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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

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Flows for Algernon

Flows for Algernon

What actually happens in your game?

Tonight we’re talking about the structure of an adventure game. The individual scenes that compose it must spring from your imagination. But because games which are well-organized tend to run well and games which are poorly organized don’t, it’s useful for us to think about the order of events and plot it out.

We refer to the plots of our games as “flow,” and I don’t claim to know why. But I have some handy explanations I’ve made up for myself:

  • To remind us to go with the flow
  • Because the plot has to be malleable and accept and build on player actions.
  • Because it is often easily mapped as a flow chart.

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Technically, in a flow-chart, that middle square should be a diamond, but this is a blog about making elves and goblins happen, not programming.

We’ll talk about, in concrete terms, different flow styles. We’ll start by talking about the Diamond Flow and flow diamonds in general, then move on to the looser kinds of action that we often see in games for more advanced players.

THE DIAMOND FLOW

There is a singular game structure we use, with some variation, for almost all of our intro-level games. It is the product of decades of trial and error, with regards to plotting out adventure games, and the result is a very stable flow which runs for a (comparatively) predictable length of time, ensures player activity at every stage, and can reliably carry both the meaning of a story and the immersion of its players.

Here it is:

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Note the annotations on the left. Anytime the players are in the same place, then diverge to perform separate objectives, then reconverge, is referred to as a “diamond.” Most games (or game segments, in the case of intro camps where there’s both a night game and day game) consist of two of these diamonds stacked on top of each other, book-ended by exposition on one side and a conclusion on the other. This satisfies a classic western trope where the heroes must overcome three trials– the two diamonds, and the bad guy– and conveniently tends to take somewhere between 90 and 150 minutes, depending on the land, the players’ initiative, and mid-game decisions made by SPCs about how to spend the time.

Note that the first diamond has three objectives, or “facets,” and the second diamond has only two. Really, a diamond can have any number of facets, with a few considerations:

  • A diamond can’t really have one facet. A game where the players never split up, but travel in one massive mob? There will be fewer opportunities for each player to be empowered, their individual game experiences won’t feel unique, and roleplaying in a large crowd can be difficult because the focus is so diffused.
  • The more facets there are, the more opportunity there is for player empowerment. It just makes sense that if there are more riddles to answer, duels to fight and items to steal in a game, more players will have a chance to be the one who beats them. But also, in transit along the path to an objective, smaller groups are easier for PC Leaders to empower.
  • Every facet of the diamond requires a commitment of personnel. You have a limited number of SPCs to work with. When you consider that (A) at a camp with newer or younger players, every group needs a PC leader to chaperone them and make sure they’re both having fun and making progress and (B) most quest objectives involve fighting/riddling with/evading some kind of SPC, a diamond with more than 5 or 6 facets starts to look unwieldy, and a diamond with more than 8 is just plain inadvisable.

So, that flow is an incredible formula for success. But it looks kind of rigid, doesn’t it? I bet you’re thinking of some elements of a game you’re writing or have an idea for that don’t quite fit into the equation I’ve presented. And the truth is, for more advanced players, Wayfolk who have seen a handful of games, this style of game can begin to feel stale. Just like any connoisseurs, they begin to recognize the underlying foundations of this style of story, and it can seem repetitive to them.

I know that when I first started feeling this way, I wrote a bunch of games that jumped off of the deep end and didn’t follow a diamond structure at all, and I think that the tendency of gamewriters who get bored of the diamond flow is to run straight for the diving board and go head first into uncharted waters (mixed metaphor, shaken, not stirred).

Of course, my deep end games didn’t get accepted, and with good reason: They were chaos. The flow was lopsided and it was unclear if there was enough activity in the game to actually keep the players occupied. All of which is not to say that non-diamond games don’t work; but that they’re way harder to devise and communicate. So before we talk about freer flow games or (shiver!) scenarios, let’s talk about…

ADAPTING THE DIAMOND

So the classic diamond flow is pretty predictable. It’s closed-ended, which means that to get to the end, every point on the flow must necessarily end in success for the players, and one side will certainly triumph over the others. What if you want the fate of the world to be actually hanging in the balance? You can add a separate flow for the bad guys. But if those bad guys are sympathetic? Well, maybe you have two (or more) teams with their own flows… in which case you can still use the familiar diamond flow model, twice. Having certain scenes overlap will ensure that both groups are aware of each other.

But things become more interesting when you give two teams overlapping objectives:

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In this example, we’ve got two overlapping diamonds, where teams will be heavily competing for most of their objectives. This is exciting, dynamic, and most importantly, unpredictable. Unpredictable for your players, but also unpredictable for you, the game writer– which is not the best. There are lots of ways to take this open-ended diamond and put controls on it to make the game go more smoothly.

First, remember what I said before, about every point in a basic diamond necessarily ending in success for the players? Well, when you introduce a real chance of failure by having players compete (rather than merely defeating monsters who know to work with them as scene partners)… you have to introduce FAILURE PATHS: if there’s no way forward for a player team that just got whupped, they’re going to either disengage and stop having fun, or go harass the team who has the thing they want until everyone is dead.

Building a way for them to recover and move forward into each scene that they might fail is important, and if it gives them a slight boost that raises their chances in future conflicts, that keeps the game interesting. You could have a whole game about villains being forged by oppression, just by giving out evilish powers and transformations for failing to get objectives.

Second, depending on what you envision for each scene that’s in conflict, you can give specific orders for your SPCs. Maybe Blue Team should succeed at winning by the pond and it just makes sense for Red Team to take the objective at the parking lot. By giving your PC Leaders, particularly, specific ideas for how those scenes should go, you can pre-plan certain elements of the game– leaving that one last objective as the tiebreaker.

Third, we have to accept that, the more complicated a flow becomes, the more susceptible it becomes to being broken entirely. Diamonds are hard and unyielding, but occaisionally, we manage to shatter even the most basic of flows. In the above example, at any point, one team could simply wipe out the other and game will be over way ahead of schedule, before any of those cool scenes could happen. We should identify the flaws in our flow and make note of them, so that our SPCs are wary and we can create backup plans for the inevitable.

 

FREE-FLOW GAMES

So sometimes a game flow is so complicated that a chart would turn into a sloppy mess of arrows. Sometimes the story itself is too post-modern for a beginning, middle and end with three trials and a classic flow diamond. Sometimes the game’s overall goal doesn’t fit it, either– do you map out all 32 diamonds the PCs can find in the world, when they need to find at least 10 to end the eternal winter? You do, but not in diamond flow format. What about when, despite the PCs being grouped up, they’re all individual characters with their own sheets, personal objectives, and goals? Well, then you’re adrift on the sea of innovation. Thankfully, though, we’ve been experimenting with these types of games for a while, and even if we don’t have a map for you, we’ve got some guiding stars.

First and foremost, ask yourself the question when you look at the game, over and over: Does everyone have enough to do? Look at every group, every character. List the things they have available to do, in game. Note, conservatively, how much time each activity will take. If some of them are optional, count those for only half, or a quarter, of the time they’d take. Are there two hours of gameplay there? If there’s less, they might be able to make their own fun, but you should consider adding more. Having more than enough to do, on the other hand, will never hurt a player in a game.

As a second piece of advice, please consider the ending of your game. How do we know when it’s over? Can you create a scene that puts a nice tidy wrap-up on the game to finish it off? If possible, most players should be present for that moment.

GOING ROGUE

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Rogue games have fallen somewhat out of favor, for whatever reason, in recent years, but in a rogue game, the vast majority of PCs are roguish characters, and the objectives are almost entirely stealth and wit based– part of the difficulty of mapping flow for games like these is that, rather than being reactive, responding to threats, the heroes are actively seeking wealth or powerful items, and the challenge of the game is how to get those things.

You’re setting up bowling pins for them to knock down. You may have a solution in mind for a puzzle, but the PCs will likely find alternate routes to their goals… which is to be encouraged.

So the first question is: Is there enough stuff worth stealing in your game? And the second: Are the security measures in place sufficiently interesting and engaging for the players?

POLITICALLY CORRECT

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We’ve had a rash of political games, where the players are all high-status characters with their own objectives and motives, trying to use influence and subtler methods to get what they want.

