A Mission can generally be laid out in terms of verbs, where people are doing things. Some aspects of the Mission in an Intro Game are pretty easily laid out in general terms – you want them to be fighting, and you want them to be roleplaying. However, you can (and should) get much more specific than that.

Mission statements should be fun, and what those are determines where the fun in game is. If you have the Mission statement “Summoning and Dealing with Genies”, that means you want to have flowed-in moments in game where participants get to do that, and you want to reward them for doing that. If you have the Mission statement “Casting Cool Spells”, that means you want to give the participants chances during Flow to cast cool spells, and you want to give them lots of cool spells to cast!
Almost all Intro games have the following Mission statements:

Engaging with Characters
Becoming Empowered
Experiencing Adventure

These Mission statements are the core of what we try to do at Wayfinder. Players should be given ample opportunities to accomplish all of these objectives, and in an Intro Game, they should be rewarded for doing so.
In addition to the Mission statements listed above, The Horned King could also have been said to have the following:

Participating in the Ritual
Preparing Tactics and Executing Them
Feeling Unsure and Betrayed
Fearing the Horned King

Every single moment in the flow sought to accomplish one of these four Mission Statements, often with more than one at once. The appearance of more and more powerful monsters over the course of the game allows players to Prepare and Execute new tactics, and continue to Fear the Horned King as the danger ramps up. The Rat King throwing off his disguise and killing the target of the ritual forces the participants to Participate in the Ritual (because now they need a new ritual target), makes them Feel Betrayed, and helps them Fear the Horned King.

I know this is a lot to juggle! Fortunately for you, most of this should come naturally. When you figure out your Mission, all you have to think about is what you think is going to be fun in your game, and how those feed into the Aesthetic and the Thesis. There’s a hundred different things your players can be doing in an Adventure Game, and you can easily pick out the ones you think will be most fun. When you’re writing flow and you don’t know where to go, ask yourself, “how can I advance my Mission?” and I’m sure something will come to you.

The Elevator Pitch
An Elevator Pitch refers to a short paragraph that you can use to explain the crux of your game, theoretically in the time it takes to ride an elevator. The Story Board, in their infinite wisdom, has asked every single gamewriter to include a form of an Elevator Pitch in their story submission. This Elevator Pitch helps to get people excited about your game. It’s really hard for someone to care about a game when it’s just a big jumbled mess of ideas up in the air. Telling someone “I’m writing a game that’s like Mad Max in the Greek Underworld” (Marathon Wakes by Mike Phillips) immediately gets them so, so psyched. If you can’t sum up your game in an Elevator Pitch that’s shorter than four sentences, you either need to try harder or make your game simpler. Below I’ve included some Elevator Pitches from various games (both mine and other’s)

“Uliark is no ordinary fantasy land. Swords still clash, castles still crumbles, and the crowns of kings still glimmer in the sherbert sunset. But the heroes of this world are not knights or wizards. Uliark is a land of superheroes. Uliark is the land of the Luminites.”
Luminites of Uliark by Jack Warren

The Short Version: It’s high fantasy golden-age superheroes: the game!

“It has been 85 years since the last time the sun set over Orinas. The Horned King, who consumed the goddess of the night, has marched his armies across the world, destroying and devouring all in his path. Only a handful of cities have survived, defenders of light in a broken world. They have gathered together, to perform a ritual that can once and for all defeat the dark lord, and return the stars to the sky.”
The Horned King by Jay Dragon and Jeremy Gleick

The Short Version: Everyone has to work together to defeat the biggest, evilest, nastiest guy you’ll ever meet.

“In the Everlast, the Realms of the Gods, trouble is brewing. A great divide between the pantheons over whether tapping into the powers of the Heart of their realm is worthy and important, or foolish and dangerous, is coming to a breaking point. As the Gods come together to meet and discuss this issue, tensions are high, and it may take only one small push for heaven itself to descend into war.”
Paradise Marches to War by Jeremy Gleick

The Short Version: Everyone’s a god, and the gods are all gonna fight against each other.

“Stripped of its fertility, the once peaceful world of Edlria has become a sunburnt and scorched wasteland of chaos and death. An army of the last remaining heroic mortals must rise to the occasion and complete a quest given to them by their Gods: to save the God of Life. She was torn from their realm by The God of Death and brought to his dark and twisted kingdom, Marathon. They must descend into the darkness and into the Kingdom of the Dead to rescue the God of Life, before Edlria itself can not be saved.”
Marathon Wakes by Mike Phillips

The Short Version: Mad Max heroes go to the Underworld to save Persephone.

As you can see, everyone has their own style when it comes to writing story blurbs and elevator pitches. But all of them are exciting, and all of them convey the previous three portions of the Premise (the Thesis, the Aesthetic, and the Mission) perfectly.
What now?
Now that you’ve got the Premise of your game all sorted out, come back next week for an exciting discussion on Flow, which many people consider to be the hardest part of writing an intro game. We’re gonna make it easy!

