The Story Board Blog
This blog is where announcements about story submissions will be made. Other blog posts will help you figure out how to write an awesome Adventure Game!
Steering Made Clear:
Play Style and its Theory
We play Adventure Games because we want a specific experience. We want to cry, we want to laugh, we want to look cool, we want to hit stuff with foam sticks. From filling out a character survey to the final moments of game, you as a player are tailoring your character and your portrayal of them to achieve these ends. This tailoring is often called steering- you steer your character’s actions to suit what you want to get out of the game. Steering is pretty intuitive to most players, it’s more defined terminology to say that you, the player, are in control of your character. (This is the sort of revolutionary idea you come across reading larp theory.) What’s helpful about recognizing that steering exists is that it makes you more likely to use it to your advantage, and better optimize your character’s actions to get what you want. Recently we’ve been talking about making out-of-game goals alongside character creation. Steering is the tool you use to achieve those goals.
One particular type of steering I find interesting is playing to lose, which is also conveniently exactly what it sounds like. I’ve had a lot of great scenes come out of playing to lose, like two rounds of the Oldest Game that I played in Brennan Lee Mulligan’s Grad School, run during Winter Game 2017. Allowing my character, Puck, to lose the first game led to a quest to seek revenge and win– only to lose another round of the Oldest Game in an even more epic and disgraceful fashion. Books and movies are no fun if everything goes right for the protagonist. Playing to lose gives your character those speed-bumps an author would normally give to their characters, and often makes for a more interesting, cathartic story. Playing to lose can also be a great way to make your scene partner look good, which is one of the key rules of improv and always a good way to make a great scene.
Steering is ultimately about achieving goals in game, and the Three Way model is one way to categorize how people achieve these goals. The Three Way model (a larp-specific adaptation of the Threefold model, which is used in general RPG theory) proposes that all play-styles fall loosely into three categories: gamist, dramatist, and immersionist. Gamist players play to win; they want to solve a riddle, they want to outsmart the villain, they want to stab the Big Bad even after it’s dead. Dramatist players are playing to tell a cool story, and often control their actions to fit into a traditional narrative with a nice satisfying ending. Immersionist players play because they want to be as true to the experience of their character and the world they’re playing in as possible- if their character would sit in a corner and cry, goddamnit they’re going to sit in that corner for as long as their character would.
Of course these three play styles, like gender and dark chocolate, exist on a spectrum, and the boundaries can often be blurry. I myself fall somewhere between dramatism and immersionism. This is something I think shows in Puck’s actions; playing to lose both was definitely dramatist, but the desire to seek revenge was a result of deep immersion. Overlap is normal, and blending these different styles can often be unintentional. Someone accustomed to winning cool battles and finding loopholes in the magic system (typically a gamist perspective) when confronted with no fighting or magic can quickly become an adept narrative player, since the way to “win” that sort of scenario is to tell the coolest story. In a similar vein, playing for immersion can also get competitive, with some players bragging about bleed and overflowing emotions. These different type of players also often use the same mechanics. For example, steering can be used for both gamist and dramatist purposes, though is often frowned upon in cultures that put a high value on immersion. These elements can also easily co-exist in the same game, depending on whether there’s a tavern scene or a big battle or a mass ritual. It’s best to think of the distinctions of the Three Way model as ideas to play with rather than strict rules to follow. As the creator of the model, Petter Bøckmen, admitted, “Shoehorning everything into this model may lead to some really funny results.”
Playing style is ultimately up to the individual player, but some games are more suited towards one end of the spectrum than another, and game writers should consider these different styles when writing. The most obvious distinction is that Wayfinder intro games lean more towards gamism, while our advanced games are more conducive to immersionism, though this is certainly not exclusive, and any play-style could be implemented in any game. The Three Way model can be useful for a game writer in helping to define what they want out of their game and what the audience of the game is. Recognizing that they want players to win leads to creating very different scenes than wanting their players to feel immersed, and oftentimes these games attract different types of players.
Whether you were aware of all this theoretical jibber-jabber before or not, you have already used your intuition as a player to tailor your play style to different scenarios. You wouldn’t play a comedy game with the high dramatic style you might use in a fantasy game, and you probably wouldn’t put on a Texan accent in a fae court. The ideas behind steering and the Three Way Model are all similar ways to change how you play. They’re not set in stone, and one is certainly not better than the other, just different. What my hope is, with this knowledge in hand, you will try something new in the next game you play, and maybe learn more about yourself and this delightful artform we all create together.
The original proposal of the Three Way Model by Petter Bøckman, from the 2003 Knudepunkt book, As Larp Grows Up.
An article from the 2018 Knutpunkt book, Playing the Cards, about some further dramatist concepts and how to incorporate them into large-scale larps.
The Manifesto of the Turku School, which contributed to the overwhelming prevalence of immersionism in Nordic larp. While it does have some flaws and make some polemic statements (most hysterically in reference to sacrificing designer’s work “to the unholy altar of social relations”), it’s essential in understanding the history of larp.
Written by Julian Schauffler
Three Ways to Cut a Cake:
Game Mechanics Part 1
Game Mechanics are one of the most complicated aspects of writing an Adventure Game, and it’s not because of the difficulty. Every single game has mechanical elements, with different degrees of prominence within a particular game. These mechanics develop together into systems – relationships of mechanics that inform each other. For example, each different spell a wizard can know is a mechanic, together they form a system. As someone who is involved heavily in the Tabletop Roleplaying Game world, a world where systems are far more prominent when discussing game design, I find myself thinking a lot about how to use mechanics and systems to develop the emotional reactions I would like in a game. In this article, I’m not going to talk about how to use game mechanics for your game. Not yet. Instead, I’m going to introduce a vocabulary for talking about game mechanics, taking them apart, and examining them critically. None of these systems of mechanical discussion are perfect for every game mechanic. Instead, you should mix and match these different divisions of game mechanics to gain a deeper understanding of how game mechanics work.
What is a “Game Mechanic”?
At its most basic level, a game mechanic is a rule about how the world of your adventure game functions. Technically, every single aspect of how we interact with an adventure game is a game mechanic. We just take the majority of these “mechanics” for granted. For example, a core game mechanic that is true in 99% of all Adventure Games is how a sword operates. This is, in many ways, the heart of the greater Wayfinder system – the core that everything else is rooted in. On a more abstract level, something like “talking” is technically a game mechanic. When I speak out loud, it’s understood that my character is speaking out loud and saying the same words that I’m saying normally. However, we can appreciate this as a mechanic when we notice when this isn’t true. If I cross my fingers before I talk, this indicates at Wayfinder that I’m speaking out-of-character, and that my character isn’t actually saying the words that I’m saying at the moment. Similarly, words can indicate mechanical importance. If I point at you and yell “Knockdown!”, then it is left unclear whether my character is actually saying these words. Instead, it is understood that I am casting a spell or using psionic abilities to repel you and shove you onto the ground.
Game mechanics develop into a System. A System is a series of interconnected mechanics. The classic example is the Wayfinder Magic System. It is composed entirely of different moving parts, that intersect to form a cohesive whole. Systems make assumptions about how play is supposed to operate. By including swords in your game, you are probably assuming at least the following things:
- 1. Swords will exist in the game and at least the threat of sword use will appear.
- 2. That when a player sees the out-of-game object we refer to as a sword, they will understand that that object represents a large hunk of metal (they will imagine it is a sword).
- 3. That injury or death is possible within the game, and there are additional game mechanics to handle that.
That last point is the most important. Game mechanics naturally beget other game mechanics, as part of developing a system. We possess a death system, in which players understand what is to happen mechanically when they are killed as a result of actions in game. That is a game mechanic. As an extension of that, there must be game mechanics in place to facilitate what happens ways to die. Do I die if someone points at me and says “Death!”. Do I die if someone hits me with a sword or shoots me with a NERF bullet? Do I die if someone shines a red light on me? What if something weird happens, like I set off a tripwire? These are all game mechanics that combine with the mechanism of RE to create a game system.
Cues and You
New Game Mechanics can be challenging. An improperly implemented game mechanic can be at best confusing, or at worst actively destructive to the game. The key to creating a game mechanic which successfully adds to the game is ease of remembrance. The easiest way to do that is to build it into Wayfinder’s pre-existing system that is assumed in games. For example, the majority of spells at Wayfinder are communicated via pointing at someone and yelling one or two words that correspond to what the effect is for the player being pointed at. This is a fairly intuitive system – the receiving player is literally being instructed in how to react. If I want a new mechanic that represents the evil villain’s ability to rot away at people’s skin, the easiest way to do that and ensure people will remember it is by attaching a verbal cue – perhaps the villain points at its victim and yells “Wither!”. Wayfinder most often uses verbal cues in its game mechanics (although somatic cues – cues that are communicated via unusual physical action – aren’t uncommon, especially in the Sci-Fi system and its derivatives) However, that’s not always the appropriate solution. What if I want the withering effect to be constant?
In that scenario, a common solution is to tie the withering to a visual cue. I might, before game, inform everyone that if they see Jud Packard, that means their skin begins to rot off. Sometimes, this works! However, visual cues don’t often work passively. It’s easy to forget that there’s something special associated with Jud Packard, in the heat of the moment. The best way to ensure players remember visual cues is by making the visual cue impossible to miss and to really, really drill it into their heads. Silence Blooming, a game ran in 2017 by myself and Jeremy Gleick, made heavy use of visual cues for game mechanics. The one that really stuck in people’s heads was “Everyone follow the Whale Monster!” which is to say, that when people see a giant monster composed of multiple moving people, they have to follow it. We turned this into a callback to ensure that people would remember it, and it worked effectively in game. We also made strong use of colored lights for verbal cues. I was wrapped entirely in glowing string lights for game, and if you had a particular disease, you had to follow me. This only mattered to people with the disease, so people were already aware of something to look out for. Also, string lights are very visible at night.
Another tool you have at your disposal disconnects mechanics from active players. Object cues and written cues are both ways of allowing mechanics to exist in the world without having a player enforcing them. An object cue is a particular object with a mechanical effect when you interact with it – a sword hurts you when you’re hit by it, or a red LED light melts your skin off when it’s held up to you. Written cues instruct the player in how to proceed. A common one is “sickness papers”, when you have a small piece of paper that explains to you the symptom of a disease you possess. Sometimes, these cues blend together. An object might have a written cue on it, to instruct you as to what happens when you pick it up, and a piece of paper might represent an object – like a piece of tape with TRAP written on it.
Often, it’s possible for a single game mechanic to possess multiple cues attached to it at a single time. While a sword kills you if it hits you, it requires a somatic component (being swung at you) to actually have an impact – we have an understanding that a sword just sitting there won’t injure you. Spells like Repulsion also possess a somatic component – outstretched arms – and an object cue and a visual cue are closely interlinked. The important part for a mechanic within a system is that the mechanic is easy to remember and consistent with other mechanics, both within the game and in a larger context at Wayfinder. For example, it is commonly accepted that when you hear someone blow a vuvuzela, that means they are freezing time. This is such an ingrained reaction for many of us that even when told the vuvuzela blast means something else, we’ll often react by freezing. It often goes without saying, but you also want to have consistency within the world of the game – if red LED lights cause your skin to melt off, make sure Sets & Props isn’t using any for any scene if that’s not your desired effect!
Naturalistic vs. Symbolic
In Art History (my personal discipline) there is a continuum that exists, between naturalism (that is, art that perfectly resembles the real world) and symbolic (art that has no visual connection to the natural world). We can also construct this line for game mechanics. This section of this article draws on the work of Lauri Lukka in “6 Levels of Substitution: The Behavioral Substitution Model”, published in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book. (An aside: if you ever have a free night or two, hunt down all the Knutpunkt/Knudepunkt/Solmukohta articles you can find, and check them out. There are some real gems!)
On one end of the spectrum, (no substitution, in Lukka’s language) is a game mechanic which is perfectly naturalistic. What the game mechanic represents as a symbol is exactly what happens in real life. An obvious example of this is that in the majority of game, “walking” as an in-game action is represented by performing the physical action “walking”, which is to say, when you want to walk around, you walk around. Another, significantly more dangerous example would be a game in which people actually stab each other with swords to represent a swordfight. Sometimes, a perfectly naturalistic game mechanic makes sense – we don’t need to abstract walking (the majority of the time). However, for other mechanics, it’s sometimes dangerous – there’s a reason we have foam swords.
