2015-04-27 : Followup Questions from Owen

Owen Briggs asked me some followup questions to his original five. I've been so busy with other projects that I couldn't get to them until this morning!

From which non-RPG medium do you draw the most inspiration?

It used to be the obvious one, the FX- or HBO-style sex-and-violence ensemble drama. In Apocalypse World you can pretty clearly see Oz, Sons of Anarchy, maybe The Shield, conceivably some Spartacus, frickin Battlestar Galactica, and I forget what else I was watching while I worked on it. These kinds of shows had a lot more influence on the game than the obvious in-genre movies did. They really gave the game its structure.

These days, though, I don't know. Post Apocalypse World, I've been designing games mostly in response to other RPGs, not other media. I think that RPGs take too narrowly entrenched forms, and I'm grappling with that instead.

How do you think RPGs comment on other media? (On this and the previous question: I've found PBTA games are really fantastic at getting the structure of TV and movies.)


A thoughtfully designed RPG pairs systems of interaction with genre or subject matter in a way that gives you immediate, effortless access to its hidden underpinnings. Like, the way that Murderous Ghosts uses Blackjack in service of suspense allows you to effortlessly create suspenseful ghost stories. If you choose to, you can take this insight away with you, and next time you watch a murderous ghost movie, you'll see how it builds suspense in a Blackjack-like way.

Or the way that Epidiah Ravachol's game Wolfspell uses Apocalypse World-style read a sitch moves to put you effortlessly into a wolf's headspace, or the way that Ben Lehman's game Beloved pits your current imagination against your past imagination to show you how you've let your thinking about romance ossify.

I have no idea if I'm making any sense here! Ask me more questions, anybody, if you have them.

What do you hope to achieve with the games that you make, and how often do you achieve it?

It always depends on the game.

For instance, with The Vengeful Demon of the Ring, I hoped to resolve an outstanding argument in game thinkery, and I achieved it with maybe 1 person. Rock of Tahamaat, Space Tyrant was much more successful in this regard, but then, the argument in game thinkery that I hoped it would resolve was a much less contentious one.

For many of my games I have both gameplay goals and market goals. I hoped that my game Midsummer Wood would get played by at least 10 people out in the world, for instance, and it achieved that. It may have achieved it twice over!

Which emotions do you tend to want to evoke with your games?

When I look back at my games, they make me seem unkind. I want people to feel trapped, betrayed, sold out, suborned, bound by honor and justice to do bad things, led by ambition to do bad things.

I'm pretty kind in real life. My games just don't reflect it.

Which RPG makes use of emotional ambiguity in the most engaging way, and how? (Put simply, emotional ambiguity is not knowing how you're supposed to feel about something.)

Of my games, Dogs in the Vineyard is the only one that makes much use of emotional ambiguity at all. Of others', I don't really know! I'm personally more drawn to games where how you feel about something is or can be perfectly clear, unambiguous.

Thanks for asking!

2015-04-13 : 5 Questions from Owen

Owen Briggs wrote to ask me some questions, which is something I'd invite anybody to do who feels like it, and kindly allows me to answer them here in public. Thanks, Owen!

1. What's the most obscure and yet most impressive game you can think of? What makes it impressive, and why do you think it's obscure?

Oh easy! Troels Ken Pedersen's amazing game Dulce et Decorum.

It's a single session scenario with a strict timeline and a dedicated system. You play English volunteers in WWI. You're trying to survive the war, but the game is stacked against you; it's quite a wringer, emotionally. It's also not a game about you or the soldiers, but about the poetry that real historical soldiers wrote. At the end of each round of play, as a group you read poems aloud: "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae, "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen, "When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead" by Charles Sorley, and others.

It's impressive to me because of the way that the game takes the unforgiving mathematics of its system and uses it not only to create an emotional gutpunch, but to profoundly, viscerally teach you these poems. I'm a better citizen of history and literature for having played it. If there were justice in the world, every AP English class would include the game in its curriculum.

It's obscure because it's a Fastaval-style scenario about WWI poetry, and there's no justice in the world.

2. Who do you think is the weirdest, most unorthodox designer out there? What makes their design weird? What do you think of it?

Paul Czege. All of his games, but especially My Life with Master and The Clay That Woke, are sharply observed and insightful, and intensely Paul. Nobody else sees things the way he does, and his games brilliantly communicate what he sees. The Clay That Woke is my favorite game I haven't played yet.

Now, I'm surrounded by weirdos. This is a field with a lot of excellent contenders.

3. What makes your design unique? What do you think you do better than anyone else?

Oh I have no clue.

I guess I'm pretty good at envisioning the conversation I want people to have and designing systems that provoke them into having it.

If someone else were to sit down and examine and analyze my work in context with others', and write an essay about what makes mine unique, I'd be too embarrassed to read it.