Schedule out the event that the players are attending. If it’s some kind of council, give them an agenda, and make sure it has plenty of recesses and space for player input. There is a tendency in these kinds of games for the highest-status characters to dominate the scenes, and breaking it up both adds time for conspiracy and for the other players to pursue their goals.

Give players bargaining chips. It’s well enough to have goals, but if they’re forced to accomplish them on charisma alone, only the better-spoken players have a shot at achieving their objectives. If, however, they have leverage over other characters, “off-stage” resources, or even just connections outside of their group, they have much more freedom in how to go about playing the game.

Link players into other people’s objectives, and give them reason to care about them. That way, if they accomplish their goals, they’re still an active piece on the chessboard.

STAYING ALIVE

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Survival-Horror is another popular genre that defies classical attempts to map out flow. Because, ideally, players have scattered and are running through the woods in terror or hyperventilating in some hiding place, it is hard to give them a pre-ordained sequence of events. But it’s still important to ensure that there is predictable player activity in game!

Force them to venture out. Fear will motivate people to huddle together in one brightly-lit place, which good monsters will know to avoid. Give the PCs objectives that require them to leave comfort and safety behind– whether it’s to fetch more logs for the dimming fire or to find clues as to what’s going on or to run for a chopper that can whisk them away. You need to give them compelling reasons to become vulnerable.

Or, you know, you could just turn out the lights. Give them a safe haven and then tear it away mid-game. The point is, there should be a sense of escalation of fear, and some distant hope to reach for. If it’s hopeless, people stop being afraid and begin to make peace with their characters’ demise, which is anathema to this game style. For these games, the flow is more about pacing and creating opportunities for scares than controlling player actions or outcomes.

GAMEWRITING IS HARD

Writing a good game is difficult, as it requires a strong grasp of organization skills, the logistics of employing all the players during game, and an ability to imagine fun plots and scenes. But it’s important not to get overwhelmed by all the intricacies. When it comes time to put pen to paper, focus on one scene at a time, and get your friends to help you look over the broader picture. You’re going to have to explain what happens in game multiple times, so work through it with them.

Good luck!

Original post 1/7/14

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Why We Write Games

Why We Write Games

Did you enjoy your holidays? Because the Story Board Blog is back, and will continue to post thought-provoking and helpful essays, hints and tirades about the art of writing adventure games, right up until the deadline for story submissions.

Tonight, we set out to ask ourselves: What’s the point? Of game writing? And to answer that question, we have to ask another: What’s the point of playing in adventure games?

Obviously, there are a lot of answers to these questions, and I’m hoping to make you think, when you’re writing your game, about why you’re doing it. What do you want for yourself? What do you want for your players? But if I had to take a stab at the biggest and best reasons… well, I’d come up with three, and coincidentally, they’d all start with the letter “E.”

Adventure Game Objective #1: Entertainment

The easiest answer to the question “Why play adventure games?” is “Because they’re fun!” As game writers, we definitely want people to enjoy and to be entertained by the game we’re writing. And ultimately, the process of writing the game should also be fun!

What are the best ways to ensure that a game is entertaining? Well, in general, audiences like to experience familiar material as though it were new again. That’s the reason that storytelling is so full of tropes, and that most stories of a specific genre and medium have similar structures and content. A game which is too abstract for the audience to relate to may disengage their interest, but a game without any innovation at all will feel like tired, oft-tread ground. What’s most important, perhaps, when writing a game, is to keep the audience of the game in mind– advanced players will likely want to see something zanier and less familiar, but new players need to have a foothold into your world because our brand of roleplaying, itself, is new to them.

Adventure Game Objective #2: Empowerment & Evolution

All of Wayfinder’s promotional pamphlets and flyers say something along the lines of “Find the hero inside!” and that’s because of a philosophical stance that our community takes on the purpose of roleplaying. There’s actually a good deal of scientific consensus that role play is a vital part of human growth. Children naturally develop roleplaying games with one another as a form of emergent play, which helps them to understand both the roles they could grow to fulfill in their adult lives and to learn empathy– by identifying the rational and emotional truths behind the actions of others.

We’ve come to believe, however, through direct observation, that this kind of personal growth isn’t just accessible to young children, but people of all ages. Because Wayfinder’s sword and magic systems are uniquely designed to enhance verisimilitude and immersion, when you’re in character, even if your rational brain is aware that everything is a game… your lizard brain doesn’t quite understand. It thinks, when monsters approach, that you’re really in danger, and it’s really putting out adrenaline in preparation for fight or flight. You can run faster, in character with a demon on your heels, than you can in your ordinary life. You can also talk more smoothly as your character, even if you’re usually shy, and – because for two hours or so, the boundaries you use to limit yourself are lifted, because you’re pretending you’re someone else.

Of course, it really is you doing all that awesome stuff. So if there’s anything we want people to take away from our games, it’s this: You’re more capable than you think you are.

We’ll talk more about how to empower players later this week, but at the most basic level, you have to look at your game and ask yourself, “Is there space for people to prove to themselves that they can do things they’d never have a chance to in real life?”

Adventure Game Objective #3: Expression

And, lastly, a goal of gamewriting, as with all art, is to express an idea, philosophy, question, emotion, or some other ephemeral and nuanced thing. Audiences enjoy taking part in what amounts to a dialog about these things, and they’re emotionally and intellectually stimulating.

Some game writers begin the process of creating a game with their themes, and that’s a pretty good way to do it, so long as you hide your symbolism until it’s too late to avoid. But even if you just wrote a series of fun-sounding scenes with as many cool ideas as you could, I’ve got a surprise for you: Your game has latent, unintentional symbolism! We gave you a crash course in media analysis very briefly in our last post. Give it another glance over, if you’re not sure how to do this, and then look back at your game. Maybe even invite a friend to discuss it and its themes with you. And then, once you’ve isolated those factors, tweak backgrounds, scenes and flow to further support those ideas, so that you can have a game united by a few fluid strokes of genius.

Why do YOU write games?

There are many more answers to this question, and we want to hear from you! What’s motivated you to write a game? Which of these objectives do you most heavily favor? What big, important objectives did we miss?

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Theme in Adventure Games

Theme in Adventure Games

What is a “theme”? What is a “thesis”?

A theme is an idea that comes up a lot in a creative work. A thesis is the central idea around which a creative work is based. There are more comprehensive definitions available in dictionaries both online and off, but these definitions will serve us for now. Themes and theses are meant to work unconsciously – we should not even be aware of them as we experience the work.

Alright, you’ve defined it, but can you give me some examples?

Absolutely, nameless construct of this essay. A good example of a theme can be found in the Disney movie The Lion King. In the beginning of the movie, before we’re even introduced to any named characters, we see the iconic “Circle of Life” song and sequence. For those who aren’t already humming it in their heads right now, here’s what it sounds like:

It’s a nice opening song with beautiful visuals, sure, but what is it telling us about the story that’s not obvious? How is it working on our unconscious minds? Obviously, the song is about the titular circle of life. We are born, we consume, and we die, and in our dying we are consumed by others, either directly in the case of the antelope, or indirectly in the case of the lion. This is the thesis of the movie. In The Lion King, it is a note that is sounded again and again – there are natural cycles, they are inherently good, and we are all a part of them. Implicit in this thesis is the idea that going against our natural cycles is evil. This aspect of the thesis comes up later in the movie, with Scar, who takes over the pack from his brother Mufasa when by the natural cycle of inheritance it should pass to Simba.

But let’s dig a little deeper and take it beat by beat, see if we can’t dig out some themes. The first thing we see is a montage of animals waking up and getting ready for their big day. We’re still getting used to the art style, so they give us some time. The dawn imagery cleverly suggests the idea of beginning to us, appropriate since this is the beginning of the movie. I wouldn’t say that it’s technically a theme, but it is smart. As the first English words in the song are sung, we see the image of a mother giraffe and her baby, entering the sunlight. This image begins to implant in our minds the idea of “growing up”, which is a huge theme in the movie. Disney is all about visual cues for their themes, and this seems like an important moment, so let’s take a look at that:

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Warm colors, some muted and some vibrant, notably muted in the mother (shouldn’t she be in full light too, if the baby is?). Let’s look at a later frame from the opening:

 

 

 

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Woah! A bunch of the same warm, reddish/brownish colors show up here, and they’re quite muted in Simba’s mother. We don’t consciously know it, but by this point in the movie, we’re already familiar and comfortable with the themes of growing up, being a child, and caring for your family, and they’re already coded to the colors of a lion.