The other end of that continuum is a perfectly symbolic (or abstract) game mechanic. This is when the symbol of the concept completely replaces any real interaction with the world. This could be a spirit journey where someone describes to you what’s going on, or where you read information off of a piece of paper on the ground. These are mechanics you’d expect to find in a tabletop game, or perhaps in play-by-post. Your physical body doesn’t matter, as it’s been completely substituted.
In the middle are game mechanics which either depend more heavily on naturalistic behavior, or on symbolic information. Our system for sword combat, where we have abstracted it to the point where we’re not using literal swords, and we treat the swords differently than how they are as actual objects, but we strive for realism in how the swords operate, is a mostly-naturalistic mechanic. A system in which, instead of fighting with swords, you engage in a dance party, is heavily abstracted but in an interesting way. It’s still satisfying the same physical mechanisms as a sword fight does, but the swords have been abstracted out of the combat. Even further abstracted would be a system where sword fights are represented through a game of poker. Gone is the physical association, and instead is a mental association. One could say that a game of Texas Hold’em is a lot like a Mexican Standoff in terms of the tenseness and cultural associations, making a symbolic switch like that appealing.
Lukka posits that this is connected to a “Dual Processing Model” and proposes a Grotesque Zone where the naturalistic and symbolic clash (an idea I disagree with for subtle reasons but is still a useful mechanism for discussion). I would argue that game mechanics anywhere along the line can be failing, but the advantage of the continuum is that it gives you the ability to understand how you want your mechanics to be realized, and when they fall apart, why they fall apart. It’s possible for a game mechanic to be more abstracted than it needs to be, by involving layers of thought that replace one’s ability to intuit how the mechanic works. Conversely, it’s possible for a game mechanic to be more naturalistic than it needs to be, either by endangering people or forcing you to conform to your weaknesses as a physical person. An example of how this can be contentious is the Hide mechanic used in the current Magic System. One camp of people argues that the mechanic is too abstracted, making people worse at hiding because it gets in the way of how to “actually” hide as a Rogue. The other camp argues that the mechanic is perfectly fine because it abstracts the act of hiding into something anyone is capable of doing and something they’re guaranteed to succeed at physically.
Game Mechanics as Improv Prompts
A third and valuable way of subdividing game mechanics is by how players engage with them. There are four such categories in this sense – Active Mechanics, Passive Mechanics, Reactive Mechanics, and Collaborative Mechanics.
Active mechanics are ones that are forced upon a player by another player or their environment. If I hit you with a sword, I have now caused you to experience a scene against your will. You didn’t choose to be hit by a sword (maybe), but you are now given the improvisational prompt “you’re wounded!”. Similarly, if I point at you and yell, “Fear!”, I’m directly giving you a prompt to change how you’re roleplaying. Sometimes, Active mechanics will require me to change my own behavior – a spell might physically exhaust me, for instance – but I’m the one making the choice to invoke the convention.
Passive mechanics are internal ones. They’re truths about one’s character that define how that character operates. Often, no one knows a particular passive mechanic exists, or it folds effortlessly into pre-existing systems. A curse that’s built into my character from the start of game is an example of a passive mechanic – if I do something, I must change my roleplaying, but no one needs to know about that but me. Another passive mechanic is the ability to hide, or the entire mechanic for reincarnation and death. Passive mechanics aren’t put upon you, except by either the gamewriter or yourself.
Reactive mechanics occur reflexively when another player does something, but otherwise have no effect. The best example of a reactive mechanic is Protection. Reactive mechanics tend to be very similar to passive mechanics, as you’re the only person who needs to keep track of them, but you tend to need to inform another player that they’re occuring. Personally, I’m not a big fan of reactive mechanics whose only function is to protect you from having to react to magic. The entire function of the system is to give people the chance to be affected by cool magic, and while it can be empowering to not have to react, it clashes against the interesting scene made by having to react.
Finally, collaborative mechanics are ones which two or more people opt into together, taking on the improv prompt as a group. The only example of this that I can think of in the traditional magic system is Sanctuary, where multiple people can be guarded by a single ringing bell, but it’s possible to create others. I believe collaborative mechanics are especially valuable in games when you want to foster a sense of community and team-building. In a sense, all rituals are collaborative mechanics, as they’re a group of people working together to execute the mechanic. Often, collaborative mechanics have someone orchestrating them, but the players are all joining into it to build the scene.
Examples of Evaluating Mechanics
For the final portion of this article, we’re going to take a few game mechanics, and you must identify the cues of the mechanic, whether the mechanic is more naturalistic or symbolic, and whether the mechanic is active, passive, reactive, or collaborative. In addition, each mechanic has a different flaw with it that will cause problems during game, and I’d like you to identify how this appears. This isn’t a test – I don’t expect you to guess them perfectly. Instead, I want you to start using these different division systems as a way of talking about mechanics, and understand how they can be applied, and how they can be useful. If you disagree with me on any of these mechanics, you’re welcome to hunt me down on the internet and passionately explain to me why I’m wrong.
- 1. The Sword of Angrathnar. If a glowing red sword would kill you, you become a ghost that follows the wielder of the blade around, invisible to everyone. The wielder can issue commands to you, which you must obey.
- 2. Rosie Ring. If two Spore Disciples hold hands together and start dancing while singing a terrifying nursery rhyme, they begin a ritual that transforms them into the host of an arcane disease that warps reality. They must dance for five minutes straight, at which point they may become horrible monstrosities, and change into monster costumes.
- 3. Misty Step. If a spell would be cast on a Wizard who is capable of casting the spell themselves, they may instead ignore the spell and wave their arms around, putting on their spirit costume. They may then run up to 30 feet and reappear somewhere else.
- 4. The Mark of Kaine. Those who carry the mark of Kaine, a black rune on one’s forehead, cannot be harmed by any wound, and instead any wound that would harm them appears on those who tried to harm them.
1. The Sword of Angrathnar. This is a visual object cue (the sword is an object, and it’s glowing red, which reminds you visually). This is not especially symbolic or naturalistic, as it abstracts a non-natural experience, but I could hear arguments leaning either way. It is an active game mechanic, as the wielder of the weapon inflicts it onto other players with the blade itself. The flaw that I would articulate is that the mechanic is too active – it takes control and limits the victim’s games in a way that isn’t fun (they now have to be ghosts forever, and don’t get to make their own choices while being invisible to everyone).
2. Rosie Ring. This is a somatic cue (dancing), accompanied by a verbal cue (singing). It is fairly naturalistic, as even though it represents a non-natural process, the process is very literal. You’re dancing and singing, which is what you’re doing in the fiction. At the end, there’s a split into abstraction as they have to stop and change into monster costumes. Finally, the mechanic is collaborative – it’s engaged willingly by two people, and alters their behavior without directly impacting anyone else. The flaw of this mechanic is that naturalism and symbolism are clashing. Having to stop the immersive scene at the end of it to change into costumes kills the mood, and ruins whatever the writer was trying to go with with the creepy transformation sequence.
3. Misty Step. This mechanic features a visual object cue (the spirit costume), and hypothetically a somatic cue (the waving-around arms). It is neither especially naturalistic or symbolic, to the point where it’s unclear what’s going on from either perspective. Finally, it is a reactive mechanic, which only allows you to do something if someone’s cast a spell on you. There’s two main problems with the spell: first, the somatic cue is unnecessary and confusing. The other problem is that it’s too reactive. You have to jump through too many hoops in order to use it, and there’s a good chance someone is let down by their spell randomly happening to fail.
4. The Mark of Kaine. This is a visual cue (the forehead symbol). It’s neither especially naturalistic or symbolic, beyond how our own weapon system is abstracted. Finally, the kind of prompt this is is tricky. On one hand, it’s active – you’re changing your roleplay behavior because of something the person with the mark is doing. On the other hand, it’s reactive – your own actions are causing something to happen to you. Perhaps from the person with the mark’s perspective, it’s passive. They don’t have to do a single thing. The problem with this mechanic is this lack of clarity in how the cues operate. When we use this mechanic normally in Wayfinder games (often called “Thorns”), we accompany it with a verbal cue (yelling “Thorns!” when the person with the mark is injured). This reminds the person engaging in the injuring how the mechanic works, and turns it into a reactive mechanic that causes an active mechanic to occur.
Game Mechanics are, on a fundamental level, how we interface with the fiction that is the Adventure Game. Every single thing you do in an adventure game is technically a game mechanic, and even something as simple as talking to someone else can have multiple meanings or purposes. Don’t treat your game mechanics like something extra, to toss on top of your game when you need some garnish. They’re the tools you use to immerse your players and build your narrative. Take command of your mechanics, and sculpt your world with them. In the future, I’ll be talking about how mechanics combine, and how that builds a system.
Written by Jay Dragon
March 30, 2018.
You Win Or You Die:
Political Games and You
I’ll be completely honest – in my opinion, Game of Thrones is not a very good TV show. That doesn’t stop me from watching it (doing my best to avoid the constant misogyny and racism). The only actually enjoyable part of Game of Thrones is the political intrigue and power plays. Because boy are those a lot of fun! Watching people scheme against one another and forge (and break) powerful alliances in the name of their aspirations and deep-set character desires is great! Getting to be a mover and shaker in a situation like that one is an amazing example of meaningful choice – your actions have direct consequences for the entire world. Sometimes at Wayfinder we try to capture the experience of that situation in what we call “Political Games”. We’re not the only people to try that out – obviously other LARPs enjoy political settings, and you could easily argue that Model UN and Model Congress are perfect examples of political games (just without the roleplay). But, in my experience, it’s incredibly hard to write a good political game. In order to understand why, and how we can do better, we should take a look at what exactly a political game is and what it needs.
Tell me about it!
When I visualize a political game, I imagine something like the third game of Legendary Camp 2011. In it, representatives from across the known world gathered to petition the representatives of the gods in order to achieve their agendas and manipulate their future. There was a huge map with soldiers on it, political intrigue, assassination attempts, and drama. It determined the very fate of the world (which was the shared setting for the rest of the camp and for the Finale of that year). A small group of bureaucrats became dictators through careful use of council legislation, and silkworm farmers from the far north helped save the world. Now, a visualization is nice and all, but we can’t go around categorizing a game as political or not without some kind of definition. For the purposes of this article, I will define a political game as the following:
A game in which individuals or small groups have very direct goals (free your people from slavery, shut down your enemy’s factories, get your plan to save the world approved by the UN)
These goals cannot be achieved by action and quest-taking – they require social interaction, negotiation, and scheming. (You can’t save your people from the slavers without the permission of the Emperor)
There is no external enemy interrupting the negotiation process. People are free to argue in peace, and while there might be pressure from outside (negotiators hide in a bunker, etc.) ultimately, this doesn’t stop the arguments.
That’s cool, and simple too! However, you might be able to see some flaws in this structure. First and foremost, not everyone enjoys arguing. A lot of our players are here to fight with swords, have emotional moments, or, y’know, do things. If a game is purely political, with no room for anything else, it’s going to miss the mark for almost everyone. That’s a big problem. Also, another issue is that most people either lack the personal initiative or the in-character ability to make a ton of meaningful change. Anyone can swing a sword or cast a spell, but not everyone feels comfortable with public speaking or backroom deals. In any political game, there will be people with more status and charisma than others. If you lack both of those things, you’re not going to get much done. The final issue, which isn’t universally true but is overwhelmingly common, is that nothing actually means anything. In Game of Thrones, the characters care about the fate of Westeros because they’re the fools living there. In a political game, once the game is over, none of it mattered. There’s no rewards for becoming king (besides bragging rights) and no one is going to be blown away that you shut down your competitor’s factory. It’s really hard to become invested in something when it doesn’t really matter to you (even if it matters to your character).
Yikes! Those are some pretty tough hurdles to overcome. However, I love political games so much, that I want to find some solutions. So first off, I’m going to talk about what’s needed to make a good political game. Then, I’m going to talk about what you need for a great political game, that will get everyone involved.
The fundamentally most necessary thing for a political game is stuff. Information, secrets, rumors, factoids, legal documents, the whole nine yards. This creates an immersive environment, as people now have tools they can fall back on to prove their points and engage in intrigue. In most games, we enjoy being able to make things up as we go along (improv!) but in political games, it’s good to have a framework that gives people a solid benchmark for reality. It’s best if this stuff can have a physical form in game – people can’t hold all the information they need in their heads at once. Writing all of this stuff is a lot of work, however. If you’re comfortable with that (like me) you’ll do strong, but if you’re not, you’re going to need another solution. That’s okay! I bet you can come up with a lot of creative solutions that will all accomplish the same thing – giving people tools in game that they can use to feel like the setting around them is real and that their actions will have meaningful impact.