Written by Jay Dragon

Location, Location, Location

Location, Location, Location:

How to Create Your Setting

Every story, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or an adventure game, has a setting. Maybe that setting is a whole new world, with strange beings and stranger magics, or maybe it’s a complex network of planets in the distant future. Maybe it’s an apartment complex in Chicago! No matter what kind of story you’re telling, it has to be set somewhere.

What do my players need to know?

World-building for an adventure game is very similar to world-building for any other story. You need to keep the same ideas in mind: structure, clarity, internal consistency, and so on. But there’s another challenge to keep in mind, one of perspective. For an adventure game, you’re going to have other people playing in your world, so you have to figure out what they need to know, and then how to convey it. So what, then, do they need to know?

They need to know everything. Surprise!

Your players are going to be acting as characters who live in this created world full-time. They need to have an understanding of how the world works. They need to know the geography, the politics, the social dynamics, the hierarchies, the major figures, the culture, and so on.

Going through this a couple of times, you learn quickly that people aren’t good at processing vast information dumps like that. As such, it’s important to figure out what matters most and concentrate on that. You can come up with all those details in your head, and you can mention them during world background, but they’re not what you need to focus on.

Does the game’s plot revolve around a succession crisis? Then give an in-depth explanation of how the monarchy works. Is it set at a boarding school? Focus on the social dynamics of the upper- and lower-classmen. Each story has different things that matter most about its setting. If you can find these defining characteristics and emphasize them, you’ll get a much stronger and more coherent setting.

Another interesting issue is that of misinformation and lack of information. World background can become an interesting exercise in releasing information calculatedly, which is a fancy way of saying “lying to your players”. I ran a game where I told my fantasy society all about their gods and how much they worshipped these mythical beings, which resulted in a lot of surprise when the gods showed up in-game and turned out to be conquering aliens from another dimension.

You can also use diverse world backgrounds to play with expectations. I co-ran a game that involved two cultures locked in a Cold War-like conflict with each other. We separated the players into two separate groups, and then gave them each different, propaganda-fueled information about the opposing side. Each side thought the other was a horrifying wasteland, and that they themselves were clearly the heroic protagonists of the game. When during the game the two armies were forced to work together against a much larger threat, the ensuing culture clash and misconceptions drove a lot of fascinating interactions.

What do the characters know?

The answer to this may be the same as the answer to the previous question, but not always! Many of our games are fantasy or science fiction adventures, in fictional worlds we create. In those cases, yes, the characters know all about the King of Mars and his sweet rocketship. But what about games set in the modern day, in secret societies or cults, or with various cultures?

In these sorts of worlds, many of the players may have characters who are otherwise ordinary people, and don’t actually know about the dark magics and demons they’re about to wind up involved with. In cases like this, games with secrets and mysteries, you have to strike a careful balance. You want to give your players enough information so that they know how to deal with the magicks and murder of your world, but not so much that there are no surprises. It’s a fine line, but an important one to keep in mind.

Often in worldbuilding for modern-day settings we talk about the idea of the Masquerade. This is the idea that the majority of people in the world have no idea about the secret world of vampires, or wizards, or ninjas, that goes on when they’re not looking. The masquerade is equal parts ignorance on the part of the normal people and careful secrecy on the part of those with power. An important consideration when doing modern-day setting design is the relevance and stability of the masquerade. Is this a world where vampires are openly accepted? A world where wizards are on the cusp of discovery? Are there people who wish they could wield their powers openly? How much do “ordinary” people know?

How do I know if my setting is working?

If you’ve ever been to camp, you know that half of World Intro is taken up with the infinite sprawling telemetries of Q&A. Campers love asking questions, and will often ask things that catch the gamewriter entirely off guard. When you’re caught up in creating a setting, it’s easy to get bogged down in details, and miss some huge inconsistency that worked its way in. But rest assured, a camper will ask about it five minutes into the Q&A, and you’ll have to come up with an answer on the spot. Sure, you can handle that by being a master of improv, but there’s a better way.

Once you think you’ve got a solid idea of how your setting works, find a friend you trust and sit down with them. Make sure it’s someone who doesn’t know anything about your game yet! Now explain the setting to them, in as much detail as you plan to do for the campers, and see what questions they have. A fresh mind looking at your world will be able to spot things that probably slipped by you. They also might raise fascinating new ideas that hadn’t occurred to you, which can be great inspiration for character concepts, PC teams, or even flow points!

So, to recap:

1. Figure out the core of your setting.

What elements of the setting matter to the story? What are the central conceits that matter most to the characters and define the story? Figure out those characteristics, and focus on them. Make them shine, and make sure you understand them in detail. But remember that too much detail can be as overwhelming as too little detail is disappointing!

