Posts Tagged ‘the quest-givers’

I’ve been buckling down and doing a lot of writing, and in between juggling a lot of ideas (some old, some new), I hadn’t really popped in to discuss what’s going on. So here’s what’s going on!

  • As I rewrite Corona, it occurs to me that I might want to not release it ahead of some of the other spin-off games I have in mind for it: rather, it might be served to put the weird hybrid-style game out after the IP has had a chance to get some traction in other forms. What those other forms are remains nebulous, but I think there may be a good game set among the nomads on the causeways, outside the reach of the autarchies and subject to their own interesting cultural dynamics. (Out there, there’s much less shell-hopping, so people are more attached to their bodies of origin, moreso when you consider that they’re subject to time dilation for so much of their existence that a nomad who looks young might be much older than they appear. Also, despite the perception by autarchy dwellers that nomads are bumpkins, they’re likely to be quite cosmopolitan, since they come into contact with so many distinct ‘bubble cultures’ in their travels.)
  • I’m planning a rather significant Delve supplement in the mega-dungeon vein, while being aware that the underlying premise of the mega-dungeon kind of flies in the face of what Delve is about. ­čÖé My intention is to provide an example of what the Delve equivalent of a mega-dungeon would look like, as well as framework rules for how to devise your own.
  • I think the mini-games I did in October will be released as pay-what-you-want when I have them cleaned up and suitable for showing.
  • Ghosts of Atlantis hasn’t come out of its fallow period yet. I think I may cannibalize an idea or two from it for another idea that’s burgeoning – ironically, a revisit of the idea behind Daisho, from which I took a mechanical idea or two for Atlantis in the first place.
  • The horror game is out for playtesting, and I’m waiting to hear back. (And, as the sages tell us, the waiting is the hardest part.)

So that’s what’s up, apart from one or two things that are so sketchy at this point that they’re not even worth blogging about yet. Stay tuned.

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I’ve put together a simple one-sheet guide and organizational aid for the current iteration of the quest-giving game. Feedback is encouraged!


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The message is the medium, Marshall McLuhan said, and for a game design, the format it comes in contributes to how it feels. The days of issuing everything in a boxed set of multiple 64-page booklets were superceded by the single-volume 8.5″x11″ hardback running hundreds of pages, and if you look at those games, there is an intriguing chicken-and-egg effect, in which the games themselves became more sprawling to fill that page space, while at the same time the content of the games had to escalate to match, leading to ever thicker core books. (Remember that the original D&D boxes didn’t individually cover everything you’d need: they progressed in stages, teaching you at first how to explore dungeons in Basic, then the wilderness in between dungeons in Expert, the cities you would eventually encounter in Companion, and so on.)

Now, we have a surfeit of options for publishing: games can be completely ephemeral, existing solely as data files that can be in whatever format we desire, but with the expectation of print-and-play, they still conform largely to one or more of the extant output options – but there are still dozens of those, from playing-card sized reference tools to the upper ends of the European A- or B-series sheets.

The way a game is formatted affects the way it feels and says something about what the game is like, or at least it does if the designer puts any thought into that (and indeed if he or she has any input into that end of things). I laid out┬áDelve at half-letter pages so it could be printed conveniently on four sheets of paper, folded into a booklet, and stowed for quick play, because that’s the sort of game it is; House of Cards, meanwhile, is in digest format, not only because it’s the size in which one would most commonly find Victorian compilations of fairy tales or children’s stories, but because it’s also become associated with the indie story game movement, and the game attempts to convey those influences. (Grace Palmer‘s amazing page borders and Sara Otterstaeter’s woodcut chapter illustrations certainly don’t hurt, either. They’re still some of my favorite art ever.)

Now that the October games are approaching completion, I’m starting to consider the form they would take, in order to best fit the feel of each project. I like the idea of the “quantum jumping” RPG mimicking the spiral-bound presentation booklets one would get at a motivational seminar, written as if it actually were the introductory manual for a New Age self-help program. Meanwhile, the “agents of fate” game would be best packaged in a traditional RPG format, but with small page dimensions to easily pack it with the playing cards that would be necessary. (I considered whether actually making it the same size as playing cards would be a possibility, but I imagine the lists of powers for each office would inflate the size of the text to a degree that makes that untenable.)