Another good tool is to have a mediator, someone who can help keep game flowing smoothly. In most games, this role is filled by PC leaders. But in political games, PC leaders often have their own goals and intentions that run counter to being a good PC leader. For example, a PC leader in a political game wants their faction to win, for their own goals to succeed, and for their enemies to be crushed. This means that they can’t step in and encourage someone on the enemy team to speak up, and if they’re the best at debating on their team, why wouldn’t they just take center stage at all times? A mediator fulfills the functions of a PC leader – facilitating player empowerment, ensuring the game goes according to plan – while also keeping the playing field level and ensuring that the mechanics of the game still work. This mediator can be anyone – an emperor, the executor of a will, the commander of the military guiding the figures on the map – but in my opinion is an essential figure.
Another option is to build into the very mechanics of the game ways for every player to be involved. This could be how the political mechanisms work – there’s a senate who vote on issues and events cannot transpire without majority approval, for example – or it could be based on classes and magic. If every team has a unique way of approaching a problem, then they can feel special and involved even though they’re all doing similar things. I remember in one Frontier, I was the leader of a team of aliens who were covered in eyes. We had the special power that we could communicate with one another without other people hearing, and we’d do that constantly, discussing our plans and coming to a consensus together, which helped us feel like the agrarian populists we were. You should tailor the magic system of your game to fit with what a political game needs (something that is very, very different from what a normal adventure game requires!)
The fourth part of a good political game is very challenging, but solves one of the biggest problems a political game faces – having things to do in the game that isn’t just politicking. There’s a lot of ways to do this. You can give the characters intense emotional connections that move past the politics, or you could disrupt the politics with monsters, forcing the players to stand up and defend themselves. You could also have a game be non-political with political elements, where there’s a small group of people flowed to argue about politics in a room while everyone else runs around and plays a normal game. I don’t really know of a way to do this that both keeps the political game feeling secure without feeling a little ham-fisted, but finding a solution to how to do this will help the political game function.
These are vital and cool things for a political game to have, and I would consider them baseline pieces of advice. Having all of these things will help ensure your game goes as smoothly as possible and are tried-and-true methods for keeping your game involved. However, all of these notes, while important, don’t actually solve the problems inherent in a political game. I’m going to propose some of my solutions, and touch on the question brought up by the previous paragraph – how do you make politics play nice with the rest of a game?
Consequences and “Mafioso Politics”
The first and biggest thing you can add to your political games to make them meaningful is consequences. This is especially easy in serial games – the actions of one game directly influence the outcome of the next game, and that means your choices really matter! You want to protect your people, because you know that if you don’t, they could be wiped off the face of the world. This is harder in a game that’s on its own, but there are solutions. One way I could imagine is that anyone who fails at becoming emperor are executed – you want to be emperor so you don’t die! Another way could be as simple as having a map in-game, and when places are wiped off the map, they are physically erased. Giving something as simple as a physical or event-based indicator of your choices doing things helps ground them in reality, and make it feel meaningful.
Another solution, which is honestly it’s own kind of game entirely, is what I call “Mafioso Politics”. In a mafioso political game, small groups have distinct goals which can mainly be achieved by negotiation, but! They all have knives. Something simple like that suddenly adds a new tone to the politics. You want to work together, because otherwise you’ll be stabbed! And vice versa, you have a sudden and powerful tool to get what you want if you need to, by stabbing your enemy. I’ve run two mafioso political games, both at Frontiers (although I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I run one at an Advanced camp), Partition City and Monsoon City, it’s spiritual successor. Both games were, at their core, political games, but they were also set at a market with plenty of other things happening, and disagreements were settled with knives and violence in addition to words and subtle discussions. Perhaps the strongest thing Partition City did to pull its weight as a political game was the use of rumors. Everyone had 3-5 rumors about their character as their character sheet, and they had full liberty to choose which rumors were true and by how much. Other characters could buy rumors as part of the point-buy system, and then use those rumors in-game. A couple of players spent the whole game trying to collect as many rumors as possible, and use them against people. This was a cool way for politics to be relevant and play a role, without feeling like people had to sit around a table and argue.
These are obviously just a couple of solutions to the political game problem. If you’re going to write a political game, you need to seriously think about the problems I’ve outlined, but once you think you’ve conquered them, your game is going to be amazing. Now that we’ve gone over what a political game is, some of the problems with a political game, and some of the solutions, we can talk about something which a number of people requested – flow! How do you write the flow for a political game?
The Flow of Politics
Even though political games tend to have very loose flow, understanding how that flow fits together will make your political games shine. If your game only has minor political elements, it should still make use of this simple structure to make sure things stay interesting for the political aspects. This flow has a simple structure, and it’s easy to add other parts to it in order to make it function better. I’m not quite sure what diamond flow would look like for a political game, but integrating those two structures could work really well! I could also imagine including a “final battle” or something similar.
The political game begins with Act 1: the Introduction. In the introduction, everyone meets each other, hands are shaken, and the basic structure of the game is established. It’s always important to have time for this, so people can understand how the game ticks and get comfortable with the structure. If you imagine playing a political game to be like playing a board game, you’re going to want people to be familiar with the rules and be used to it before the exciting things happen!
The next act is Act 2: the Twist(s)! Even though I compared playing a political game to being like playing a board game earlier, the reality is that you don’t want to be “just” playing a game – you want excitement! Intrigue! Everything fun! In light of that, something really weird should happen about halfway through game. Maybe the king dies, or one of the leading political figures reveals themself to be an alien, or maybe a barbarian horde invades – whatever it is, it should change the landscape of the politics without putting an end to the politics themselves. One twist can often be enough for a smaller game, but a bigger game can always benefit from more and more complex twists. Just make sure they’re staggered carefully – having too many twists at once will lead to information overload.
The final act is Act 3: the Conclusion. Players should be aware that the end of the game is fast approaching, and be able to act with that knowledge. The new king is crowned, the UN implements a plan, the space constitution is written. Game reaches a satisfactory ending, and people are able to understand whether their schemes have failed or succeeded. It is vital that, despite all the conflict and disagreement over the course of the game that has occurred, there is still something that wraps it up. People need and want a satisfying conclusion, and it’s important that your political game is able to provide that.
There are two forces acting within a political game, defining the tension of the flow. On one hand, you want your political game to be like a board game (as established in act 1), with consistent rules that people can understand and take advantage of in order to “win”. On the other hand, you want the game to have room for change and excitement, and not to become dull and repetitive. Striking this balance is one of the most fun parts of writing a political game, as you establish how people can have fun as characters but also as players. The fact that we call them adventure “games” underlines how important it is for the game to have fun built into the mechanics of the game. In political games, this is more important than in any other form of game. Gives you something to think about!
And Now the Rains Weep O’er his Hall
Well that’s it everyone! I hope this article was able to inspire you with your next big endeavor, and even if you’re not writing a political game, that it was able to teach you a fair bit about what games need to be functional and fun for everyone. Political games are my favorite kind of game to be a PC in, and it’s a real shame that we’ve stopped writing them as often as we used to. I hope this article can inspire you to find the Tyrion Lannister inside of you, and get ready to play the most dangerous game.
Written by Jay Dragon
Posted on 1/23/18
It’s tough to judge games. So much of it can be determined by where in the game you are, who you interact with, and what happens to you. Even if you don’t have fun, the staff involved in it are skilled at making it an enjoyable experience for the majority of people. Generally, you can feel whether a game went well or not (especially as you become a staff member), but if you asked me what the best five games I’d ever played was, I wouldn’t have a concrete answer. Game writing is a cumulative process which I’ve learned from playing games, reading articles on the Story Board tumblr about games, and talking about games (a lot!), and every single game contributes to that process. However! There are two games I’ve played over the past 6 years that I believe have introduced a completely new method of storytelling to Wayfinder Adventure Games, and have deeply and profoundly impacted my view on what can be done in an Adventure Game. These two games are A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes by Zach and Penny Weber, and Out of the Frost by Kate Muste.
A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes
A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes is a very strange game. While perhaps it’s similar to games run in Wayfinder’s history (a subject I’m not an expert on), it is vastly different from what we think of in modern terms of gamewriting. It’s set in a small village on a small island (very similar to Edo-period Japan), where a group of British-inspired sailors have washed on shore and caused all sorts of mayhem. The bear they brought with them killed the guardian of the forest and ate its heart, transforming into the new guardian spirit and driving the spirit world of the island into disarray. Horrible diseases (including red string, black eyes, and smallpox) were ravaging the population, and only the spirit doctors could help the people of the village return harmony to nature. It was a game about community, interpersonal support, the magic of nature, and the feeling of something absolutely unknowable happening to you. Production made more than 30 tiny puppets and statues which represented the various minor spirits of the forest, and lit them up with glowsticks and LED lights, creating the illusion that the forest is full of teeming, glowing magic. The sound of tinkling chimes and rushing water played across the entire campus, creating the illusion of strange forces at work. And the flow and game mechanics were unlike anything we’ve done since.
An important game convention was the use of disease. Everyone had a metal water bottle with them that contained about a dozen small slips of paper, rolled up into balls. Whenever the bell in the main space would toll, everyone would pull a slip of paper out of their bottle, and gain the new symptom of the disease. This might mean drawing eyes on your knuckles, tracing a new red line across your skin, or acting like you’re slowly going blind. This was the main antagonistic conflict of the game, as players feared and were tortured by the strange magics that consumed them. While the spirit doctors could help, their resources were limited. It created an atmosphere of terror and desperation as everyone’s health slowly decayed.
The flow of the game was also strange. When we traditionally talk about flow, we talk about it temporally – that is, events which unfold through time. A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, although presented temporally within the game submission, is more accurately talked about spatially – how groups of people travel to locations, what they seek to accomplish by being there, and then how they travel back. The flow structure in the game submission breaks it down into 4 hour-segments, and describes how locations and the characters in those locations change over time. In A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, a spirit doctor (a PC, mind you) would take a few willing villagers to go hunting for a particular spirit in order to accomplish a particular piece of magic. Larger objectives, that carried the fate of the game’s inhabitants, were hunted out by larger groups of people. At one point, players had to lead the Box Spirit (a mindless being that was the only creature that could carry the seed of flame) up a very large hill by shouting and distracting it, creating lures that could trick it along. This flow wasn’t concerned about whether or not this would happen, or how long it would take. It was one possible path for the PCs to engage in, and if they failed to complete it before the end of game, oh well! Such are the trials and tribulations of life.
If I was running this game, I’d be terrified over the ending. The danger of a spatially-oriented game is that there’s no actual way to conclude it without just interrupting a bunch of people. But, in true Wayfinder fashion, everything turned out amazingly. There were two endings in two locations across the land, both of them super exciting and beautiful, and it started raining at the end to boot! Which added a beautiful, mystic quality to the emotion of the ending that left everyone exhilarated and filled with hope. Playing in that game truly felt magical. One participant sat on the bridge by the lake the entire game and just watched the world go by, and for him that was more than enough. The game wasn’t about creating a narrative which players moved through over time, it was more interested in a series of interactive locations which together, built a narrative.
Out of the Frost
Out of the Frost was the third Frontier ever run, at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School in February 2015. For those of you unfamiliar, Wayfinder Frontier Events are a series of off-season one-day events that are focused on a small production budget, low cost of admission, and character-based storytelling. When I want to tell people about what Frontier games are like, Out of the Frost is my premier example. Unlike A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, the production for this game was practically nonexistent. If I wanted to, I’m confident I could run it again in my own house, with the random scary masks I have lying around. The premise of the game is simple – a research base has been abandoned, and you’re the rescue party. A freak snowstorm has trapped all of you in the base, and things are about to start going seriously wrong. In another beautiful (albeit frustrating) instance of Wayfinder weather, a freak snowstorm forced the event to end early, and the game was started several hours in advance.
The flow of the game was very simple. Horrific spirits called Hazard Ghosts slowly began appearing, tormenting the players and passing them notes which indicated the madness setting in. If you died (generally from suicide, or another player turning on you), you became a ghost, who needed to work with the few living humans in order to cure the diseases tormenting them. Ghosts could speak with humans, but couldn’t talk about or acknowledge the Hazard Ghosts. The only flow points in the entire game were three points where three main SPCs (the mayor, the head of the CSIS, and the head doctor) were flowed to die. These players would then come back at the very end (when things seemed most bleak) and rescue the surviving players, bringing them home.
