Master Mines

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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 | 6 Comments

The House of Yes-But

Picture one of those floating platforms from Super Mario Brothers, the kind where you jump onto it and it immediately begins to fall away; it only exists to get you a little closer to your goal, but if you stay with it, you’re going down. In this case, the platform was my attempt at an entry into Jason Morningstar’s Sight & Sound Challenge, and the leaping adventurer who sank it and moved on to better things was a game mechanic: the Yes-But cards.

Some of you will remember Yes-But cards from Outside Men. They were thrown clear of that accident, and I’ve kind of been hunting around for a way to apply them ever since. For those who don’t remember them, here is an early version. Play with that, then read the thread that inspired them.

Anyway! I am thinking about Yes-But cards lately, and the various forms they could take. I am also sensitive of working on multiple projects here at MM, but it’s okay, because this is a mechanic, not a game. Heck, it might even find its way into You Gotta Do… if I’m not careful.

This post is audience-participation. First, imagine five little decks of cards in front of you:











The five “directions” the decks are named for are meant to reflect ways a character or entity might “move” its energy in an attempt to affect something. Assume you only draw cards when a character is trying to affect something outside him/her/itself.

Cards say how the situation changes, with a statement that begins with “yes, but”. They will need some interpretation; assume that there are some other rules about who guides the interpretation and how (in short, don’t worry about it for now).

Question 1: can you imagine a fictional situation in an RPG wherein it’d be difficult or impossible to decide in which of the above ways a character was trying to change the situation?

Question 2: draw a card from one of the decks. What can you imagine it telling you? (Please say which deck, and feel free to give multiple answers or answers for multiple decks.)


October 11, 2007 Posted by | Games in Development, You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do | 4 Comments

On the natural history of conference rooms

You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do (aka The Owlbear Game) has two phases. In the first, the Meeting phase, players have a pre-workday meeting in character as their owlbear characters. The Team Leader is selected before each meeting by some mechanical means, but thereafter, people are expected to behave in character for the meeting – the TL is actually encouraged to reprimand people _in character_ for speaking out of character, which I find pretty funny. After the meeting concludes, there is the Action phase, in which speaking in character is actually forbidden. It consists of basically facing whatever threats you didn’t manage to weasel your way out of during the meeting, and rolling on tables.

That’s about all I know about phase two at this stage… which is a problem. Phase 1 I know plenty about, but I suspect that all of it is wrong.

The mechanics of phase 1, the meeting phase, are meant to be performed “silently,” that is, without rules-specific discussion as you stay in character. This might take a bit of practice, which leads to an effect of newbies being treated like clueless interns for their first meeting scene. Yes, I think this is funny enough and on-theme enough to merit inclusion in the game. But anyway. The mechanics basically involve bidding dice back and forth, to push Blame on others and avoid receiving it.

Players start with a die pool of probably ten dice. These are just plain d6s. When you start talking about a coworker and how their behavior concerns you – maybe they have been chewing too many of the barkroots that are supposed to be for everyone and it just concerns you that team-playing isn’t as core of a value here on the team as maybe you thought! – you push forward some number of dice. The Blamed player makes excuses, etc., and either accepts the Blame mechanically by pushing forward no dice in response, or attempts to pass the Blame by committing some dice in response. The dice are then rolled, with 4s, 5s and 6s counting as successes. If the Blamer gets more successes, the Blamed must take the blame (and then cast more Blame on someone else with his/her remaining dice if s/he wants, on the next turn). If the Blamed gets more successes, the same dice immediately face another player, who must take the blame or make excuses, and so on. Dice leave the pool for the phase after being used. The successes, besides resolving the blame fights, also go into a resource pool for use in the action phase.

So, all of that is fine and good. It has something of the air of irresponsible pointlessness that a good business-meeting simulation ought to have. But there are a couple of problems:

1) it isn’t a tight-enough economic loop; it just spits stuff out into whatever happens in the action phase, and I think I’ve been telling myself that I’ll sort it all out when I design that phase. Yyyyyyeah. The fear of having to do this is probably why I have no design for phase 2.

2) Something about this dice-bidding thing is a little too abstract. You shouldn’t get some dice pushed at you; you should get something you definitely Do Not Want pushed at you. You should feel a little panicky. Dice are like, whatever, I’ve got some of those too. Also, they’re a bit directly about players using their power against each other, and I’d like that to be present but more indirect. I don’t think it’s the point the game is driving at.

There’s some other stuff in the meeting phase that will definitely be sticking around, like the fact that there is a honey-gathering quota for each action phase, that goes up exponentially over the course of the game, to the point where it’s ridiculous to think that the team will reach it; at the beginning of each meeting, the top honey gatherer becomes Team Leader (basically getting some ritual duties and first crack at Blame-casting) and the bottom producer possibly loses a limb. I want the honey-gathering thing to be a bit Doctor Lucky-esque if I can manage it; apart from that and a lot of loving parody of D&D I haven’t got much on the action phase.

Any thoughts, free associations, or sharp rebukes concerning the meeting phase?

September 11, 2007 Posted by | You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do | 6 Comments