My first instinct for the quest-giving game is to make it a digest-sized hardback like my copy of Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but that might be a little bit on the nose! It should be portable, of course, to facilitate play, and the rules are relatively short. (Note that, if one chops out the purely narrative portions of Baron Munchausen, it is likewise only several pages long. But the Baron loves to talk, as we all know!) I’m planning to prepare playmats for adventurers to set in front of them, as an organizational tool and quick reminder; one is tempted at first to perhaps print the rules on the back of the playmat, but with tokens arranged on top of them, you don’t want to be lifting the mats during a game. Depending on the size of the mat (which only needs three “compartments” – one for your level tokens, one for the tokens wagered for someone else’s quest, and one for the spoils of a successful quest) one could format the book at the same size, putting the playmat on one page of the centerfold spread next to a quick summary.

It is unlikely that any of these games will actually have a print run, being released electronically for players to print, or not, as they wish. But the impact of layout decisions on a game’s overall feel can’t really be ignored in that case either, because the possibility of players printing them remains on the table. (We have not yet achieved a fully electronic universal gaming environment, nor do I think we will at any point soon.)

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It seems that John’s quest-giving game is reaching a point where we can solidify it as a fairly simple game from beginning to end. Let’s boil it down to a series of steps of play to get an idea of where we might turn our attentions next. Note that this is skipping over a few basic things applicable to every game ever, like preparing materials and play space: this is just the unique procedural framework for this game.

Introductions: each player describes his or her adventurer character to the group.

Draw Tokens: each player draws the agreed upon number of tokens for their level.

Substitution: players have the option to trade in one or more renown tokens for infamy tokens before passing the bag.

Quest-Giving Phase: the player with the highest renown is the first quest-giver. He or she chooses another adventurer and describes that adventurer’s tasks (wagering a renown for each) and obstacles (wagering an infamy for each). Each player gets to be quest-giver in order of their renown, and can only give a quest to an adventurer that does not already have one.

Adventure Phase: adventurers narrate their quests in the same order as they were given. A player cannot use more than one sentence per level.

Intervention/Interference: during a player’s adventure, the other players may use their remaining tokens to interject in that narration. A renown token allows an intervention, which helps the adventurer overcome difficulty, while an infamy token allows an interference, forcing the player to either accept the new details or wager their own token to disavow it. Players may continue to escalate with tokens until one side capitulates, conceding the narration but taking the tokens.

Spoils: a player gets the renown wagered by their quest-giver for successful narration. Any infamy wagered may also be gained by specifically including infamous deeds in the narration.

[Here’s where we hit a timing question that had not yet been addressed: does the adventurer get the spoils immediately upon the conclusion of the quest, or do the spoils wait in escrow until all the quests are done? Immediate gain is pretty powerful, because it means going early in the adventure phase comes with a lot more ‘ammunition’ to get involved in subsequent quests. This is balanced by the potential of losing those tokens on a failed interference, though: you only get to count the level tokens that make it to the end of the game, after all. For now, we’ll say the gain is immediate.]

The round ends once all tales are told. Multiple rounds may be played. Everyone draws one additional token at the start of a new round. [This is an impromptu insertion to keep the economy from being static, and to represent time passing between gatherings.] Whoever has the most level tokens at the end of the last round is the winner.

Seems like the core’s done. Details will be fine-tuned during playtesting (at Metatopia, if nothing else). One game down!

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When a quest-giver sends one of their peers out on an adventure, the tokens used to create the quest are part of the prize, but they come with an implicit cost of sorts: facing down a difficult quest (made more difficult by infamy tokens, if you remember) ends up rewarding the successful adventurer with additional infamy. How does that follow? This dissonance between the fiction and the mechanics is not negligible, so we have to figure out either a reconciliation or an alternate approach.

It should be possible for an adventurer to choose infamy, or else one would never become an infamous adventurer in the first place, right? One of the ways to approach this is a reconsideration of Munchausen‘s interference mechanic: conceptually, the fictive purpose of that system (as opposed to its mechanical purpose, which is to provide a currency exchange between narration and the coins ultimately used to win the game) is to say, “I know you want to make your story about how awesome you are, but I’m going to tempt you into diminishing yourself in the story by offering you a point towards the actual game victory”. We can just tweak this concept slightly and say, “You are trying to spread your renown through tales of your deeds, but you can become slightly more powerful by doing infamous things”. Shades of the moral dilemma of The Force in the Star Wars films, I can’t help but notice – and then I remember the implementation in West End Games’ Star Wars RPG, with the possibility of being offered Dark Side Points for choosing to do non-heroic things.