This game is far less complicated, both mechanically and flow-wise, than A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes. However, in its simplicity a valuable lesson can be learned. This is a horror game about fear, about the ways people react when put in horrible conditions. As the game went on, the lab complex became a nightmarish parody of survival. Small clumps of people were clinging together, holding hands and communing with the dead. Hazard Ghosts were shrieking and mocking human speech, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and despair. People were wandering the halls aimlessly, lost and broken, looking for hope. The sun set through the white clouds of the incoming blizzard, lighting the main room with an eerie blue glow. Under these conditions, the game became about genuine, earth-shattering terror, caused by being pushed to a breaking point. It was, and I mean this in the absolute best way, a circle of hell brought to earth.
But what’s the connection (besides the use of small pieces of paper to communicate horrific mind-melting disease)?
Both of these games featured an entirely new Threat, something which none of the participants had ever encountered before. In the vast, vast majority of games we run at Wayfinder, the focus is on interpersonal conflict. The bad guys show up, with claws and axes, and the good guys (with swords and spell bolts) must use violence to take down this evil. This is a very good storytelling structure, and it feels good for the players. It’s nice to know that darkness can be stopped with the swing of your sword! In the games we write this way, violence is central to our narratives. The only way to defeat the Big Bad is with a swirling storm of swords, the only way to hold off the monsters is with magic and talented tactics. When non-violence is presented, it’s as an exception to violence, it’s the idea that instead of hurting our enemies, we choose something else. In both of the games I’ve discussed above, we instead discover what I’d like to call False Violence, contained within a game that’s all about environmental conflict and storytelling.
These games are deeply, profoundly rooted in atmosphere. You can have a lot of fun if you just wander around and look at what’s going on. Everything in game feeds into this atmosphere, and the enjoyment of the game is rooted in becoming immersed in the texture and sensation of the world. In addition, the conflict experienced in these games are themselves environmental. The monsters aren’t something you can overcome with weapons, they’re woven into the very fabric and conventions of the world. The Hazard Ghosts of Out of the Frost are immune to literally anything you could do to them. They exist as part of the environment, and like a blizzard or an avalanche you have no hope of stopping or controlling them, and must deal with the consequences. The spirits of A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes blur the line between playing character and prop. What’s the difference between having a scene with a spirit made from a few bent branches and a scene with someone pretending to be a spirit made from a few bent branches? The game was fundamentally about environmental storytelling, where the process of discovery and adventure is provided by the world around you. In addition, the diseases are an example of environmental conflict. They’re an evil force working against you and making your life harder, but just like the Hazard Ghosts, you cannot fight against them.
Both of these games also contain False Violence. While in a traditional Adventure Game, violence is the tool you use to solve your problems, in both of these games violence doesn’t actually help accomplish any of your goals. Violence is used to hurt people and to try and defend yourselves, certainly, but it doesn’t actually keep you any safer from the monsters that are hunting you or the diseases that are eating away at you. Violence becomes an activity performed, instead of a tool applied. This is fascinating to me! In a game about environmental conflict (man vs. nature), players seek to develop new tools to solve their problems. In A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, the players can call upon their environment, and the spirits that live in that environment, in order to help them solve their problems. While there is a primary antagonist of the game (the Head Priest, who believes the disease is a beauty and should be encouraged), stopping him isn’t going to solve anyone’s problems. In Out of the Frost, a far darker game, there’s no hope to be found until the absolute last possible second.
Great, great, that’s cool. How do we use this to improve our games?
What We Can Practice
So, frankly, I’m not sure how to mimic the atmospheric and visceral power of these games, although I’ve certainly been trying. I’m going to identify what aspects of these games led to the scenarios described above, and some tips and tricks I’ve picked up while aping these games that creates for enjoyable experiences.
Firstly, I want you to read my article about Part 1 to Intro Gamewriting, and apply the concept of a Premise very, very heavily to this game. Firstly, both games had extremely powerful theses. Zach and Penny describe the themes of A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes as “This is a story about whether or not humanity deserves to live. It’s also a story about the terror of dying when there’s nothing to fight, the weariness of being surrounded by death. It’s a story about tragic love, about shipwreck and disease and the cruel but arbitrary patterns of nature. About the line between Us and Other, and how we cling to the superiority of civilization, no matter how baseless it might be. It’s also a story about a ghost bear.” In Muste’s own words, “The game [Out of the Frost] was very much meant to push people to their breaking points in a cabin fever-y kind of way.” The game also carried strong themes of madness, frustration, isolation, and eldritch horror.
Secondly, I want you to imagine the sensual experience of playing this game. If you wander into the game, what does it look like? What do you see? Are there any smells or sounds that linger with you? Work into your production lists things that can contribute to this atmosphere. Having colored gel lights or black lights can add a unique vibe to the game, as can ambient music or even cooking food. One cool aspect of A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes is that orange lights and candles were used for locations associated with humans, while cool-colored and black lights were used for spirits. This created a natural association between the mundane, soft beauty of the human world and the exciting, alien world of spirits. If you intend on running a game that is so heavily dependent upon mood and aesthetic, be ready to work with Production an absolutely huge amount. When I’m running a game like this, I reach out to Production months in advance, and see what’s feasible, what’s not, and what ideas they have of their own to contribute. As an SIT working with Zach on running A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, I remember extensive production meetings between him and the Sets & Props heads, which was vital for making the game as beautiful as it turned out to be.
Thirdly, I want you to be thinking about Mission statements. While one of your Mission statements can definitely be “soaking in the aesthetic”, the players should have lots and lots of other things to do in order to make the game enjoyable. In A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, each team has objectives and desires which propel them from scene to scene. Across the entire campus there were interesting and engaging spirits to interact with, and when in doubt, they always had the symptoms of their diseases. Out of the Frost had the madness spread by the Hazard Ghosts, the struggle of trying to find a way out of there and communicate with the outside world, and the mystery of trying to figure out what exactly happened here before the base was abandoned. A few people had weapons, and those weapons were used extensively against each other in fits of rage and delusion, requiring other people to heal them. In both games there was also a heavy, heavy focus on inter-character relationships. Love, spurned love, friendship, family, and mentorship were all common throughout both games.
These games also require something which can be a huge challenge for newer gamewriters – immersive mechanics. In both games, small slips of paper were used to create the illusion that some external source was influencing your existence, and added uncertainty and mysteriousness to what the future would hold. Other examples of environmental mechanics that lead to immersive storytelling are having an area covered in traps for rogues to deal with, and having the air outside the main space be toxic and require limitations on how you interact with it. All of these mechanics impact play on one level or another, and change how you engage with the world. The reason why both of these games make heavy use of the spirit realm is because spirit costumes are already an important mechanic in our systems, and exploring that is very intuitive for the games we run. It’s not necessary for a game heavily rooted in environmental storytelling to make use of game conventions, but including ones that are immersive and change the tone of play really allows for some deeply profound gameplay.
Finally, think about the spaces of your game, and how they interact. Out of the Frost was able to work so well because we had about half a dozen different rooms in the property we were using, which made everything feel isolated and claustrophobic. You could never tell what was going on everywhere at the same time, which allowed information and madness to travel slowly. The game would end much faster and feel much less dynamic in a space with only one large room. A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes had many, many locations, spread out across campus, along with the paths between those locations being decorated and marked. While a game like a Tavern scene really only needs one location, an environmental game needs a diverse environment.
Now, this isn’t really a new or unique way for games to be written. I’m sure that what I’m describing would seem entirely natural to a gamewriter from 15 years ago, for instance, and I’ve heard of (and written) games since that connect thematically to this style. What I’m hoping for this article to do is shine a spotlight on a very unique game structure and nature, and how that can help us create better games on our own. My hope for this previous summer is that Silence Blooming, the game I ran with Jeremy Gleick, continues this tradition and provides a new step to the nature of environmental gamewriting.
Written by Jay Dragon
How Horror Games Tick
Late at night, JJ Muste and myself were staying up late after a Living Legend event I ran, and we were talking about horror games, and what makes them fun. We were bemoaning the lack of structure for how to write a horror game. JJ compared it to “a cake we keep making even though we don’t have a recipe. We just keep throwing eggs in and hoping it works!” While we’ve produced a number of really good horror games over the years, we’ve failed to come up with a common pattern between the games besides the fact that they’re scary, and I’ve played in one or two games that just failed to do anything for me. This article hopes to lay out a coherent structure for writing the flow of a horror game, and how to make that interesting for the players while keeping things scary. But first, before we can discuss that, we need to figure out what exactly a horror game is..
What’s a Horror Game?
A horror game is a game where players are put up against the unknown, and feel scared about it. Most adventure games have conflict against the unknown – every time people run away from a monster, they’re playing their own little horror game. What makes a horror game different is that the tools the PCs have to fight the horror just aren’t good enough. Often, the PCs don’t have weapons at all, like in Perfectly Normal Game by Thomas Gordanier, or The Secret Light by Roy Graham and Deanna Abrams. In other horror games or games with more horror elements, the weapons the PCs have do absolutely nothing against the monsters, like in Silence Blooming by Jay Dragon and Jeremy Gleick or Slow Nova by Mike Phillips.
In addition, the game is scary. There’s probably monsters, who look and act in especially uncanny or spooky ways. There’s possibly torture, strange and haunting sets, and occasionally gruesome special effects.The best horror games offer a variety of different terrors for the players’ amusement. In The Secret Light, there were monsters in the woods, torturing blood mages, a room of magical scrolls that forced you to do terrible things to yourself, and a disgusting “truth eel” made of jello, which participants had to eat. This combines textural, visual, visceral, and physical horror together to create tableaus of terror. The “horror” of a horror game is the meat and potatoes of the adventure. I encourage you to check out scary stories, watch some spooky videos, and really think about what is it that you want to be so scary. Put a lot of work and thought into your Sets & Props and Costuming lists, and be sure to communicate with those staff members carefully, in order to capture the tone of the game.
But what do you do, now that you’ve got those scary concepts? How do you string together the terror in such a way that the PCs can maintain a healthy level of fear throughout the game, without burning out or getting overwhelmed? The answer to that, I believe, can be found in the following 5 Act Structure.
The Five Act Structure
There are 5 acts to a horror game, 5 sections which guide the flow of play. All horror games have these acts, and the trick to making a successful game is balancing them and giving them all room to breathe. I’ve played good horror games where the first act was 5 minutes, and I’ve played good horror games where the 4th act got lost in the shuffle. However, knowing that these acts exist will help make the game work well.
Act 1: Setting the Stage
Horror games need a feeling of something normal, before things get crazy. Maybe the campers are sitting around a fire singing songs, or the scientists are hard at work in the lab. Giving players time to sit around and act through what their lives are like without the horror helps them appreciate the chaos and terror of the future. People during this act are uneasy, knowing that something is coming, but having no clue as to what. It’s generally a good idea to give this act time to breathe, and let people really get into the normal parts of the world.
Act 2: Building Anticipation
During this act, things start getting a little weird. The scientists bring in the alien egg from outside, or you can hear laughter and howling in the woods and people want to go investigating. This act builds anticipation for the horror to come, and gets people ready to be scared, without overloading them too quickly. The PCs don’t get to see the horror yet, they just get to know that something bad is coming. This doesn’t have to be a long act, and there’s been plenty of good horror games where this act barely exists. However, I think it’s a valuable part of the game.
Act 3: Pandemonium
The horror has arrived everyone, in full force! The campers are running around being chased by killer clowns, or the aliens have burst through the airlock and are terrorizing the scientists. Often, during this part of game people have no clue what’s going on. This is a chance to really buckle down and enjoy the horror of the game. Get chased by monsters, get tortured by wizards, wander through grisly tableaux! This is a chance for players to really revel in their fear and discomfort, and this act of the game is where the biggest and flashiest horror lies. While it’s easy to make this the vast majority of game, people will eventually get bored of running around screaming and will want some way to improve their situation in life.
Act 4: Looking for Help
The horror doesn’t ratchet down. Things keep being just as scary as they were in act 3, but circumstances have changed. One way or another, the players feel like they have a way out of this mess. Perhaps they’ve learned about an exit from the clown dimension, or they intend on detonating the spaceship’s reactor, killing all the aliens before they can reach Earth. The players have the capacity to improve their situation. This doesn’t mean defeating the horror, by any means (although it can), it just means that the PCs feel like they have some agency, some ability to influence the world around them. The solution they seek shouldn’t be easy – it should be painful and potentially unlikely.
