Gallant is my swashbuckling tabletop roleplaying game. It’s now powered by the Apocalypse World engine, more or less.
These are the basic character moves, from which other moves will be derived.
A year ago, I would have told you that I didn’t like the term “story games”. It seemed to me to be a slightly elitist term for roleplaying games used by slightly elitist gamers who wanted to put some distance between themselves and the dysfunction and baggage of “traditional” games like Dungeons & Dragons. I still can’t confidently tell people the difference beyond the mind-numbingly simple (“a story game is a game where you make a story”). However, I have come a long way in that year, partly because I have had a chance to put in a lot more play time on games that can’t be confused with D&D at all–games like Fiasco and A Penny for My Thoughts.
Most importantly, I’ve internalized a lot about the kind of play that happens at the Story Games Seattle Meetup group. Those gatherings demand that a whole and complete story be played out in 3-4 hours, (usually) without a centralized authority, and with zero prep. To make that work, you need games that create and support dynamic situations quickly. You need games that often feel very different from the traditional model to play. In short, you need story games. And my designer’s mind has really embraced the idea.
In my mind, I’ve started calling them story-making games. That is, games where the story is made by playing the game instead of ahead of time. I’ve found this so much more satisfying than traditional play that I find myself looking for ways to eliminate the game master from games that have them by default.
So, yeah, I’m okay with “story games” as a thing now. Which is not to diminish the fun that many people still have with traditional RPGs. It’s better for both activities to differentiate.
I haven’t had much time for thinking about posting this quarter. But I always have time to play a little game here and there. At the moment, I’m playing Gravity Duck 2. It’s a really simple game, but I think the gravity switching mechanics make for clever, not too difficult puzzles that are fun to solve. This is a great example of how good gameplay needn’t be complicated.
I have an odd relationship to games. I’d like to say that I don’t care whether I win or lose, but that’s not quite true. I have the most fun when everyone playing is doing well and enjoying the game. I have found, however, that some games are more fun than others if you aren’t clearly winning.
Let’s take 7 Wonders for example. As I touched on previously, it has a lot going for it: it’s quick to play and the rules are simple once you grok them (to name just two). It is also a game that I am happy to lose. Which is to say that my enjoyment of the game is not derived from winning an individual game. More than that, it’s a game where I think anyone playing goes through uncertainty about how they’re doing relative to others during play. I remarked while playing last night that sometime in Age II everyone feels like they’re doomed.
I think uncertainty about how well I’m doing is a feature I like in games. I love Agricola, but I don’t think I’ve ever played a game of it where I wasn’t certain that I was doing poorly for much of the game. The difference between such games and others I enjoy less is that everyone’s in pretty much the same boat. Experience has taught me that, when playing Agricola, how I feel about my success during play isn’t a strong indicator of how it will actually turn out in the end. On the flip side, I have played many games, notably of Settlers of Catan, where I was able to identify that I (or another player) was pretty much doomed from the start. In the Catan instances, the early predictions almost always turn out to be true. So repeated plays of a game can teach you whether the feelings that the game elicits from you during play are indicative of the quality of your playing or are simply part of the experience.
Most games have some measure of chance involved. For the moment I’m mostly talking about board and card games. Games also usually have an opportunity to bring tactical or strategic thinking to bear on them–you can be “good” at them.
When you play a game where the ratio of skill and chance is shifted to one end of the spectrum, you notice. If there’s more chance than skill, you are likely to feel that it doesn’t really matter what you do. If there’s more skill than chance, you might feel like you aren’t good at the game.
I won’t say that there’s a right or wrong composition, but some things will change depending on it. A game with no chance, for example, is likely to be one that takes a significant amount of effort to feel competent playing (think chess or go). A game with no skill isn’t likely to hold the attention of adult players for long (unless money is changing hands, but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish).
For most board and card games of the sort that nerds like me buy, there is a sweet spot where the randomness keeps things from grinding to a halt due to “analysis paralysis” while enabling the players to feel more or less in control of their game play. For an excellent example of this, I suggest 7 Wonders, which I got for Christmas. It’s a game where the potential for skill is palpable, but beginners can play without being totally dominated by their more experienced peers.
Kroul made my short-list of projects to make progress on, so here’s a little about it:
When I was, I don’t know, maybe 12, I started playing D&D. And by “playing” I mean telling exciting fantasy stories with my friends while we all pretended to know how to play the game even though we didn’t. I had a couple of modules stolen from or cast off by my older brother. I’d read the descriptive bits out loud, ask everyone what they were doing, meaningfully roll random dice behind a cardboard screen, and then say whatever made sense to me, given the situation. It was a potpourri of childish wonder and random fantasy elements that I loved.
Kroul attempts to capture some of that innocent, seat-of-the-pants excitement in a game that has rules that will actually help the proceedings. But that’s not all: it also emphasizes the ensemble nature of the adventuring party that D&D has always more or less required. Characters in Kroul meaningfully bring things to the table for the whole group, and play requires smart collaboration and group tactics.
Importantly, Kroul rejects metaplot and canonical setting. It provides the very roughly defined world of Kroul (which is pronounced to rhyme with bowl) which provides flavor and prompts for your own creativity without getting in your way. It’s got rules to empower player contribution to setting and plot, and resources to make it easy for the GM to come up with adventures on the fly (there is a strict no intricate pre-work policy).
In short, it takes everything that I think is cool about cheesy fantasy games and makes it functional and fun to play while eliminating all the crap I hate. I think it rocks. Now I need to do some hard work to make sure that it does.
In the event that curious people ever actually read this, I’d love to answer (at this point general) questions in the comments. You have to wait for moderation the first time, then Word Press should recognize you as a non spammer and let you comment without waiting for me.
I tend to be very outspoken about my belief that gameplay trumps everything else. This is particularly important in video games, where resources are often spent on other things in the hopes that nobody will notice that the game isn’t fun to play. The funny thing is that really well-designed games tend to blend compelling gameplay with good production values.
By way of example, I offer Kingdom Rush. Here’s a fairly standard tower defense game with a couple of small twists. The gameplay is well-implemented and compelling. But I have to acknowledge that the same gameplay with lower production values wouldn’t be as much fun. The design (game, visuals, sound effects, and music) all come together to make a game that’s better than it otherwise might be.
This is the same thing that makes Angry Birds a runaway hit when there were many nearly identical games already on the market (e.g. Crush the Castle) with less uniform design. The gameplay is an important part of the equation, but it’s like a movie script: you still need a director, actors, and countless production people to make it all come together into something great.
Kingdom Rush (and Angry Birds for that matter) holds another lesson that I need to take to heart. Good design needn’t be fancy. If you have simple art that is well executed, consistent, and appropriate to the game’s themes, it can be better than something far more complex.
Being the sole adherent to Jayist belief, I hereby declare the first official holiday of the faith. The first day of the new year is to be set aside in honor of Saint Ludo.
Saint Ludo is a figure shrouded in obscurity. It is said that he produced divine board games when he and his fellows were stranded in the dead of winter. Some accounts have it that he transformed an incomplete game of Chutes and Ladders into something actually fun to play. In honor of his miracle, his feast day is traditionally observed by gathering with loved ones, ordering pizza in, and playing games. In some cultures, gifts of games or game aids are exchanged.