The approach we can derive from that is to make the infamy tokens an additional reward that you can take, if you’re willing to tarnish your own reputation to get it. Let’s rewind to the example from the earlier post: Lord Crestmore’s quest, offered by Ziyi, was two renown tokens and one infamy token. Lord Crestmore can just narrate a heroic outcome to the quest and get the two renown – but the infamy token is an obstacle that has to be overcome without reward, if that’s the choice David makes. With this new approach, however, David can add in an infamous deed and scoop up that infamy token as well: he’s not quite as heroic, but he gets to go up three levels instead of two levels.

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That’s the premise as it stands, anyway. Although it doesn’t have to be tea in the cups. ­čÖé

I like to walk through a thought experiment version of play to see if the current design elements work before moving on. We’ll see if there are any unforeseen gaps or flaws in play on a basic level. Here’s the set-up: four great adventurers gather for their yearly conclave, as is the custom across the known world, to share their exploits and thereby maintain their status. All of the adventurers are “seventh level” and so will draw seven random tokens from the bag to determine their infamy and renown. I think it’s fun to have players introduce their characters, and then draw tokens afterward, to more sharply delineate self-perception from the reality represented by the tokens, so that’ll be the order they happen in.

Ahmad tells us of Lady Crestmore, who earned her fortune as a cutlass-wielding harpy of the high seas! He draws seven status tokens, and gets 2 renown (white) and 5 infamy (black).

Bego├▒a is playing Ziyi, a wandering seeker of magical lore from beyond the eastern mountains. She draws a phenomenal 7 renown!

Cheryl introduces Fra Ambrosio, a mendicant and hospitalier, who turns out to have 3 renown and 4 infamy. Interesting to see how she spins that….

David decides to have a little fun and announces Lord Crestmore, the ne’er-do-well fourth son of a minor noble, strongarmed into a marriage by the now-Lady Crestmore because she was richer than he is! His draw is 5 renown and 2 infamy.

We need a way to establish the order of play, so let’s say that the first quest-giver is the person with the highest renown (meaning Ziyi/Bego├▒a). Each quest-giver can choose any other player to bestow a quest, as long as the recipient has not already been given a quest.┬áBego├▒a chooses Lord Crestmore and extemporaneously makes up a quest to be undertaken. This is the point at which stakes are set: we’ll borrow a cue from Munchausen and make it a wagering arrangement, where the quest-giver’s own tokens can be used to set aspects of the quest (thus fulfilling one major part of John’s prompt inspiring this game). Infamy can be used to set the hazards and difficulties of the quest, while renown can be used to dictate the heroic feats required to adequately complete the adventure. That means Bego├▒a┬áis capable of wagering one or more of Ziyi’s renown, and for each one, there’s a step in the quest that requires some act of bravery and skill, but since Ziyi has no infamy, she can’t make the quest harder by stipulating how the quest is more treacherous.

Unless… it’s often said that it’s easier to be feared than loved, and that the dark side is easier and more seductive than the light. Let me introduce one twist to the token drawing element during character introduction: a character can always trade in a renown token for an infamy token, though not vice versa. In this case, then,┬áBego├▒a could (prior to being the quest-giver) traded in one or more of her renown for infamy. That sacrifices the surety of going first as quest-giver for the ability to amp up quest hazards. I like it. So let’s rewind and say that┬áBego├▒a opted to trade one of those renown for infamy, which still lets her be the first quest-giver but also to throw a curveball at Lord Crestmore. She puts up that infamy as well as two renown to require Lord Crestmore to find the invisible nomad tribe who wander the southern deserts, and then obtain from them the password to enter the Doorless Keep where the Chalice of Life is kept. Those are the two epic feats bought by the renown; the complication arising from the infamy is that the southern deserts have a phenomenally hot climate and Lord Crestmore must go on this quest with no armor to protect his delicate person! (Bego├▒a is riffing off of David’s description of Lord Crestmore as a cowardly dilettante afraid of being harmed. The complications in particular should challenge the recipient’s strengths or preferences. Otherwise, they’re not complications!)