This is a great time for some Terrible Choices. Do you stab your friend because the clown told you to, or do you try to run away and get tortured yourself? Do you abandon your friends to escape the spaceship, or do you help them onto the pod at the expense of your life? PCs don’t have a lot of agency in horror games – often the most they can do in a situation is scream and run away. The Terrible Choice gives them the chance to impact things without losing the sensation of fear. Terrible Choices are good throughout the game, but they can add a scary touch to even a traditional flow diamond.
Act 5: Trying the Solution
In the final act, the players have the chance to implement the solution they’ve been working on. This will be some of the players booking it for the woods, frantically intoning the magic ritual, or finally making contact with the outside world and radioing in a nuclear strike. This solution doesn’t have to work. Maybe the clowns catch them when they run, or the aliens rip them to shreds before they reach the detonator. Regardless, this sets the stage for game to be called. It allows the players to feel like they’ve done their best, and that all that scariness was worth it.
Other Flow Structures
Silence Blooming, an Advanced Game run this summer by myself and Jeremy Gleick, made use of an unconventional flow structure that went against the three act structure. In Silence Blooming, players were unable to talk, and there was an active pressure that made the players unable to work together to develop a solution. This meant Act 4 and Act 5 impossible to occur. Instead, we developed an event which would allow for the game to come to a satisfying conclusion, and cut the game off once we felt it had run for a sufficient amount of time. However, even though there was no organized Act 4 and 5, we built in the capacity to escape the game, which allowed for individual players to achieve their own personal Act 4 and 5. In this way, the emotional satisfaction of the 5 act structure is more important than strict structure. Players want anticipation, revelry, and the chance to escape.
Hopefully, you’ve learned a fair amount about what makes horror fun, and how to implement it. Horror games aren’t easy! But if you have plenty of faith in your staff, an active imagination for the spooky, and an understanding of how to allocate and budget out the fear, you’ll be able to put together a great horror game in no time. Now get out there and get writing!
http://www.aijcrnet.com/journals/Vol_2_No_4_April_2012/16.pdf, a great comprehensive review of what horror is, examples of horror from throughout time, and a discussion on the demographics of a horror audience
Held With Hope!:
An Intro Game’s Flow
When I was younger, I was terrified of flow. When I’d write games, I’d desperately try to avoid thinking about flow. I’d build everything that I could first, and then awkwardly stitch together some scenes in a linear order in order to create a flow. I knew about the concept of Diamond Flow, certainly, but I didn’t really understand how to apply that to make a coherent story. And I know I’m not the only person who felt that way. When we’re in High School Lit, we read about the Hero’s Journey. The hero is chilling at home, when all of a sudden they are called to action, and must embark on an epic voyage, which leads them through much pain and trouble. At the end, they fulfill the call (or fail miserably trying) and try to return home, but things have changed, and nothing can quite be the same. While not all stories follow this structure, it’s true that there is a certain group of stories which adhere to this narrative style (especially in modern Western literature). Intro Games, in addition to the visual and setting similarities, also follow the same narrative structure. But story narratives are different from character narratives – in the Hero’s Journey there’s only one protagonist, but in an Intro Game there are fifty! How do we make this work?
The Players’ Journey
We’re going to take the players on a journey. This journey won’t be individual, as players will be given plenty of chances to make their own stories and discover their own adventures. This journey won’t be paced the same every time – each Adventure Game would like the journey to focus more on different sections of the path. Not every game follows this journey – there are plenty of reasons as to why you’d want to change things up and mix it around. But this is a journey where every step follows the one before it very comfortably, and if you follow it, I promise you your game will at the very least make coherent sense and allow the players a sense of satisfaction.
So often we talk about Diamond Flow in Intro Games. In fact, that article I just linked to is required reading, in order to understand the rest of this article. It describes perfectly how to use Diamond Flow and how to use it well. However, it is a popular misconception that Diamond Flow is the core of an Intro Game. In fact, Diamond Flow is merely a tool you can use in order to make your narrative make sense. While it’s not the only tool available to a gamewriter (Jeremy Gleick and I used the “final battle” tool over and over again in The Horned King to great success), it is certainly the most reliable one for generating games that are the proper length of time and maximally empower players without spreading staff resources too thin.
You take your diamonds and you apply them to the journey, generally with some padding in between. You want two diamonds per game segment, generally, and an Intro Game at a day camp has two game segments. Diamonds fit into and augment the journey, helping to break it up into manageable pieces and helping it to feel less like a big mob of people walking from one location to another. Done smoothly, players will never even notice the journey is there. But what is the journey, and where does it begin?
Ah, the beginning. The PCs set up camp, explore the main space that Sets & Props has so lovingly built, and interact with each other in-character for the very first time. The Beginning is vital for making everyone feel at home in the world. They don’t know what craziness they have to look forward to until they know what it’s like to be normal. The Beginning doesn’t need to be long, just long enough that the players get to meet one another and establish some basic dynamics. The Beginning concludes with the players engaging in some kind of ritual or activity. The classic example is a wedding – the four teams from the four kingdoms arrive, shake hands, smile to one another, thank the gods that the evil necromancer isn’t here to spoil their fun, and commence with the wedding festivities under the watchful gaze of Grandmother Oak Tree.
Enter the Threat
Oh no! It’s the evil necromancer, with an army of Zooombies! The Big Bad and their monsters arrive on the scene, and disrupt whatever activity the players are engaged in. They chase the players away to a location which can be fortified against the monsters (the main space). This is how it looks when the Threat is being Active. When the Threat is more passive (for example, monsters devouring townsfolk near the wedding), then the players will come upon the Threat engaging in evil (hearing the screams and running to investigate), at which point the players will return to the main space of their free will (how do we fight off the monsters?). Either way, this introduces players to the Threat and sets the tone for their interactions with the Threat. A diamond can be inserted here by having the Threat be in multiple locations, and players have to split up to go deal with it.
The Messy Middle
So this is the part where you get to have fun. The general trajectory for this portion of the journey is that players will push back against the Threat, learn how to defeat the Threat, and acquire tools to defeat the Threat (be it internal or external). These three sub-parts, Pushing Back, Receiving Guidance, and Acquiring Tools can happen in any order, and some can happen multiple times throughout the middle. In some form, every step of flow in the middle of the game can be described as one of these three elements.
This is an excellent time to draw upon your Mission statements mentioned in the last article (you read the first part of this article, right?). What do the players do to accomplish Pushing Back? Well, perhaps they plan tactics, or cast cool spells, or one of your other Mission statements.
The players now must turn to some other force, in order to receive wisdom about how exactly to defeat this new Threat. Perhaps they call upon the spirit of Grandmother Oak Tree, or they consult the Book of Ancient Lore, or they discuss amongst themselves the best solution. This is intended to guide the PCs on what their next course of action is, and help them understand what exactly is going on. This is a good time to provide the PCs with an explanation, or prepare them for what’s coming next. A diamond can be inserted here by having each team seek advice from a different individual or source, and come back together to combine that information.
We’re not strong enough to defeat the Threat on our own. If we were, we would’ve defeated it the moment it arrived, way back in Part 2. The players are going to need to craft artifacts, prepare spells, or go forth and acquire relics in order to muster the strength to actually defeat the Threat. To do this, the players will need Tools and probably seek more Guidance. These tools are magical enchantments on their blades that let them kill the monsters, or a ritual which remotely disables the Emperor’s arcane shields. They are objects or actions which allow the players to actually be able to defeat the monsters, not just fight them. The guidance of this part is the instruction on how to use and apply these tools. A diamond can be included here by having the players acquire tools from multiple locations, or have to work together by combining discrete objects in separate rituals (The soldiers enchant their blades, the healers study under their god, the wizards learn a new spell, and the thieves sneak in and steal the necromancer’s phylactery).
The Players, having gained wisdom in order to fight against the Threat, now finally have the ability to stand up against it. This doesn’t mean they win, definitely not, but it means they have the chance to stand up for themselves and gain some ground. Sometimes this is literal, where the players literally push back the monsters, and sometimes it’s more metaphorical, where they win over neutral parties or take back sacred relics. A diamond can be included here by pushing the monsters back on several fronts, or for multiple confrontations.
Confront the Threat
Finally, the players are on an equal footing with the Threat. They can strike against evil, and defeat the darkness. Generally, this is the conclusion of the game, as the players march into the final battle, weapons drawn, and fight mano-a-mano with the monsters of nightmares. Once the Threat has been defeated (most often in a flurry of swords, although they can also be stopped with a ritual or the detonation of a bomb, for example), then the players get to celebrate and enjoy their freedom from evil. There’s already an excellent article on ending games written by Books, which can be found here. But wait! Is this truly the ending?
This narrative journey is good in a long, sweeping fashion, and in vague terms if you follow it you’ll get a good game (which might lean a little on the short side). However, the real funkiness begins once you introduce hiccups in the plan. False Starts can occur at any point along this journey, as just when the PCs think they know what’s going on, an even bigger Threat appears! This Threat makes the previous Threat look totally unimportant, and now the PCs have to start all over in order to defeat it. The classic Intro Game with two game segments works with this – the players think they’re fighting the evil necromancer, when suddenly their goddess turns out to be trying to destroy them, and they have to spend the second half of game dealing with that. You can also use False Starts when the guidance fails to work, the tools don’t do as expected, or the PCs accidentally give the current Threat new powers. If there’s a plot twist in an Adventure game, generally that’s a False Start, and generally, False Starts are plot twists.
Tasks and Garnishes
As mentioned, you position Diamonds at various points throughout the Flow. Often, a common challenge in gamewriting is what exactly to have at all those diamond points. If you have three PC teams, and four diamonds, that’s twelve unique plot points you have to come up with! Don’t worry though, there’s a lot of tools available to you in order to adorn your Diamonds and make scenes interesting.
The first place to look when coming up with Tasks is to consult your Mission statements. Are there any that apply to making cool Tasks? If one of your Mission statements is “performing rituals”, perhaps squeeze some interesting different rituals in to accomplish tasks. This is the advantage of your Mission statements – they give you a way to identify what you want your flow points to be, and create a cohesive experience.
We also have a huge variety of “generic” tasks you can insert into your Flow, that we have used countless times over the years and can create cool and empowering scenes. Some of the classics include performing a ritual, solving a riddle, defeating a champion, performing a distraction, stealing an artifact, convincing a nobleperson, or fixing a device. An entire article could easily be written about all of these options and choices, so I’m not going to get into the details here. What you can do, is think about what tasks connect to your Mission statements, perhaps in unconventional ways. These tasks should involve a PC or multiple PCs performing a “verb” (fighting, solving, performing, building, etc) in a scene, with the support of an SPC (either a PC leader or a unique character). The Introduction to Flow article mentioned earlier goes into more detail regarding the purpose of these Flow points, and how to apply them within the narrative.
Here is a chart explaining the flow of Marathon Wakes (which can be found here, with flow under the document “Marathon Wakes”). This graph shows the entire flow, mapped out, with different colors indicating the six different parts of flow, and little explosions to mark major points of conflict. I encourage you to go along with the flow document and compare it to the notes I took.
This is both one of the most straightforward and also one of the best Intro Game flows I’ve ever seen, and critically examining it has only made me more confident in that. The only deviation from what I’ve outlined above is the use of only one diamond in the first segment, however this is cleverly intentional. You’ll notice that there’s four significant points of conflict in the first game segment – this allows the game to continue and make sense time-wise without creating unnecessary distractions before Jeriko (the Big Bad) arrives. There’s also a cool scene at the beginning where each team has to present someone who is worthy, which creates drama and empowerment without violence or diamonds.
What’s also important to note about this game, is the lack of False Starts. While False Starts are useful in creating a twist halfway through the game, Marathon Wakes succeeds in making the plot stretch out by devoting a ton of time to the Beginning and a full two scenes to the Threat’s entrance. By dragging out the entrance, the players are given time to become very scared of Jeriko, and once Jeriko takes away the figure they thought was going to be the Big Good (Torrus), the players are shaken and totally disoriented.
Once the action starts, it’s really, really going, and the remaining four parts of game are all pushed through in the second game segment. However, nothing feels rushed – each part has its own space to breathe and is clearly marked out. The discovery of hope, that they do in fact have some way to kill Jeriko and that they can The first game segment is a slow burn, and while it ends on an “uplifting” note, that’s directly counter to the desolation the players have suffered. Meanwhile, the second game segment ends in a frenzied chaos, followed by a moment of pure celebration. The kids love it when one of them gets to become something special.