I could go on with some of the other images in the opening sequence (for instance, the images of the ants contrasted with the zebras and the birds contrasted with the elephants introduces us to the theme of largeness and smallness, later brought to a comic point by Timon and Pumbaa) but I won’t. You get the idea.

That’s all well and good, but how does this apply to me?

Slow down there, buddy, I’m getting to it. As a game writer, your job is very different from the job of a movie producer or animator. You have to worry about the fun of upwards of eighty people, not just your singular viewer, and all of those people are not just watching the story, but enacting the story, choosing what direction it goes in. They ARE the story.

Doesn’t this make theme and thesis less important?

No, dummy! It makes them more important. If we as game writers want our players to have a good time (and we do), we need to provide them with a game that is fun to play. What makes a game fun? A lot of things, one of which is coherence. If a game takes place in a coherent world, filled with coherent ideas, it feels real, and it allows the players to lose themselves in it more fully. When a player loses themselves in the game world and experiences tragedies and triumphs that feel real, it provides a powerful, cathartic experience. It might even make them cry. This is fun. Trust me.

Two of a game writer’s most powerful tools in creating a coherent world are thesis and theme. Communicating a thesis and some themes to your players lets them know what you were thinking about when you wrote it and what your intentions were, so when they go off into your world, they won’t create something out of place. In fact, if you communicate your thesis and your themes effectively, they will actually go out there and make them stronger for you. A good game writer can get her players to write her game for her.

How? TEACH ME YOUR MAGIC, WIZARD.

Gladly! Let’s begin with the most obvious method of communicating a thesis:

Tell them.
Seriously. When me and Mike Grant and Josiah Mercer were running Apocalypse Camp, we came right out and said it. “These games are about the apocalypse. The world has a good chance of ending upwards of three times in these three games,” we said. Well, something like that. It was called Apocalypse Camp, after all, there’s no hiding it. So we came right out and said it.

For some game writers, this might be a bit too obvious. If you choose to go with the “tell them” method or not, there are other things you should be doing to communicate your themes and thesis.

Put it in your teaser.

If you choose to have a teaser (and why not?), it’s a wonderful way to get some ideas across about your game before your players are even at camp. If you want everyone to be sad in your game, make all the characters in your teaser sad. If you want the world to be full of adventure, make your teaser a fun, exciting action story. If you want everything in your game to be tinged with delirious, manic energy, write your teaser so it’s shifted just off normal in an energetic way. There are obviously a million ways to experiment with this, just remember that the teaser is the earliest introduction to your game that most people get. Use it well.

Put it in your production lists.

This is a huge one. If you want to be able to control the visual look of your game, you NEED to communicate well with the production departments (we have a blog post about that coming up, in fact). Humans understand things differently if you communicate them through the different senses. If you just tell someone something, they’ll understand it with their conscious mind (literally their forebrain), but if you SHOW them something, they’ll understand it with their unconscious mind (literally their hindbrain). For instance, if you want to communicate to your players that one group is snobby and entitled while the other group is down to earth and working class, put the first group in fancy clothes and wigs and the other in coal-dusted working clothes and bowler hats (or whatever the equivalents are in your world). If you want your players to understand that the Demon Crystal is evil, make it huge and black and spiky. If you want your players to know that a particular group of knights is not to be messed with, give them really huge weapons. If you’re having trouble communicating a particular theme or thesis to your players, talk to production about it. They will probably have some good ideas. They are very, very talented people who were hired specifically because they have a unique, well-developed visual sense (which is something that we, as writers, often lack).

Put it in your world background, group backgrounds, and character sheets.

This one is pretty tricky, but probably the most important. You don’t want to be too obvious about it, but you also don’t want it to fall completely by the wayside. Try making things implicit rather than explicit. What does this mean? In this case it means showing things rather than telling about things. One of the all-time great examples of thesis in a game was Brennan and Griffin’s game, Graduation Day. The main thesis of that game was “Magic is Dying, but Friendship Heals.” In running that game, Brennan never explicitly said the words “magic is dying”, but he let us know in a million subtle, clever ways. There were fewer magic users in the world than there had been in a long time. Many magical societies had already crumbled. The Gardenborne, a group that represented evil conformity and old seats of power, were gaining ground financially and influentially. To top it all off, the literal incarnation of Hope was literally dying. At the same time, it was very clear that the most important thing to our characters was our small, tight-knit families that we had constructed from the ruins of our shattered lives. The Academy was all about friendship as a group, and each character sheet emphasized the importance of our friends. By the time game started, we all knew what was up, but because Brennan had never explicitly said it, we didn’t know it with our minds; we knew it with our hearts.

Ultimately, what I’m saying to you is, every single thing in your game has to reflect your thesis, and as many things as possible in your game should reflect your themes. However, you should avoid saying it out loud, even to yourself. I have a playwriting professor at my college that says you should never write down summaries of your characters until you’ve written the whole play, because if you write down “ERIC: 23, architect, is in love with Ashley” suddenly Eric is dead, trapped on the paper. Eric’s love for Ashley will no longer hold any truth for you because you’ve tacked it down and examined it like a butterfly with ether and pins. I believe that the same can be true for game writing and your thesis and themes. At least while you’re writing it, allow the thesis to evolve and become full of meaning and complexity for you. Feel free to act more mercenary when you’re actually in the field. In fact, sometimes, a literally stated thesis can act as a lightning rod for a game gone wrong that needs quick rewriting in the moment. My point is, use these tools carefully, because they are powerful, and also so weak that you might break them without realizing.

Happy game writing!

Oringinal Post 12/11/13

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Three Character Sheets to the Wind

Three Character Sheets to the Wind

Since we just had a conversation about characters, now seems like a good time to talk about character sheets. Character sheets are useful for some types of games, but in others they only serve to limit characters and gum up the works. How can we as gamewriters determine whether character sheets will be right for our game?

Are character sheets right for me?

Essentially, your game should have character sheets if you determine that there is information that needs to be communicated to a group of players smaller than their PC team, in order to achieve any of the goals of the game. Those goals might include making the flow of your game work properly, pushing any of your themes, or any other goal you might have.

If the information needs to be communicated to everyone, use your world background. If it needs to be communicated to a group, use a group background. If it needs to be communicated to part of a PC team, but not the whole PC team, even down to just one player, character sheets are the way to go.

But what should a character sheet have on it?

Good question. A character sheet should have everything that you want to determine about the character before the player picks up the process of developing him or her further.

That’s pretty vague.

I know! I’m about to go into some specifics. Stop being so hasty.

Character sheets often include biographical details for the character written in a prose style – things like the character’s name, where they were born, who their parents were, if they have any siblings, etc. Unless one of the characters relatives is in the game, or some biographical detail turns out to be a plot point in the game, this is flavor material.

WHAT?! But that’s like 90% of all character sheets everywhere!

That’s true. A lot of gamewriters like to give their players a lot of flavor to work with when creating their character. It’s important for gamewriters to remember that they cannot control every aspect of their game, as much as they might like to, especially in terms of characters. At some point, they have pitched the ball, and it is up to the players to catch it. It just depends on how much “spin” a gamewriter wants to put on the ball, as it were.

A character sheet MUST have what is necessary to make events continue to happen in the game, i.e. to make the game run. For instance, if it is necessary for some PC to know that she is the secret heir to an ancient queen, for the moment when the mystic asks if “any of you brave adventurers have royal blood”, that is something that must go on a character sheet. In a less structured game, where the plot depends on characters having goals and trying to achieve those goals, character sheets are essential for obvious reasons – each player must know their character’s goals so they have something to do in game. The same is true for the opposite reason: each player must know if their character has something to do with any other character’s goals, whether it’s to thwart them or help them be achieved.

But how do I write them?

Good question! Thank you for your patience.

When writing character sheets, it’s often helpful to have some kind of standard format – whether it’s something as simple as putting the name at the top and then a page of prose detailing a character’s life, or as complex as having five different fields that must be filled in with short phrases, or something in between. The more thought that is put in to the structure of your character sheets before you start writing them, the easier they often are to write.

For specific character sheets, it can be easy to lose track of the character concept you started with, as you get distracted with interesting bits of backstory and characterization. As such, I often find it helpful to try to sum up the character’s core or tone in a single pithy opening line, like “you’ve been hurt before, and this time you’ll get things right,” or, “you’re a woman on a mission, and nothing’s going to get in your way.” As in all things, while being artsy and experimental can be fun, clarity is vital to actually accomplishing your goals.

