Master Mines

We’re digging RPGs

Baby’s going underground

I played Best Friends, or some version of it, over the weekend – thanks to Ben, Ping, and our other co-instigators and players – and I’ve come (or returned) to some hard conclusions about what my designs in progress are going to need. (Also, I’ve realized that Best Friends is a lot more task-resolution-y than I thought. Which is not to say that it is task-resolution-y. But that’s another post.)

Every time I play a conflicts-and-stakes-setting sort of game, it seems like I struggle a lot with finding the conflict in a given scene. This may just be because I’m a sucky GM, or a dirty structured-freeformer at heart, or whatever, but I think the “setting-free” systems I’ve been trying to do this with – PTA and now Best Friends – are somewhat hamstrung in their ability to give people help in this department. I’m gonna try putting forward the following as a principle: the more a written system can assume about the story in the game, the more help it can give you. Assumptions about the story could be about either its content, or its structure (e.g. “there will be scenes, grouped into three acts”).

I don’t know if this principle is helpful to anyone but me, or even non-obvious, but… well, okay, I’m thinking here of Dogs in the Vineyard and, even better in this case but unfortunately less well-known, Poison’d. It’s almost impossible not to know what a conflict is going to be about in these games. Not because your choices are more constrained necessarily, but because the system has the latitude to help you make conflict. In Dogs, the framework of the Faith and the proscribed role and power of the Dogs means that flights will be breaking out all over. In Poison’d, the question put to players is explicitly always, “so-and-so other player did something horrible to you, do you take it or do you fight?” (And both are interesting choices.) Constraints fuel creativity in a virtuous cycle between story and system.

I’m missing that in… well, just about all my designs in progress right now, but the one where it concerns me most is the latest Yes-But Engine developments. It concerns me because I have a kind of pre-play instance of undirected play: I cannot write these damned cards to save my life. Because they have to be so vague, and yet still helpful, that my mind just goes blank. They aren’t suitable for a setting-less game. If I point this thing toward a more specific setting, I can have a card tell you something helpful like “You flee the monster, but are trapped in a dank, dripping cavern,” instead of something that reads like a Zen koan.

So um, about that cavern: I have the beginnings of a setting in mind. The game takes place underground, in a semi-man-made labyrinth of caves underneath the town where the majority of the players grew up. Think The Goonies, but crossed with Pan’s Labyrinth. The characters are the players, but at a younger age. Evil things, maybe imaginary but definitely sprung from their own psyches, menace them at every turn. …Aaaaand I don’t have a lot else yet. (If anyone wants to free-associate a little on these elements in the comments, that would be awesome.)

Speaking of free-associating on elements! (And of stuff sprung from your psyches.) I pointed this article out over on and I’m still really grooving on it: Constructing Artificial Emotions – A Design Experiment. (Clyde, definitely check this one out if you haven’t.) One of the many elements of the fascinating hypothetical game described there is a pre-game phase wherein you collect images, texts, or sounds from the player that relate to emotionally charged memories, and these media-bits then come back into the game semi-randomly at charged moments, in hopes of making new connections between those bits and others. That idea could easily be brought into a tabletop system… or even embedded into a deck of cards insta-generated by a smart PDF.

So there’s (all) that. This stuff has me excited.

Just as a side note, I am also still recharging on You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do, as advertised. Every now and again I have an insight about the moral and thematic core of the game, which I really want to firm up before I go racing off after mechanics again. This time, it’s this: losing a limb on a roll of 6 is all well and good, but as it stands, there isn’t really anything at stake for the characters or their players. I need to build into YGDWYGD the risk that your suck-ass job will change you. And I have some ideas as to how – it’s going to have to involve possible mechanical benefits for doing the dumb stuff you’re told to. This is hopefully an interesting new direction that will help focus the non-meeting part of the game.


November 19, 2007 - Posted by | Games in Development, You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do


  1. Hey, in terms of the scene structure thing, I have a nascent version of that kicking around in my mind here:

    Comment by robertbohl | November 20, 2007 | Reply

  2. Awesome. That was actually another thing over the weekend: we had a much more successful game of the Roach (which of course has a firm scene structure). Also something like this is present in Doubt, which I need to write some more about sometime.

    Comment by misuba | November 20, 2007 | Reply

  3. Mike, I think I can see where you’re going with this. I see the same sort of thing in Grey Ranks and even Burning Empires. I’m also coming up with a similar problem with Know Thyself, because since *anything* can happen in a “dream” scene, I can’t really give much direction in the text in how to make those scenes move.

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | November 21, 2007 | Reply

  4. I agree this is a problem when the game is so open that you’ve basically built an engine but nobody knows where to drive it. I look forward to seeing more context with this underground setting.

    Comment by orklord | November 21, 2007 | Reply

  5. Well, first I’m actually gonna scale it down even more, and see if I can write a single deck for the sort of Tomb Raider-y adventure game that Shreyas imagined in the forum post that first inspired the Yes-Buts. If I can’t make it work when it’s that constrained, I have real problems. Hopefully I’ll be able to do this over the weekend.

    Comment by misuba | November 21, 2007 | Reply

  6. I had a better handle on Know Thyself when it had the constraints of being in a single location, about a single sort of event. Unfortunately, that didn’t fire off for a lot of people, so I went and made it more generic. I suspect that’s where the beginning of my mistakes came from.

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | November 21, 2007 | Reply

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