The End of the Journey
So, that’s a very unexpected way to talk about flow. It’s certainly not conventional, and it’s also not applicable for every game! This isn’t intended to provide a comprehensive way to talk about all games, this is specifically intended for Intro Games and making Diamond Flow into a narrative arc, not just a tool for making flow longer. Thanks for coming with me on this journey, and I hope you learned a lot about how to tackle one of the most exciting parts of writing an Adventure Game.
By Jay Dragon
Jan. 2nd 2018
Drawn With Courage…:
Starting an Intro Game
Intro games are, far and away, the most common form of game we run at Wayfinder. Of our 14 unique games run in 2017, 9 of them were intro games, and 8 of them were held at day camps. If you want to get a game run, especially if you’ve never written a game before, the most surefire way statistically is to write an intro game for a day camp. They’re also the perfect way to get started writing games – they follow a comfortable formula and have a dedicated group of staff who spend an entire week, minimum, helping ensure your game runs well. So, knowing this, why is it that people don’t write more intro games?
There’s a stigma within the Wayfinder community, especially among older campers and some staff, that Intro Games are somehow “lesser” than advanced games. Because the audience is younger, there’s less time spent at camp, and people tend to get less invested, there’s an idea that Intro Games aren’t “good” unless they’re run at an overnight camp. When Jeremy Gleick and I ran The Horned King in 2016, many staff came up to us afterwards and told us they were excited to see it played in the future at an overnight camp. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the game was written for Woodstock Day School, and that the work and preparation we put into the game was intended for the audience we had.
There’s also the popular misconception that, because the audience is younger, they won’t care as much. That’s absolutely not true. After every intro game I’ve ever run, the kids completely lose their minds. They can’t wait to tell you about all the amazing fun they had, playing in the world you’ve built and fighting the threats you’ve created. Putting work into Intro Games absolutely pays off, and you really can change participants’ lives.
Finally, there’s the idea that Intro Games have to have lower production expectations, or don’t get as much production work. As anyone who has played in a game Colin O’Brien has worked can attest, this is absolutely not the case. Having a full week to develop and work on scenes, props, costumes and weapons gives production the incredible ability to really build amazing things. I’ve seen a heart that exploded and covered a kid with fake blood, a tree with a radio built inside of it indoors, a giant alien space-shrimp with huge claws, stilts, and a massive head, and a full set of matching silver blades inscribed with powerful runes and with leather-wrapped grips. Intro games can really look amazing, and there’s a lot you can do with them.
Okay, I hope by now I’ve talked you into writing some fun intro games. But, you might ask, how do I do that? Where do I even begin?
The core of any Intro Game (well, really any game at all), at least in my perspective, is the Premise. This is the beating heart of the game, the source from which you draw your power. Whenever you’re in doubt, whenever you feel unsure about where to go next, consult your premise and remember your roots. A premise is composed of multiple parts, which I’ll break down. Not all of these parts need to be clearly articulated – I know many gamewriters who don’t really care about all aspects of the premise, and in fact wouldn’t dream of writing any of this down. But, if you’re just beginning, it’s a good exercise to familiarize yourself with what you should be thinking about. Plus, this gives you a good time to get your creative juices stirring! The Premise is made up of four pieces – the Thesis, the Aesthetic, the Mission, and the Elevator Pitch. As you’re working on your game, every time you’re not sure where to go, you can always check back in on your Premise, and have that guide your choices. These shouldn’t dominate how you write your game – if you decide halfway through that your Thesis should be totally different, that’s great! This is your dream-baby. I just want to give you the tools to help guide your dream-baby, when you’re lost and don’t know where to go.
This is such an important topic in talking about a Wayfinder game, that Dylan Scott has already written an article about it! If you haven’t read it already, I definitely would here, before you go any further. That’s a perfect breakdown of what your Theme and Thesis actually is, and how to apply it in a game.
The Thesis is the message of your game. What are you trying to communicate? Often in intro games this is something simple – “love defeats hate”, “magic is dying” or “we are strongest when united”. Just because a message is simple, doesn’t mean it’s not resonant. In my game Debts Collected, the thesis is “There must always be criticism of power”, and this manifests within the game in multiple ways. The Big Good is a force of revolution and change, but in turn must be overthrown and revolted against.
The best implementations of Theses are those that don’t have a clear cut answer, or ones that can be explored in multiple ways. If the Thesis of your game is a question, like “What does it mean to be a family?” You can approach that from multiple directions. Perhaps the Big Bad is a cruel and nasty parent-god to the people of this world. Maybe there’s a team made up of orphans, who have created their own family, or there’s another team made up of a genuine blood-related family who all love each other very much. There’s no solution to the question, but players are invited to meditate upon different meanings of family, and come to their own conclusions in the world.
Sometimes, you’ll find it hard to state your Thesis. That doesn’t mean it’s muddled or confused (which is something you should be careful about!) but it does mean you should look at what you’ve already got, and see what you can develop. I’m still not sure what the Thesis of The Horned King was. There’s themes about a last, desperate stand against evil, about hope against the darkness, and the way you must sacrifice everything in order to triumph. There’s no clear way to boil that down’ to a catchy phrase (and we certainly didn’t try while we were writing the game) but it permeated everything we did and worked on. Some could even argue that the Thesis of The Horned King isn’t a moral at all, but was instead a mechanical experiment in the nature of “boss fights” and escalating conflict within a game.
Don’t view the Thesis as a law you have to abide by. View it as an inspiration, or a starting point to grow off of.
In addition to establishing the Thesis of your game, you also want to develop a cohesive aesthetic. An aesthetic is “the set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist”. This refers to both the artistic vibes of your game, and the general mood of the adventure. When you talk about aesthetic in a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, you’re talking about the color palette (oranges and blues), the appearance of the world (ramshackle cars, cobbled-together outfits, flamethrower guitars), and the landscape (bleak, inhospitable, without hope). In an adventure game, these things are reflected in the production lists and the world and group backgrounds
Often in Intro Games, people will say that the aesthetic is “High Fantasy”. This is a loaded and complicated term. It generally means Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer-style European cultures with bright colors and armor, and a culture based around a feudal society with a noble caste. This is all fine and good, but you’re going to get much deeper if you really poke at and specify what kind of fantasy you’re really talking about.
For example, The Horned King, while very traditionally fantasy, had a distinctly Northern European and Low Fantasy vibe. There were British sailors, German witches, and a Prussian military. The titular Big Bad, the Horned King, was inspired by the Chronicles of Prydain and Germanic Folklore, with a large man with horns and a demonic appearance. In general, there weren’t any wizards in magic robes or noble knights, favoring instead soldiers, witches, thieves, and sailors. Even though there wasn’t a distinct aesthetic, there was a cohesive visual language that was connected throughout the production expectations and the world background.
In Luminites of Uliark by Jack Warren, the aesthetic is wildly different. It’s all about one word – Superheroes – and on every level it seeks to emulate that, within a fantastical setting. There’s magic crystals giving powers to teams of heroes who each guard a particular part of the world, there’s villagers in game who exist only to be protected and saved, and the major antagonists are all classic superhero nemeses. Participants built their own masks before game, and also each team brainstormed an arch-enemy – who costuming quickly built and worked into game. While it made use of the bright colors we expect from an Intro Game, it did so on purpose – everyone’s brightly colored because they’re all superheroes.
Even if your game is set in Generic Fantasyland, think about what kind of fantasy you’re trying to weave. Is it a Conan the Barbarian sort of world, with ancient liches and covered in crumbling ruins? Is it like the Dark Suns setting in D&D, where powerful wizards rule empires of sand, and psychic spellcasters struggle to survive? Or is it like He-Man, full of dramatic heroes and skull-faced villains? You can also draw inspiration from real-life cultures (respectfully!) – maybe your world of artifice and invention draws about Indian culture and appearance, your tiny duchy is based on 1700s German kingdoms, or your game about warring empires draws mythology from traditional Japanese Shinto faith. If you do, remember to be respectful! It is inappropriate to use religious symbols (like bindis or war bonnets) from still-living religions, and including gross stereotypes is never okay.
The next part of your Premise is the Mission of your game. This isn’t really something I’ve discussed with others before, and I think many people wouldn’t consider this even a part of game creation. However, I’ve found this is an essential part of designing other nerd activities, like Tabletop RPGs and video games.
The Mission is what you want your players to be doing in your game. This is how you want your players to feel, what you want the stakes to be like, and what you want them to accomplish. It is easiest to express your Mission through your flow and your game conventions. A Mission can generally be laid out in terms of verbs, where people are doing things. Some aspects of the Mission in an Intro Game are pretty easily laid out in general terms – you want them to be fighting, and you want them to be roleplaying. However, you can (and should) get much more specific than that.
Mission statements should be fun, and what those are determines where the fun in game is. If you have the Mission statement “Summoning and Dealing with Genies”, that means you want to have flowed-in moments in game where participants get to do that, and you want to reward them for doing that. If you have the Mission statement “Casting Cool Spells”, that means you want to give the participants chances during Flow to cast cool spells, and you want to give them lots of cool spells to cast!
Almost all Intro games have the following Mission statements:
Engaging with Characters
These Mission statements are the core of what we try to do at Wayfinder. Players should be given ample opportunities to accomplish all of these objectives, and in an Intro Game, they should be rewarded for doing so.
In addition to the Mission statements listed above, The Horned King could also have been said to have the following:
Participating in the Ritual
Preparing Tactics and Executing Them
Feeling Unsure and Betrayed
Fearing the Horned King
Every single moment in the flow sought to accomplish one of these four Mission Statements, often with more than one at once. The appearance of more and more powerful monsters over the course of the game allows players to Prepare and Execute new tactics, and continue to Fear the Horned King as the danger ramps up. The Rat King throwing off his disguise and killing the target of the ritual forces the participants to Participate in the Ritual (because now they need a new ritual target), makes them Feel Betrayed, and helps them Fear the Horned King.
I know this is a lot to juggle! Fortunately for you, most of this should come naturally. When you figure out your Mission, all you have to think about is what you think is going to be fun in your game, and how those feed into the Aesthetic and the Thesis. There’s a hundred different things your players can be doing in an Adventure Game, and you can easily pick out the ones you think will be most fun. When you’re writing flow and you don’t know where to go, ask yourself, “how can I advance my Mission?” and I’m sure something will come to you.
The Elevator Pitch
An Elevator Pitch refers to a short paragraph that you can use to explain the crux of your game, theoretically in the time it takes to ride an elevator. The Story Board, in their infinite wisdom, has asked every single gamewriter to include a form of an Elevator Pitch in their story submission. This Elevator Pitch helps to get people excited about your game. It’s really hard for someone to care about a game when it’s just a big jumbled mess of ideas up in the air. Telling someone “I’m writing a game that’s like Mad Max in the Greek Underworld” (Marathon Wakes by Mike Phillips) immediately gets them so, so psyched. If you can’t sum up your game in an Elevator Pitch that’s shorter than four sentences, you either need to try harder or make your game simpler. Below I’ve included some Elevator Pitches from various games (both mine and other’s)
“Uliark is no ordinary fantasy land. Swords still clash, castles still crumbles, and the crowns of kings still glimmer in the sherbert sunset. But the heroes of this world are not knights or wizards. Uliark is a land of superheroes. Uliark is the land of the Luminites.”
Luminites of Uliark by Jack Warren
The Short Version: It’s high fantasy golden-age superheroes: the game!
“It has been 85 years since the last time the sun set over Orinas. The Horned King, who consumed the goddess of the night, has marched his armies across the world, destroying and devouring all in his path. Only a handful of cities have survived, defenders of light in a broken world. They have gathered together, to perform a ritual that can once and for all defeat the dark lord, and return the stars to the sky.”
The Horned King by Jay Dragon and Jeremy Gleick
The Short Version: Everyone has to work together to defeat the biggest, evilest, nastiest guy you’ll ever meet.
“In the Everlast, the Realms of the Gods, trouble is brewing. A great divide between the pantheons over whether tapping into the powers of the Heart of their realm is worthy and important, or foolish and dangerous, is coming to a breaking point. As the Gods come together to meet and discuss this issue, tensions are high, and it may take only one small push for heaven itself to descend into war.”
Paradise Marches to War by Jeremy Gleick
The Short Version: Everyone’s a god, and the gods are all gonna fight against each other.
“Stripped of its fertility, the once peaceful world of Edlria has become a sunburnt and scorched wasteland of chaos and death. An army of the last remaining heroic mortals must rise to the occasion and complete a quest given to them by their Gods: to save the God of Life. She was torn from their realm by The God of Death and brought to his dark and twisted kingdom, Marathon. They must descend into the darkness and into the Kingdom of the Dead to rescue the God of Life, before Edlria itself can not be saved.”