How about some examples?

You got it, buddy! Let’s start with a classic: Graduation Day. If you go onto the Wayfinder Experience Wiki article for the game, you will see that some brave souls saved and typed out their entire character sheets after the camp. This wiki, though tragically in need of some serious updating, is a great resource for gamewriters, by the way.

The character sheets written for Graduation Day follow a very simple structure: They start with the character’s shadow name in bold, then a field for the character’s age, also in bold, and then a field for the character’s real name. What follows is about a page of prose detailing the character’s life from their birth to the moment of the beginning of the game. This obviously gave players a lot to go on in terms of further developing their characters and their relationships to their teammates, and since the game followed a fairly standard diamond flow, further elaboration on their goals was unnecessary.

Other games have made use of character sheets with more structure. Auctoritas, the most recent Winter Game, had sheets that each had four fields: Name, Relationships, Wants, and Has. The first two are pretty self-explanatory. The last two were essentially lists of goals and resources. Since these formed the majority of the gameplay, they were extremely necessary to explicitly state. There was sometimes a short prose description of the character, when it was deemed that some of the goals and resources needed linking up into some kind of narrative, but most of the time, that was it. The players were set loose to create the kind of person they want to be, using information from the world and group backgrounds.

Most games we run do not make use of character sheets at all. Players are left to make up their character without any flavor information from the gamewriter. This is a completely legitimate way to write excellent, interesting games. Players are surprisingly good at picking up on flavor of your world and creating characters to match.

Whether or not to write character sheets, and what type and to what extent, depends entirely on the needs of the game in question. And keep in mind, these examples are only meant to provide a framework. Feel free to experiment, by all means. Good luck in your submissions!

Original post 1/10/14

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Casting a Mold for Empowerment

Casting a Mold for Empowerment

If you’ve read the previous entries here on the Story Board blog, you’ve already heard about empowerment, why and when it’s important, and even how to accomplish it. In this entry, we’re going to look into this last point in a little further detail: what goes into basic empowerment in our games? We consider here primarily your traditional empowering adventure story: when it comes to horror games, and some other kinds of advanced games, there may be other considerations, or empowerment itself may not be the central purpose, but for the straight adventure story and usual intro game, there are some important things to evaluate if you want to strengthen the impact of the game. To fit together every piece of a basic empowering adventure game, three layers have to be judged and designed: the challenges, the characters and the players.

Perhaps the simplest kind of empowerment is that of success. The simple feeling of accomplishment can have a hugely powerful impact. But, it’s not quite so simple as winning. Which sounds like a more impressive accomplishment: stabbing the world-dooming villain two dozen times, or traveling across the realm, collecting the six Crystals of Power from their ancient guardians, besting the trials of the Gates of Evil, completing the ritual to drain the villain of his incredible powers, and then stabbing the world-dooming villain two dozen times? The key to what makes a victory empowering isn’t always the significance of the problem you solve: often it’s the challenges you face to accomplish it. Even a small mundane task can feel huge, if it must be solved by hard and thorough effort. What makes a task challenging, then? Well, not so fast. A difficult challenge for one kind of character might be a flick of the wrist for another. What is challenging depends entirely on the characters’ abilities. But, there’s good news: you aren’t just writing challenges. You’re also defining the characters who will be completing them, and one cannot be considered without the other.

By building the challenges of your story and your characters together, you ensure that the two of them suit one another: the powers of the characters must be similar in scope to the requirements of the game, or the challenges may either be easy and uninteresting, or difficult enough that the PCs do not feel like it was their contribution which saved the day as much as it was the actions of an SPC or presence of a plot item.

Similarly, the challenges that the characters face must be the same kind of problem that they are prepared to complete. One of the most effective challenge-designing tools in our arsenal is narrowing who can solve it: If a character is one of very few people (or even the only person) able to complete a vital step in the story, no matter how small, then suddenly just picking a lock or relaying the message of a spirit can give a player a moment where they feel extremely important.

The Wayfinder Magic System is already designed with this kind of balance in mind. In addition to Rogues with lockpicking and Clerics with spirit magic, there are lots of other abilities that will allow one or a small group of PCs to serve as a vital hinge in the story, but only if the gamewriter sets things up for them: Rogues cure poison with their antidote; Artisans can remove hexes; Mages can Dispel Magic; and Clerics can speak with the dead. With a bit of creativity, almost any ability can be made into a vital tool to empower the small subset of PCs who selected it, such as a single Rogue with Escape Artist able to escape and free their friends when all of them are captured. Though don’t forget: if a vital plot point has a specific solution for a PC to provide, make sure you have an SPC able to solve the problem for those days when it happens that no PC takes the vital ability. (Remember, SPCs: always let the PCs solve a problem first!)

Let’s consider two perspectives of how one can build challenges to match characters, and characters to match challenges.

When it comes to game mechanics, Rogues’ array of abilities are such that they they almost always need challenges designed to their class abilities if they are going to feel useful or roguelike. On the small scale, this can be accomplished by something like a locked chest. On the large scale, the rogue-based challenge is a maze of traps, locks, and oblivious patrolling guards who must be snuck by, knocked out and trapped. In this particular case, it may be difficult to set aside the space and the flow such that only the right PCs are present to face the challenge, but when it can be done, it may make the most exciting heroics that one can set up for any Rogue PCs.

But this kind of challenge-to-character matching can extend beyond game mechanics and into story and background as well. When a group of heroes are said to be specially trained to fight a certain kind of monster that is widely known in the world, it doesn’t matter if their game mechanics and abilities are no different than anybody else’s: when they slay such a monster, they know in character that they were the ones with the training and skills to do it. Focusing this idea down to an even narrower point, you get the idea of a chosen one (or chosen few), making PCs fit the challenge not because they have the skills to fit the challenge, but simply because the story says they are destined to. This kind of challenge matching can be very effective and very simple, but one must be wary to keep the difficulty of tasks balanced: the use of story for this purpose runs the risk of an accomplishment being completed without a sense of effort (simply due to destiny), or even worse, of a character who is “meant” to accomplish a certain task actually being less effective at completing that task than other players in the game.

When it comes to presenting characters with challenges that suit their skills, it is possible to to push the bounds of the character’s expectations of themselves to make an empowering scene. While often it is frustrating and disappointing for a character to face a task which falls way outside their skill set, under some circumstances it can be emotionally intense and highly empowering instead. If a mousey, non-combative scholar is handed a weapon and told to go fight the dark lord’s armies, they may feel pushed around by the story, and forced to act against their character’s personality or abilities. But, if that same mousey non-combative scholar is presented with a situation where their loved ones are in danger, and they find themselves with the opportunity to take up a weapon to defend them, that moment of pushing beyond the character’s surface can make an incredible moment for the player. Pushing a characters’ boundaries is a tricky task to accomplish, which usually stems most effectively from a character having to decide for themselves to become something more, rather than a character being told to act differently by the story.

Throughout all of this construction of character and challenge co-design, we must remember that behind every collection of words, costuming and equipment is a player, and every player is different. To some extent, this is a problem of casting, not of gamewriting, to be addressed in the preparations for game and not the submission, but there are some things that are important to keep in mind even early on in the writing process.

Every player is different. Everybody has different interests, and different preferences, and everybody reacts to the weaving of the stories of games in different ways. If a game contains only one kind of challenge and empowerment, it might be very effective for some players, but not for many others. It is important to pick not just one venue of empowerment, but to consider several, and be prepared to cast players into the roles that they will get the most out of, not just in terms of personality-based interest in a character, but also in terms of the events that that character may go through over the course of game.

One example of this is spotlights. There is a difference between a character being important, and everybody else knowing that the character is important, and the latter isn’t always necessary to achieve empowerment. Sometimes being in the spotlight just makes players uncomfortable, and for some players just knowing that they were vital to solving the problem, even if others don’t realize it in game, is just as or even more empowering.

There are a lot of ways that peoples’ play styles can differ. Consulting your players, your surveys, and the counselors working the event can help you get a look at what kind of things you might want to consider modifying or expanding on in your story. In the end, this mostly means that you ought to include a variety of forms of empowerment in any game: it will strengthen the effect of the story for all of your players.