Now, we’re going to deviate from Munchausen here in a significant way: David does not relate Lord Crestmore’s adventures yet. Each player gets to be the quest-giver in turn first, and then each adventurer gets to narrate their quest. Why? A couple of reasons. First, while there’s nothing wrong with Munchausen‘s emphasis on the ability to think on one’s feet, my experience with the game is that a player who’s distracted, sidetracked too much, or even just not as strong an extemporaneous storyteller as the others can dampen the momentum of the whole game with one stumble, so I want to give each player a little breathing room to deal with quests. This is more important given that the stakes for the quest-givers are higher than in Munchausen: several tokens are wagered up front at once, as opposed to one at a time in an escalating bidding war. It’s also important because, as one might have inferred, one does not have the wagered tokens put up as quest-giver to use during the quest phase itself: players face a delicate balancing act between really piling on the complications and feats to another player’s quest while still being able to have tokens to use for the previously discussed interference/assistance functions.

Fast forward: all the players have similarly wagered tokens as quest-giver to assign adventures to their fellow players. We now let each player start describing their adventures in the order they were given. A brainstorm occurs to add a little challenge to the mix: let’s harden up Munchausen‘s loose rule on keeping stories to a manageable length (no more than five minutes or the length of time needed to drink a full glass). Instead, let’s say that players must accomplish their quests in no more sentences than their character’s level. Thus,┬áDavid can only describe Lord Crestmore’s travels in search of the Chalice of Life in seven or fewer sentences, being seventh level. If another player chooses to get involved, for good or for ill, the token they use to do so adds one sentence to the count to compensate. (The time to think between being given the quest and accomplishing it thus becomes even more important!) If David can do so, he gets the tokens wagered by the quest-giver. If he cannot, however,┬áBego├▒a gets those tokens back and gets to draw another token as a reward.

That seems to be a fundamental framework, although there already feel like some rough spots. I’ll let this percolate for a while and see if anything comes up.

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As I review the Baron Munchausen rules for inspiration on the idea discussed in the previous post, I start thinking about how a more complex economy might work. In the standard Munchausen rules, all the attendees at the party start with the same number of coins in their purse, and all coins are equal. My first thought is (as alluded to yesterday) having the tokens aligned to “good” and “evil”, although that’s a bit facile for my tastes, so let’s call them “renown” and “infamy”: your adventuring career may be heroic or nefarious, but you’re powerful either way. Just as in Munchausen, everyone starts with the same number of tokens, but the twist is that they’re drawn from a bag of equal parts black and white tokens. One emergent property of this decision is that you get some implicit character background to fill in during play: you may introduce yourself as a glorious paladin and then pull four black tokens out of seven, indicating that your reputation or deeds are not as sterling as you make them out to be, and everyone knows it!

More immediately, the tokens provide a more focused aspect to the intervention mechanic in standard Munchausen: instead of being able to spend just any token to interject in someone else’s tale, your use of renown or infamy are used to respectively bolster or complicate someone else’s quest. In other words, if you’re a black-hearted bastard, then not only are you not as likely to help another adventurer with a difficult quest, but you’re mechanically less capable of doing so as well.

Another element that occurs to me (although the details are fuzzy and it’s just a brainstorm) is that an additional level to the wagering in Munchausen may arise from this. Normally, you ante up a coin from your purse to challenge something in the current storyteller’s tale, and they either accept it and take your coin in compensation, or bid back with their own coin and refutation, with each side repeating until the other caves, earning the coins at the expense of narrative control. That implementation always assumes interference, however, and doesn’t allow for a cooperative interjection. Let’s say (for now) that infamy tokens work the way that the coins usually do in Munchausen, to allow someone to try to derail the storyteller with an additional detail not of their choosing, while renown tokens can be passed to the storyteller to allow the passer to intercede for the storyteller in a tough spot, with the reward for the giver of the renown token to be to gain another one themselves. Thus, good deeds are rewarded in a very modest but predictable way, while evil deeds can snowball into a great reward or catastrophe for either side. (I do foresee one issue, in that the storyteller accepting an infamy token thus becomes a little more “evil” by the loose framework we’ve set up here, just by virtue of accepting a narrative intrusion. Either the thematic representation of the tokens needs to be tightened up, or there should be an ability to exchange tokens. I’ll mull that over for a bit.)

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