Marathon Wakes by Mike Phillips
The Short Version: Mad Max heroes go to the Underworld to save Persephone.
As you can see, everyone has their own style when it comes to writing story blurbs and elevator pitches. But all of them are exciting, and all of them convey the previous three portions of the Premise (the Thesis, the Aesthetic, and the Mission) perfectly.
Now that you’ve got the Premise of your game all sorted out, come back next week for an exciting discussion on Flow, which many people consider to be the hardest part of writing an intro game. We’re gonna make it easy!
Written by Jay Dragon
Location, Location, Location:
How to Create Your Setting
Every story, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or an adventure game, has a setting. Maybe that setting is a whole new world, with strange beings and stranger magics, or maybe it’s a complex network of planets in the distant future. Maybe it’s an apartment complex in Chicago! No matter what kind of story you’re telling, it has to be set somewhere.
What do my players need to know?
World-building for an adventure game is very similar to world-building for any other story. You need to keep the same ideas in mind: structure, clarity, internal consistency, and so on. But there’s another challenge to keep in mind, one of perspective. For an adventure game, you’re going to have other people playing in your world, so you have to figure out what they need to know, and then how to convey it. So what, then, do they need to know?
They need to know everything. Surprise!
Your players are going to be acting as characters who live in this created world full-time. They need to have an understanding of how the world works. They need to know the geography, the politics, the social dynamics, the hierarchies, the major figures, the culture, and so on.
Going through this a couple of times, you learn quickly that people aren’t good at processing vast information dumps like that. As such, it’s important to figure out what matters most and concentrate on that. You can come up with all those details in your head, and you can mention them during world background, but they’re not what you need to focus on.
Does the game’s plot revolve around a succession crisis? Then give an in-depth explanation of how the monarchy works. Is it set at a boarding school? Focus on the social dynamics of the upper- and lower-classmen. Each story has different things that matter most about its setting. If you can find these defining characteristics and emphasize them, you’ll get a much stronger and more coherent setting.
Another interesting issue is that of misinformation and lack of information. World background can become an interesting exercise in releasing information calculatedly, which is a fancy way of saying “lying to your players”. I ran a game where I told my fantasy society all about their gods and how much they worshipped these mythical beings, which resulted in a lot of surprise when the gods showed up in-game and turned out to be conquering aliens from another dimension.
You can also use diverse world backgrounds to play with expectations. I co-ran a game that involved two cultures locked in a Cold War-like conflict with each other. We separated the players into two separate groups, and then gave them each different, propaganda-fueled information about the opposing side. Each side thought the other was a horrifying wasteland, and that they themselves were clearly the heroic protagonists of the game. When during the game the two armies were forced to work together against a much larger threat, the ensuing culture clash and misconceptions drove a lot of fascinating interactions.
What do the characters know?
The answer to this may be the same as the answer to the previous question, but not always! Many of our games are fantasy or science fiction adventures, in fictional worlds we create. In those cases, yes, the characters know all about the King of Mars and his sweet rocketship. But what about games set in the modern day, in secret societies or cults, or with various cultures?
In these sorts of worlds, many of the players may have characters who are otherwise ordinary people, and don’t actually know about the dark magics and demons they’re about to wind up involved with. In cases like this, games with secrets and mysteries, you have to strike a careful balance. You want to give your players enough information so that they know how to deal with the magicks and murder of your world, but not so much that there are no surprises. It’s a fine line, but an important one to keep in mind.
Often in worldbuilding for modern-day settings we talk about the idea of the Masquerade. This is the idea that the majority of people in the world have no idea about the secret world of vampires, or wizards, or ninjas, that goes on when they’re not looking. The masquerade is equal parts ignorance on the part of the normal people and careful secrecy on the part of those with power. An important consideration when doing modern-day setting design is the relevance and stability of the masquerade. Is this a world where vampires are openly accepted? A world where wizards are on the cusp of discovery? Are there people who wish they could wield their powers openly? How much do “ordinary” people know?
How do I know if my setting is working?
If you’ve ever been to camp, you know that half of World Intro is taken up with the infinite sprawling telemetries of Q&A. Campers love asking questions, and will often ask things that catch the gamewriter entirely off guard. When you’re caught up in creating a setting, it’s easy to get bogged down in details, and miss some huge inconsistency that worked its way in. But rest assured, a camper will ask about it five minutes into the Q&A, and you’ll have to come up with an answer on the spot. Sure, you can handle that by being a master of improv, but there’s a better way.
Once you think you’ve got a solid idea of how your setting works, find a friend you trust and sit down with them. Make sure it’s someone who doesn’t know anything about your game yet! Now explain the setting to them, in as much detail as you plan to do for the campers, and see what questions they have. A fresh mind looking at your world will be able to spot things that probably slipped by you. They also might raise fascinating new ideas that hadn’t occurred to you, which can be great inspiration for character concepts, PC teams, or even flow points!
So, to recap:
1. Figure out the core of your setting.
What elements of the setting matter to the story? What are the central conceits that matter most to the characters and define the story? Figure out those characteristics, and focus on them. Make them shine, and make sure you understand them in detail. But remember that too much detail can be as overwhelming as too little detail is disappointing!
2. What do your players and characters know?
Figure out not just how the setting actually works but how your characters think it works. Their perspective on your world can define their worldview, and, characters with vastly different perspectives, or operating with false information, can lead to some neat developments.
It’s also an important thing to keep track of in a story—unlike in a game, the person controlling the character knows more than they do, so you have to make sure a character isn’t spouting knowledge they shouldn’t know.
3. Q&A time!
Get a friend (or better, a couple of friends) to come over, and then explain to them everything about your setting. Then have them ask you questions about it. See what comes up! You might be surprised at how much new material you wind up with… and how many holes you have to patch.
Later on, we’ll go into more detail about how to create settings and worlds of specific kinds, like high fantasy or urban magic. Write on, worldbuilders.
Original Post 12/13/13
Choose Your Character
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.
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.
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.
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
original post 1/8/14
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Original post 1/7/14
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?
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:
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:
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:
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
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
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
(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.
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.
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.
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
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.
-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?
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.
-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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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!
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).
Original post 1/5/15
Lists, Lists, Lists!
Do you want Production to like you? Of course you do. They’re the people who make your game beautiful, and make it even possible. Without them, you’re just a bunch of people running around in your normal clothes in some empty woods! You know what Production loves? Nicely formatted Production lists, that actually help them do their jobs.
Which is why we have here for you some updated Production List formats, written by an actual Production staffer! Ruby has gone through and made some nice clear guides for how to make good Production Lists. You can read through them with her commentary right here:
Now, if you’ve already written up your lists and they don’t look exactly like that, it’s not the end of the world. But you should probably go through and make sure you’ve included all the information Ruby is asking for. Trust us–she knows what Production needs to know way better than we do. To those of us on the Story Board, Production remains a terrifying and glorious mystery.
Once you’ve read through those annotated versions up above, you can click here to find blank templates for you to use. The annotated versions explain why Production needs these things; these blank ones are for you to copy and paste into your game to your heart’s content. Make life easier for you, and easier for Production, and everyone will be happy. Enjoy!
The Big Finish: ending your game
The shout goes up and everyone cheers and collapses into hugs, eager to tell their friends stories of their epic adventure. But hold on, let’s wind back a few minutes–not far, just a few–how did we get here? Today we’re going to talk about one of the hardest parts of gamewriting: endings.
Like all stories, every game has to end somehow, and there’s an art to it. In this post I’m going to lay out some ideas as to the philosophy of endings, run through the various types of game endings, talk about some common pitfalls to avoid, and give you some practical pointers.
Philosophy of Endings
So what makes a good ending? What makes an ending satisfying? Think of your favorite story climaxes, grand finales. They’re a summation of everything that came before, everything that built up to that point. The hero confronts the villain. The traveler accomplishes their goal. The tragic atoner finds redemption. Endings bring together the themes, setting elements, characters, and goals, combining everything into a grand climax.
The unifying idea underlying all of these endings is that they revolve around two things: choice and change. The protagonists make a choice about some kind of change, and then strive to enact that choice to see the change made manifest–or not! Of course, those ideas run through just about every part of most stories, but the ending is the moment when that choice is forced and the change is determined. This is absolutely true of Wayfinder games, or at least the ones with satisfying conclusions.
“Hold on,” you say, “what are my day camp PCs choosing to change when they defeat Dark Lord Maximus?” In most Intro Games, the villain is the one seeking to change the world (usually by conquering it), and the PCs are making the choice to reject that change and stop it. To enact their choice, they’ll have to confront the villain and prevent them from manifesting their change.
Many game endings are more complex than that, with less literal changes. In advanced games, characters are often fighting each other over different ideas of change. Sometimes they’re changing the world, sometimes they’re changing themselves, sometimes they’re changing others. Often it is only through the act of self-sacrifice (choosing to change oneself) that the players can emerge victorious. Even heroes who seem to emerge from their journey unscathed have had a drastic change of perspective, which is why returning home after an adventure can be so difficult (see: every fairy tale ever). Some games are more about personal change, and others are more about changing the world–both are totally okay, but you should have a clear idea about where in that philosophical spectrum your game falls, and that should be reflected in your game’s final choices.
Games with satisfying endings foreshadow that choice throughout. That might mean telling the PCs up front that they’ll have to choose, or it might mean showing examples of similar choices. It’s important to give an alternative choice, otherwise it’s not really a choice at all, is it? In the case of intro games, that often takes the form of making it clear exactly what the villain’s victory would mean for the world.
It’s also important that the PCs understand their choice. If the players make a choice that they think is right, but then in a twist find out that the choice they made is something totally different, they’ll come away unsatisfied, with a bitter twist in their mouths. It’s possible to do this well if you’re doing it intentionally, but in general you should be pretty explicit with your PCs about the choice they’re making, and its consequences.
What Actually Goes Down
Alright, with all that philosophical mumbo-jumbo out of the way, how does your ending actually play out? What do the PCs actually do? Let’s run through a few different common types of endings.
The Final Battle
Probably the most common ending type! The two sides gather up, give some speeches, then charge and have an epic battle. Last one standing gets to call game! More detail on this later, because there’s a lot to be said about final battles.
Everyone stands in a circle and says some stuff in unison. We joke about these being overdone, but they’re used so much for a reason–they work really well. It allows everyone to participate, it can be beautiful and moving, and it forms a nice parallel to the intention circle we start every game with.
Someone or something has to be rescued! Grab what needs to be grabbed, and get outta dodge. This is often a component of or motivation for a final battle.
EVERYTHING WILL EXPLODE! BOOK IT! This is tricky, because you need to give yourself a set destination to jump to. The docks? The helicopters? The train?
The Philosophy Debate
Let’s choose our fate! This is common when there’s an object of great power, and everyone disagrees on how to use it. These can be important, but often get bogged down in mechanics, bickering, and can be hard to draw to a satisfying conclusion, especially when a single answer has to be reached for the game to conclude.
This is similar to the Debate, but more individual. Some people have to do a thing, and others don’t. Who will step forward? This includes moments like people volunteering to stay behind to guard a tomb forever, using up their lives to power a spell, returning to the human lands, or giving up their magic forever. Each player has to make the choice for themselves.
Someone (or something) messed up! But they now repent, and are offered forgiveness for what they’ve done.
The time has come for us to leave this place, and we will do so. Everyone bids farewell to the world they know (or the world they’re visiting), and gets on the boat/steps through the portal/etc.
The Adventure Continues
We’ve finished this quest, but another awaits! Prepare yourselves, everyone, because we’ve got plenty more work to do. Done poorly, this is an unsatisfying cliffhanger. Done well, this is an exciting open-ended quest hook, that gives the players room to imagine the next chapters of their characters’ lives.
The chained god is unleashed, and everyone is consumed in fire for all eternity! The bomb goes off, and everybody dies! The monsters eat everyone! This ending doesn’t happen very often, but it… does happen. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes less so. It can be really cool, when done well! Last year’s Golden Blade ended this way, but it came about because one PC made a choice based on the way she had changed during the game, so most players came away satisfied.
Something Else Entirely
There are probably more and weirder ways to end a game, that haven’t happened before, or that I just forgot about! Push the limits, experiment!
Bringing it All Together
As you were reading through these, you probably saw your game’s ending in half a dozen of those. That’s totally reasonable! Few games end with just ONE of those endings. To make a good ending, feel free to mix, match, and combine from those. It’s not at all unreasonable to have an ending in which the heroes have an epic final battle with the Big Bad, then after defeating her, take her powers away in a ritual, after which she is redeemed, and the heroes must then depart back to their homeland. Totally reasonable ending.