Gamewriting has lots of different elements, and empowerment, while very important, is still just one of them. If you picked any one post in this blog, and made it the centerpoint of everything you’re thinking about in your game submission, you would probably end up with a pretty lopsided game! This post, like most others, isn’t a list of hard and fast rules, but it is a collection of important ideas that you should definitely keep in mind when working on your story. What challenges will be faced in your story? How will your characters be prepared, or unprepared, to deal with them? And how does all of this suit the spread of players you’ll have lining up to be heroes and villains and everything in between?

Original Post 1/13/14

Written by guest writer Jeremy Gleick

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Making Magic

Making Magic

(Or, Specifically, Making Magic Work For Your Game)

Let’s talk about the Magic System!

When our founding fathers laid out the Wayfinder magic system, they had a number of goals in mind. Jefferson wanted to make sure that it facilitated everyone having fun in game. Adams wanted it to contribute to making cool scenes. Ben Franklin wanted spell selection to be fun for people who like toying with game mechanics. Washington made sure that the players who just wanted to kill people with a sword and not worry about spending points could do so. And, perhaps most importantly, Hamilton wanted to make sure that the system was modular.

What does that mean?

In short, Wayfinder Magic being “modular” means that the system isn’t set in stone. It can easily be altered, amended, stripped down, built up, squeezed, stretched, scrambled and recombobulated. It can, and should, be modified to suit the Story. Doing so can create a novel game experience for players who think they’ve seen it all, and prove an invaluable tool for tying characters to the setting and the tone of your game.

Let’s look at some of the ways that we can hack the system, shall we?

More or Less Points!

The first and easiest place to flex the magic system is by giving players more or less point to play with. In a usual high-fantasy Wayfinder game, players have 30 points to spend on various abilities.

But if you want magic to be rarer and more special, you can reduce the number of points players can spend– this may convince more players to be warriors, since a sword is always a sword, and it doesn’t actually take much away from mages or clerics, since we rarely use all of our abilities in a Wayfinder game– it just makes them think more carefully about how to use their points… though Jefferson recommended you not go below 15 points unless you want magical characters to only really have one trick each.

Alternately, if you want to write a game where spells are flying in every direction, where there’s frequent horn blasts, and anyone and everyone is decked out in talismans, then you can open the flood gates and give people more points. Ben Franklin recommended you not boost it above 40 points or so, or mages begin to become disproportionately powerful in a dis-empowering way– but I’m not so sure about that. Sure, a fifty-point mage can blow a horn and cast Death by the power of 7 on as many as six or seven people… numerous times in a game. But then, almost every mage with 50 points probably has an absorb or block handy, and an artisan with fifty points can give everyone on his team a protection from spell talisman and still have enough left over for Talismaniac and Steelskin Limbs. We don’t know what the ability economy will look like at these point levels, because we haven’t experimented at this level of play, for the most part. You could be the trailblazer!

Adjust Ability Costs!

A second, more subtle tool in your arsenal of system hacks is adjusting the cost of various abilities in the point-buy system. This influences the players’ decisions when it comes time to pick abilities, and can reward them for playing along with your themes and your world background.

Example 1: If you want the game to be more dark and dangerous feeling, make healing spells 1 or 2 points more expensive, and slap a similar discount onto some spooky abilities like Weakness, Curse, and Corruption Hex. The end result is that the abilities you discounted will likely be more pronouncedly present in your game than they usually are, which will drive home your dark overtones, and the people who do splurge on healing despite the price hike are rewarded by having their character’s gifts be rarer and more special. They are the candle in the darkness you’ve created.

Example 2: In The Shattered World (Intro and Finale this last year!) there were five realms with different magical properties, and mages from those realms tended to specialize in magic that was resonant with the realm they hailed from. Depending on their character’s birthplace, they got discounts on some spells and inflated prices on others. This both tied them more innately to the setting, which is always good, and meant that mages had spells which were thematically unified instead of a toolbox with this-and-that in it, which we wanted.

Team Bonuses!

So you’ve probably created a number of groups that your players will be part of! They’re each cool in their own individual way, right? One of the best ways to showcase each team’s unique flavor is to give each group their own system hacks. This is a great way to simultaneously empower the players AND trick them into playing their group in the way that you envisioned. Just remember that if one group’s hack is obviously better than another’s, whether it’s more powerful or more fun, the groups may become envious of one another. Try to balance the hacks against each other.

Example 1: The members of the mage’s university all studied a similar spellcasting style. Give them the Coven Mage variant for free! This reminds them that they should be working together and encourages them to build their characters in a cooperative, tactically supportive way, which is great.

Example 2: You don’t want to force everyone from Sylvia to play clerics, but since Sylvia has a major religious overtone, it’d be better if they had a high concentration of clerics. Give the Sylvian group a discount on a cleric spell related to their faith, or even a free variant, and you’ve encouraged undecided players to play clerics for the free ability and distinguished the Sylvan priests from those of other religions. Two birds, one stone!

Example 3: At Finale last year, the players were groups of elite specialists working on a secret mission. I wanted to make sure the players knew that their characters were special, so I handed out a lot of team-based bonuses. But if you have the luxury of smallish groups, and knowing how many players you’re casting into each, you can create teams of specialists. For example, there was a team of five mages, each of which was particularly adept at one of the schools of magic. I laid out the five specializations and the bonuses they conferred and let the group decide amongst themselves who would be which. Suddenly, each of them was an archetype with their own area of expertise– and the rest of their character creation and development was stimulated by the process of dividing up the roles and powers I gave them.

Add, Subtract And Modify!

Of course, it’s not all about manipulating point totals, costs, and other numbers… we can use brute force.

What if you just don’t like rogues? What if, like me, you absolutely despise them? What if they have no place in your game? Cut them out! Is necromancy banned in this kingdom, and it’s unlikely any hero would know about it, and it’s a plot point that only the bad guys can make zombies? Strike the necromancy spells from the cleric’s list! You can take things away from the system quite easily if you decide far enough in advance of your game, and can brief the staff members who will teach the magic system.

Did you think of a super cool spell, variant, or system hack, for the game or even for just one group? Add it right into your game! Just be prepared for a zillion questions about how it interacts with every other spell and ability in the system. Write the hack down in a clear and concise manner. Here’s some examples I just made up (and feel free to use them):

Artisan Modification Ability: Enchant Monster Weapon (6 Points): An artisan can enchant a weapon too big, heavy or otherwise clumsy to wield so that it its weight is reduced and balance improved; any warrior may wield it, though it remains too cumbersome to swing quickly or expertly. However, if it is imbued with a warrior’s soul, the weapon can be wielded with the same swiftness and skill as a sword.

Mage Variant: Chi Vampire (10 Points): A chi vampire is skilled at not only draining his victim’s abilities, but leeching them for himself. Whenever a chi vampire successfully Weakens a victim, he saps their strength and expertise for himself, allowing him to wield a sword competently for the next five minutes. Whenever he successfully Blinds a victim, he steals their vision, allowing him to sense spirits and hidden rogues for the next five minutes. Whenever he successfully Feebleminds a victim, his mind races, raising the circle of his next spell by 2 (this bonus does not stack with those gained from other sources).

Cleric Variant: Psychopomp (2+ Points): A psychopomp is a skilled guide in the spiritual world, and can take other willing subjects with them into spirit form by guiding them in meditation or prayer. The psychopomp can bring along one subject, plus one more for each additional point they spend on this variant. The subjects must maintain contact with the psychopomp at all times, or they will become separated and lost in the spirit world, drawn towards Re.

That should be enough to give you the idea, right?

So, finally, you can tweak abilities in such a way that the entire flavor of the ability or even the class as a whole change.

For example, at Finale, we had a group of weird druids who had nature-powers. There isn’t really a good fit for that archetype amongst our usual classes, so I altered a number of cleric powers. I made it so that they couldn’t use heal or holy bolt, but could get more bandages than normal per point, provided they wrap the subject in actual leaves. I gave them a weirder, more accessible version of resurrection that brought people back as an enlightened nature-lover, which only needed to be performed in contact with plant life. And I let them buy Spirit Form for less points, but specified that they could only travel through natural settings while in spirit form– they couldn’t cross roads or enter buildings. And those three changes radically altered both the feel of the group and they way they played the game, simulating a druidic class within our system.