4. Which single game has influence you most, and how has it influenced you?

If I have to choose a single game, then Pit, I think. It gave me one of my earliest and most clear insights into how you can arrange simple procedures and goals to provoke emotional engagement. It's possible that all of my games past kill puppies for satan, and all the reams I've written about games too, have followed from understanding Pit.

5. Are there any good resources on design you could recommend?

I don't think there are! I haven't read a book on game design that I'd recommend to a budding designer, that's for sure.

Play a million games, and carve your experience of them up into pieces you can see clearly. When you find that you can't see an experience clearly, you need to find or create a new game to illuminate it. Play harder and carve more finely, every time.

When someone creates a game, they want you to experience it as a player, and that means misdirecting you from their work. To understand a game's design, you have to refuse to be distracted by its gameplay, look deeper in, and instead find the secret architecture that the designer is trying to hide from you.

But maybe some of my readers know about better resources than I do. Anybody?

2015-04-05 : Matchmaker

Way, way back in the winter of 2001-2002 I wrote a game called Matchmaker. It came to me in a dream, no lie, on Thanksgiving night 2001.

It occurred to me that my most recent games - Midsummer Wood, Spin the Beetle, The Vengeful Demon of the Ring - all call back directly to Matchmaker.

It also occurred to me this morning that not all of you may have seen it before, so here it is.

a roleplaying party game for four or more

So okay. Two players are the Destined Lovers, they stay the Destined Lovers for the whole game. The other players take turns being Cupid and Everybody Else in the World. Cupid's job is to get the Destined Lovers together.

Character Creation

Destined Lovers: go into the other room together. Come back when you've made up three things about your characters: 1. What do we have in common? ("We have the same lawyer." "We're both really into big boots.")
2. What one thing could you do that would turn me off to you forever? 3. What one thing could I do that would turn you off to me forever? ("Dis the poor." "Invite me to coffee." "Mention a sports team by name.")

Also, each of you, make up some sort of way to introduce yourself. Your job, for instance. ("I'm an out-of-work actor." "I'm a sports physician at the University.")

The Game

When you're Cupid, your goal is to get the Destined Lovers to fall in love. This happens when they discover, in character, in play, the thing that they have in common. (The players already know. Your job is to get their characters there. Since you don't know, it'll be tricky.)

Destined Lovers, you get to goof off and make it challenging and fun. Give Cupid hints and clues and red herrings, string her along, and keep her guessing.

Everybody Else in the World, you get to play all the supporting characters that Cupid and the Destined Lovers introduce.

Got it? Cool.


Cupid is responsible for:
a. Framing the scene;
b. Introducing things that happen;
c. Introducing NPCs; and
d. Suggesting in-character things for the Destined Lovers to say.

When things seem to be going your way, feel free to just let them. If they start to go bad, though, jump right in. End scenes with no warning and cut to radically different scenes with minimal transition ("Okay. Two years later you bump into each other on a ferry boat..."). Toss in extreme elements ("There's a sudden flash of light outside and thousands of cocktail onions start pouring out of the fireplace..."). Most of all, involve yourself in the conversation ("Say how much you like the Mets. Say it! Why did you say that instead, are you deranged? Say about the Mets! Okay, then say how sorry you are about the mayonnaise!"). You're the god of love. Make a pest of yourself.

As soon as you feel stuck, exhausted, irritated, or done, end the scene and pass Cupid to the next player. (We play with a loose and wiggly rule of one scene per Cupid, to keep everybody in, but we make fast and free exceptions and mostly just go with the flow.) Now that person's Cupid and you're Everybody Else in the World.

The Destined Lovers are responsible for:
a. Playing their characters, and
b. Introducing NPCs.

Cupid can introduce NPCs at will ("Your accountant arrives") but you should introduce NPCs more discreetly. "Oh, I'm here with my accountant, have you met?" or "I go into the back hallway and call my brother on the pay phone." Make sense?

And Everybody Else is responsible for:
Playing all the NPCs that Cupid or the Destined Lovers introduce.

My advice is, make funny voices, change your posture, and use props.

But you're definitely not responsible for having conversations with yourself. Nobody wants that. If anybody suggests that you do have one, give them a dirty look and just summarize instead.

An Example of Responsibilities:
"You meet in a bar," Cupid says. "Robin, you oughta say 'What's your sign?' to Pat."
"What's your sign?" Robin says. "I don't know why I said that, you must get sick of people coming up to you like this."
"Actually, yes," Pat says. "Excuse me, I have to go away now."
"Uh oh," Cupid says. "Okay. A guy with a gun bursts through the door."
"On the floor! Now!" Everybody Else says. "Pat, I warned you!"
"You know this guy?" Robin says. "I get between the gun guy and Pat, you know, to use my body as a shield."
"Oh please," Pat says. "I shove Robin aside. Come on now, Mitchell. Put the gun down. I know you never load it."

And so on.