2. What do your players and characters know?

Figure out not just how the setting actually works but how your characters think it works. Their perspective on your world can define their worldview, and, characters with vastly different perspectives, or operating with false information, can lead to some neat developments.

It’s also an important thing to keep track of in a story—unlike in a game, the person controlling the character knows more than they do, so you have to make sure a character isn’t spouting knowledge they shouldn’t know.

3. Q&A time!

Get a friend (or better, a couple of friends) to come over, and then explain to them everything about your setting. Then have them ask you questions about it. See what comes up! You might be surprised at how much new material you wind up with… and how many holes you have to patch.

Later on, we’ll go into more detail about how to create settings and worlds of specific kinds, like high fantasy or urban magic. Write on, worldbuilders.

Original Post 12/13/13

Choose Your Character

Choose Your Character

How to figure out who the PCs should be in your game

So you’ve got an idea for a game. Cool! You’ve got a setting, you’ve got some game mechanics, you might even have the beginnings of a flow coming together! But hold on, there’s one vital factor you might not have thought about: who, exactly, are the PCs?

Figuring out who your PCs are is one of the most important (and often overlooked) steps of the gamewriting process. Remember that the PCs are the center of the game, no matter what kind of game you’re running. They’re the ones who should be empowered, who are being entertained, and should get the message the game is trying to express.

So: who are your PCs? Here are three major things to keep in mind when picking your PCs.

1) Stake

Your PCs need to have a stake in the conflict. If the core of your game is about defeating a dragon that’s terrorizing a countryside, and your PCs are a bunch of teenagers with magic from across the sea, those PCs will wind up asking why they’re the ones fighting the dragon. Instead consider having your PCs be the survivors of a village that the dragon burned down. This might seem obvious, but there are plenty of games where this isn’t the case.

In general, the more you can make your PCs emotionally invested in the core narrative of the game, the more active they’ll be. Give them a reason to go on those fetch quests! So when choosing your PCs, look at the conflict of the game, and at the actions of the villain. Who has been affected most by this? Whose lives will be changed the most? Is it the farmers? The local nobles? The schoolchildren? The forest spirits? Make them your PCs.

I remember running into that problem as a player in one of my first games. My PC team’s plotline was all about our conflict with our neighboring tribe (who had maybe stolen our gods?), but as soon as the teens from the magic school down the lane crashed the party, our whole narrative was forgotten in favor of helping them defeat some dark elf queen that we’d never heard of. I came out of the game frustrated and mostly annoyed at the schoolkids–why did we have to help them, anyway? And what about my tribe’s missing gods, huh? If there had been a reason for my tribe to have been invested in the elf queen’s storyline–or if the gamewriter had put more thought into choosing PCs–that could have been avoided.

2) Interest

The PCs also need to be interesting! If you spend your whole world background describing all the sweet werewolves and vampires and anthropomorphic spidermonkeys that exist in your sitting, but then the PCs are the local clergy, they’re gonna be grumpy that they don’t get to be the cool thing. In general, your PCs should one of the most interesting groups around, for whatever reason. That doesn’t mean there can’t be someone MORE interesting (your big SPC Dragoon Knight or whatever), but consider giving that Dragoon Knight an entourage of PC Dragoons-in-Training to be her squires.

An important element of interest is making the different PC teams interesting to each other, and finding the most interesting conflicts between them. If your setting has tensions based on race or societal class or type of magic, you should do your best to make sure that’s reflected in the PC teams. That way, when the PCs have their big meetups at the top and bottom of each Diamond, there’s plenty of opportunity for interesting roleplaying and competition between the PCs.

It is worth remembering, of course, that this is somewhat a question of casting. There are always some players who really would just rather play the everyman farmer trying to survive, caught in the crossfire of godlike warriors. But those players tend to be rarer, especially among our younger set.

3) Agency

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the PCs need to be the ones with agency in a game. Agency doesn’t necessarily mean direct power! Horror games, for instance, generally have almost entirely powerless PCs. But even then, the PCs have the agency to choose where to run to, or how to survive. In your more typical fantasy game, the PCs are the characters who have the agency about who and how to fight.

This also applies to constructing your flow. Make sure your PCs are the characters who are in a position to make the important decisions about where the story is going, especially at the end. It’s perfectly fine to have SPCs telling them where to go to make their decisions a reality, but the PCs should still feel like they were the ones who made those decisions. By the end of the game, the PCs should feel like they were able to make some change on the world, and do something that actually mattered. This ties back into the question of stake–did they successfully accomplish that thing they were emotionally invested in?

So, to recap:
Make sure your PCs have are invested in the conflict of the game
Don’t have the PCs wishing they could play someone more interesting
Put the PCs in the position to have agency within the game world
Choose wisely!

original post 1/8/14