Also note how none of those hacks made our reacting-to-magic workshop take any longer– they were all things which only needed to be explained to the people casting the spell. I put the information on their group background sheet and warned the teacher of the cleric casting class that there would be questions about it. I encourage you to keep reacting-to-magic simple, and let casting be the cool, complex part.

Get Wacky

Truly memorable games often have really unusual configurations of abilities. Advanced players, especially, have a fun time being challenged to use the system in bizarre ways. I don’t have guidelines for this, but I do have examples!

Dylan Scott’s game Terrors of the Earth featured a team who were magic addicts with little supernatural ability of their own. They were, collectively, a single 30-point mage. They had daggers, and thirty points worth of abilities they had to decide, as a group, how to spend and allocate between them. They had an awesome time figuring that out, and this was one of those situations where placing heavy restrictions on advanced players can enhance their game immensely: counter-intuitively, it is actually empowering to play the underdog under the right circumstances.

Also from Terrors of the Earth (gosh, Dylan, how you even be so smart?) was a “Bard” class I found delightful. A traveling minstrel who has been following a party of adventurers around, entertaining them and writing a ballad about their quest, is bound to pick up a few tricks here and there. So the Bard was given a short sword, 15 points, and access to abilities from every class– except that he could only buy abilities that the rest of his team had also bought, since he learned it from watching them.

In the Legendary series from a few years back, some players played constructs of manifested magical energy that had been created by mages. They were called called Wyrdlings. Because a Wyrdling was designed to perform a spell that the mage needed to use often but didn’t want to devote their own time to, Wyrdlings got 40 points at character creation… but could only spend those points on a single ability to be used over and over again. Wyrdlings also had a special bond with their master, and could follow them through astral travel automatically and were not repelled by their master’s repulsion spells. It was really sweet. Man, I miss Wyrdlings.

Experiment!

One of the reasons I wanted to write about the magic system as a part of our Call For Summer Stories blog series is that this is a relatively new frontier. System hacks are an exciting way to get players involved in your vision, but too few games actually take the time and energy to utilize them. As game writers, we have very little control over the game once it has actually begun, so if we want certain outcomes, we have to stack the deck in our favor. And the magic system presents a powerful tool in our campaign to trick all of our friends into making the story unfold how we intend.

Just remember when trying out a new idea what the ultimate goals of the magic system, and, in fact, adventure games are: To create cool and engaging scenes. To empower and immerse the players. To express and explore a central question, thesis or philosophy. And, of course, to have fun!

Happy game writing!

Original post 1/15/14

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Storywriter’s Guide

Storywriter’s Guide to Dealing With Production

Being a storywriter is a crazy, exhausting, and magical experience. The magic lies in seeing a world and characters who have previously only existed in your head come alive for the adventure game. Having strong production for your game can transport the players to an unrecognizable world, full of beautiful sets, transformative costumes, and badass weapons. However, for this to happen you need to work with your Production department, which is not always as easy as it seems! Here’s a guide to dealing with us that will make our jobs easier and your game the best it can be.

BASIC TIPS:

-Have your lists completely finished before load-out from the office, AT THE VERY LATEST. This will always ensure that you get exactly what you want for game from the office. It’s okay to add in small things during camp, but allowing your Sets and Props staff to plan starting on or before the first day of camp can never go wrong!

Example: When already at camp, it’s okay to add a quest item – a golden cup or a bloody dagger. We probably brought those anyway or can make them quickly. It’s not okay to add a big scene, like a palace, or a big item, like a newly made dragon sword that glows red at night.

-Don’t be afraid to dream big. Don’t worry, we are more than willing to talk you down if you’re asking for something impossible. Tell us what your ideal big scene or awesome prop would be (before camp), and let us tell you whether or not we can make it. We are there to make things for your game and often having a challenge is fun and exciting! With big-ticket items, though, be they an elaborate costume or a large, complicated prop, be prepared for alternatives and always give Production advance warning. For us, planning is half the battle and things go better if they were planned before camp started.

-We are artists! Tell Production about your world, your story, and the flow. Instead of (or in addition to!) asking for ‘a room with a table covered in green fabric and candles’, ask for ‘an altar to the god of nature, who is a benign forest-themed god’. The more information and context we have, the more we can make sure the scenes fit your vision of your world. Once we know the specifics of the scene and how it fits into the context of the game, we can apply our creative energy to making it look awesome. Knowing what will happen in a scene or what will be done with a prop makes it much easier to make a good scene or a good prop. In general, err on the side of more information, not less, but be prepared to be flexible about specifics and construction. We will almost certainly have ideas that you won’t about the aesthetic of the game, just because it’s our job to approach the game from a visual standpoint. Which leads me to…

-Try to work out an overall aesthetic. Is your game medieval high fantasy? Arabian nights themed? Post-apocalyptic science fiction? It’s good to decide on an overall look for the game that can inform the sets and props as well as costumes and weapons. If you don’t have a strong feeling about how your game looks, talk to the Production head(s) and see if you can figure something out. Good questions to consider: what do basic colors signify in your world? What is the level of technology in your world? Are there any meaningful symbols you would like us to create? Is there a real world culture you could compare your game’s culture to? Do you want your game to look like a specific movie or video game?

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Tips for Costuming:

– At the beginning of the summer, contact the Head of Costuming Department (if they don’t contact you) so that they have the opportunity to do prep work for your game if necessary. Also check in with the costume head for your camp; some costumers have the skills to create or modify costumes during camp, but you need to have a conversation with them beforehand.

-Start off with an overall aesthetic for the world, different countries, or factions. Then, if you have ideas, get specific for the group descriptions. Color is a great place to start, but don’t depend on it! Descriptors like ragged, elaborate, geometric, militaristic, simple, layered, & regal will give your costumer a better sense for the “feel” of the group & will lead to more interesting costumes. When people are grouped together they usually don’t have to wear the same color! Feel free to add in pictures to describe the aesthetic. Don’t be shy about asking what you want for your game, but always prepare yourself to be flexible.

-Other good things to add to the costume list are:

* the status that SPCs should appear as (low, high, godly)

* any costume changes that happen

* which costumes are highest priority! Costumers often have to be flexible with the lists & never follow them exactly. Additionally, with the time constraints at camp it’s helpful to know what is most important for the game.

* on a similar note: any costume items that are plot important! Please include their use in the game.

During camp, changes can be made, especially when cast lists are changed. Just make sure the costume team knows as soon as possible!

If you are running a big production game, like sequential games (Legendary and Apocalypse camp), Finale, or Omega, consider basing the groups on the costumes that are available, not the other way around. This happened at Apocalypse camp this year and it worked excellently! For the alien group, the costume team set out the costumes & the story team used those as inspiration for the different races. If you involve the production teams in the game writing process, the camp will go more smoothly & look it’s very best. Once again, this is done best with early communication with both the Department Head for the summer, & the specific camp.

Tips for Sets and Props:

-Not sure where a scene should be? Ask us. Believe me, we are all pretty tired of setting up the main space at Ashokan as the main scene. Every Sets and Props head I’ve talked to about this has ideas for spaces we don’t use as much or ways to make them look new and different. The main space and dining room are tricky because the campers spend lots of time there and so it’s familiar – consider using spaces that we don’t get to see as much during camp, or put an unexpected scene in a familiar place.

-Technology is tricky. Even if they are small items, make sure to inform Sets and Props before camp about anything that uses technology. The lighting, speakers, and fog machine that we have at the office are generally the least reliable resources we use and sometimes require someone to start game late or not play at all in order to operate them. Basic lighting for scenes is not a problem; having a weapon that lights up when it tastes blood or creepy sounds that start when people walk into a room are more complicated and will happen more easily with advance notice.

To recap:

-Have your lists done.

-Work out an aesthetic for your game and individual groups. If you don’t have one, work with us.

-Communicate clearly before camp about any big items.

-When meeting with us, err on the side of giving us too much information about the items that you want.

-Drink water! (unrelated but important)

Original post 1/16/2014

Guest writer Molly Ostertag

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The Gamewriter’s Glossary

The Gamewriter’s Glossary

Wayfinder games can be very abstract, especially since we all tend to develop our own jargon when talking about them. So, here follows a massive listing of all the terminology you will need to write an Adventure Game! Hopefully this will make many things clear, and make many things that were already clear slightly stranger. Did we leave anything out? Drop us a line and we’ll add it to the glossary!