Mechanics, which god forbid you do without

If anybody thinks that the outcome of something is uncertain, here's what. Every player does this. Look at the situation and choose one factor that you think could determine the outcome, or one possible outcome, or something that makes sense in the moment. Write it on a scrap of paper and toss it in a hat. You should feel free to discuss and debate what you're writing, but try to keep it short. Anyway, somebody pull a piece of paper out of the hat. That's what, and whoever's paper it is gets to narrate.

An Example of Mechanics:
"I shoot the gun!" Everybody Else says. "I hit Pat!"
"No way," Pat says. "Let's roll for it."
Pat writes on a paper: Mitchell never loads his gun. Everybody Else writes: I do too. Robin writes: I'm still kind of in the way. Cupid writes: Mitchell is too upset and misses. They put them in the hat, pull one out, and things go from there.

It's worth pointing out that you can call on the mechanics if Cupid says something controversial, too.

Design Notes

Silly I know. Actually I just like having a section called Design Notes.

Thanks to the fine people on the Forge forums for their enthusiasm and feedback.

Thanks to Meguey, Emily Care, Serena, Gideon, and Nancy for playtesting with me.

2015-04-04 : Actual Play: The Vengeful Demon of the Ring

In retrospect, it was always a sure thing that Meg would enlist a second adventurer player and play The Vengeful Demon of the Ring with me as demon player, wasn't it? The most hilarious thing is that it didn't occur to me even once that she might.

Tonight over dinner we were all talking about bluffing games - we played Coup - and about this idea of unwitting players, and she let slip that she had. She's declined to tell me anything about it except that she and the other adventurer won their three wishes and granted me my freedom, and that the game ended "oh about a week ago."

I'm pretty curious, but she's not obliged to tell. Otherwise, I can report that, for me, unwittingly playing the game was not unpleasant in any way at all. I'm glad to find out about it, and as the designer I'm tickled that they played it with me.

For all I know, they're playing it with me again, or somebody else is, or who knows what! My life is that much more playful than I knew it was.

2015-04-02 : Four Years' Abandoned Games

I was tidying up my archives here, and I thought it might be fun to show you what it looks like inside my notebook, as it were.

Since Apocalypse World, I've finished and published 4 games:
Midsummer Wood.
Murderous Ghosts.
Spin the Beetle.
The Sundered Land.

And I've started and abandoned or stalled out on 32:
22 Spells. Parts of this game survive in Freebooting Venus.
*AW:Dark Age. Which may yet see completion.
Bedlam Beautiful. An appalling game.
*Can You Save Your Boyfriend From the Cannibals? A trauma game.
Chipset. Fun and lively SF. "Homicide is deprecated."
Dead & Kicking. Another game about saving your boyfriend from cannibals, but not a trauma game.
*The Dragon. A trauma game.
*Dropship Eden. A trauma game.
Drowning. A single-character adventure game.
*Earth2 (with Tovey Baker). A tabletop rpg in a side-scrolling world.
The Ecclesium. Grappling with Ars Magica, as always.
The Forbidden World. Blood and sorcery.
Freebooting Hell. Planetary exploration SF.
Freebooting the Kaliste. The early career of Rock of Tahamaat.
The Ghost Engine. Sulphurpunk mecha roleplaying.
Hungry. After Hungry, Desperate and Alone.
*Into Darkness. Becoming a monster by fighting monsters.
*Knife and Candle (with John Harper and Failbetter Games).
The Labyrinth of Doors. Still grappling with Ars Magica.
The Last Good Night. The Mist, Cloverfield, War of the Worlds.
The Last Possible Future. Near-future SF in the death grip of the present.
Last Hour. One of the characters is having a nightmare.
A Prince of Harashad. Parts of this game survive in Freebooting Venus too.
*Quest of Doom / The Dead King's Quest. A secretly brilliant game I should really finish.
Rage of Kings. AKA The Impotent Rage of Idiot-kings. A precursor to AW:Dark Age.
Skin Jobs. Obviously Bladerunner-esque.
Swords in Darkness. Hellboy-esque. Rendered unnecessary by Monster of the Week.
*Untitled Swashbuckling Romance Game. The best thing I've ever undertaken to create, as yet unfinished.
VIVID. A generic system.
Vulture Crew. Spaceship adventure SF.
War Pit Uprising. The still earlier career of Rock of Tahamaat.
World of Aahm. Kids' magical adventure.

I've playtested all the games marked with *. Some got just a quick try at the dining room table, but others got many sessions, and a couple of them got a public or semi-public playtest release.

Oh and lest I fail to mention it, I'm currently working on just 3 games:
Freebooting Venus.
The Sea Throne.

2015-03-30 : Dirty Tricks in My Games

2015-03-23 : The Vengeful Demon of the Ring as a Con Game

2015-03-20 : High Five the ISS

2015-03-17 : The Vengeful Demon of the Ring

2015-02-20 : Rhinoceros Joust!

2015-02-14 : lumpley games 2014 biz

2015-02-01 : Freebooting Venus playtest document in...

2014-12-28 : Freebooting Venus - First Look

2014-12-22 : #IndieRPGbiz

2014-12-08 : Countdown