The important thing is that the elements of your game have led up to this point. The players should feel like they’re using what they’ve learned and accomplished over the course of the game to pull off this finale. If they acquired artifacts, have those be useful in a big ritual! If they got sweet new powers, make them use those to defeat the villains! If they were forced to have intense moral dilemmas, bring those up again at the end!
It’s also vitally important to keep momentum going into and throughout your ending. An ending should be a big rolling climax, that sweeps up the PCs and carries them into a grand finale. If you have big plot twists, reveal them before your ending or after it–but not during. A big twist will cause momentum to grind to a halt as people react, and as information spreads through the PCs. It might seem like a cool idea to have your villain be dramatically unmasked mid-climax, but the reality of it winds up being a little impractical. It’s hard enough getting PCs to focus on their quests, and keeping that focus throughout an ending is even trickier.
The Grand Showdown
On that note, let’s talk about final battles. They happen in most games, but as often as not people don’t put much thought into them. Why not? Make your final battle interesting! Don’t just make it a bunch of people with swords fighting one big tall person with a monster weapon. At the same time, though, an overly complicated final battle can dissolve into incomprehensible chaos, which is just as unpleasant for the PCs. Here are some things to consider as you think about your final battle.
Balance. How big is the villain’s army? How many people have they recruited? Who has more powers? Do you want your PCs to feel like epic heroes rolling in and overwhelming the villains, or should it be a desperate and dangerous contest? Do you want to give your Big Bad unlimited spellslinging and tons of protections to make them a bigger threat? Or would you rather give them more backup to give the PCs more people to fight?
Objectives. Consider giving your PCs specific goals within the larger battle. This can be a fun way to make specific groups feel empowered. Does each PC team have a dedicated enemy they have to overcome? Will all the monsters respawn indefinitely until the Kaiburr Crystal is destroyed? Do the rogues have to smuggle a bomb onto the enemy’s shrine?
Tactics. Are your PCs a rag-tag band of heroes, or are they an army? What about your villains? What kinds of battle plans are the characters to use? If your PCs do have specific objectives going into the final battle, make sure they know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it, in order to avoid more and bigger chaos.
Length. How long do you want your final battle to last? Should it be a brief climax in which the PCs murder the villain? Should it be a long, knock-down drag-out brawl that leaves everyone exhausted? Should it happen in multiple stages, with changing objectives? This winds up mostly being a question of balance, but is still an important consideration on its own.
The End Button. What determines when the battle is over? Is it when the Big Bad falls, or do the last few monsters need to be mopped up? You should make sure there are one or two people who are standing by, ready to yell a lot and gather everyone as the battle reaches its climax. Transitioning into the wrap-up is a place where a lot of final battles lose their momentum.
Now, with all that said–it’s still totally okay for those questions to have simple answers. There’s nothing wrong with ending a game by having the PCs roll in swords drawn, stab the heck out of a person in a black cloak, and then celebrate with a cheesy speech. Of course, if your final battle is PC vs. PC (as occasionally happens with advanced games), then you need to give these questions some very serious thought, especially the last one.
“Hey,” you say, “I have this sweet super complex advanced scenario game, where all my PC teams want totally different things! How do I pull that off?”
Hoo boy, what a big can of worms. LET’S OPEN IT AND DIVE IN.
It is totally possible to write a game with multiple possible endings–it’s even possible to have a bunch of them happen simultaneously! Here’s how you do that. First of all, figure out what each group wants. What do they want to accomplish? What is the change they want to see enacted? Is it a personal change? A political one? A global one? Now, how do they go about accomplishing that? What is the practical way they can achieve their goal in-game? Do they send a message? Perform a ritual? Kill someone? What steps do they need to do to accomplish that?
Once you’ve figure out what your different groups are trying to do, figure out what specific thing they can do to trigger endgame. You generally want to make sure this is something that involves lots of people! A common trick is to have them need a certain number of people to complete their ritual, or need to get everyone to agree on a thing to do something, or kill an entire enemy group to satisfying their blood god. That way you don’t just get a group going off on their own in the woods and calling game.
But hold on, what if they do? What if that’s not the worst thing in the world? It’s actually totally possible to have your different groups have goals that aren’t mutually exclusive. I’ve run games where one group accomplished their goal, decided they were satisfied, and called game for themselves, while the rest of the game did something totally different for the ending. That’s totally fine! It’s up to you to decide if your multiple endings are mutually exclusive.
You do need to make sure that everyone does get SOME kind of ending, though. An easy to make sure this happens is to at some point force everyone to gather at the same place. Maybe each group trying to achieve their ending needs to use the same altar for it. Maybe there’s a crystal that everyone needs, but can only be used once. If you want your groups to fight over whose ending reigns supreme, this can be an effective way to do it.
Branching narratives and multiple ending possibilities are really tricky to juggle, but if done well, it’s one of the most intense ways to empower your PCs. If they feel like they were the ones to bring about the ending of the game–and they’re aware that it actually could’ve gone differently!–they’ll feel awesome afterwards. But of course, then you run the risk of disempowering the PCs who failed to cause their ending. It’s a tricky art, and there’s no one tried-and-true method! Good luck, though.
There are lots of ways to have an unsatisfying ending. The most common one is to just have a lot of people miss the ending! I was once in a game where someone grabbed a few props and ran into the woods with two people, and then came out of the woods five minutes later having called game. Uh, what? Turns out he was secretly the Big Bad in disguise, and had a nuclear bomb waiting in the woods, which he detonated. Well, that was sure thrilling. In order to avoid this, make sure your ending can’t happen unless a large number of PCs are present! Sometimes that can require a bit of silly shoehorning (especially if it results in your villains delaying their ascension ritual indefinitely until the PCs show up to interrupt it), but it’s still necessary.
Another common issue is when the PCs don’t actually understand the ending. This can take a lot of forms! Maybe they don’t get who the Big Bad is. Maybe they don’t really get who they’re supposed to kill in the final battle. Maybe the twist hinges on some big secret that was revealed while they were in the bathroom. Maybe your philosophical choice gets too esoteric and goes over the heads of the ten-year-olds. While some of these aren’t really your fault, you should do everything in your power to spell out the ending for the PCs, both during the leadup to the climax and in the resolution of it. Sometimes that can be a little ham-handed, but better that than the PCs coming away confused and unsatisfied.
It’s also very easy for endings to lose momentum. People get caught up in debating what to do with the crystal, or whether or not to execute the Big Bad for their crimes. Suddenly everyone has an idea about what to do, and people are bickering, and the focus is gone. The best solution to this is to have one or two people whose job it is to make sure things keep moving. Sometimes that means the leader who keeps the discussion moving smoothly and brings things to a consensus… and sometimes that means the angry militant who’s going to get bored of talk real quick and just resort to weapons. Either way, it’s better than just standing around waiting for plot to happen.
A common rookie mistake is to have your ending totally revolve around your SPCs. The PCs sit back and watch while their SPCs beat the evil SPCs! Then the SPC gives a sad speech and dies dramatically and the PCs cry. Okay, sure, cool, but what did the PCs actually do there? Did they fight a few monsters maybe to clear a path? Booo. Make sure the PCs are directly involved, and are the ones making the choice! If you’ve currently got some SPC sacrificing their life/magic to seal the Big Bad, consider–why not have a group of PCs do that instead? Much cooler.
An Ending to Endings
PHEW. That sure was a lot of words about endings! Let’s see if we can sum all that up…
Satisfying endings usually center on a moment of enacting choice in order to manifest or prevent change.
Figure out how to have everything in your game build up to your ending, so it doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
Make sure things keep flowing smoothly and that momentum doesn’t drop as your game ends.
Final battles are crazy and chaotic and awesome! Put some actual thought into how yours goes.
Be sure to think about who actually triggers endgame buttons, and how those play out mechnically.
Ensure that however your game ends, that ending is primarily PC-driven! It’s okay to have SPCs providing guidance, but your PCs, as always, should be doing all the work.
If you’ve done all of those things, sit down, pat yourself on the back, and then hit the submit button on your game! Are there things we left out? Further questions? Our askbox is always open! For now–good gamewriting, friends.
Original post 1/13/15
Game Submission Samples
Sample Intro Games
A dark fantasy about an uprising against a long-reigning vampire lord.
While this isn’t the most polished game submission, it’s a good example of how to provide a solid framework without having to go overboard on details. We love forty page long submissions, but not every game needs to be that. There’s nothing wrong with a straightforward concept that’s well-executed, and this is a good sample of that.
With the Void itself devouring all of reality, the last survivors of the land of Lumnoch must set aside their differences to find a way to save their world – or, failing that, at least escape it.
This game submission, the climax of the collaboratively-written Morforia trilogy, does a fantastic job of weaving its setting and tone into the actual meat of the submission. Through effective use of character quotes and emotionally charged writing, the tone and themes are conveyed very clearly. Each race and region is distinct and interesting, drawing on classic fantasy elements without ever relying on them.
Luminites of Uliark by Jack Warren (2014)
High fantasy superheroes deal with the origins of their powers, the dangers of the monarchy and grand betrayals.
This is a phenomenal example of how to write a classically structured Intro Game that’s in a different genre than a standard fantasy game. It’s chock full of superhero tropes and ideas and themes at every level, without ever breaking away into confusing advanced territory. It’s also exceptionally well-written and clear in its purpose and focus. It pays special attention to the experience of the campers, and includes proposed workshops to support its themes (which went great, for the record).
In the Everlast, the Realms of the Gods, trouble is brewing. A great divide between the pantheons is coming to a breaking point.
Jeremy set out to write an intro game with some advanced concepts and conventions. The strongest part of this submission are the different groups in game. Rather than write out all the information in game, Jeremy conveys what is necessary to the Story Board.
A fantasy intro game where the heroes must descend to the underworld to cease the relentless burning sun. Persephone myth meets Mad Max.
The Game Submission is perfectly formatted and organized. The world background and mythos transitions into the system of governments, then into recent history and the PC groups. Flow is solid, although it is written in huge paragraphs. A great example of a “classic” archetypal intro game, with straightforward PC empowerment and fun monsters to fight.
Sample Advanced Games
Come to The Secret Light to find meaning in your life. No, this is definitely not a cult. Definitely not a horror game!
With this submission, less is more. Each tier of The Secret Light conveys the cult dynamic without being too wordy. The cast list throws in ideas for each character, and there is a sample character sheet. The flow shows the acceleration of the game, as well as specific horrifying acts. The writers don’t have everything done yet, but they give a clear idea of what’s to come.
In a world where adventuring is an organized sport, teams from all across the land compete for the grand title! A game of monsters, mayhem and budgets.
This is a great example of how to build a game in a very non-traditional structure and highlight unique elements. This game was built from the ground up around sports and sports issues, and the submission is full of incredibly deep mechanical information on that. The concept is a bit risky (or at least unorthodox), and the submission makes sure to include the elements that will make it fun for the campers–cool corporate sponsors, long budget lists and team stats to keep track of! Even with an unfinished world background and not much flow included, this submission’s concept and execution made it a must-play.
Famine has ravaged the kingdom and death is clawing at your door. This is not the time of Gods or Kings, there is no help on the horizon.
The overview is beautifully written; it contains the basic premise and setting, as well as the game’s foundational elements. The writer’s intent is clear from the beginning. The whole game submission is very complete, and ready to run. Also the game conventions are super interesting and clearly fit with the themes.
This is an advanced scenario game set in a low-key magic rural town, and is tied together by a strong aesthetic thesis. The production lists are well done (if informally written). The flow is written in a unique way that conveys vibe as well as plot. The submission only has a vague world background and group/character descriptions; but sometimes, less is more!
Sample Finale Games
A group of adventurers journey to a Necromancer’s secret temple in an attempt to resurrect their beloved princess, hoping to stave off the collapse of their Empire.
This is a game built from the ground up around its theme; it has a strong thesis that is clearly expressed and runs throughout every piece of the game. The flow is built around the stages of death, and the PCs’ journey through the underworld is a perfect integration of plot and concept.
An epic war story inspired by Chinese and Japanese mythology and history.
This game submission is very complete, well written and organized. Production lists are incredibly thorough and are broken down into sections of game for optimal comprehension. Lists include a slew of photos as references for the production staff members. The world background is epic and also consistently comes out in the game. The submission is structured consciously to be easy to read and understand.
Original post date 11/28/2015