Adventure Game

A medium of live-action theater in which players use improvisational acting to participate in and co-create a story, roleplaying characters within that story. With few exceptions, an adventure game makes no distinction between audience and actor, making it a particularly unique form of storytelling. Often involves adventuring, hijinks, and the occasional bout of foam-enhanced stabbing.

Intro Game

An “Intro Game” is an adventure game which is both suitable for beginner-level roleplayers and which can serve as an introduction to Wayfinder games in general. Intro Games are usually set in a fantasy world and make use of Wayfinder’s published magic system. They also usually, though not always, play with familiar tropes of the fantasy genre and employ a Diamond Flow. They generally consist of a two game segments, with the first played at night and the second the following day.

Advanced Game

Any game that does not fit the standard Intro Game model. These are often of non-fantasy genres, and consist of a single Night Game, though there are exceptions to both of those rules. Advanced Games do not need to use the standard magic system, and can have much more open-ended flows. Also often end with crying.

Tavern Scene

An adventure game, or section of an adventure game, in which players stay in a particular area and interact freely, generally with minimal combat or overarching structure. Players are free to pursue personal goals or partake of the various amusements the location provides. These often take place at taverns, bars, inns, or weddings, thus the name.

Flow

The loose set of events that are planned by the gamewriter to occur during an Adventure Game. This can range from open-ended catalytic events (“The Queen is slain by the Dark Lord, prompting the PCs to set out to avenge her”) to specific moments (“The PCs perform the ritual by lighting themselves on cold fire”). The amount of pre-planned Flow varies from game to game, depending on the writer’s style.

Diamond Flow

A common flow structure, in which the PCs split up into several groups to accomplish separate tasks, then reunite once all are finished. When mapped out as a flowchart, this produces a diamond shape, giving the structure its name. Two back-to-back Diamond Flows are referred to as a Golden Flow, because when you alchemically combine two diamonds you get gold. Obviously.

PC

An abbreviation of “player character,” the term PC refers not just to players within an adventure game, but specifically those playing the protagonists. These will be most, if not all, of the campers at the camp your game is being run.

PC Team

A group of PCs that are together at the beginning of an Adventure Game. They may be grouped by a common theme, goal, or place of origin. In some games, PC teams are expected to stick together throughout the game, while in others they scatter to the four winds to pursue their personal goals. The gamewriter’s opinion on which of these types of game is being played is rarely consulted.

SPC

An abbreviation of “supporting player character” or “story player character,” the term SPC refers to players who take on a role which facilitates the adventure game. SPCs generally are aware of the Flow and their role in it, and help keep things moving smoothly and keep the PCs engaged and active. There are many different types of SPC roles, illuminated below, but obviously there is overlap between them and a character may change roles over the course of a game.

PC Leader

The player who leads a particular PC Team, organizing the member players and guiding them through the world of the story. PC Leaders are often made aware of the Flow, as they are in an excellent position to ensure that it actually occurs and right it if it becomes derailed.

Big Bad

The central villain or villains of an adventure game. Source of much angst, and hopefully eventually defeated spectacularly by the PCs. Or, you know, not, depending on the game in question. Referred to by people more mature than us as the “main antagonist.”

Monsters

Big weapons. Smash things. Sometimes smart. Sometimes not. Sometimes talky! Usually smashy. Fight PCs. Befriend PCs? Short sentences. Obey villains. Rarely flow. Roaming danger. Rawr rawr!

Quest Giver

In order for the story of a game to make sense as it progresses, the characters must often be introduced to new information that spurs them to further action. A quest-giver SPC exists to serve this role in the flow.

Wait-in-the-Woods SPC

Any SPC who waits at a particular location for the PCs to arrive, where the SPC will perform a set task. This might include monsters to fight, fairies with a magic item to bestow, people in need of rescue, and so on. While not optimal (no one likes waiting in the woods getting eaten by mosquitoes) they are often a necessary part of games. Note that, despite the name, sometimes these SPCs are actually forced to wait in fields, swamps, remote cabins, and parking lots.

Scene Dressing

An SPC who has little or no actual flow responsibilities, but serves to “flesh out” the game world and further characterize the setting with their presence. Shopkeepers, bartenders and the ilk can often serve this role; as can characters who are designed to be “recruited” by a team. They help immerse the PC’s in the world that they are playing in.

RE

Used interchangeably to refer to: (A) the system by which a player whose character is dead or has otherwise left the game receives a new character and returns to play, (B) the player responsible for representing this cycle of reincarnation in-character, and © the set and physical location where this occurs. Short for reincarnation, rebirth, rehab, and just about anything else you want.

Abstract

The first sheet of a game submission, which includes basic information like the gamewriters’ names and contact information, as well as a brief summary of the game. The form can be found here.

World Background

A description of the setting of the game. For fantasy games, this can include histories of the world and its peoples, maps of the location, descriptions of the mythology, and so on. For modern day or other genres of game, this is more likely to include the secrets of the world and major organizations that are relevant to the PCs and the plot of the game.

Group Backgrounds

More individualized descriptions of portions of the game setting relevant to a group of players. These are best employed if the groups would have significantly different understandings of the world, but can also simply give them more information to differentiate themselves from the other groups during chardev.

Character Sheets

Character sheets explain a particular character’s backstory, relationships, and goals in the game, and are given to the player before game. In some games, the author may wish to personally bestow a specific role on each and every player in the game. This way lies madness, but players certainly appreciate being paid such special attention, especially if the author takes the time to hand-write each page in his or her own blood.

Lists

Sets of connected items written or printed consecutively. More colloquially, the organizational documents that are used to convey to each department what a game requires from each of them. If you don’t give them lists, they’ll give you fists.

Production

The collective group of people who make cool things for your game. Includes costuming, game systems, and sets & props. Be nice to them, because they’re the ones who make your game look gorgeous.

Game Systems

The weapons and equipment that will be used by everyone participating in your adventure game. This includes swords, shields, monster weapons and all the equipment for magic users. The person, or people, in charge of game systems should receive a list with all of the equipment that is needed well before your game is run. If there is a weapon or piece of equipment you want that we do not currently have, it will need to be made before your game runs.

Costuming

The clothes and accessories that everyone will be wearing during the adventure game. The person, or people, in charge of costuming should get a list with what costuming and accessories will need to be brought to your adventure game. It should include team colors, charters that need make-up and any armor that will be needed. Be extra descriptive so the costuming person can get the right look and attire for the people in the world you have created.

Sets & Props

All of the scenes that will need to be set up and what items need to be at them for your game look good and run smoothly. The person, or people, in charge of sets and props should get a list with all the needed props and scenes. It will preferably be sent out as soon as possible. If you want something for the game that we do not currently have, it will need to be made before your game runs.

Empowerment

The sense of accomplishment and engagement that accompanies being participant, rather than observer to, the story. This can take the form of literal empowerment– handing the PCs or just one PC actual powers within the context of the game– or more figurative empowerment– being chosen for a particular task, overcoming obstacles, and having one’s ideas, advice and strategies accepted. Counterintuitively, being placed in a disadvantageous or powerless position can often be empowering, especially for advanced players, if it means contributing to the story by their presence.

Player Agency

A player’s ability, within an adventure game, to enact their own desires upon the story and exercise their freedom from it. It differs subtly from empowerment, in that empowerment is created on the player’s behalf– opportunities to contribute to the story– whereas agency originates with the player, and must be accounted for. Essentially; does your game fall apart if some of its players run off and do their own thing? Or will the illusion of the game world hold up, and make room for their contribution?

Minutes of Focus

The gamewriting concept that, in a game, there are only so many minutes that the focus of the group can rest upon any particular character, scene or idea. Some of those minutes must necessarily go towards establishing the setting and conflict, including the main antagonist(s); some must go towards each obstacle; some must go towards each flow point; and as many as possible should rest on the PCs. You’ll need the help of your SPCs to accomplish this, but let them know what you have in mind or minor characters may wind up dominating everyone’s game experience because of a charismatic player; or scenes may drag on with no end in sight.

Fetch Quest

A flow point in which PCs set out to retrieve something specific. It could be a magic crystal, a magic spell, a magic friend, a magic enemy, or just about anything. As long as they fetch it.

MacGuffin

The reasons the PCs set out on a fetch quest! It is the item that PCs need to go and retrieve. It could be a magic crystal, a magic spell, a magic friend, a magic enemy, or just about anything. It is usually an item that the PCs need to get to push the flow forward. (See also: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MacGuffin)

Final Battle

The big battle that happens at the end of a lot of games! The heroes rally. The villains also rally. Much murder ensues. One side dies, the other side gets to give speeches.

Teaser

A short story, document, poster, video, or just about anything else that serves essentially as an advertisement for a game. They are generally distributed online before the camp the game is to be played it, to help build hype and interest in the game. They are also usually exhibited before or at the start of Intro to Story to get the players excited for that workshop.

Intro to Story

The workshop at camp where the gamewriter introduces the players to the world of the game. This often includes going over world history, mythology, and introducing the major SPCs and their players. Be careful not to spoil your players by accident! This is also a good time to throw in some sweet theme music if you’ve got speakers.

Casting

This refers to both the process of deciding who the people at camp are going to play in game, and the workshop where they find out the results of said decision-making. This can be as simple as dividing them into groups, or as complicated as writing customized character sheets for each person and distributing them. Depends on how little sleep you’re okay with getting before game, really.

Character Development (Chardev)

Time set aside for the players to flesh out their characters and the relationships between them. This can be more or less organized, depending on the person running it and the amount of time allotted at camp.

Game Conventions

These are things that you have changed or added to the system for your adventure game. This could be to add something cool and original to your game that fits in the world you have created, or to take out a spell or ability that would not make sense in your world. The participants in your game need to know them so they can properly react to the things that are happening to them and around them in game.

System Hacks

Changes to the magic system which do not need to be explained to every player in order to work. These change the way a specific character or group buys, casts or reacts to elements in the magic system in such a way that it need be explained only to them.

Intention Circle

A short ritual which precedes an adventure game, useful for any last-minute out-of-character announcements and reminders, and for getting players ready to step into character. This will be the last time to tell the people playing your game any information before it starts. This is a good time make sure everyone knows/remembers all the game conventions and the location of RE. LET US PLAY!

Original post 12/4/13

Group Hug

A Good Tease

A Good Tease

So this year we’re bringing back teasers as a requirement for game submissions, which means it’s time for a crash course in the whys, hows, and which-end-ups of making a good game teaser!

First, the basics: what the heck is a teaser? To quote our Gamewriter’s Glossary, a teaser is “a short story, document, poster, video, or just about anything else that serves essentially as an advertisement for a game. They are generally distributed online before the camp the game is to be played it, to help build hype and interest in the game. They are also usually exhibited before or at the start of Intro to Story to get the players excited for that workshop.”

Alright, sounds good! But how do you go about building that hype? Well, there are a lot of different approaches to teaser-making. The main thing you want to decide as you set up your teaser is how much information you’re going to reveal. Teasers fall on a spectrum of information. At one end you have things that are incredibly cryptic, and work by giving the audience a lot of questions they want answers to. At the other end, you have teasers that spell out the premise of the game, which work by letting the audience know what kind of game they can look forward to. Both are totally valid options! It’s also possible to release multiple teasers for a single game, running the gamut of options. I’m going to run through the teasers I released for Ghosts of Eden, Winter Game 2011, each one doing a different style of teasing.

Establishing Tone

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The first teaser I released for Ghosts of Eden was this sweet poster. Check it out! I think it is pretty neat. The kerning on the title is messy, though. Dang. But it’s pretty dang minimalist. Not a lot of content going on there. What do we actually learn from this poster? Not much! Space, I guess? What looks like a tiny space station floating between the Earth and the Moon? And that’s pretty easy to miss on a casual glance. So what we have is: this is probably a sci-fi game, on the darker end of serious. Not much beyond that. It does have the most important info, though–the game name, the writer’s name, the rough date, and the website URL. That way people who see the teaser can follow the link and hopefully go register!

Mostly this poster exists to establish tone. Isolation, mystery, the empty vastness of space. These elements made up the core of the emotional tone for the game, which I wanted to establish early to get people in the right mindset. It’s pretty far to the “no information” end of the spectrum! But that’s probably okay, as it was a teaser released way early. It could also be posted all over the place–we put this up on the website, on the forums, at the top of every survey. It gave things a nice coherent identity!

Establishing Setting

Next up, I released a series of news articles, one every few weeks leading up to game. Each one focused on a different element of the setting, introducing ideas and elements of background that would be important to the game. None of them gave the full premise of the game, but each was packed with lots of information. Close readers could figure out even more about the game’s elements, but still nothing spoiler-y here.

The news stories also introduced important characters like Adrian and Sam Branson, putting them in the minds of players well before Story Intro. At this point we’re somewhere in the middle of the information spectrum–players know a lot about the world of the game, plenty of background, but nothing yet about the game itself.

These teasers also showcase a common teaser format, the in-setting document. Other common in-setting teaser documents include leaked emails, found footage clips, wanted posters, journal entries, and so on.

Introducing the Premise

Finally, a week before game, I posted this video online. Assembled from actual Virgin Galactic ads and some footage filmed on my balcony, it pretty much spells out the whole premise. Adrian Branson has launched a human-habitable space station! A whole bunch of super-smart teenagers from all over the Bay Area will be going up to visit it as the first people there! Get hyped!

Of course, it still didn’t include the minute one twist (all the adult chaperones dying the minute they arrived on the station), but it still got people thinking about who they’d be, what the station would be like, what they might get to do there. At this point, people getting teased have a reasonable idea of what to expect from the game. By the time people arrived at camp, if they’d been following the teasers, they’d be pretty jazzed for game! It is important to remember, though, that not everyone sees the teasers, so you can’t rely on them to convey info to your players. Anything vital in your teasers should still be gone over at Story Intro. (Or just showcase your teasers at the start of Story Intro!)

The Narrative Moment

The one major teaser format I didn’t use for Ghosts of Eden happens to be the most common one–a short scene, written out in text. These can fall just about anywhere on the vague-to-infodump to spectrum, be short or long, and can even come in multiple parts. All the same questions still apply, though. How much do you want to reveal? What questions to do you want to leave your readers thinking about?

An important thing to include, no matter what your teaser format, is what makes your game unique. Why should players be excited about your game specifically? Not every teaser needs to spell that out, but if your teaser is about a shadowy dark lord scrying on a heroic band of adventurers, that’s not really going to catch anyone’s eye.

That was what Dylan and I had in mind when we wrote our teaser for Factory Town. The setting itself at first brush was pretty generic–wizards and warriors and demons and faeries. But the backstory and pitch made it a lot more unique than that, as well as the focus on the bleak tone of day-to-day life in a small industrial town. So we chose to foreground those elements in our story teaser. This was also our only teaser, so we wanted to make sure it really conveyed everything we needed it to!

Teasers 2.0

It’s also possible to do something entirely new and experimental with your teaser! Done right, you can build a whole lot of hype and blow peoples’ minds. Done wrong, no one will even really notice what you’re doing. That’s what happened with my failed attempt at a teaser for Weapon of Choice, Operation Starfall. I attempted to run an Alternate Reality Game on tumblr, with people playing the members of a secret organization dedicated to fighting some of the villains of my game, but despite the best efforts of my SITs to promote it, no one really wound up playing along. I didn’t establish any kind of link to Wayfinder until a month into the game, by which point no one was really interested. C’est la vie! Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did, if you try something new and cool.

Bringing it all Together

There are a whole lot of options for what a teaser can be! It can be a poster, a piece of text, a video, or something weirder. It can be a short story, an in-world document, or just an abstract promotional piece. It can establish tone, introduce the world, or give the full premise. How much you want your teaser(s) to reveal is entirely up to you! Your goal is to get people excited, and there are a lot of different ways to do that. Make sure that whatever you do, you end it with the game’s name, your name, the event it’ll be played at, and the Wayfinder URL! A teaser’s not doing any good if no one knows what they’re being teased for!

Remember too that you can have as many teasers as you want! You only have to include one with your submission, though. Feel free to have it be a simple narrative for now, and if you have plans to do more elaborate teasers, make a note of that. We love teasers!

Finally, here’s one more sample teaser, my favorite one I’ve made to date, a video teaser for Quinn Milton’s Music Box (Penultimate Camp 2009).

Happy teasing!

Original post 1/5/15